The American Newburb

July 27, 2014  •  1 Comment

I live these days in a newburb. (Yeah, I made that word up.)

My neighborhood, the center of Bethesda, Maryland, is technically a suburb, since it's seven or eight miles from the center of Washington and lots of the residents commute to work in D.C. But it's so different from the suburbs of my youth that it is a new form of habitat, and it needs new nomenclature.

In my newburban neighborhood, you can get Portuguese or Peruvian chicken, but you can't get the old suburban staple, Kentucky Fried. You can buy a new Mac at the Apple store, which is at the end of a faux mews called Bethesda Lane (above), but you can't buy a Big Mac--there are no golden arches in the newburb. You can buy yoga pants from Lululemon, but you can't find Levi's. You can buy a million dollar condo in a mixed-use building, but you can't buy a split-level with a lawn. My own mixed-use building doesn't have a barber shop, but it has a men's grooming center called Roosters, which features a $76 deluxe treatment. I assume this involves a haircut in some way, but I'm not sure. 

Apart from its expensive shopping and barbering, I think that a newburb can be distinguished from the common American suburb by two things. One is its transportation infrastructure. Bethesda has a stop on the Washington region's late 20th-century Metro system; soon it will also be an end point for a light-rail line that will link it to close-in Maryland suburbs in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties. If you live within walking distance of the Metro station, you could, at least in theory, get along without a car. Not many Bethesdans give up cars entirely, but the car is not nearly as dominant in the newburb as it was in the New Jersey suburbs of my boyhood. Cars are tucked away in multi-story garages that occupy the interiors of the newburb's blocks, with shops and restaurants along the perimeters. There's also a leafy little hiker-biker path called the Capital Crescent Trail (left), built long the trackbed of the defunct Georgetown Branch railroad. You can commute from downtown Bethesda to D.C. on two wheels, wearing spandex, feeling fit, green and superior to the suburban slugs sitting in their cars out on the Beltway.

The second distinguishing newburb attribute is the fact that no farms are injured in the making of a newburb. It doesn't contribute to sprawl and the destruction of the countryside. New structures in the newburb are built on the site of old structures. A newburb is the opposite of an exurb.

I suppose that if you delve further, feeding habits help distinguish the newburb from the old-style suburb. My mother, in the '50s Jersey suburbs, drove to the supermarket once a week, brought the groceries home and stuck a lot of them in the freezer. She cooked supper nearly every night. That's not done so much in Bethesda. There are still a couple of chain supermarkets limping along, but newburban hearts belong to the farmers' markets that come to town a few days a week. They offer fresh produce from stands with cute names like Moody's Blues, (blueberries) sold by apparently genuine farmers, with none of the taint of the industrialized, packaged food in the Safeway or Giant. Every Sunday morning at around 9 a.m., you can see newburbanites walking along Arlington Road, clutching their recyclable bags as Bethesdans of old might once have clutched hymnals, heading to join the congregation at the Church of Organic, Locally Grown Produce.

When they're not cooking the stuff they buy in the farmers' markets, newburbans eat out a lot. But they don't eat in good old American burger places like the one where I bussed tables in the 1960s. I live over a restaurant called Lebanese Taverna, and within a couple of blocks of my building, you can get tapas and Thai, moules mariniere and montaditos, which is a Spanish style sandwich. There's a restaurant specializing in chocolate and another in wine. In the summer, these establishments crowd the sidewalks with their tables, and Bethesdans get to pretend that they're in Europe.

The novelty of the Bethesda newburb is accentuated by its proximity to a well-preserved prototype of the old-fashioned American suburb, the Village of Chevy Chase. Chevy Chase is a mile or so away geographically, but in another century conceptually. It was perhaps the first American suburb, and in many ways it was the archetype for what was to follow across the country. A senator from Nevada, named, appropriately, Francis G. Newlands, his pockets stuffed with money from the Comstock Lode, bought up a wide swath of land stretching from what was then the developed part of the District of Columbia (around what's now Florida Avenue) up eight miles or so into the farms and woodlands of Maryland. In the 1890s, Newlands and his partners paved a road (Connecticut Avenue) built bridges over Rock Creek, built a street car line and started selling lots. It became possible to commute from the government center of Washington to the countryside of Maryland.

Newlands dictated the terms of what the American suburb would become. Homes had to be spacious, with lawns. There would be a country club. And black people, had there been any who could afford to live there, were not allowed. Today, he'd recognize his suburb. The street car did not survive the advent of the automobile; residents now commute by car down Connecticut Avenue. But the homes are still spacious, the lawns broad and green, the country club is going strong, and while the restrictive covenants are gone, the population is still predominantly white. 

There is one common thread between the Village of Chevy Chase and the newburb of Bethesda. They both have cold, corporate genes. Bethesda's character is best seen through its carefully curated restaurant mix. The exteriors are thoughtfully designed to suggest that they are all artisanal eateries, owned by the creative people who cook in them. And there was a time, 10 or 15 years ago, when Bethesda had a lot of such places. But rising rents, I assume, have driven the artisan chefs out, back largely into gentrifying D.C., where the hot spots of the metro food scene can now be found along one-time slum arteries like 14th Street, NW and H Street, NE. The truth is that Bethesda places like Nando's Peri-Peri and Mon Ami Gabi are chain eateries just as much as the Outbacks and Olive Gardens you'd find in Kansas. You might not recognize the newburb restaurants as chain outposts because they're too small to have national advertising. They depend on their location to market themselves, and judging by the numbers of SUVs and minivans that descend on Bethesda each evening to be tucked into the parking garages during dinner, that strategy is working. For folks in the outer 'burbs like Gaitherburg and Germantown, going into Bethesda is like going into the big city, only it's not quite so edgy. That, it seems, is the overall strategy of the corporations that own and develop land in the newburb, the biggest of which is called Federal Realty Investment Trust. It's sort of like a city, but it's not.

All of this newburb development is predicated on a population with a lot of money. You will always find Bethesda in articles and web pages that rank American towns by metrics like household income and average education. You don't see newburb development in the poorer quarters of D.C.'s close-in suburban areas. I'm not sure you ever will. In that sense, the newburb is just another iteration of the suburb of the 1890s that separated the haves from the have-nots.

There's a certain irony in this. Though it's a cash machine of the sort that would warm the cockles of any free enterprise Chamber of Commerce type, the Bethesda newburb would never have happened without big government. Montgomery County built the parking garages and zoned the land within walking distance of the Metro station for offices and multi-story, mixed-use buildings. The federal and state governments built the Metro and the Capital Crescent Trail. Government will play still a bigger role in coming years as the new streetcar transit link, the Purple Line, is built. Conservatives like to complain that “The People's Republic of Montgomery County” is too intrusive and puts too many restrictions on property use. But in Bethesda, the county's efforts seem to be paying off in a big way for the propertied class. The skyline is full of cranes building condos. Outside Bethesda, developers are striving to replicate its newburb archetype by redeveloping traditional, 1970s malls like White Flint (in Rockville, MD) and Tysons Corner (in suburban Virginia).

But it would be a mistake to let my cynicism about the newburb's corporate essence carry undue influence in my assessment of it. In the most critical respects, the newburb is a big improvement over the trend that went before it. That would be the exurb, one of the major American lunacies of the late 20th Century. If you had told me forty years ago that the American response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing sharp rise in fuel prices would be the creation of huge new suburbs ever further from the center of our cities, I would have said no country could be that stupid. Yet now I look around the Washington area and I see interstate highways clogged with traffic as commuters struggle to get to work from suburbs that were farmland when the embargo hit, places 40 or 50 miles from D.C. that are now home to tens of thousands of people.

The newburb, whatever else might be said about it, is not an exurb. The new, multi-story, mixed use buildings of downtown Bethesda have taken space once filled by gas stations and strip shopping centers. (In Bethesda neighborhoods that are still zoned for single-family houses, in-fill development takes the form of small houses on big lots being torn down to make room for more and bigger houses squeezed onto those lots.) I live in a five-story apartment building with shops and restaurants on the first floor and two levels of parking underground. It replaced a one-story supermarket with a big, open parking lot.

And that makes a lot more sense to me than a pod of tract houses-with-shopping mall in the middle of nowhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Comments

1.Chris Connell(non-registered)
A sharp eye as always. As the first commuters ride the Silver Line today on the other side of the Beltway, the pols and planners there are licking their lips at the prospect of converting traffic-clogged Tysons Corner into a newburb. Except there's no parking.
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