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.

Common narrative: bucolic suburbs surprised by deviance

A recent revelation in the Baltimore suburbs is a common story across media platforms: idyllic suburban communities are shocked by hidden deviance and crime that is suddenly exposed.

The hills in Clarks Glen are gently rolling, the homes McMansions. And the lawns are mowed to the near-perfection a country club groundskeeper might envy.

It’s the very model of affluent suburbia, hardly a place where anyone thinks the man next door would be stopped by customs agents on his way to China with the makings of missile detectors in his bags.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Zhenchun “Ted” Huang, a longtime resident of the Clarksville subdivision in Howard County, pleaded guilty this month to federal charges that he tried tofraudulently obtain electronic devices that can be used in fabricating missile detectors and other high-grade military equipment…

In Clarks Glen, the development where he lived for at least eight years, former neighbors were astonished to hear the news. They saw Huang, an electrical engineer, as anything but the cloak-and-dagger type.

Instead, they said, he was a taciturn man who mowed his lawn once a week, whether it was needed or not, and rarely socialized.

On one hand, people in the suburbs are genuinely shocked by such stories. They often move to nice suburbs to escape such issues like crime and international espionage. Nobody wants to think that a sex offender is lurking down the street where they let their kids play. These sorts of things are problems more often associated with cities or less affluent locales.

On the other hand, reactions like this sound like a TV show. Oh wait, is this an episode of The Americans or a Hollywood movie or a John Keats novel about the hidden problems of suburbia? One shouldn’t be completely naive about what can be lurking in any community, let alone suburbs. I’m not advocating for paranoia or hypervigilance – this isn’t the best way to promote social ties or community life – but people everywhere are capable of dastardly deeds. The reactions of neighbors like those quoted above might say more about how well suburban neighbors know each other (often not very well) than the overall actions of suburbanites.

Perhaps the issue here is the overselling of suburban life over the decades. If suburbs were and are often marketed as escapes from social problems (there is a long history of suburban developers suggesting such things as well as suburban residents and leaders), places that are perfect for children and offer private space, the American Dream, then any actions in contrast to that are viewed quite negatively.