The Life and Death of a Suburban County

Michael Gecan has a long and thoughtful essay about DuPage County, a popular reference point for discussions about the general economic and political state of American suburbia. DuPage County, Gecan argues, is already showing signs of the type of decline that Chicago, New York City, and other urban centers underwent in the 1960s and ’70s. "No longer young, no longer trendy, no longer the place to be, no longer
without apparent limitations or constraints," Gecan writes, "these places, like people,
have developed ways of avoiding reality."

One could take issue with some of Gecan’s points. For one thing, he tends to conflate the city of Chicago with Cook County. They are two entirely different political entities, as my cousin, who works for a County Board member, reminds me in almost daily emails about the venality of the Board President, Todd Stroger. And like families, decayed cities are unhappy in their own ways, so one municipality’s tale of decline and revival isn’t neatly comparable to another’s. Stranded in the Midwest, Chicago does not have New York’s easy access to foreign capital and markets, not to mention the human capital of Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Minneapolis are very nice places, but they’re not throwing off a lot of sparks.

A place like Bartlett, a suburb on the north western edge of DuPage County, would seem to be a counterexample to Gecan’s argument. I grew up there, and the town is more crowded than when I was pedaling my Schwinn around town, but it has plenty of green space, a shiny new library, and an actual Cuban restaurant in the building where ill-tempered German immigrants used to sell stale candy and bad coffee. Everything looks better than ever, right? Well, Gecan has an evocative image from his childhood spent in near Garfield Park on Chicago’s rugged west side.

There was no way to know, in the 1950s, that we were living at the
city’s high point. The massive economic and political, civic and
religious institutions had seemed as solid and stable as glaciers to
those living with them or in their shadows. From the second floor of
our double-brick corner house, we could see the tavern that we once
owned, the then-modern building that housed Newark Electronics, where
my father and I would someday work, and the row of houses that blocked
a view of Tootsietoy Company, where my mother would be employed. Four
blocks north was our parish, Our Lady of the Angels. Many thousands
attended Mass each Sunday. Sixteen hundred children packed its
classrooms.
    

By the mid-1980s, it was all rapidly declining.
Today, our home, along with thousands of others, is abandoned. A state
social service center fills the old electronics plant. Tootsietoy’s
products are mostly made in China. And the parish church and school
have closed.

As Gecan points out, appearances can be deceiving. One can move to the suburbs, and then further out into the suburbs, as my family did, but one can’t escape history. A town is a dynamic, living thing, and no amount of Chem Lawn is going to stop it from changing, for better or for worse.

One of our close family friends from Bartlett, a woman who was never a victim of crime in her life, has left the town. She now lives in a nearby gated community.

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