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Radical Suburbs

The Secret History of the Suburbs

We all know the stereotypes: Suburbia is dull, conformist, and about “keeping up with the Joneses.” But what about the suburbs of utopians and renegades?

CityLab, April 9, 2019

Back in the early 1960s, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “Little Boxes,” inspired by a drive past rows of lookalike pastel-hued houses in a new suburban housing tract in the Bay Area. (Her friend Pete Seeger had a hit with the song in 1963.) Reynolds saw the cookie-cutter houses as both symbols and shapers of the conformist mindset of the people who lived in them—doctors and lawyers who aspired to nothing more than playing golf and raising children who would one day inhabit “ticky-tacky” boxes of their own.

Then, only a few years after Reynolds wrote the song, Filipinos and other immigrants from Asia began arriving in Daly City. The “ticky-tacky” architecture that Reynolds scorned proved amenable to them remodeling and expanding homes for extended families, and Daly City became the “Pinoy capital” of the U.S., with the highest concentration of immigrants from the Philippines in America.

Clichés and misconceptions still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity. My suburban experience is riding the bus as people chat around me in Spanish and French Creole. It’s having neighbors who hail from Tibet, Brazil, and Kenya as well as Cincinnati. It’s my son attending a school that reflects the diversity—and stubborn inequality—of America today.

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