November 9, 2004 OP-ED COLUMNIST

Take a Ride to Exurbia


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 is missing.

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 thinking.

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.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company