Question of the Week: What Is A Suburb?

burbs.jpgTJ Sullivan at LA Observed’s suburb companion blog Native Intelligence complains that in the commentary for the new DVD release of Pulp Fiction, Echo Park is referred to as a suburb.

It’s not a new mistake. Errors like this have appeared in news stories before. Even Starbucks expressed a lack of understanding recently about what communities are in LA. But the fact remains that it’s not that complicated to differentiate communities like Silverlake from suburbs like Simi Valley.

Well, it must be complicated, because Simi Valley (Wikipedia) is an incorporated city just outside of Los Angeles County. Or maybe its just complicated to me, because I’ve always viewed Los Angeles largely as one big suburban sprawl (with the exception of downtown).

That said, the Random House Dictionary definition of a suburb isn’t on my side – but neither is it on TJ’s:

1. a district lying immediately outside a city or town, esp. a smaller residential community.
2. the suburbs, the area composed of such districts.
3. an outlying part.

Since we’ve lately been debating the definitions of other words (like insipid) and other city related definitions (what is the Eastside?) I thought this was as good a time as any to ask the readers what they think about What Is A Suburb?

I don’t think anyone would argue with calling Silverlake, Echopark, Koreatown, or even SiFi “neighborhoods” – but, dictionary definitions aside, is the term “suburb” offensive and/or colloquially wrong?

TJ Sullivan also posted last year about the confusion of defining the different communities of Los Angeles…

11 thoughts on “Question of the Week: What Is A Suburb?”

  1. “is the term “suburb” offensive”

    Only if you have a stereotypical and negative view of suburbs.

    DJ Waldie, of my hometown, is the sage of the suburbs. Some of his essays in “Where We Are Now” deal with what it means to be suburban in Greater Los Angeles, and why that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

  2. A suburb is anywhere West of Vermont, North of the 101, South of the 10 and East of Santa Fe is a suburb.

    Well, except for the block that the Arclight theater is located. Thats still official city territory as far as I am concerned.

  3. Offensive?!? Hardly. Incorrect? Perhaps.

    What I find odd about the definition is the “outside a city or town” part. I don’t know of any suburbs that are “outside” a city, though I’d agree they are often on the outer edge of a city.

    And in these parts, I suspect our ‘burbs would look very much like an honest-to-goodness urban environment to many folk from little tiny towns like Denver or Seattle.

  4. A big part of the confusion is that L.A. has grown by annexation and has a lot of communities within its city limits that once were suburbs and have retained their pre-annexation identities, for example most of the valley. It gets really confusing because most cities have zip codes where the first three digits are the same (e.g., anywhere in Chicago, the zip code will have the format 606xx). Los Angeles, on the other hand has multiple zip3 prefixes. 900xx for Los Angeles “proper” (i.e., not the valley) 913xx for the valley, but there are 913xx zip codes for non-L.A. suburbs in the valley as well and people. 902xx which includes most famously Beverly Hills as well as many west side/south bay non-LA communities also includes Pacific Palisades, Venice Beach, Playa del Rey. San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City all part of L.A. are in 907xx along with LA-adjacent suburbs. I’m sure I’ve left out bunches of zip codes in this as well. The continued usage of community names in mailing addresses doesn’t help much either. No wonder people get confused about what’s inside the city and what’s outside.

  5. I think ‘suburb’ means, to most, streets lined with houses with grassy front yards. Urban is a little harder to define in LA, but suburb means adjacent to urban or just less dense than urban. It may be we are witnessing the end of the suburban era. It was a word invented to describe the new phenomenom of development that was neither urban nor rural. Now the suburbs are slowly being replaced with urbs. It might take a hundred years, but it is happening.

  6. Echo Park has been considered L.A.’s first suburb – back before cars and freeways made suburbs far away and enormous. I think it’s part of L.A. now – but once upon a time, it was a suburb.

  7. The definition of “suburb” may be one thing, but the reality is something else. What was once a suburb may no longer be, in practical terms. Sure, Echo Park was a suburb of LA decades ago, as were Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank, etc… A strange thing has happened as LA County hit and passed 10 million people – those three cities became urban centers in their own right and maybe shed their “suburban” status, and now we have suburbs in Simi Valley, Santa Clarita and by some stretch, even Lancaster and Palmdale. Cities which were once truly suburbs of LA now have their own suburbs – case in point, Riverside, which has suburbs of Moreno Valley, Perris and others. So – a city like that (or Burbank) probably isn’t really a suburb any longer.

    As for the lifestyle thing – well, yes, the ‘burbs tend to be green, quiet, peaceful and (sorry) very bland… yet namy areas right in the city are like that. (I will refrain from naming them so as to avoid having my head on a platter… I live downtown, so what would I know about suburbs anyway…) – So… here’s the “suburbs according to Ken”…

    If most people in the given area commute to an adjacent, larger city to work, shop, play… and that area has little commercial infrastructure, and that area relies on the larger city for media, identity, and commerce – and the given area is not a political part of the larger city… well, then, you have a suburb. Cities like Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena – and even Santa Monica and especially long Beach, Santa Ana and Riverside – have extensive commercial and industrial development, often have their own destination type feeling, and attract people from other places for work, play and commerce. Those places really arean’t suburbs.

    Silver Lake, Echo Park, Palms, Brentwood, Boyle Heights, Larchmont… neighborhoods. They are within LA, whether by annexation or other means. They are an integral part of the fabric of LA. The Valley is some of both… suburban feeling but really a huge urban area of nearly 2 million people.

    So there. Hope that settles it.

    That said – it’s all a joke – there’s no real way to truly define whether a place is a suburb or not these days!

  8. To sort of echo DB above, I think suburban would be much easier to define in other metropolises. With Los Angeles, you have dense sprawl, so any easily separated distinction between suburban and urban is almost impossible here.

  9. I’ve always heard that a suburb is defined as a neighborhood/town where most of the residents work outside of the neighborhood/town. I don’t think that there’s any reason to say a suburb can’t be incorporated.. just look at Valencia.

  10. A helpful distinction may be inner-ring vs. outer-ring suburbs, and “suburb” vs. “suburban”. So Glendale, Burbank, etc., which are close to the metropolis and older, more densely developed cities are on the inner-ring and are suburbs by their history and the property of not-being-Los-Angeles. Diamond Bar, a newer and more commuter-populated suburb would be an outer-ring suburb.

    A Sherman Oaks, on the other hand, couldn’t really be a suburb because it has the same governmental identity or municipal structure as Downtown or Hollywood, but can be said to have a suburban feel for reasons outlined above.

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