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Op-Ed Columnist: Take a Ride to Exurbia
November 9, 2004
By DAVID BROOKS
Orlando, Fla.� About six months ago I came out with a book
on the booming exurbs - places like the I-4 corridor in
central Florida and Henderson, Nev. These are the places
where George Bush racked up the amazing vote totals that
allowed him to retain the presidency.
My book started with Witold Rybczynski's observation that
America's population is decentralizing faster than any
other society's in history. People in established suburbs
are moving out to vast sprawling exurbs that have broken
free of the gravitational pull of the cities and now exist
in their own world far beyond.
Ninety percent of the office space built in America in the
1990's was built in suburbia, usually in low office parks
along the interstates. Now you have a tribe of people who
not only don't work in cities, they don't commute to cities
or go to the movies in cities or have any contact with
urban life. You have these huge, sprawling communities with
no center. Mesa, Ariz., for example, has more people than
St. Louis or Minneapolis.
In my book I tried to describe the culture in these places
- the office parks, the big-box malls, the travel teams and
the immigrant enclaves. But when it came to marketing the
book, I failed in two important ways.
I couldn't figure out how to tell the people in exurbia
that I had written a book about them. Here I was writing
about places like Loudoun County, Va., and Polk County,
Fla., but my book tour took me to places like downtown
Philadelphia, downtown Seattle and the Upper West Side. The
places I was writing about are so new, and civic life is as
yet so spare, there are few lecture series or big libraries
to host author talks. The normal publishing infrastructure
I was about to give a reading in Berkeley when I asked a
few of the bookstore employees if they sold many copies of
Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose-Driven Life." They weren't
familiar with the book, even though it has sold millions
and millions of copies. I realized there are two
conversations in this country. I was in the establishment
conversation, but somehow I needed to get into the Rick
Warren conversation and I could never find a way.
That's why I'm so impressed by Karl Rove. As a group of
Times reporters demonstrated in Sunday's paper, the
Republicans achieved huge turnout gains in exurbs like the
ones in central Florida. The Republicans permeated those
communities, and spread their message.
My second failure is that I could never get my parts of
blue America really curious about exurban culture. There
were exceptions. For example, when Al From of the centrist
Democratic Leadership Council learned what I was writing
about, he was right on it, inviting me to speak to
Democratic groups to describe the importance of the exurbs.
He knew how vital they would be.
But I couldn't get most of the people I spoke to really
fascinated, even in an anthropological sense, by these new
places. That's in part because I was struggling against a
half-century of stereotyping. Movies from "The Graduate" to
"American Beauty" have reinforced the idea that the suburbs
are bland, materialistic, ticky-tacky boxes in a hillside
where people are conformist on the outside and hollow
within. The stereotype is absurd, but it closes off fresh
The other problem I had is that I didn't adequately
describe the oxymoronic attraction these places have for
millions of people. On the one hand, people move to exurbs
because they want some order in their lives. They leave
places with arduous commutes, backbreaking mortgages,
broken families and stressed social structures and they
head for towns with ample living space, intact families,
child-friendly public culture and intensely enforced social
equality. That's bourgeois.
On the other hand, they are taking a daring leap into the
unknown, moving to towns that have barely been built,
working often in high-tech office parks doing pioneering
work in biotech and nanotechnology. These exurbs are
conservative but also utopian- Mayberrys with BlackBerrys.
The Republicans won in part because Bush and Rove
understand this culture. Everybody is giving advice to
Democrats these days, and mine is don't take any advice
from anybody with access to the media - including me, just
to be safe.
Get out into the sprawl, into that other conversation. Take
your time. It's a new world out there.
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