I had the opportunity to attend the documentary, Suburban America: Problems and Promise at an event sponsored by Sustainable Long Island at Huntington, New York’s wonderful Cinema Arts Centre. The film will be shown on public television stations around the country starting this fall. If you want to see it in your area, you can contact your local public television station to show the film. The filmmaker is also available to come to different communities to have conversations around the documentary.
The film is interesting in that it examines the changing face of suburbia. Suburban landscapes are changing politically and socially in very many ways. Some themes that the documentary focuses on include political change, aging infrastructure, ethnic and social change, and redevelopment. Some particular areas are highlighted in great detail: Chicago, Long Island, Reston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Orange County. Each place adds a distinct element to the story of suburban change and how the ideas of the 1950’s and 1960’s created imagined landscapes that were ultimately unsustainable as envisioned. Yet, these older landscapes continue to exist with varying degrees of success. For example, in Minneapolis, an example was given of a highly racialized suburban landscape that was ultimately destroyed over political pressure. In Reston, we see an older planned community that now serves as a model for transit oriented development and suburban density. In Chicago, we see suburbs dealing with direct immigration of people very different from long-term residents. And in Long Island, we see suburbs confronted with the historic results of housing discrimination, fragmented local governments, and aging infrastructure.
Even with all of these problems, suburbs continue to exist and thrive. Yet, the film leaves one wondering about the future of them. How can they deal with big picture issues within a complex globalized world? How will our society manage suburban decline and redevelopment? How can suburbs manage change?
One small criticism of the film is that it largely leaves out discussion of the growth of suburbs in the sunbelt in the last 20 years. During the most recent boom period in Florida, for example, there were nearly 1000 people a day moving into the state. Similar growth was seen throughout the south . Such rapid growth caused a tremendous expansion of suburban lands throughout the south and west. I wish this issue were more thoroughly explored. Nevertheless, the film is useful for anyone interested in suburban landscapes, especially older suburbs.