Crabgrass Chaos: Failed Suburbs in Science Fiction

By Carl Abbott

The picture window in the modest suburban house in Belle Reve, New Jersey is marred by a long crack from top to bottom. Built for World War II veterans, its foundation is cracking after a dozen years and there’s no money to fix the fifteen-foot window that supposedly signaled upward mobility.

Forward another eighty years and the once hopeful community of Belle Reve has turned into the dangerous slum of Belly Rave, the setting for Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s 1955 novel Gladiator-at-Law, a story of corporate malfeasance in the socially divided society of twenty-first century America. Some of the houses are burnt out shells, others have turned into dens of vice. The house in which the Bligh family live may be the same that we’ve seen generations earlier. The roof leaks, the stairs are rotten, and the cracked window is now boarded over, with just a chink left for scoping out dangers in the front yard.

Gladiator at law

The year after Gladiator-at-Law, journalist John Keats titled his anti-suburb diatribe The Crack in the Picture Window. A signature feature of atomic age residential design, the picture window once cracked was a multiple metaphor, calling out the suburbs for failing as physical places and for betraying expectations as harmonious communities.

Pohl and Kornbluth’s depiction of Belly Rave extrapolated the disdain with which intellectuals in the 1950s treated the massive growth of middle class suburbs. It is also an early example of a recurring science fiction vision of feral suburbia. Science Fiction (SF) writers have offered a series of variations on the theme of crabgrass chaos. Their stories project aging suburbs as the new ghettos and slums, zones of danger and depopulation where it’s everyone for themselves and wilding gangs take the hindmost.

Extrapolating near-future suburbia, SF has developed in tacit dialog with critics of American urban planning, paying attention to the prevailing consensus from journalists and scholars. If science fiction suburbs are usually troubled and dangerous places, it’s in part because popular discourse about suburbia has been equally negative—from aesthetic and moral censure in the 1950s to critiques of suburban isolation in the 1980s and the trope of “slumburbia” in the present century.

 Examples from three eras, the 1950s, the early 1990s, and the 2010s, illustrate these dyanmics.

Slamming the Slurbs

Gladiator-at-Law appeared in the midst of a national indictment of post-war suburbanization. David Riesman, author of the best-seller The Lonely Crowd (1950), penned an essay on “The Suburban Sadness,” writing, he said, as someone who loved both the city and the country, but not the suburbs. He was one of many American intellectuals after World War II who hammered suburbia for a litany of physical and social deficiencies. Suburbs were attacked as tacky, inauthentic, inefficient, and boring by academics, journalists, and, of course, Malvina Reynolds, whose catchy two-minute song “Little Houses” is an entry point for a closer look at Belly Rave.

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Aerial view of Levittown, New York housing development, Thomas Airviews, 1954, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With the severe housing shortage of the late 1940s a recent memory, Pohl and Kornbluth describe buyers in the new subdivision lining up to view model homes—a scene that mirrored real communities like Lakewood and Levittown. In the novel, things turn sour fast. The tiny houses are only partly finished. Unexpected fees and taxes for schools, fire protection, and sewers eat up money that might have gone to upkeep. The market for the houses dries up as newer neighborhoods are built, and bad elements move in, including moonshiners with a still in their living room [it would now be a meth house].

By 2040 Belly Rave has turned nasty and brutish. People huddle in their houses with guns at the ready. Thrill-seekers arrive for illicit sex, but the city police only come in armored cars. Gangs of preteens and teens roam the streets, protecting themselves to avoid being sold as pickpockets and child prostitutes.

1950s New Jersey and its counterparts, of course, was not half so bad. Behind Gladiator-at-Law was a suburban myth, as analyst Scott Donaldson called it, or even a suburban slander. The reality of new suburbs was not social disorder a la Belly Rave, but rather the reconstitution of community in new setting—as we know from the work of Herbert Gans and other sociologists.

California behind Walls

A generation after Gladiator-At-Law, suburban California attracted the same sort of science fiction critique. The anti-suburban indictment had moved beyond the moral and aesthetic posture of the 1950s to an explicitly political argument about how economic polarization plays out on the metroscape. Coming soon to southern California, or already arrived, said novelists and social scientists alike, is the deeply divided metropolis of global capitalism, explicated for us most memorably by feisty Mike Davis.

In the heart of the valley of love.jpgThe polarized and decrepit Los Angeles in Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) riffs on the Quartz City. Francie is nineteen years old in 2052. With her parents dead of a wasting disease that is a metaphor for cultural malaise and economic decline, she’s living in a run down Los Angeles bungalow and working for a financially marginal delivery service.

Francie’s city is leading the downward spiral of the American economy. A new highway system looms unfinished, started “before everything ran out of money, back at the beginning of the century.” The family house, bought by her great-great-grandmother, is now “in a section of town largely abandoned by anyone who mattered to the country’s economy.” Francie sometimes wakes to the smell of burning buildings not many blocks away. Meanwhile, the people of “richtown” (her term for places like Brentwood) are increasingly moving to “camps,” communities “enclosed by high metal fences and guarded by uniformed, armed men and women.” We can assume that Kadohata picked the term “camp” to recall the internment experience of 1942-45 and relishes the inversion of the image as the elite pull barbed wire around themselves rather than stringing it around others.

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Parable of the Sower is perhaps the most wrenchingly realized of the gated suburb fictions. Fortress LA is now literal, and the extinction of the middle plays out in fire and blood. Octavia Butler’s novel centers on Lauren Olamina, who grows up in the 2020s on a collapsing Los Angeles. Her parents and the other homeowners have created the ultimate cul-de-sac, surrounding their street of eleven houses with a locked gate and wall that is “three meters high and topped off with pieces of broken glass as well as the usual barbed wire.” The internal combustion era is over, with three-car garages turned into rabbit hutches and chicken coops. Lauren’s walled street is in the San Fernando Valley near the 118 Expressway, a sad survivor of the Valley isolationism described by Mike Davis. The whole community learns to handle guns; the only safe respite from the tiny community is a group excursion for target practice in the surrounding ravines where they are likely to encounter homeless squatters, feral dogs, and human corpses.

In this quiet apocalypse, foreign corporations are buying up the United States and turning Americans into agricultural slaves or white collar debt peons in defended enclaves. It is the economically bifurcated society of the early twenty-first century made manifest, and Lauren muses about the new economy:

Cities controlled by big companies are old hat in science fiction. My grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science-fiction novels. The company-town subgenre always seemed to star a hero who outsmarted, overthrew, or escaped ‘the company.” I’ve never seen one where the hero fought like hell to get taken in and underpaid by the company. In real life, that’s the way . . . it is.

As the story unfolds, addicts and thieves grow bolder, scaling the wall and cutting the wire, first to strip the gardens, then to ransack houses for anything they can sell. Three years after the story opens–it’s now 2027 and Lauren is eighteen–the community dies in a night of riot and fire, murder and rape. She escapes by luck, salvages what she can and starts a long trek north on what will be the road to a new, hard-won, tentative, and very rural utopia.

The Everted Metropolis

In the nearly six decades since Gladiator-at-Law hit the shelves, Americans have continued to vote with their Chevys and Volkswagens. In 2000 the nation was officially suburban—146 million people or 52 percent of all Americans.

But the suburban triumph can also be read as a suburban crisis. As early as the 1980s, social scientists realized that the aging of the baby boom generation was bringing problems to inner tier suburbs. Moving beyond the cultural critique, they mined masses of data to see that demand for housing was stagnant or falling and that declining numbers of students were rattling around in schools built for Brady Bunch families. By the twenty-first century, it was clear that older suburbs often shared “central city problems” of declining tax base and crumbling infrastructure, while the number of poor people in suburban rings rose by a whopping 67 percent from 2000 to 2011.

The result is the everted—or perhaps reverted—metropolis that has begun to reverse 150 years of suburbanization. The center is again the favored location, attracting the upwardly mobile young, successful middle-aged, and comfortable retirees who have triggered an outpouring of celebratory writing about the “return to the city.” The flip side of celebration, however, has been a counter-explosion of newspaper opinion and blogging about the rise of “slumburbia,” stoked by an Atlantic article by Christopher Leinberger at the height of the housing crash of 2008. Older suburbs in the Rustbelt and brand new suburbs in the Sunbelt are both described as losing the middle class; falling into abandonment and disrepair; attracting vandals; becoming homes to drug gangs. The urban crisis rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s has thus been transferred part and parcel to the suburbs of the new century, with Escape from New York being reimagined as “Escape from Nassau County.”

This rhetorical trend is background for three long stories published in the original anthology Metatropolis (2009). John Scalzi set his story in St. Louis, Elizabeth Bear and Tobias Buckell set theirs in Detroit, but they share a common vision of the near future.

MetatropolisIn each case, the central core has survived and prospered. In Scalzi’s story, New St. Louis is an independent and ecologically self-sufficient zero-footprint city that recycles everything. It shares “open borders” with the Portland Arcologies, Malibu Enclave, and Helsinki Collective but it is physically closed to the surrounding suburbs. Like a medieval European city it confers its own citizenship and uses walls and gates to control access and commerce. Bear and Buckell envision Detroit reduced to a highrise core of offices and apartments that still connects to global capitalism.

Danger lurks outside the center. In Scalzi’s story, Benji Washington is a slacker who borrows a lorry and ventures outside on a complicated errand for an ex-girlfriend. “That’s not a trip I’d want to take these days,” his boss says when passing over the keys. Out in the suburbs are angry locals who don’t like his looks and punch the daylights out of him. A security guard pulls him out and tells him as be regains consciousness:

You got beat on is what happened. You New Louies are dumb as hell, you know   that? Go out to a rave in the middle of The Wilds, and then you’re surprised when the kids out there start taking a crowbar to your heads. Let me give you a little tip, townie: The kids our here in The Wilds, they don’t like you. If you give them achance to crack open your skull, they’re going to do it.

The Wilds surrounding Detroit are even more derelict. Tract houses slump into the earth like barns dragged down by blackberries or kudzu. The handful of people who are left claim abandoned lots and buildings for mini-farms in an extra-legal rearrangement of property. Bear’s heroine, on the run from the Russian mafia and a newcomer to Detroit, tries to avoid the feral suburbs: “There were gangs out here, packs of the disenfranchised, squatters, and petty warlords.”

This fictional Detroit reflects the real city of the early 21st century. Urban planner Margaret Dewar has analyzed the changing neighborhood of Brightmoor in Detroit’s northwestern corner. Once a fully populated neighborhood of blue collar workers, it was more than half empty by 2010. Residents have appropriated the vacant lots for gardens, car parks, and buffer zones, essentially re-ruralizing in the twenty-first century a landscape that was urbanized in the twentieth.

Both Bear and Buckell offer the depopulated Wilds as a setting for social experiment and reconstruction. In Buckell’s version, the suburbs are peppered with abandoned mid-rise apartment and office towers that were once Edge City nodes. Grassroots eco-revolutionaries liberate one of the buildings and turn it into a multi-story self-sustaining garden-greenhouse and prepare at the end to take their vision of radical social change to other cities. Bear’s eco-activists work on a smaller scale, mining trash piles and landfills for materials to turn abandoned houses into small farms and miniature factories as cooperative low-visibility communities in the interstices of dying global capitalism.

Although forty- and fifty-page novelettes are not the place for extended exposition of post-capitalism and post-petroleum economies, Metatropolis may suggest an end point for traditional crabgrass chaos stories and a new beginning that spans rhetoric and reality. Scalzi, Buckell, and Bear are a generation younger than Mike Davis and Octavia Butler, and two decades younger than Fred Pohl. In their hands, the future of middle class suburbia is neither disaster or nor an occasion for satirical glee. Theirs is not a complete vision by any means, with the multiple ethnicities and races of actual suburbs conspicuously absent, but it does suggest that we challenge rather than accept slumburb imagery. Instead, suburban collapse and abandonment is a necessary stage in social change, the winter that may open physical and institutional space for the spring of economic and environmental innovation.

Featured image at top: Le Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000,  Albert Robida, 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Carl Nov. 2011aCarl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. A past president of the UHA, he ios the author of numerous books on American cities and city planning, most recently Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

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