Once, it was a new street
one of a thousand, freshly paved
curving in and around green rectangles
Botany as geography
Oak lawns, Oak brook, Oak terrace

Now, paint peels off shutters
concrete driveways are etched with fissures
tired mailboxes seem more symbolic than hopeful
and bikes with training wheels
are only seen on Sundays: grandchildren days

A suburb is some type of community that is close enough to a larger community that the residents of the suburb use the larger community regularly for some sort of service. That, at least, is the best one sentence description I can come up with for a 'suburb', and of course even that brief of a description is open to discussion. How close is close? And how regularly does the larger city have to be visited, and for what services, for the smaller city to be considered a satellite and not just a smaller city that happens to be in the way?

A clear definition of what a suburb is, is needed so that it can clear up the image that the term suburb may bring to mind. A suburb, according to the definition above, is a rather simple thing. The images that people have of suburbs, which perhaps would be better labeled as suburbia, are laden with baggage. I started thinking about this the other day when I read an article online, written by a reporter from Hillsboro, Oregon, where he wrote that due to Metros land use planning, people in the Portland area were being denied the "traditional suburban experience". Recently, I have also been in the habit of going for long walks around the Portland area, and it got me to thinking about just what a "traditional suburban experience" was. The reporter was a seemingly rare booster of this "traditional suburban experience", because it seems that recently, many people are its detractors. But in either case, there is not a single experience of suburban living, either positive or negative. I am sure that there are suburbs where smiling, middle management fathers drive up to their smiling, middle class families after the end of a long day at the office. And I am sure that in some of those families, the mother is drinking heavily to avoid thinking about the fact that her husband is secretly patronizing young hustlers. But as I explained, a suburb is just a city that is near a larger city. In the United States, at least (and forgive me for my Americentrisism), suburbs can be of any income level-from suburbs full of golf courses and mansions, to middle class cities full of three bedroom, two bathroom houses, to lower class communities with small apartment buildings, and scattered trailer parks. Just as suburbs can be of any income level, they are also not purely residential. Along with the housing developments are the commercial areas, which are also mocked, especially the shopping malls. But some suburbs are also industrial, full of business parks with light to medium industry.

This issue of industrial suburbs brings up another issue, not at first related, that someone asked me to address in message, the issue of white flight. It is popularly believed, at least by some, that one of the major causes for the development of the suburbs was "white flight", the desire of white urban residents to escape the crime and poverty that they associated with minority residents. The reasons that people left the city to settle in the suburbs probably were diverse, but I think one of those reasons may be that as the United States economy grew beyond big industries such as iron working, into fields such as computers and electronics, employment opportunities moved into suburbs where the new industries were based in smaller industrial parks. Thus, people moved into the suburb because they were drawn by economic activity, rather than moving away from perceived social threats. Not that my interpretation has any particular evidence behind it---it just shows that suburbanization happened for various causes, and that the history of the conventional wisdom, that pictures the suburbs being filled due to racism, is not only cartoonishly distorted, but may have no evidence behind it.

In my description, I talked about the fact that two of the characteristics of suburbs are open to interpretation. How close does a city have to be to another city before it is a suburb? And how much do people in the smaller city have to depend on the larger city? For some bedroom communities, it is clear cut. But in many situations, it is not. For example, Tacoma could be viewed as a suburb of Seattle, even though at around 200,000 citizens, it is a fair sized city in its own right, and most of its citizens would only depend on Seattle for a limited amount of services. North Bend, thirty miles east of Seattle at the entrance of the Cascade range, could also be considered a suburb of Seattle, even though its distance means it is probably more of a small, independent town than a suburb. Tacoma and North Bend are very different from each other-and are also different from Seattle's more traditional suburbs. Putting all these things under the same category can be misleading.

Other than what I described suburbs as above, there is no single characteristic that suburbs share, demographically, socially, politically, culturally or otherwise. In general, it could be said that suburbs are more conservative and homogeneous than most urban areas-but even this is just a general rule. The simple fact that a city is closer to a larger city doesn't mean that the type of stereotypes that could be found (for example) in the suburbia node are either deserved or accurate.

The most opprobrious and vile of the back-formed singulars. It is formed from suburbs, the outskirts of a city. At first glance the process seems straightforward: if there are several suburbs, the one of them must surely be a suburb.
But, no! Suburbs is already a singular noun! It is a Latin loan word, stemming from urbs, »city«, a noun in the third declension — a schoolbook noun, one might add. The -s here is the nominative singular ending and none other; the nominative plural is urbēs. Thus, and similarly, the suburbs is »the district surrounding (literally, below) the city«, and one ought to say (for instance) that »the suburbs of London was very populous«. Unfortunately, suburbs fell victim to the simplistic scheme of articles in English and that sad, coïncidental plural S, and it has been consistently read as plural since at least the 19th century.

Sadly, any linguist worth half a damn is obliged to bend to descriptive fact: »suburb« is a real word in English. It just oughtn't be. Fortunately, the state of the thing can be changed back just as easily as it was changed: merely insist on always using it correctly and the problem will be solved — eventually. And don't pretend you have any more important concerns in your life! We here at the Institute can see all through our high-powered telescopic lenses.

Sub"urb (?), n. [L. suburbium; sub under, below, near + urbs a city. See Urban.]

1.

An outlying part of a city or town; a smaller place immediately adjacent to a city; in the plural, the region which is on the confines of any city or large town; as, a house stands in the suburbs; a garden situated in the suburbs of Paris.

"In the suburbs of a town."

Chaucer.

[London] could hardly have contained less than thirty or forty thousand souls within its walls; and the suburbs were very populous. Hallam.

2.

Hence, the confines; the outer part; the environment.

"The suburbs . . . of sorrow."

Jer. Taylor.

The suburb of their straw-built citadel. Milton.

Suburb roister, a rowdy; a loafer. [Obs.] Milton.

 

© Webster 1913.

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