Critics of the suburbs are plentiful yet few make their argument in the style of James Howard Kunstler. I use his 2004 TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” often in class because of its clarity and humor. A quick review:
- He has a provocative argument: are the American suburbs placing worth dying for? Kunstler explicitly links the design and experience of suburbs to the armed forces fighting in the Middle East: are they willing to die for their suburban communities? This question helps elevate the conversation from one about personal preferences – some Americans like suburbs, some do not – to a larger question of whether our communities are worth fighting for and living in. With the suburban emphasis on single-family homes, it can be hard to orient suburban conversations around the public good.
- The primary critique of the suburbs Kunstler offers involves architecture and urban planning. He shows some great examples of American buildings that offer little to pedestrians and the surrounding areas. He shows what a tree-framed streetscape should look like. He discussed a typical American Main Street and how it provides useful public space. He ends up making a pitch for New Urbanism as it recovers a lost understanding of how to create lively public spaces. It is too bad that he does not have a little more time to show how a typical suburb might be transformed (a retrofitted shopping mall is as far as he gets) because of different planning choices.
- There is plenty of humor here. While his own books can be somewhat bombastic, he sprinkles in plenty of funny lines in the TED talk including comparing the design of a civic building to a DVD player and discussion of “nature band-aids.”
- As someone who teaches courses about suburbs regularly, it is hard to find succinct and effective video clips to use in class. This talk is relatively short, has some humor, and summarizes an important critique of suburban life. Of course, it does not cover everything: Kunstler has little chance to cover some of his own critiques (such as peak oil and driving – although these came along years later, I would be interested to hear him respond to the possible invention of self-driving cars that could further sprawl) and says nothing about racial and class exclusion. Yet, this is my go-to video to discuss what some see as problems in the suburbs.
TED Talks cannot easily cover the nuance of particular social phenomena. However, if they are engaging presentations, they can provide helpful summaries of an issue that can then serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Kunstler’s talk does just that: it is a worthy entree into a decades-long conversation about the downsides and merits of American suburbs.
I have over the years read many “classic” works of literature. There is one to which I keep returning: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. While it is not as widely read or discussed as his works like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men (and I enjoy all three of these), it is the first one I think of when I look at my bookshelf of classics with the aim of rereading something. Here are the reasons why:
- Many key features of American life today are captured in this book. Steinbeck suggests as much with a single sentence on a page before the story begins: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of American today.” The narrative involves these plot points: the downfall of a once high-status family, looking for the next way to become wealthy and keep up with the Joneses, the main character tries to get ahead as a hardworking grocery store manager (suffering the indignity of a lower status job to help his family) while also pondering whether there are ways to shortcut the system (should he be skimming off the top? Should he turn in his boss?), and teenagers who want fame and fortune without a lot of hard work. In some ways, the story seems a bit unusual today: a white family with a long history in a community tries to regain their status. At the same time, the concerns motivating the family are very similar to those seeking fame today on social media or the many who are trying to weigh hard work versus getting ahead faster.
- Particularly compared to some of his other classic works, there is a good amount of humor in the main character Ethan Allen Hawley. It may be bleak or black humor but Hawley has a way of using humor to help him navigate tough situations.
- The story involves connections to my sociological research. One of the key plot points is that local officials are looking to become wealthy from the development of land. In an older community, selling and developing land amidst suburbanization offers a new way to generate wealth as well as transform the character of the small town. This story is the one of numerous small communities outside major American cities from roughly the late 1800s through today. Similarly, local growth machines of politicians and business leaders can profit tremendously from these changes.
- I have no problem reading longer novels: I have read such texts like Les Miserables and War and Peace and enjoyed them. But, it does help that this Steinbeck text is a bit shorter. On the whole, Steinbeck was pretty good at working in shorter and longer mediums ranging.
Ultimately, in my mind the themes of The Winter of our Discontent still ring true for American society today. Delivered in a relatively concise format with some humor and tragedy, this is a worthwhile read over and over.
Even though I was inexplicably slow in reading sociologist Brian McCabe’s No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community & the Politics of Homeownership, I am glad I finally had the chance. My thoughts on the book:
- Few sociologists have explained the development and ongoing importance of homeownership in American life. McCabe does this well in a succinct book. The important topics are all covered – the development of the idea of homeownership, government polices promoting homeownership, the shift from homes as dwellings and anchors of communities to investments, possible changes to the future of homeownership – and a new argument is advanced. I could see handing this book to undergraduates and feeling good knowing that they will see good sociological work in an accessible book.
- The best contribution of this book, in my opinion, is the analysis of survey data regarding how homeowners and renters contribute to communities. Americans have argued for decades that homeownership leads to more civically involved citizens. McCabe shows this is not as clear-cut as often presented. The homeowners can even exercise their civic involvement in such ways that limit the participation of others (usually those with fewer resources). More civic involvement does not necessarily lead to the greater good.
- Another worthwhile idea in this book is the concept of tenure segregation. While residential segregation is well-studied by sociologists, the difference in locations between owners and renters merits further study. I suspect the differences between wealthier homeowners and less wealthy renters is stark but the interesting stuff may come between owners and renters with more comparable incomes or who are living in relatively integrated places. For example, I recently looked at a Zillow map of west Los Angeles and was intrigued by all of the units for rent for expensive prices. How different are neighborhoods with renters and owners at similar income levels compared to places where renters and owners are more different?
- The brevity of the book also comes at a cost. Other texts cover similar topics at much more depth but also require more time and patience. (The first book that came to mind involving homeownership and the development of the single-family home: John Archer’s Architecture and Suburbia). Also, the current cases used to illustrate the arguments of this book are brief. They may arise for a few paragraphs but have relatively little depth. (This blog has also featured the opposition to affordable housing in Winnetka.) Using more case studies, whether tracking a single case in more depth throughout the chapters or utilizing a metropolitan region where different communities illustrate various concepts in the book, would help flesh out how these issues work on the ground. Of course, such depth would require more research time and more pages.
On the whole, this sociology book is a concise and engaging introduction to the issues surrounding homeownership in the United States. As Americans think about the future of housing (even if it does not become a national political issue), this book offers much to ponder.
After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:
1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.
2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.
3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.
4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.
All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.
I recently read both White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. These two books address the same topic – the white lower class in America – yet have several notable differences. Here is my quick review:
- The topic may be the same but the method and genre are quite different. Isenberg covers 400+ years of history while Vance tells the story of his own life. This difference in genre matters: Isenberg has a lot to cover and has difficulty providing details at points. The early history of poor white settlers is particularly interesting as convicts and lower-class residents of England were sent to the colonies. At the same time, there is little depth for the most recent decades and the narrative tends to solely follow presidential politics. On the other hand, Vance is writing a memoir. While he hints at broader trends, occasionally speaks for all hillbillies, and cites some academic studies, he primarily focuses on his own journey in a geographic area including southeastern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Together, these two books provide an outsider and insider perspective.
- Their political approaches differ. Isenberg provides some of this in the introduction as well as in the most recent history as she does not think the Republican party has much to offer working-class whites. In contrast, Vance does not think government is the answer to improving the lives of hillbillies and consistently affirms their agency and need to make good choices. Vance’s book is blurbed by prominent conservatives and he leans toward Republican or libertarian approaches. It would be interesting to consider the alternative approaches: an academic history that promotes a conservative approach and a memoir that pushes a liberal perspective.
- What they attribute the causes of the poor white or hillbilly life varies and hints at the complexity of this issue. Isenberg shows that the need for cheap labor has always been at the root of American social and economic life. Poor whites have been treated poorly from the beginning of the country. In particular, Isenberg highlights the interaction between poor white labor and slavery which foments resentment between blacks and poor whites even though both were exploited for centuries. On the flip side, Vance focuses more on the passing down of values within families and communities. In other words, hillbillies become hillbillies because this is the life they know and experience from their families and neighbors. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, even for someone who spends four years in the Marines and graduates from Yale Law School.
Even with (or even because of) these differences, I would recommend reading these two books together. There are clearly patterns in American history regarding poor whites (Isenberg) even as individual stories can differ with the influence of notable family members and contexts (Vance). While we do not have to go so far as Vance does in suggesting these problems cannot be solved, these two approaches do display the complexity of the situation. Those looking for a quick political fix in terms of helping Democrats appeal to poor whites again or looking for people to find family values and pull themselves up by their bootstraps will likely to be disappointed. This is a long-standing issue rooted in centuries of oppression and it still brings about much personal pain.
A documentary involving McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard I blogged about earlier – One Big Home – has now been released. Here are some thoughts I had after reviewing the film:
- This is an engaging story. The promotional material says it was filmed over 12 years yet the time goes quickly as it puts together interviews, public meeting footage, and striking images of both natural and man-made settings from Martha’s Vineyard.
- The documentary does a nice job representing multiple points of view. While the filmmaker clearly dislikes these trophy homes – though there is a point where his public activism regarding the issue wavers after the birth of his first child – the film presents local workers, ranging from carpenters to architects to builders, and residents defending property rights and expressing concern about a community imposing regulations on construction.
- The filmmaker’s personal story also enriches the film. As he and his soon to be wife learn they are expecting a child, they see a need for more space and a more permanent home. They employ an architect and end up constructing a home around 2,500-3,000 square feet (depending on whether the lofts are used). The film displays some of his own personal quandaries regarding how much space they really need and whether it is worth it to have upgrades in the home. This leads to a basic question: when Americans do feel they need more space, how much space should they be able to acquire?
- If there are two parts of the film that could use a little expansion or more explanation, here is what I would vote for.
- At the end, the community debates a cap on the square footage for new homes. This is an important part of the entire process yet it goes by pretty quickly in the documentary. It feels like an epilogue when there is a lot of process that might be interesting to show. Ultimately, how exactly did the public conversation develop to lead to an overwhelming majority in the end? What were some of the successful and less successful steps in putting this cap in place?
- We see a lot about Chilmark but hear very little about the rest of Martha’s Vineyard. How does this small community interact with the other doings on the island? From the footage, this part of the island is more rural but there are likely some interesting comparisons to be made.
This is a well put together documentary that asks questions facing many American communities: what should be done regarding the construction of large homes? The future of many American communities and the residents affected therein will be affected by these choices.
A developer in Los Angeles is facing some consequences for building a large home:
Hadid and the city attorney’s office met in private Thursday morning, after which Hadid’s attorneys said their client is close to a guilty plea for violating the city building code by building a 30,000-square-foot spec home at 901 Strada Vecchia, the Courier reported.
The real estate mogul — best known from appearances on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and as the father of supermodel Gigi Hadid — will still face a mix of public service and fines, as well as a potential ban from building in L.A., according to the Courier.
Hadid’s attorneys argue that if sentencing could be delayed, he could bring the property into compliance so any potential criminal conviction would be erased…
The real estate mogul was charged in late 2015 with building a spec mansion without a permit, illegally using land, and failing to comply with orders from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety to halt construction. Angry neighbors called the project “starship enterprise.”
I’m not sure what you would do to someone who constructs such a home. Jail them?
I know the burden is on the owner here but I wonder why the city didn’t step in at some point during the process. Most locales have people checking permits and codes along the way. And if the home was so large and attracting the attention of neighbors, why wasn’t this stopped?
Finally, the headline for this story calls this home a McMansion. The architecture may lend itself to this; the included picture suggests the exterior is designed to impress and the neighbors certainly had an interesting moniker for the home. Yet, it is a home with 30,000 square feet. It would be one thing to quickly construct a 3,000 square foot home but 30,000 square feet is on a whole level up.