Murdered cats and discussing suburban troubles in the US and Britain

The Croydon Cat Killer leads to reflection on how Americans and Brits view troubles in their suburbs:

When I told a friend I was writing about the Croydon cat killer, as he (or a copycat) appears to be holidaying in Washington State, her lips collapsed into a little moue, and then she looked away. “What?” I pressed, and she paused before replying, earnestly, “But what if he comes for you?” It was a risk I’d considered, having just celebrated our kitten’s first birthday, but one I am willing to take, because this story — some believe the same man has killed more than 500 cats over the last four years — is compelling and terrifying. And it encourages obsession: It pricks at ancient anxieties.

In midcentury America, the suburbs were seen by some as a dangerous social experiment — this style of living brought sickness. Suburban men fell ill from the stress of commuting; suburban women, trapped at home, had it even worse. In a best-selling 1961 study the authors renamed these regions “Disturbia.”

The place of suburbs in our collective psyche has been on my mind recently, as last year, with great internal drama, I moved out of the city, got a cat for my daughter — pets, of course, traditionally being tools for children to practice grief upon — and settled all the way down. In Britain the idea of suburbia has none of the David Lynchian perversion or drama of the United States. But it’s still thought of as an in-between place, a punch line, where small neat gardens reflect the dimensions of their owners’ minds. Suffocating, but safe. Until a predator shatters the illusion…

A year ago, after our baby was born, my partner and I moved to the area where I grew up, to a quiet street at the end of the Northern Line where the capital opens out into golf courses and garden centers, and I immediately began boring him with much existential whining about the shame of having returned to the safety of a life I’d thought left behind. Then, a month after we moved, our house was broken into. The bed was stained with muddy footprints — the burglar had turned over our furniture and opened my face cream, seemingly confused by the lack of jewelry. That night, tidying up, my partner said quietly, “I wonder what he thought of us.” The city had broadcast its dangers, using sirens and loud lights, but we learned quickly the suburbs hide theirs; here, on school fences, cartoon drawings warn of the threat of accidents and strangers’ cars in cute, childish scribbles. Now we always keep a light on.

This is not an uncommon story: person or family moves to the suburbs expecting an ideal life centered around a home and family life. Something occurs, often a crime or unpleasant experience with some other suburbanites, that then shatters the happy suburban illusion. The suburbanite then often lives on edge. This is also the plot of innumerable movies, books, and other cultural products.

On one hand, this is very understandable. The suburbs, particularly in the United States, are often sold as an idyllic place. Neighborhoods should be safe, kids can grow up without worry and also get ahead, and families should have plenty of good times together. These things do not always happen for a variety of reasons including an emphasis on privacy (which limits both exposure to and discussions of things that may otherwise be typical events), occasional crime, and personal choices.

On the other hand, most suburban places are relatively safe. A single encounter with crime could be very traumatic. Yet, on the whole, wealthier suburban communities do have less crime. Plus, crime on the whole is down compared to several decades ago. Perhaps we just know more about the crimes that do occur – a curse of too much information – and it is hard to keep the big picture in mind.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is the setup of the suburbs as a perfect place. This is a powerful cultural narrative. Yet, no communities are perfect. Simply making it to a nice home in a nice suburb is not a guarantee of a happy life. While there has been talk of developing resiliency in cities, do we also need resilient suburbanites who are able to weather some tough situations?

Fighting for presidential votes in the French suburbs illustrates a different kind of suburbia

American suburbs are often considered home to a lot of white and wealthy residents who have fled the city. This is not how suburbs work in some European settings: two stories about politicians fighting for presidential votes in France illustrate these differences.

It was here that Marine Le Pen managed to secure the greatest percentage vote for any village in the country; of its 60 residents, nearly three quarters put the far-Right candidate above all others…

“What has worked has been to turn this campaign towards rurality, and the far suburbs, poor France,” said Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, one of Miss Le Pen’s campaign spokesmen. “Her people versus the elites seems to have taken root.”…

According to sociologist Christophe Guilluy, these rural areas, along with many middle-sized towns hit by de-industrialisation and layoffs represent, 40 per cent of the electorate.

Here is another report:

But “rural” areas today does not mean villages full of farmers. It means small provincial towns, and the new housing-estate commuter belts being built on the distant outskirts of the cities.

“The rural underclass is no longer agricultural. It is people who have fled the big cities and the inner suburbs because they can no longer afford to live there,” says Mr Crepon.

“Many of these people will have had recent experience of living in the banlieues (high immigration suburbs) – and have had contact with the problems of insecurity.”

In this semi-urbanised countryside, people feel the hopelessness of a life in poverty uncompensated-for by the traditions and structures that would have made it bearable in the past.

In these stories, the wealthy live in cities and inner-ring suburbs while the poor live in more far-flung suburbs (what Americans might call “exurbs”) and more rural areas.

If Americans read about this run-off in France, I wonder how many will notice this difference in suburban life in France compared to the United States. Actually, I wonder if many Americans simply think that Americans suburbs are a common feature of metropolitan areas around the world rather than a more unusual case.

Finding Bin Laden in the suburbs

There has been a lot of commentary about where Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. On one hand, there has been a lot of interest in his house, including people dubbing the compound a “McMansion.” (However, reports yesterday and today have suggested that the house was less unusual or prominent as was first suggested.) On the other hand, he was found in an unusual military town. Here is one take that suggests that Bin Laden was found in the unlikeliest of places: a suburb.

We now all know that, of course, bin Laden was not in a cave. He was hiding in plain sight in a million-dollar mansion in a posh suburb of Islamabad.

Not only that, the suburb was a military complex described as Pakistan’s West Point. And the mansion apparently was built expressly for him – as though he were some chief executive officer cashing in on his bonus options, so he wasn’t being especially discreet.

He apparently had been living there undisturbed for six years, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He was a suburbanite enjoying the pleasures of a life of leisure – behind 12-foot walls.

This was so far beyond our expectation of how the world’s most wanted terrorist would be living that no one, apparently, bothered to look for him outside the mountains. Terrorists just don’t live in the suburbs.

I’m not so sure this community was a suburb. It was at least an hour outside of Islamabad. It was also a military community, not necessary a resort community. However, there have been reports that a number of wealthier military officials live in this community. And Bin Laden was living a life of leisure when he was possibly in the same room for five years? Bin Laden is comparable to a CEO “cashing in on his bonus options”? In terms of thinking that this community is like a typical American suburb outside of Los Angeles or Chicago and Bin Laden was the typical suburban head of household, this is not quite the case.

The story goes on to cite the sociological idea of “lifestyle enclaves”:

Back in 1985, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his cohort, in their seminal book “Habits of the Mind,” coined the term “lifestyle enclaves” to describe the way Americans had begun to cluster on the basis of “shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities, which often serve to differentiate them sharply from those with other lifestyles.”

These enclaves were self-selected – you gravitated toward others like you. In the sociologists’ view, they were increasingly replacing real community in America with these superficial bonds of similarity.

There are dozens of these enclaves today – from members of the National Rifle Association, to upwardly mobile young married couples, to outdoorsmen, to the very wealthy. Enclaves have become a primary way we define ourselves.

But I doubt that Bellah and the others ever thought of terrorists as a possible enclave back when they were writing the book. Yet the concept of people who choose to live with others who look like them and think like them is now so deeply embedded in our consciousness that the idea of a terrorist enclave apparently did cross the mind of the intelligence community today.

The conclusion of the piece is that Bin Laden was found because he didn’t play by the “lifestyle enclave”/suburban rules. So all of the residents of Abbotabad were terrorists?

All of this seems like a stretch in order to connect to the average American suburban reader. The basic premise could be interesting: the suburbs (or more rural/military town suburbs) are supposed to be the land of safety, not the place where terrorists (or any people who commit violent crimes) actually live next door. But to suggest that Bin Laden was similar to a typical suburbanite and was caught because he didn’t fit in seems kind of silly. Projecting the image of the American suburbs on Abbotabad, Pakistan may not be the best way to understand a complex situation.

Current trends in Finnish suburbs

This blog contains a number of posts about American suburbs but I am also interested in learning more about suburbs in other countries. Here are some insights into the changes taking place in Finland’s suburbs:

Urban geographer Venla Bernelius says that the same process that took place in other parts of Europe is now under way in Finland. A previous low level of immigration, combined with relatively small income disparities has delayed the phenomenon.

“The direction appears clear. Differentiation is increasing all the time.”

Experiences from other parts of Europe and North America suggest that it is very difficult to reverse a process of ethnic differentiation. Bernelius says that the time to act is now.

At present, conditions in Finnish suburbs are nowhere near those of slums or ghettoes in other countries.

However, Matti Kortteinen, professor of urban sociology at the University of Helsinki says that isolation from the population at large makes it more difficult for immigrants to adapt to Finnish society.

“The development harms people’s overall well-being”, Kortteinen says.

One reason for the trend is that immigrants often end up living in areas where there is much municipal housing. Many Finns who are long-term unemployed also live in these areas.

“The issue is not only about ethnic differentiation. The worst-off Finns and the worst-off immigrants live in isolated suburbs”, Bernelius says.

It might be helpful to compare these trends with what is taking place in American suburbs. To start, more minorities and immigrants are moving to the American suburbs (just as it sounds like Finland). More broadly, the American suburbs contain a variety of communities and suburbs, some very wealthy and some quite poor. But, the suggestion here is that immigrants and minorities become isolated in Finnish suburbs while we would tend to think the opposite in the United States. If people have “made it” in the US or have certain income levels, they tend to move to the suburbs. A more general European pattern works in reverse: the poorer segments of the population, immigrants and natives, live in suburbs away from the city and its wealth.

It will be interesting to see how Finland, and other European nations, adjust and respond to this kind of suburban population growth.

Two Italian film directors describe Roman suburbs

Two Italian film directors discussed their new film Et In Terra Pax, which is set in a “Roman council estate” in the Roman suburbs.  Here is how they described these Italian suburbs:

?MB: I was thinking a lot about a story set in the Roman suburbs…

MB: We live in part of Rome both close to the centre and the suburbs, which was useful to observe without being involved. We like Roman suburbs, and we think that in suburbs you can breathe the real Rome. The centre is great but it’s for tourists, rich people or to spend Saturday nights. Real live [sic] is somewhere else…

Can you talk about the idea of the housing complex being like a prison?

DC: A lot of suburbs in Rome are characterized by this kind of view: big grey buildings, a kind of ghetto filled with people. A city can’t grow in this way because the risk is that people can be excluded from the rest of Rome. We consider the building we chose like another character, a metaphor for loneliness. It looks like a prison but it’s full of life and ready to explode (in a good or bad way) at whatever time.

Et In Terra Pax is not an international audience’s image of Italian life. Was it important to show this side of life?

DC: Sure, we think it’s very important to show the dark side our country, not only for international audiences but also for the Italians too.

Compared to the typical American portrayal of suburbs, the land of single-family homes, lawns, and kids running around, this is a different image: large apartment buildings built away from the vibrant city center and illustrating the “dark side” of Italian life.

This discussion hints at how some European suburbs differ from their American counterparts. While most Americans see suburbs as the refuge of the wealthy, some European suburbs are where the low-income apartment buildings are built. The center of the European city is the place to be, not the outskirts of a metropolitan region as in the American case.

I am also intrigued by the idea that the apartment building is treated “like a character.” Elsewhere, they say the building they filmed in was about 1 kilometer in length, housed about 14,000 people, and features “strange, fascinating and disturbing architecture.”

“Five myths about the suburbs”

From a writer whose first book was titled Bomb the Suburbs (first released in 1994), this might seem like an unusual column title: “Five myths about the suburbs.” But William Upski Wimsatt goes on to lay out five common misperceptions regarding American suburbs:

1. Suburbs are white, middle-class enclaves…

2. Suburbs aren’t cool…

3. Suburbs are a product of the free market…

4. Suburbs are politically conservative…

5. Suburbanites don’t care about the environment…

The first three points in particular line up with research about suburbs: they are government-subsidized communities (highways, mortgages, etc.) that have growing minority and poorer populations as well as increasing cultural opportunities. The last two points might be more contentious: the suburbs are not just conservative though they went conservative in the 2010 elections (see Joel Kotkin’s opinion here). I’ve also seen other analyses suggesting that exurbs, far-flung suburbs, are quite conservative so perhaps they are balanced out by more Democratic-leaning inner-ring suburbs. About environmentalism and going green, there are still seem to be plenty of people who think the suburbs are not green enough (see an example here) or perhaps can never truly be good for the environment.

Wimsatt’s conclusion is also interesting:

Everyone with a prejudice against the suburbs will have to get over it. Even me.

He seems to be suggesting that the suburbs aren’t as bad as some people once thought (and there is a long history of suburban critique). Perhaps this is an honest sharing of a revelation, perhaps it is simply prompted by the fact that a majority of Americans live in the suburbs and this is where the action is taking place.

More poor people now in suburbia

American suburbs are often imagined as homes to primarily the middle and upper classes. However, new figures from the US Census suggests the number of poor people living in suburbs continues to grow:

The analyses of census data released Thursday show that since 2000, the number of poor people in the suburbs jumped by 37.4 percent to 13.7 million. That’s faster than the national growth rate of 26.5 percent and more than double the city rate of 16.7 percent…

Cities still have higher poverty rates — about 19.5 percent, compared to 10.4 percent in the suburbs. But the gap has been steadily narrowing. In a reversal from 2000, the number of poor people living in the suburbs now exceeds those in cities by roughly 1.6 million.

Analysts attribute the shift largely to years of middle-class flight and substantial shares of minorities and immigrants leaving cities in the early part of the decade for affordable housing and job opportunities in the suburbs. After the housing bust, their fortunes changed, throwing millions of people out of work.

To recap: in terms of absolute numbers, there are more poor people living in suburbs than in large cities. As a proportion of the population, cities have higher percentages of poor people compared to suburbs. And the number of poor people in suburbs has grown more since 2000 than the number of poor people in cities.

On one hand, these figures should challenge the typical images of suburbia as a wealthy paradise. On the other hand, there have always been some poor and working-class people in suburbs – this is nothing new, suggesting the typical image has always been somewhat wrong.

What will be interesting to watch is how suburban municipalities respond to the growing number of poor people.