Considering the Wall Street Journal’s “mansion porn”

The Wall Street Journal sends a special supplement each week to readers looking at the houses of the wealthy:

Mansion, The Wall Street Journal’s real-estate supplement, arrives each Friday slipped into the middle of my newsprint edition, the way pornography (so I’m told!) used to come in unmarked envelopes back before the internet placed it at everyone’s fingertips. I’m satisfied with my weekly print version, but you may prefer reading Mansion on the web, where the photographs are more numerous, detailed, lurid, and explicit…

The comparison to porn is apt. It’s also unoriginal and incomplete. A little more than a decade ago, when the century was young and right before their real-estate holdings drove millions of people into bankruptcy, New York magazine ran a regular feature about how fabulous it was to own real estate. And not just to own it, but to fantasize about it, drool over it, caress the photos and the sales price as though they were objects of sensual desire. The feature was called “Real Estate Porn,” in keeping with the salacious content.

Mansion invokes the same feelings of naughtiness: You’re watching people do something that, in a fairer and more just world, you’d be doing yourself. I think of Vivian Dixon and John Chapple, a married couple that Mansion introduced us to not long ago, as the exemplars of the Mansion character. They are voluptuaries of real estate. They grab houses the way the rest of us scoop mints from the little bowl as we leave a restaurant. At the time of the article’s publication, in May, they owned six residences, though by the time the piece ends you suspect their trigger finger is getting itchy again…

This willingness to take the wealthy on their own terms is a rarity in American business journalism. Reporters are usually more leery in their treatment of such subjects, when not nakedly hostile. Few people in the world despise the winners of the capitalist lotto more than the sorry drudges who are called to write about them. You’ll find a higher percentage of committed socialists in the newsroom of the Financial Times than at a lakefront party at Bernie Sanders’s dacha.

I have not seen this section but I wonder if tackles several darker essentials of American culture from the beginning:

  1. The presence of really wealthy people in the midst of an egalitarian/middle-class public discourse.
  2. The importance of real estate in American life. Sure, citizens can vote and a few people can move from the bottom to the top in unique ways but the real answer to getting ahead is real estate (from moving the frontier for 150+ years to gobbling up expensive properties in  global cities).
  3. The work that goes into homeownership in both maintaining and improving properties.
  4. The interest in seeing what the rich are up to and uncertainty about whether to critique their excess or celebrate their success.

It would be interesting to know how many Americans exist at this elite level of real estate. This is not the typical homeowner hoping to make money on their single-family home or the small market house flipper or the “dream hoarders” in the top quintile of earners; these are people buying and selling with large amounts of capital (perhaps some even thinking like the current president).

Bringing the cool parts of suburban life to urban settings

Can the suburban life be imported to residential units in the heart of the biggest American cities?

Your own slice of suburbia within city limits is a concept that developers and retailers across the country have been pitching a lot recently, subtly or not. The pendulum swings of socio-economic and demographic changes over the past two decades in some thriving cities are partly behind this shift…

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable…

One of the Dahlia’s biggest selling points? It has its own parking garage. “You can pull in with your S.U.V., unload and take your things in a private manner,” said Shlomi Reuveni, the president of the company that is handling sales for the building. “That’s very appealing.” And very suburban.

In some high-end buildings, architects are giving apartments the feel of single-family homes by replicating the layouts of suburban houses. At the Quay Tower, which overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park, there are just five condos on each floor, two of which have private elevator access. Inside, the larger units have something you see a lot of on HGTV suburban house renovation shows: large mudrooms off the back door with locker-like cubbies and sturdy ceramic-tile floors.

As the article goes on to note, more suburban features like mall food courts and white people are headed to cities.

On one head, the melding of lifestyles is not too surprising. In the suburbs, a “surban” lifestyle helps developers and residents differentiate their product and life from the typical suburban lifestyle. Both producers and consumers can seek out new niches.

On the other hand, that the suburban lifestyle may be a selling point is kind of funny because of all the flak the suburban life takes. I thought the suburbs were about exclusion, homogeneity, wastefulness, and individualism? It is not just that some of these features of suburban life have urban analogues. After all, they are both situated within American culture. The idea that certain suburban features, such as garages or mudrooms, will be replicated in cities flies against the claims about tacky suburban life. Suburban consumer goods and lifestyle markers are now cool?

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?