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?

One downside of alternative lawns: they can be stolen

Amid droughts and other nudges away from the immaculate grassy lawn, the alternatives may be easier to steal:

Recently, the Hometown dental office in Hesperia had its artificial grass stolen after someone came in the middle of the day and measured it before sending a crew of people to lift it over the weekend.

Kara Sweeney, the office director and wife of the dentist, James A. Sweeney, DDS, told me that the timing of the theft came as a particular punch to the gut, because it happened at the same time that the couple were pouring their savings into renovations to improve their family business.

“Our office manager saw it and assumed that I asked him to come out [and measure the grass] as part of the renovations we were doing. Then that weekend a neighbor across the street saw three men pulling the grass up. Apparently a police officer stopped them with a pedestrian check and one of them took off into the desert. The police officer shooed them away, I guess, but they returned that evening to finish stealing the grass! I guess they already had their measurements and knew it would be the piece for their project. We reported it to the police and I am hoping the pedestrian check helps them find who did it,” Sweeney explained…

When I asked Sweeney what she plans on doing to pretty up the barren eyesore that now sits in front of her office, she said that part is still unclear. “We’re going back and forth on whether to file an insurance claim or not on the grass. We’re not even sure if it’s covered, to be honest with you. We got a quote for fixing our landscaping, not even replacing the grass because it’s so expensive, and it’s over $10,000. So that part is the part that makes me frustrated the most, of course,” she fretted.

I have seen the occasional story of thievery and lawns but it is hard to know how common this is. Even if lawns are sacred to many Americans, who might have the resources or interest in collecting data on this? (Lawn seed companies? Anti-crime groups?) It would take some work to develop this into a pressing social problem though it would be interesting to know whether such crimes are geographically clustered.

The traditional lawn is not very portable as it would require either a lot of labor or specialized machinery to dig up large pieces of sod. Alternatives, on the other hand, often are more portable. Sod can be picked up. To some degree, plants and greenery can be moved. The sorts of accoutrements that help homeowners distinguish their green piece of paradise from someone else’s might be easier to move.

Convicted mobster and his supposed “Sopranos-style McMansion”

As part of his sentencing, a New York mobster has to sell his large home. One media source claims it is a “Sopranos-style McMansion”:

During his sentencing on Aug. 15 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, Giallanzo was ordered to serve 14 years behind bars, pay $268,000 in restitution to his victims, forfeit $1.25 million in assets and sell his mansion in Howard Beach.

Federal prosecutors said that Giallanzo used proceeds from his racketeering ring to transform his home from a humble ranch into a two-story palazzo that could have rivaled Tony Soprano’s digs on “The Sopranos.” The mob captain reported spent more than $1 million to reconstruct and furnish the home, which features five bedrooms, five bathrooms, radiant heated floors, luxury appliances, three kitchens and a salt water pool with a waterfall.

https://qns.com/story/2018/08/16/howard-beach-mobster-must-spend-14-years-federal-pen-sell-sopranos-style-mcmansion/

This is certainly now a large home and has an interesting exterior. While it would meet the definition of a McMansion (in at least two ways), it is quite different from the McMansion of the Soprano family.

Let’s start with the McMansion definition. The picture of the home as it stood at least a few years ago (according to Google Street View) is helpful. It was once a ranch home on a corner lot. Not very big, in a residential neighborhood, and in a tight corner lot that offered little opportunity for a backyard. The new home is a teardown. The house is now two stories. On a small lot, the home even pushes closer to the edges. This is a teardown McMansion.

Additionally, the home has a mix of architectural features. It has a consistent brick facade (at least on the two sides facing the street). It has a round turret on the corner; given the placement of the windows, this could be a staircase. The front entrance includes a entry with a roof and columns and numerous windows of different shapes. The roof has multiple gables on the front. On the whole, the design of the home is too busy. Definitely a McMansion with its mishmash of architectural styles.

The comparison to the Soprano home on The Sopranos would seem to make sense: the owner of the home above was in the mob, he lives in a large house, and he was able to live there because of his ill-gotten gains. But, the home above is very different from the Soprano home. Here are just a few differences: a corner lot in a more urban neighborhood versus a big suburban lot with the home set back from the street and at the top of a longish driveway; whatever style the teardown is built in versus the French styling of the Sopranos home; and current interior features (three kitchens! radiant floors!) versus the 1990s McMansions of the Sopranos home (mostly about size, lots of room, and certain decor).

While these homes might both fit the general category of McMansion, they are quite different. Arguably, the Sopranos home is more tasteful or at least stands out less from its surroundings (because most of the nearby homes are similar).

(See an earlier post about the McMansion features of the main residence on The Sopranos.)

West Chicago in the news for the wrong reasons

Few of the scores of Chicago area suburbs receive national attention. Even more rarely is the spotlight turned on West Chicago, a more working-class, diverse, and railroad-based suburb roughly 30 miles west of the city. The local suburban headlines tell the story:

WestChicagoHeadlineAug1718DailyHerald

And even the DrudgeReport took note (middle column, sixth headline down):

WestChicagoHeadlineAug1718

This is not what any suburb wants. Tales of suburban violence go against everything suburbs supposedly stand for: good places to own a home and raise a family. Such a horrific headline might be easier to accept if it came from the big city but not a suburb.

Additionally, West Chicago has other issues in its past to overcome. Its distance from the city and an interest in attracting firms prompted city leaders in the late 1800s to change the name of the community from Turner to West Chicago. (This gets at the DrudgeReport headline above: West Chicago may be in Chicagoland but it would be a huge stretch to link the suburban violence with criticism of the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts regarding violence.) A long-time industrial firm ended up creating a Superfund site spread throughout the suburb and hundreds of properties needed remediation from radioactive elements in the late twentieth century (see my published piece “Not All Suburbs Are the Same.”) Tension between white residents and Mexican immigrants occasionally flared with discussions of English-only ordinances and changes to bilingual education options in the local schools.

Put this all together with a negative reputation in DuPage County and the surrounding area as a community that is poorer and less attractive that others and it may be hard to find good news in the media about West Chicago. This has not stopped numerous civic leaders and residents from doing good things in the community. Yet, it can be hard for a suburb to develop a positive wider reputation.

Updated report on spreading gang activity in the Chicago suburbs

The Chicago Crime Commission recently published a report that includes information on how gang activity is changing in the Chicago suburbs:

A breakdown of traditional hierarchies, the growth of social media and the ongoing opiate crisis has led to gangs further spreading their influence — and violence — into the suburbs, according to the commission.

“No suburb is immune from gang crime,” Andrew Henning, the crime commission’s vice president and general counsel, told us. “Violence has no borders. Drugs have no borders. Jurisdictional boundaries mean nothing to a gang when there’s profit involved.”…

Of the 122 suburban police departments responding to the commission’s survey, 80 (about 65 percent) had a gang presence in their town. And there appears to be growing activity in affluent suburbs where gangs hadn’t traditionally been seen, according to the commission.

Gang activity, once considered an “urban problem,” has spread throughout numerous metropolitan regions.

This reminds me of a neighborhood meeting I witnessed years ago. One resident said he was concerned with some graffiti nearby. He then explained his response: he would keep moving further and further out from the city until these problems disappeared. Our neighborhood then had minimal issues and a move further out may not have solved his problems.

Does having a small or tiny house make it easier to have your home stolen?

A couple reported that their Madisonville, Texas vacation home had disappeared:

Jo and Lonnie Harrison told Eyewitness News someone stole their entire home off their property in Madisonville, Texas. They bought the 10-acre property with a prefab home on site last year.

It’s a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home with a green roof and wood siding…

“Nothing. Nothing that I wanted to see. I didn’t see the house,” said Harrison. “All I saw were blocks and pipes sticking out. The whole house gone. Everything except the blocks.”…

“I said, ‘You know this is really going to sound strange, but I need to report a stolen house.’ They were like, ‘A house?’ I said yes. We have 10 acres and had a little cabin and the cabin is gone,” said Jo Harrison. “Give us a call. Call the Madisonville Sheriff’s Department and let them know what you see. We really would like to have our house back.”

One of the features of these smaller homes is that they can be easily moved. Load it onto a truck or tow it away (since some of the homes have wheels) and you can move your home from here to there. Depending on your family and friends as well as your tastes, you could keep a vacation home moving every once in a while and still feel like you have a home to return to.

But, those same features may just make it easier for someone else to take that home. What is the equivalent of a strong bike lock for a small house or tiny house? Embed a GPS tracker somewhere hidden? Mount a security camera high up in a tree nearby? The flip-side of the mobility – and I have not seen any figures on how often the typical tiny house owner would actually move – could be less security.

And one other thought about security: larger homes tend to provide spaces where an occupant can hide if someone is outside or trying to break in. Smaller homes may not offer the same possibilities for staying out of view or escaping out of an alternative exit. So, when will we see the tiny house with a panic room or with significant features for the security conscious?

Side note: this is not typically a problem with larger homes – though if the home was secluded enough and the owners away for long enough, something could happen there too. Perhaps the larger size would attract too much attention from someone nearby or on local roads.

A new suburban Walmart comes with tax revenue, crime, and economic development

How exactly does a new Walmart change a suburb? Here are at least a few factors to consider:

From its opening day to June 30, 2017, officers responded to 445 calls for service at Walmart, 166 of which resulted in arrests, according to records obtained by the Daily Herald. That means police were called to the store an average 1.2 times per day in its first year…

Walmart announced in 2012 its plans to close an East Dundee store and build the Carpentersville supercenter less than three miles away, prompting a lengthy legal battle between the company and the two villages. Walmart is expected to receive $4.3 million in tax increment financing funds ­– property taxes above a certain point in the area that would have gone to local governments — for the new store…

Though he declined to disclose specific sales numbers, Rooney said the new Carpentersville store has generated more sales tax revenue than East Dundee reported losing…

Already, the supercenter has significantly increased traffic and economic interest on the village’s east side, he said. Plans are moving forward for constructing a new five-tenant building and an O’Reilly Auto Parts on the store’s outlots.

To be honest, many suburbs cannot afford not to welcome Walmart into their communities. It is rare to find a user for a decent sized portion of land along a major road that will bring in so much tax revenue and provide jobs. The increase in crime can be chalked up as simply part of doing major retail business (I assume there may be bumps with other major retailers or shopping malls) and may not be a huge issue if it is largely isolated to the Walmart site.

In the long run, there are additional factors to consider including the local business climate with the behemoth Walmart in town (more competition for certain businesses), the opportunity cost of what else might have operated on that site, and the image of having a Walmart and related businesses. There is a reason more exclusive communities turn down big box stores and large strip mall areas. Furthermore, the fate of East Dundee could soon befell Carpentersville; if Walmart eventually wants a better deal or a bigger store, they can simply move and bring their benefits (and problems) to a different suburb.

As I suggested above, given these short-term and long-term outlooks, most American suburbs would choose to welcome Walmart. From whence the Walmart came does not matter while the tax receipts can be blinding to many.