How the Suburbs Almost Claimed One of the Most New York New Yorkers
Lou Reed was a great urban rock-n-roller. Was he also a near victim of the American Dream?
In urbanism, as in rock-n-roll, Lou Reed was ahead of his time.
Lou Reed was a quintessential New Yorker and one of its finest storytellers. For his album, New York, it becomes a character itself as part of a dark, gritty, hopeful, aural love letter. As he gets his overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, many are pausing to reflect on his life and career as one of the great rock-n-rollers of all time.
Perhaps the most thoughtful and original take, one that brings new insight into the previously well-researched Lou, comes from his sister, Merrill Reed Weiner. She wrote a poignant essay about her brother’s childhood, his complex relationship with parents who didn’t understand him, and their ultimate decision to have him undergo electroshock therapy. The part that stands out for me, however, is her discussion of her family’s move from Brooklyn to Freeport Long Island when Lou was 9. Her parents must have thought they were making a great change for their family by chasing their piece of the post-depression, post-war, middle-class American Dream.
It didn’t turn out as they planned. She writes of the move being a “difficult transition” for her brother. He was used to walking outside and being surrounded by friends to play with. In their new home, they were isolated geographically and because they could only afford one car, which dad drove to work. In his previous home, there was the excitement of a diverse population, but their new surroundings were much more homogenous. Lou seemed to wither.
It’s a story we hear more often now, but it seems Lou Reed was an early example. Suburban sprawl is often thought of as the ideal place to raise kids. As it turns out, it’s the opposite in many cases. The wide lots and lack of population density mean that children often have fewer neighbors to play and interact with. A stark separation of residential, retail, and office space leads to long commutes and a lack of walkability. The move to the suburbs itself can stress or break existing social networks. If the community doesn’t support you when you land, it’s easy to find yourself “isolated” as the Reed family seems to have been.
It was in one of Reed’s most famous songs that he sang of a young girl whose “life was saved by rock and roll.” It’s hard not to extrapolate some autobiographical tendencies in that line. But if Lou’s life was saved by rock and roll, it would seem that it was because his guitar was his ticket out of the suburbs and back into the city.
Famed urbanist, Jane Jacobs, wrote in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” It is that “strange” that became the grist for Lou Reed’s best songwriting.
It’s hard to imagine what Lou Reed’s music would have sounded like and where he would have found his inspiration had he not made it back into Manhattan. Think of the memorable characters both real and imagined that inhabit his songs: the “PR shoe”-wearing dope dealer in Waiting for the Man, to the incredible cast at Warhol’s Factory, to Walk on the Wild Side star, Candy Darling, and finally to the likes of Pedro and Romeo Rodriguez, who provide the narrative centerpiece in the tracks of New York. These aren’t the kind of people hanging around in 1950s Freeport.
It’s hard to imagine the experiences many American kids are missing out on – caught out in the cul-du-sacs. Sure, their parents might like that they are away from the strange, but many are also away from their friends, peers and real social networks. Nine-year-old Lou’s routine of walking to school would be uncommon today, especially since he walked alone. In some cities today, parents are being arrested for letting their kids do that. Walking to school in America is a little too much of a walk on the wild side for some communities.
The fix isn’t to bring all the kids back into the city. The downsides of that are plentiful. But there is a growing recognition that walkability trumps car-centric design. That streets can divide us, rather than bring us together. That fenced-in backyards don’t make for good neighbors, but close and open front yards do. We don’t need to bring all of our kids into the city, but we need to bring a little more of the city and its strengths into the suburbs.
The Hall of Fame finally has given Lou Reed his due as an artist. Let’s hope our urban and suburban planners can catch up to what he intrinsically knew as a 9-year-old.