The tragic case of Ethan Couch, the well-heeled North Texas teen who killed four people and seriously injured two others in a Dallas suburb when he ran into them drunk in his Ford F-350 pickup truck, has by now fallen out of the news cycle. The nationally voiced outrage at his relatively lax sentence—10 years probation and mandatory therapy at a cushy California in-patient facility—the vitriolic calls for the de-benching of the judge who handed it down, the needling criticisms of the defense’s claims that Couch’s behavior should be attributed to “affluenza” and not his possible moral turpitude, and the pious sermonizing on the exceptionalism afforded to the rich have all been relegated, at least for now, to the backburner. In my mind that makes it a perfect time to look at yet another target in the whirlwind of finger pointing that followed the trial: the built environment in which Couch did his growing up.
In a piece titled “The Affluenza Society” published in the New York Times, James McAuley takes the position that the most important aspect of the Couch case might be that it serves as “a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology.” McAuley claims that the gated community in Keller, Texas, where Couch lived is a place that is somehow removed from the law. “Few would dispute that millions of affluent—typically white—Americans choose to live in communities whose primary raison d’étre is to afford their residents a pampered escape, a chance to withdraw from the barbarians at the gate and from every external reality imaginable. The Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs are a prime example of this particular strain of ‘affluenza,’” wrote McAuley. He also pointed out that Couch’s dad’s place is located near a thoroughfare called “Confederate Park Road.”
While this sort of cleverly phrased critique plays well with the readership of the Times, it is a long way from getting to the bottom of what is really wrong with the suburbs. Not only is it shallow, it is an irresponsible promotion of the black-and-white view that suburbs are intrinsically bad and inner cities essentially good.
I grew up in a similar milieu as Couch and have spent the last 16 years in New York City. As secluded and economically homogenous as it was, there was nothing in my west Houston neighborhood that suggested to me that I was insulated from the law. Similarly, my shoebox of an apartment in Brooklyn has been just as effective a place to “withdraw from the barbarians at the gate” as was my parent’s suburban homestead.
It is undeniable that the suburbs—especially those developed in the last 20 years—are becoming ever more grotesque and unsustainable, not to mention remote from the ideals of the theorists who created their predecessors (I can’t imagine that Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned people by the hundreds driving gas-guzzling vehicles to eat at a restaurant by the freeway called Fuddruckers). There is a multitude of reasons to reform this mode of development, but none of them are because it is a breeding ground for sociopaths. Furthermore, I believe it will be reformed, not by executive order, but by a market change that is already two decades in the making, in which the young, ambitious, and, in fact, affluent are moving to and creating a demand for more urban-scaled environments.