Little boxes? Not quite - see what makes these all-American suburbs stand out
There's something you don't see in every suburb: the birth home of President Richard Nixon.
December 19th, 2011
04:57 PM ET

Little boxes? Not quite - see what makes these all-American suburbs stand out

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories about the changing American suburbs.

By Rachel Rodriguez, CNN

(CNN) - Ah, the suburban stereotype: The houses that look the same, the big box stores that look the same, the cul-de-sacs that look, well ... the same.

But according to CNN iReporters, the cliché isn't entirely accurate. Almost every suburb has something that makes it a little different or special, from a beloved restaurant to a historical landmark.

Take Kathi Cordsen, who lives in Fullerton, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. She can drive about seven miles from her home and be at President Richard Nixon's birthplace. It's an unassuming little white bungalow that's technically in Yorba Linda, California - another L.A. 'burb. It's so unassuming, in fact, that Cordsen at first didn't believe it was actually Nixon's home.

"It doesn't look like it did when I moved into this neighborhood 22 years ago," she said. "It was actually falling apart and in shambles. I met the people that were living in it because they used to have garage sales there. They told me the story about the house but I didn't really believe them until someone decided to fix it up and put a library next to it."

The house and adjoining property are now home to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

About an hour down the road, Encinitas, California - a suburb of San Diego - has its own unique landmark. But this one's not a historic site; it's a piece of graffiti art.

Every town has its graffiti, sure, but this 10-foot mural in Encinitas has gotten national attention. It's known as the "surfing Madonna:" A mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a surfboard, flanked by the phrase "save the ocean."

The "Surfing Madonna."

Admirers of the piece often tie up traffic. And when city officials ordered it taken down, residents like Gail Powell, who shared its story with CNN iReport, protested. They were so passionate that the piece is now under consideration from the city to be a fully legal art installation.

"The surfing Madonna has united the city of Encinitas like nothing else," said Powell. "It really is not just about an artist placing some rogue art under a train bridge, but also a story of how a community came together in support of the art and the artist."

A final decision regarding the piece will be made in January, and Powell and other supporters plan to be at the city council meeting to make sure their voices are heard.

Take iReport's Cultural Census

It's not just unique landmarks that can make a suburb special to the people who live there. Sometimes it's just a vibe, the atmosphere of a place. Just ask Helen Dietrich of the Hough's Neck community in Quincy, Massachusetts. She says the intimate, small-town feeling is why she's lived in the Boston suburb for 20 years.

"It is a relatively safe, community-orientated neighborhood where neighbors still look out for each other," she said. "Generation after generation stay on the 'Neck,' forming a close-knit community, and proudly declare that they are 'Neckers.' "

At the same time, Hough's Neck is only a few minutes outside Boston by train or car. Residents get a lovely combination of a rural atmosphere, including plenty of water, a national park, and a fishing pier, and great views of Boston.

CNN Photos: Photographer Bill Owens' 'Suburbia,' 40 years later

That best-of-both-worlds combo is a bonus of many suburbs, and it's unmistakable in Janie Lambert's town of Hughesville, Maryland. Hughesville is outside of Washington, but it has some unique neighbors that you probably don't think of as big city dwellers: the Amish.

"It is not unusual to pass them on the highway or see their horse carts or buggies tied to special hitching posts at the local store," says Lambert.

"The Amish Flea Market is a must if you are in the Washington, D.C., area, and is well worth the trip. I am glad I don't have to go very far to get my chow chow and sugar-free apple butter."

For these iReporters, living in the suburbs means a lot more than little boxes filled with the doctors, lawyers, and business executives of the famed satirical song about suburban America.

What about you? If you live in a suburb, what makes it unique? We'd love to hear your stories of the non-cookie-cutter 'burbs.

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soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. f

    Funny how the article is about suburbs where all the house look the same. I guess that true if you bought into neof those pre-fab 1990s -2000s developments. However, most suburbs stopped looking "all the same" years ago as people added and changed their homes. I for one, believe the opposite is true. Every city I have gone to has apartment buildings that all look the same. Each block in the city all looks the same. perfectly square blocks with storefront business along the stree level. partents above all exactly the same size and shape inside and outside. Never change. Never remodeled. ALL.....THE.....SAME........Sounds like this article was written by a city apartment dweller.

    December 21, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jim Daley

    You think this house is small for an ex-President, why not take a drive out to West Branch, Iowa to see Herbert Hoover's boyhood home. It is two rooms and takes about 2 minutes to see.

    December 20, 2011 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jason

    There is a huge difference between a small town (or even an old railroad suburb) and suburbia. These places that are being praised are of the older variety. Go to Atlanta, Las Vegas, or Dallas and try to talk to me about the "intimate, small-town feeling." If by intimate you mean sitting in your car for 2 hours a day...

    December 20, 2011 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Teararound

      Yes, we live in a small town and it is a long way to a city. One problem making small town living difficult is the big box stores that moved to rural areas and put so many small town businesses out of business. Our town used to have 4 grocery stores, clothing stores, furniture store, TV/media store, bakery, 3 car dealerships, 2 hardware stores, etc. A big box store moved in 30 miles away and sold stuff so much cheaper it put most of these stores out of business. But that was before gas got so expensive. Now people have one groc store, no clothing, furniture or media store and cannot buy clothing unless they go 30 miles. Gas is now expensive so trips are limited and there are less jobs in town.

      December 20, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. JKR79

    These are small towns turned bedroom communities, NOT typical suburbs. There is a difference, usually a big one. Though some have developed and grown that way over time, the very fact there is anything of historic significance found in a "suburb" shows that it is a small town that has evolved. They have an "urban area". Your typical "suburb" is more of a series of disconnected subdivisions from the past 50 years built on greenfield space where nothing previously existed, with no discernible "center" and the nearest retail/shopping usually consists of strip center development which everyone drives to. Small bedroom communities often have very nice amenities and downtowns. This is more of what you mean CNN.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      right, suburbs like Hough's Neck are emphatically urban places. People mistake urban to mean "city center" but that is not the case. It has more to do with how a place is laid out. You can have fairly low density urbanism. All the suburbs people like are characteristically older and designed on more classic urban principles.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  5. this guy

    that famed satirical song is a lot better than this weak article

    December 20, 2011 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
  6. raggmopp

    Fullerton and Yorba Linda are not suburbs of LA. They are located in Orange County, not Los Angeles County.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
    • rachelcnn

      Hey there! Fullerton and Yorba Linda are both classified as part of the Los Angeles metro area by the U.S. census bureau.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • michael d

      They are absolutely suburbs of LA. In fact, all of Orange County is a suburb of LA.

      December 20, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Thenextstep

    I say, if you get them thar illegals out, then tyou'll have a nicer, little, quaint, box town..........

    December 20, 2011 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
    • petly


      December 20, 2011 at 7:52 am | Report abuse |
  8. aflyer guy

    I have lived in both san diego, and dallas, and can honestly say dallas is worse. Worse pollution, worse traffic, and more mexicans! What this little story did not say was that living in the suburbs is way more costly usually!! You pay for your small town charm, and commute!

    December 20, 2011 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      In Dallas the drivers are INSANE. I am convinced of it. No one signals. Ever. If they change lanes, it is ok to do so if they only have 2 inches clearance in front of your bumper...and they get bonus points for using brakes after pulling this maneuver.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
      • Amanda

        You're so right! I moved to Dallas a year ago, and the drivers here are terrifying. I was looking forward to getting away from the sloowwwww snowbird drivers in Tampa, but at least there they were predictable! Turn signals – or even glancing into the next lane to see if it's open before moving over – are unheard of here in Dallas.

        December 20, 2011 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Fact, in real small towns you don't have to commute because everything you need is actually in the town. That's what a town is.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:30 am | Report abuse |
  9. Katie

    Yes, and you also have more gangs than anywhere else in the country... No thanks.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:59 am | Report abuse |
  10. David

    I love Southern California! We have the best weather in the country, the best beaches, the desert, mountains, and great vineyards. Sounds like some people are just bitter and jealous that they don't live here.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
    • petly

      waiting for the earthquak that gets rid of CA

      December 20, 2011 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Marlon

      I must agree with you David; and I spent the first 40 years of my life on a Caribbean island...

      December 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. rick

    Fullerton sure feels like a suburb. Anyway the oc sucks. The people are stupid/phony and there are only a few good drinking spots.suburb!

    December 20, 2011 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  12. unowhoitsme

    It's probably a lie.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ecost dweller

    thats why I hate surburban sprawl and highway ridden suburban sprawl cities : las vegas, atlanta, houston, bakersfield ca, ect...

    December 19, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • A

      DFW is the worst

      December 20, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  14. Kat

    Not sure why they are calling Fullerton and Yorba Linda suburbs of Los Angeles....they are both in Orange County.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • rachelcnn

      Good question! Here's why: Fullerton and Yorba Linda are both part of the Los Angeles metro area as defined by the U.S. census bureau.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
      • Bill Clinton

        Who the flip cares what the Census Bureau says???

        December 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dave

    Southern California in itself doesn't know what a "suburb" is. Over developed mess of idiots living next to eachother, everywhere. An absolute disaster.

    December 19, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Konacraig

      Well said!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Tiredofusernames

    Holds up traffic? Seriously?

    December 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
  17. xcvgxc

    If course they have their little charms. Suburbs were once small towns.

    December 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Jim

    Encinitas isn't a "suburb" of San Diego. It was a small town in its own right for a very long time, until San Diego expanded Northward and Irvine extended Southward. Same goes for Fullerton. These were "towns" that had their own reason for existence before they got subsumed by the large megalopolis nearby.

    Try finding any uniqueness in a real suburb – i.e., an expansion of an existing city into undeveloped land. That's a real suburb, and the only difference is the name on the planned community.

    December 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • PleaseUseLogic

      I think the definition of a suburb is a small town or community that is subsumed by a nearby growing city, becoming part of the greater metropolitan area.

      December 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
      • Chris A.

        It's actually the exact opposite.

        December 20, 2011 at 9:05 am | Report abuse |

    Fullerton is not a suburb of Los Angeles, it is in Orange County.

    December 19, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cardfan

      Yep....doesn't it irk you when the media throws O.C. in as an L.A. suburb. The O.C. sands on it's own. L.A. is a suburb of O.C.

      December 19, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • julian

      Yep, exactly.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Silence

      LA is not a suburb of O.C. They are two separate communities, I remember when you could drive for miles and see only orchards and planted fields in O.C. We used to drive from Claremont to a beach in O.C. I really don't remember which beach, but Corona Del Mar seems to stick in my memory. Anyway, LA proper was quite a ways away at the time. Nothing but open space and no LA. Then, both began to grow. LA first and then O.C. Huntington Beach expanded and the rest is history. I would not call either of these communities suburbs anymore. They are nonstop city. One bumping up against the other.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
    • rachelcnn

      Hey guys! Fullerton is classified as part of the Los Angeles metro area by the U.S. census bureau. (A suburb doesn't necessarily have to be in the same county as the major city.) Hope that clears it up for you!

      December 20, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
      • Bill Clinton

        all i hear is blah blah blah...

        December 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  20. kyle

    Hey guys living in the burbs trust me I have lived in gaithersburg for fifteen years also it is so relaxing please take it from a brother from d.c.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron R.

      I second that! Rock Creek Park can take you from Gaithersburg all the way down to D.C. and then you can jump over to the Mount Vernon trail in VA.. on foot or on a bike.. on a trail that you'd never guess was right in the middle of the suburbs.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |