Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.

What I want to know: do TV shows push viewers to buy certain kinds of houses?

After publishing two papers in the last few years on TV depictions of suburbs and their houses (see here and here), it leaves me with one big question: do shows like these directly influence what homes people purchase?

Americans watch a lot of television – still an average of about four hours a day for adults – and they see a lot of dwellings. While there is a mix of housing units shown, scholars point out that television since the 1950s does place a lot of emphasis on single-family homes. This includes fictional shows set in single-family homes in the suburbs (think Bewitched or Desperate Housewives), rural areas (think Lassie), and cities (think Happy Days and King of Queens). More recently, viewers can see homes on HGTV and other networks that emphasize home life (plus the shows on other networks that specifically target homeowners, from This Old House to Trading Spaces). This makes some sense in a country that holds up owning a single-family home, particularly in the suburbs, as an ideal.

But, we know little how about all of this watching about homes translates into choosing homes. My study “From I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives” did not find much evidence that more popular suburban television shows led to more people living in suburbs (or vice versa). Similarly, outside of some interest from Sopranos’ fans in having a home like Tony, there is little to no evidence that Americans flocked to imitate the home or neighborhood of the Sopranos. While the viewers of HGTV might be relatively wealthy, do they take what they see and directly purchase something like that?

It is relatively easy to make claims about how media products affect thoughts and behavior. However, it is harder to make direct, causal connections. I would guess advertisers around such shows hope such a connection is present. If we could examine this relationship between shows and homes more closely in research studies, it could help us better understand how Americans form, maintain, and change their approaches to homes and communities.

The difficulty of measuring a splintered pop culture

What are common pop culture products or experiences in today’s world? It is hard to tell:

Does Eilish, for instance, enjoy the same level of celebrity someone of equal accomplishment would have had 15 years ago? I don’t know. There are Soundcloud stars, Instagram stars, YouTube stars, Twitter stars, TikTok stars. Some artists, like Eilish and Lil Nas X, transition from success on a platform like Soundcloud to broader reach. But like Vine, TikTok has its own celebrities. So do YouTube and Instagram. We’ll always have George Clooneys and Lady Gagas, but it almost feels like we might be lurching towards a future with fewer superstars and more stars.

We can still read the market a little more clearly in music, and on social media, but the enigma of streaming services illustrates these challenges well. The problem is this: At a time when we’re both more able and more willing to concentrate in niches, we also have fewer metrics to understand what’s actually happening in our culture…

We have absolutely no idea. People could be watching “Santa Clarita Diet” in similar numbers to something like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” or they could be completely ignoring it. The same goes for every show on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. We can see what people are chattering about on social media (hardly a representative sample), and where the companies are putting their money. But that’s it. Not only do true “cultural touchstones” seem to be fewer and farther in between in the streaming era, we also have fewer tools to determine what they actually are…

But it also means there’s more incentive for the creators of pop culture to carve us up by our differences rather than find ways to bring us together. It means we’re sharing fewer cultural experiences beyond the process of logging onto Netflix or Spotify, after which the home screen is already customized. On top of all this, it means we’re more and more in the dark about what’s entertaining us, and why that matters. What does cultural impact look like in an era of proliferating niches, where the metrics are murky?

I wonder if this could open up possibilities for new kinds of measurement beyond the producers of such products. For example, if Netflix is unwilling to report their numbers or does so only in certain circumstances, what is stopping new firms or researchers from broadly surveying Americans about their cultural consumption?

There may be additional unique opportunities and challenges for researchers. There are so many niche cultural products that could be considered hits that there is almost an endless supply of phenomena to study and analyze. On the other hand, this will make it more difficult to talk about “popular culture” or “American culture” as a whole. What unites all of these niches of different sizes and tastes?

It will also be interesting to see in 10-20 years what is actually remembered from this era of splintered cultural consumption. What cultural phenomena cross enough boundaries or niches to register with a large portion of the American population? Will the primary touchstones be viral Internet videos or stories rather than songs, movies, TV shows, books, etc.?

 

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?

Recycling was only a band-aid; Americans need to consume less

Now that the recycled products of Americans are no longer desirable, perhaps it will start a new broader conversation: when will Americans consume less?

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.

For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the costs of all this garbage are growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash…

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. The strong economy means more people have more spending money, too, and often the things they buy, such as new phones, and the places they shop, such as Amazon, are designed to sell them even more things. The average American spent 7 percent more on food and 8 percent more on personal-care products and services in 2017 than in 2016, according to government data

But even in San Francisco, the most careful consumers still generate a lot of waste. Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle because the material they’re made of is so flimsy—but it’s hard to find berries not sold in those containers, even at most farmers’ markets. Go into a Best Buy or Target in San Francisco to buy headphones or a charger, and you’ll still end up with plastic packaging to throw away. Amazon has tried to reduce waste by sending products in white and blue plastic envelopes, but when I visited the Recology plant, they littered the floor because they’re very hard to recycle. Even at Recology, an employee-owned company that benefits when people recycle well, the hurdles to getting rid of plastics were evident. Reed chided me for eating my daily Chobani yogurt out of small, five-ounce containers rather than out of big, 32-ounce tubs, but I saw a five-ounce Yoplait container in a trash can of the control room of the Recology plant. While there, Reed handed me a pair of small orange earplugs meant to protect my ears from the noise of the plant. They were wrapped in a type of flimsy plastic that is nearly impossible to recycle. When I left the plant, I kept the earplugs and the plastic in my bag, not sure what to do with them. Eventually, I threw them in the trash.

The whole American lifestyle revolves around consumption and includes innumerable objects that are difficult to reuse or refuse. Much of it seems to come under the ideologies of efficiency, cheapness, and convenience. Envision Walmart. It is not just about small items or particular companies; it even makes its way to some of the largest purchases Americans make including buying larger homes to store more stuff.

What would it take to start the ball rolling away from consumption of goods? A small set of Americans have voluntarily done this – I recall reading about downshifters in sociologist Juliet Schor’s twenty year old book The Overspent American. A major company like Amazon or Walmart could make a big dent. Or, perhaps some government regulations might help nudge the free market in the right direction. There is a slight chance a movement of conscious consumers could help lead to change.

And if consumption levels do end up dropping, this could effect all sorts of areas in American social life. What would happen to fast food? The smartphone industry? Housing? Carmakers? Food producers and distributors? Watching it all play out could be fascinating.

Brilliance vs. perseverance in academic writing and work

What does it take to publish academic research? Here is a recent reminder of a truism I have heard again and again and experienced myself:

Brilliance (or something close to it) is, I’d say, about 3 percent of creating a publishable article or monograph. The other 97 percent is patience and the stamina to be able to work, over and over, on something for which the end might not be in sight for a while.

This would be similar to two pieces of helpful advice I received within the first few weeks of starting a sociology Ph.D. program:

-Treat your academic work like a job: have regular hours, goals, and progress.

-Be a chipper and not a binger. Short and continuous efforts lead to better work than last-minute, long sessions to meet a deadline.

Or, we could turn to quotes or stories about Thomas Edison’s work and trying over and over again.

To me, all of this makes more and more sense as you work on research projects. The various stages of academic work – conceiving a viable idea, tracking down data and evidence, scouring the existing literature, analyzing the data, considering the implications, submitting for publication and then going through the review process – can each require a large amount of work and require time to ponder and address. Rushing to meet deadlines can be helpful for structuring time but it does not free up the same kind of mental space to ponder the question at hand. Finding the creative edge in academic work often requires more time, not less.

All of this requires working against an American cultural setting where (1) fast work and efficiency is often prized and (2) creative work is viewed as the result of individual genius. There may be grains of truth in each of these regarding academic research but they can also work against the need to persevere. For example, passing along the above information to undergraduate students can be difficult because their academic modes have prized these two qualities: be individually smart and meet relatively short deadlines. And how much is this perpetuated by college projects that may last 10 weeks at most?

All of this academic patience and stamina takes time to develop and likely exists in various degrees and expressions among academics. But, I imagine it would be hard to get far without at least some of it.