Comparing “five myths about the suburbs” in 2011 and 2020

The Washington Post has a new “five myths about the suburbs” that differs from its 2011 piece by the same name (though a different author). From my 2011 post, here is the older list:

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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…

From the 2020 list:

Suburbs are less dense than cities…

All suburbanites own detached houses…

Suburban workers typically commute to downtown jobs…

Today’s suburbs are racially integrated…

E-commerce killed suburban malls.

There is a lot of overlap between these lists including commentary on class status, who suburban residents are, and what suburban communities are like. There are also differences in the lists: the 2011 list discusses the cool factor and the environmental impact of suburbs while the 2020 list highlights retail.

Even with the overlap, it is notable that myths about suburbia are still viable decades after suburban changes have been in motion. This hints that the image of suburbia is persistent and powerful: the single-family suburban home where a nuclear family pursues the American Dream can still be found in both reality and in cultural productions. But, there is also a another/newer side of suburbia that features new kinds of residents, alternative forms of housing, tougher lives and disillusionment in the supposed land of plenty, and changing everyday life. This sounds like complex suburbia: the suburbs are more varied than the typical image.

Furthermore, there are a number of actors interested in researching and discussing the suburbs of today. From books like Confronting Suburban Poverty to Radical Suburbs to videos, there is still plenty to analyze and learn about in a geographic domain that many think is relatively easy to understand. The suburbs may not appear as exciting as other dynamic locations but with a majority of Americans living in suburban settings, what happens in the suburbs has the potential to shape many lives.

The rise of a sermon phrase – “a city on a hill” – to explain American exceptionalism

An English professor describes how a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 came to describe the United States:

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In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century…

Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires…

The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation…

My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.

Another example of how civil religion develops: several centuries after a sermon is given, it is picked up and interpreted by political leaders and others who want to tie several strands of social life together. Implied above is that another politician in another time period – say Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s – may not have been able to prompt the spread of this connection in American life. Ronald Reagan, who tried to be optimistic about American life, helps give the quote, which had some public airing because of John F. Kennedy, new life in a particular context.

The 17th century context of the meaning of a “city on a hill” is fascinating given what the phrase came to represent. If Winthrop meant to use the phrase in contrast to Catholic interpretations, the fact that the phrase came to represent a powerful America is a twist. The Protestant interpretation discussed above applied to a small context. When Americans use the phrase today, they tend to mean a powerful city on the hill, casting light on the countryside below or holding a fortified position or occupying the high ground. The American bastion of freedom and Christendom has replaced the prior holders of this title.

This phrase also gives more credence to cities than Americans have over the course of their history. Even with some important cities on a global stage, Americans are generally anti-urban and instead embrace suburban life. Updating the phrase, perhaps Americans would rather say “the suburban megachurch on the hill” or the “quiet yet stately suburb on the hill.”

Two possible dytopias I could envision

Recently in a class, we had a brief discussion about which dystopia we thought was most likely in the future. I made the case for one particular version when thinking of some of the classic 20th century dystopian texts and later thought about another I could see happening:

1. Out of the options provided by books like Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World, 1984, and Lord of the Flies, given current conditions I would go with A Brave New World. With the sense of loneliness, alienation, and inequality that many in the world feel plus the use of antidepressants, opioids, and drugs, the option of taking drugs to blissfully go about day by day seems the most realistic.

2. As I thought about it a little more, I could imagine a different scenario that is in some different cultural texts but that often comes about because of some natural disaster or major conflict: the fragmentation of nation-states into much smaller collectives that simply cannot on their own do what is needed to the standard of life that most developed nations are used to. Imagine the United States splinters into something like twelve different countries; keeping all of the infrastructure, technology, trade, and complexity together would be very difficult.

These different visions of dystopia are among a range of options. If the collapse of modern civilization does happen would it be because of a truly black swan occurrence or the steady accumulation of small but thorny issues? I suspect which dystopias we see are more likely depends on current conditions and trends.

Wanting to preserve the past, music masters edition

A long piece details the calamitous fire that hit an important vault of music at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 1, 2008:

Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault…

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost…

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG’s internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 “Vault Loss Meeting,” the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”…

Today several of the company’s nearly 1,500 facilities are devoted to entertainment assets. Warner Music Group stores hundreds of thousands of master recordings in Iron Mountain’s Southern California facilities, and nearly all of Sony Music Entertainment’s United States masters holdings — more than a million recordings — are reportedly kept in Iron Mountain warehouses in Rosendale, N.Y. The Boyers, Pa., facility where UMG keeps most of its United States masters is a 1.7-million-square-foot former limestone mine. The facility offers optimal archive conditions, climate control and armed guards.

The boom in cultural products in the last 100 years or so with the rise of mass media and new technologies presents unique challenges for corporations, the public, and preservationists. How should all of this material be preserved? The amount of space needed for storage could be huge – even for digital files (see the Library of Congress efforts to collect tweets). Keeping all of that material safe from fire, temperature changes, water damage, and other forces is costly and requires constant vigilance. Technology changes and renders prior productions difficult to utilize. There may need to be an obvious payoff for whoever is storing this material in order to go through all the effort.

One solution to all of this is to get mediocre copies of things. The example at the end suggests music listeners can access so much through streaming services. One expert profiled in the story describes it this way: “The music sounds like it was mastered in a Coke can,” he says. “But on long drives, it’s the best.”” I suppose it could be argued that having access to music and films and other items is worth it, even if the quality is not that great.

But a bigger question is this: just how much material is worth saving? What will people in the future want to look back on? Will future people see big benefits from the most preserved material ever compiled by previous generations? How will future preservationists, historians, and others construct cultural narratives about life today based on so much material (both tremendously popular and not)?

Surprise! The best suburbs in America are wealthy, educated, and in regions with reasonable costs of living

The Niche 2019 Best Places to Live falls into some of the same patterns of similar lists of highlighting already well-off communities with a high quality of life. Part of the reason is the methodology:

Niche2019BestPlacestoLive

If this is what Niche and Money and other want to look for in terms of data and how it is weighted, they are going to consistently churn out lists of similar kinds of communities. The “best” suburbs and small towns in certain regions, those with higher housing prices, will find it hard to make the list. A certain amount of diversity is acceptable but not too much and it is related to social class. In other words, these are lists that might be intended for middle to upper-class suburbanites who are looking for safe, quiet, and enriching places to live.

So, perhaps instead of calling these the “Best Places to Live,” how about: “Aspirational Places for Middle- to Upper-Class Families?” Or, how about more lists that address hidden gems, communities that wouldn’t make a list like this due to one factor or another but are still great places? Or, how about ones that weight certain factors a lot higher, like “The Best Diverse Suburbs” or “The Best Suburbs for Housing Opportunities.”

Ultimately, these lists tend to reinforce cultural narratives about the places in which Americans most want to live and where the American Dream can be found. No doubt these magazines and sites need to sell copy – there are Americans who want to move to these top suburbs. But, there are also hundreds of other great places to live in the United States that do not always fit the longstanding suburban mold of mostly white, wealthy, educated, and quiet.

The changing concept of TV ratings

Recent report from Netflix about the number of viewers for certain movies and TV shows raises questions about what ratings actually are in today’s world:

These numbers were presumably the flashiest numbers that Netflix had to offer, but, hot damn, they are flashy—even if they should be treated with much skepticism. For one thing, of Netflix’s 139 million global subscribers, only about 59 million are American, something to bear in mind when comparing Netflix’s figures with the strictly domestic ratings of most linear channels. Another sticking point: What constitutes “watching”? According to Netflix, the numbers reflect households where someone watched at least 70 percent of one episode—given the Netflix model, it seems likely that most people started with Episode 1—but this doesn’t tell us how many people stuck with it, or what the average rating for the season was, which is, again, an important metric for linear channels…

Ratings are not just a reflection of how many people are watching a TV show. They are not just a piece of data about something that has already happened. They are also a piece of information that changes what happens, by defining whether we think of something as a hit, which has a knock-on effect on how much attention gets paid to that show, not just by other prospective viewers, but by the media. (Think how much more has been written on You now that we know 40 million people may have watched it.)

Consider, for example, how something like last year’s reboot of Roseanne might have played out if it had been a Netflix series. It would have been covered like crazy before its premiere and then, in the absence of any information about its ratings at all, would have become, like, what? The Ranch? So much of the early frenzy surrounding Roseanne had to do with its enormous-for-our-era ratings, and what those ratings meant. By the same token, years ago I heard—and this is pure rumor and scuttlebutt I am sharing because it’s a fun thought exercise—that at that time Narcos was Netflix’s most popular series. Where is Narcos in the cultural conversation? How would that position have changed if it was widely known that, say, 15 million people watch its every season?

Multiple factors are at play here including the decline of network television, the rise of cable television and streaming services, the general secrecy Netflix has about its ratings, and how today we define cultural hits. The last one seems the most interesting to me as a cultural sociologist: in a fragmented media world, how do we know what is a genuine cultural moment or touchstone compared to being a small fad or a trend isolated to a small group? Ratings were once a way to do this as we could assume big numbers meant it mattered to a lot of people.

Additionally, we today want quicker news about new trends and patterns. A rating can only tell us so much. It depends how it was measured. How does the rating compare to other ratings? Perhaps most importantly, the rating cannot tell us a lot about the lasting cultural contributions of the show or movie. Some products with big ratings will not stand the test of time while others will. Do we think people will be discussing You and talking about its impact on society in 30 years? We need time to discuss, analyze, and process what each cultural product is about. Cultural narratives involving cultural products need time to develop.

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?

Creative writing at the suburban shopping mall

The Mall of America is offering a unique opportunity:

The Mall of America is taking applications for a summer writing residency, which makes now a good time to question whether our collective taste for absurd mash-ups has gone too far. Is this an attempt to out-quirk the Amtrak residency, where writers typed on trains? What’s next — a sculptors’ retreat in a Chevron station? A poetry workshop at Ikea?

Maybe, but think about it: The people-watching alone would make easy fodder. Look — there goes a man in a plaid shirt, walking past Foot Locker into Sephora. He emerges with a small bag. The story practically writes itself.

Submit your residency application by Friday, and you could be selected to commemorate the shopping destination’s 25th birthday by spending five days writing while “deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere.” (Nights are spent in a hotel, not sleeping on a department store mattress as I’d hoped.)

I agree: the shopping mall could be part of all sorts of interesting stories. But, I do wonder how many of them would be positive in the hands of today’s writers. Too often, stories of suburban life follow a similar script: happy looking family or couple ends up spiraling downward as the facade falls away from their American Dream. Such scripts could involve the postwar suburban tract home, current McMansions, or the shopping mall, perhaps the symbol of suburban affluence, consumerism, and emptiness. What is the shopping mall but the poor facsimile of authentic Main Streets?

Maybe this would be an even more challenging task: do such a residency and craft a range of stories representing the experiecnes of all those mall visitors and employees.

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Will Beatles songs eventually become as well known as nursery rhymes?

Scientist and musician Daniel Levitin wrote about the ubiquity of Beatles songs a while back:

One hundred years from now Beatles songs may be so well known that every child will learn them as nursery rhymes, and most people will have forgotten who wrote them. They will have become sufficiently entrenched in popular culture that it will seem as if they’ve always existed, like Oh Susannah, This Land Is Your Land, and Frère Jacques.

Why can we listen to certain songs across a lifetime and still find pleasure in them? Great songs activate deep-rooted neural networks in our brains that encode the rules and syntax of our culture’s music. Through a lifetime of listening, we have learned what is essentially a complex calculation of statistical probabilities of what chord is likely to follow what, and how melodies are formed. Skilful composers play with these expectations, meeting and violating them in interesting ways. In my laboratory we’ve found that listening to a familiar song that you like activates the same parts of the brain as sex or opiates do. But there is no one song that does this for everyone; musical taste is both variable and subjective…

On the bus to my office, the radio played And I Love Her and a Portuguese immigrant my grandmother’s age sang along. How many people can hum even two bars of Beethoven’s Fourth, or Mozart’s 30th? I recently played one minute of these to an audience of 700 people – professional musicians included – but not one recognised these pieces. Then I played a half-second of two Beatles songs – a fraction of the first “aah” of Eleanor Rigby and the guitar chord that opens A Hard Day’s Night – and virtually everyone shouted out the song names, more than could recognise the Mona Lisa.

To a neuroscientist, the Beatles’ longevity can be explained by the fact that their music creates subtle and rewarding schematic violations of popular musical forms, causing a symphony of neural firings from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex. To a musician, each listening showcases subtle nuances not heard before, details of arrangement and intricacy that slowly reveal themselves across hundreds or thousands of listenings. I have to admit, they’re getting better all the time.

While the neuroscience piece is interesting in its own right, a sociologist might be more interested in thinking about what songs make it to this level of common knowledge or become part of cultural narratives across societies. How many times does a song have to be played? Does it matter in what venues the song is performed? I could imagine a mega radio hit vs. a lesser known song that gets licensed dozens of times in the coming decades in commercials. Does the relative importance of the musical artist matter? Some of this has to do with diffusion and the various gatekeepers at play. The Beatles likely have all these factors (except the commercials) in their favor as they were a cultural phenomenon, produced numerous #1 singles around the world, changed the music industry (from recording to stopping touring), and were generally liked by critics.

Just thinking back, I feel like I only tend to hear this argument about what songs will last into the future when people are worried about their idea of bad music (maybe boy bands of the late 1990s, Brittany Spears, Lady Gaga, etc.) becoming the equivalent nursery rhymes.