Chicago’s suburbs as quintessential American suburbs in cultural products

A number of Chicago suburbs have appeared on television and in movies in recent decades:

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

Rightly or wrongly, I concluded that suburbia was segregated and snobbish, an attitude I’ve never been able to shake. I didn’t get that attitude from movies about just any suburbs, I got it from movies about Chicago’s Northern suburbs, which, over the last 40 years, have come to be seen as representative of all American suburbia. (My first job in Chicago was covering the Lake County suburbs for the Tribune. That didn’t change my mind.)

During the first wave of suburbanization, in the aftermath of World War II, the suburbs of Northeastern cities got all the attention, in movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and in the fiction of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates. When Hollywood rediscovered Chicago in the 1980s, though, it also discovered Chicago’s suburbs, through the work of writers and directors who grew up there. Paul Brickman, who directed Risky Business, was from Highland Park; Hughes was from Northbrook.

In the 1980s, suburbia was in its prime. Back then, nobody with money wanted to live in urban America. Rich people wouldn’t start moving back to cities for another decade. The suburbs are often mocked as a cultural wasteland, but towards the end of the 20th century, that’s where a lot of Chicago’s cultural energy was coming from. Even The Blues Brothers, which is revered as a document of post-industrial, pre-gentrification Chicago, was co-created by John Belushi of Wheaton. Steppenwolf Theatre Company was co-founded by Jeff Perry of Highland Park and Gary Sinise of Blue Island. According to his National Lampoon colleague P.J. O’Rourke, Hughes in particular was eager to rescue his native grounds from the notion that “America’s suburbs were a living hell almost beyond the power of John Cheever’s words to describe.”Chicago’s 1990s alternative music scene may have been born in Wicker Park, but its leading lights were suburbanites: Liz Phair of Winnetka, Billy Corgan of Elk Grove Village, Local H of Zion. Urge Overkill formed at Northwestern University. High Fidelity, the movie which celebrated that scene, starred Evanston’s own John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a guy from the suburbs who opens a record shop on Milwaukee Avenue.

Chicago’s suburbs continue to define suburbia in popular culture. The 2004 movie Mean Girls, the quintessential depiction of high school cliques, was set at fictional North Shore High School (i.e., New Trier). The characters even shopped at Old Orchard, although it was inaccurately depicted as an indoor mall. Greater Chicagoland also makes an appearance, and provides a contrast: Wayne’s World, set in Aurora, and Roseanne, set in the fictional, Elgin-inspired collar-county town of Lanford, are on the outside, physically, culturally and economically.

As someone who has researched locations and television shows, this raises several responses:

  1. Would viewers of these different suburbs know that the Chicago suburbs were unique in some way or do they look like suburbs all over? For example, does North Shore High School look or feel different than schools in Westchester County or outside Boston? One of the films cited, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, clearly shows Chicago locations but the suburban shots could fit in many American suburbs.
  2. There is an empirical question here: were Chicago suburbs depicted more often than suburbs of other locations? Or, based on viewers or ticket revenue or albums sold, how does the creative energy of the Chicago suburbs compare to cultural products linked to other locations?
  3. There is still some sense that suburbs are not creative places. This stereotypes dates back to at least the mid-twentieth century when suburbs were criticized as conformist and bland. True creative energy can only come from cities, not homogeneous and exclusive suburbs. Yet, as more Americans lived in suburbs compared to cities starting in the 1960s, it is not a surprise that cultural products would come from suburbanites.
  4. Even as a number of creatives grew up in suburbs, how much did their adult work and products rely on cities, including Chicago? The major culture industries in the United States are often located in big cities so even suburban or rural themes are mediated through more populous and denser communities.

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