There were several confused responses, many of which assumed that by "suburb" O'Sullivan was referring to a prototypical suburb like Yorktown Heights or Rio Rancho. Some, like Sarah Goodyear, assumed that it was a difference of British versus American usage, but it isn't. I've seen the same confusion among Americans; the Times has had at least three articles over the past fifteen years calling the Upper West Side "suburban."
Prospect Avenue, Hackensack. Dense, mostly white, moderately wealthy, commute by bus, drive on weekends, one Starbucks. Outside the New York City limits.
The official definition of "suburb" is a place outside the city limits. But the city limits have changed. Neighborhoods that we would call "downtown" today, like Greenwich Village, Mayfair and the Marais, were all suburbs once. From that official perspective, O'Sullivan's "suburb" of Forest Hill is within the County of Greater London, and thus just as much an inner-city neighborhood as his old neighborhood in Hackney. Greenpoint here in New York City, which he disparages, has a similar administrative status.
The problem is that there are several features of suburbs that catch our attention more than whether they are within the city limits. We often essentialize these features and assume that all suburbs are that way. When someone says "suburb" they may actually be referring to just a few of those features, or even a single one.
To help with this confusion, I have put together this field guide to suburbs. The next time you come across a puzzling use of the term "suburb," just pull up this post and you should be able to sort things out. And the next time you're planning to write about "the suburbs" or "suburban attitudes," please do us all a favor and make it clear which features of the suburbs you're talking about.
Suburban-official: Outside the limits of a large city. By this feature, none of the neighborhoods that O'Sullivan mentions are suburban. Medway is the closest suburb to him. Official-suburbs in the New York area include Guttenberg (the most densely populated municipality in the United States) and Wyandanch (one of the poorest municipalities in New York State).
Suburban-rich: Richer than inner neighborhoods. By this feature, Forest Hill (median income £24,397) is slightly less suburban than Shoreditch (£28,028). But European cities have always had different income distributions than North American ones. In France, suburbs ("banlieue") are associated with poverty, even though there are plenty of wealthy suburbs, like Neuilly where Nicolas Sarkozy was mayor. New York has wealthy "suburbs" within the city limits like Forest Hills and Riverdale, and outside like Montclair and Chappaqua, and plenty of poor districts on both sides of the city line.
Suburban-white: Higher percentages of people of European ethnic backgrounds than inner neighborhoods. This is very typical of the United States, a result of the "white flight" of the 1960s and 1970s. Again, this is reversed in Paris. O'Sullivan's Lewisham is 56% white, while Hackney is 47% white. Notable New York-are counterexamples are Mount Vernon, home of P. Diddy, and Union City (84% Hispanic).
Suburban-bland: "There was nothing going down at all," is how Lou Reed put it. This is hard to quantify, because Jenny's parents probably thought there were lots of things going down. It's certainly clear that there are plenty of neighborhoods outside city limits with active cultural scenes (even for teenagers) and plenty of inner city neighborhoods without much going down. If your measure is funky coffee bars, there are plenty in Bergen County.
Suburban-low-density: This may be what O'Sullivan is really using, but it's all relative. Certainly, his Forest Hill is at least as dense as Greenpoint. There are some New York suburbs that have tried density, including Stamford, Scarsdale, Hackensack, and if you accept them Riverdale and Forest Hills.
Suburban-car: This is a big one for me. Of course, the newer the area the better the road infrastructure and the more parking there is. But it doesn't have to be that way: there are plenty of "streetcar suburbs" and suburbs built around commuter rail stations that are dense, walkable and hard to drive in.
There are a few other features, like Suburban-right-wing, Suburban-safe and Suburban-leafy that I'll leave as an exercise to the reader.