“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Four on music

Parts One, Two, and Three of this series have summarized academic work on how poetry, novels, and screens (television and film) have engaged and depicted suburbs. What about popular music? While I have not comprehensively looked for academic sources regarding music in the ways I have for the other cultural mediums, I do not know of as much work in this area. At the same time, this does not mean music has not addressed the suburbs.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Pexels.com

Starting with a broad view, the rise of mass suburbia coincides with the spread of pop and rock music in the twentieth century. Rock music arose amid the development of teenagerdom as a life stage (now in suburbs that privileged children and family life), as music that borrowed from blues music (now heard in largely white suburbs and from many white performers), and broadcast through mass media like radio and television (now in many suburban homes).

Here are some of my own ideas on this connection between suburbs and music:

-Popular music offered another means for protesting and reflecting on the suburbs. This could take many forms. Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song “Little Boxes” criticized the tract homes arising outside many American cities. Ben Folds’ 2001 album Rockin’ the Suburbs profiled sad and angry suburban lives. The 2010 album The Suburbs from Arcade Fire built on the experiences of two band members in a suburb outside Houston. Numerous other songs and albums addressed suburban life.

-All popular music from the 1950s onward was created by some artists who had spent formative years in the suburbs. The postwar Baby Boomers and subsequent generations wrote about what they knew. For example, the Beatles song “Penny Lane” highlights the suburban nature of communities the group knew. Or, see this 2014 post about a band from the Chicago suburbs that was trying to make it big.

-Another aspect of this possible connection is how music is produced and consumed in the suburbs. The reputation of suburbs is that they are not exactly hotspots of culture, notwithstanding the occasional community that serves as an entertainment center. Music is occasionally performed in restaurants, bars, and festivals (with a heavy emphasis around here on rock/pop cover bands at community festivals). The stereotypical garage band of teenagers working out their music would benefit from the surfeit of suburban garages. Compared to the music ecosystem in larger cities including performance spaces of various sizes, the presence of music labels, and the mixing of musical groups and settings, the suburbs may not be the liveliest music scene.

-The connection between poetry about the suburbs and music about the suburbs would be worth exploring further. If singer/songwriters or popular artists are writing for the masses, how do their words and products compare? Furthermore, the role of music in all those television shows and films about suburbs could be worth considering. Is there a stereotypical “suburban soundtrack”?

-Certain genres of music have connections to particular places. Country, as its name implies, is connected to more rural areas and the South. Hip-hop and rap music emerged from urban settings. Is there a genre or type of music closely connected to suburbs? Middle-of-the-road (MOR) pop music?

Tomorrow, I will sum up this series on cultural works and the suburbs.

Continuing suburban life next to a Karen

The suburbs often operate under a code of moral minimalism. But, when open conflict does occur, it involves race, and it goes viral, how do suburban residents move on? A case from Montclair, New Jersey involving a reaction to the construction of a small patio:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“It shouldn’t have started any conversation,” Norrinda replied. The Hayats spent most of the summer hoping the conversation would die out, if she was being honest. In the end, they didn’t write back to the people vowing to curse Schulz on their behalf; they didn’t take that discount at the restaurant. They chose not to cooperate with the prosecutor. “Personally, I think if [Schulz] had been prosecuted and found guilty in any way, even just paid a $500 fine, I think this would have gone away for her a lot faster,” suggested a Montclair resident who had tracked the situation…

Fareed posed a question in one of our talks: “White supremacy that’s alive and well and a part of all of us,” he said, “and the question is, How much of it are we going to reject? And how much are we willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to continue to move forward?” He asked it from an intellectual distance, as if he were delivering closing arguments or posing a question to his class. But at close range, the question simply is, Would my neighbors step up to defend me again? And will they continue to want to have this conversation about race now that the immediate drama is over?…

As for Schulz, Norrinda thought she once saw her in the grocery store. Fareed told their boys they needed to be careful with the balls in the yard. He doesn’t want things to escalate. They finally have peace. Everyone wants it to stay that way.

But sometimes, well, often, when he’s standing in his house, looking out over the fence, he sees Schulz in her yard, or even just the empty yard, and it hits him. Just for an instant. Maybe it was silly or naïve or too optimistic, but there was an expectation that in Montclair he could be aware of the reality of being Black in America without having to confront it or acknowledge it in his daily life. But now, “we do actively acknowledge it,” he said. “It’s just a reminder of that reality.”

The American suburbs are built in part on a legacy of exclusion. Yet, racial incidents in wealthier suburbs might be rare and so surprising when they do occur (see other examples) for multiple reasons:

  1. There are relatively few interactions between wealthier suburbanites and Blacks and Latino neighbors. If wealthier communities have policies, housing, and character that discourage certain people from living in the community, there are fewer opportunities for being neighbors or regular interaction.
  2. As I noted in the introduction to the post, moral minimalism suggests open conflict in suburbs is undesirable. Instead, conflict is mediated through other actors or institutions such as schools.
  3. As the article notes, wealthier communities would often say they open to diversity. But, given #1 and #2 above, this does not mean they are really welcoming of residents different than the majority.

Even without the viral incident/open conflict, this does not mean suburbs are open to all. Technically, yes. In practice, not really.

Co-presenting at the Wheaton Public Library on Race in Illinois: From Southern Counties to Northern Suburbs

With DePaul professor Dr. Caroline Kisiel, I will be presenting via Zoom tomorrow night at the Wheaton Public Library:

Wheaton Public Library on Instagram

Register ahead of time for the Zoom webinar here.

My presentation will largely draw on the 2019 article I co-authored with David Malone titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.

Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Using public art to promote diversity in Naperville

Naperville is more diverse today than in past decades, it has a history of promoting public art in its downtown and along the Riverwalk, and it was home in recent years to multiple incidents of racism. Put this all together and a recently formed group just completed a new art installation:

https://www.napervilleart.org/

In part, this is a response to a downtown mural commissioned in 2014 that featured little diversity.

Three thoughts:

  1. Using public art, an already accepted medium in downtown Naperville, to make a new statement seems like it could be effective. At the same time, having more art that promotes diversity in the community in more prominent locations also matters.
  2. How much room is there in downtown Naperville to do different kinds of art? At this point, there are a number of murals, statues, and sculptures. How varied could future works in these formats be and what new formats might be included? More artistic freedom and new aesthetics – downtown Naperville generally has a red brick, several story building look – could also contribute to a sense of diversity.
  3. The conversation about art gets at larger questions about race and ethnicity in Naperville. Although it is more diverse than in the past, is it welcoming to all people? Do all residents feel comfortable in the downtown and in other local institutions? How does the community tell its own history? What is the vision for the future?

Housing appraisals reflect existing racial inequalities in housing

A new published sociology study connects housing appraisals and race:

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

For decades, research has shown that houses in predominantly Black neighborhoods have been generally appraised at lower values than houses in majority-white neighborhoods. This is true even when comparing housing stocks that have the same characteristics (age, square footage, number of rooms, etc.) and neighborhoods of equal socioeconomic status.

The new study finds that the racial composition of a neighborhood was an even “stronger determinant” of a home’s appraised value in 2015 than it was in 1980, to Black homeowners’ increasing disadvantage. Analyzing reported home values, Howell and Korver-Glenn found that the race appraisal gap has doubled since 1980: The difference in average home appraisals between neighborhoods that are majority-white and those that are predominantly Black and Latina was $164,000 in 2015, up from about $86,000 in 1980.

Rather than explaining the racial inequity as a vestige of historic segregation, the study finds more culpability in a method used to calculate appraisals today, the “sales comparison approach,” which determines a home’s appraised value by looking at the prices of other similar homes that were recently sold from the same neighborhood. The real estate industry sees this as a race-neutral way of appraising homes so that it doesn’t run afoul of fair housing laws, and it is one of the key criteria used for determining property values. But what makes this method problematic, according to the study, is that it basically grandfathers in racist home pricing that existed before fair housing legislation.

In other words, if an appraiser is calculating  the value of a home in a Black neighborhood by comparing it to houses recently sold around it, then chances are she is comparing it to other Black-owned houses that, because of the legacy of segregation, have handicapped values in the market compared to similar homes in white communities appraised at higher prices. The unfairly valued prices of homes in Black neighborhoods before the 1970s thus serves as the baseline for how homes are appraised and priced today. While the Fair Housing Act and Community Reinvestment Act forbade practices like redlining and denying mortgage loans based on race, they did nothing to readjust housing prices in segregated neighborhoods after they were passed.

In other words, past decisions and actions valued homes in white neighborhoods more than homes in black neighborhoods because of racism. Today, appraisals that typically compare homes in like neighborhoods perpetuate those different homes values. The system carries on these inequities even if no appraiser is intentionally racist; the way things are done continues the patterns set decades before.

There is another question here as well: what exactly are appraisals and housing values based on if they contingent on factors like race and not just on the characteristics of the home? Is there inherent value in a particular configuration of home traits – say a three bedroom, two bedroom home with a two car garage – or is the value completely dependent on what society says it is? I know the market is involved and the head of an international appraisal association is quoted later in the article cited above talking about supply and demand. But, if supply and demand says some homes are worth more because of the people who own them and the people in the neighborhood, this does not exactly sound like a desirable “free market.”

Where will people move to if the suburbs are “abolished”?

With President Trump’s claims that Democrats want to abolish the suburbs, we can ask this: where will people move to instead of the suburbs or where will suburbanites end up? A few thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of the first and only homeowners association meeting we attended when we moved back to Illinois. The board and attendees discussed efforts to combat some vandalism of association property, mainly some signs at the playground in the middle of our neighborhood as well as on a bridge over a creek. One attendee stood up and told this story (and I’m doing my best to paraphrase: “Any time my family and I move somewhere, we stay until there is crime. And then we move further away from the city until there is no crime and try again. If the vandalism issue is not dealt with, there will soon be babies shot in the street.” The suburb we lived in is rather small and sleepy but I would not be surprised if many people share a similar mindset (given what I see on social media about reactions to local crime).
  2. Those with resources will likely always try to find ways to create protected suburban communities. Depending on what regulations could come down regarding affordable housing, some will try to find loopholes and some might just defy the regulations and fight in court. (Another option: some might move to upscale urban neighborhoods.)
  3. An easy answer might be to embrace telecommuting and working from home and move to more rural locations. Yet, this negates some of the advantages suburbs offer including access to amenities of the city (including cultural institutions, major airports and transportation options) and job centers in the suburbs and cities. How many people truly want small town life (rural, tight local networks, few local options for shopping, dining, entertainment) versus wanting a suburb that straddles urban options and lower density?
  4. What does this do to our understanding of white flight and related phenomena? As it stands, historians, sociologists, and others largely talk about white flight as a process that occurred after World War II as whites left urban neighborhoods for suburbs and black residents moved in. If the suburbs are more open to all (and they already are much more diverse compared to the postwar era), will white flight come to include whites moving from suburbs to more protected suburbs and/or more rural areas?
  5. At the same time, Americans are less mobile than they been in the past. Would a threat to the suburbs actually prompt people to move or would they “shelter in place” or fight in place?

Collect better data on whether Chicagoans are leaving the city

Even as there are claims 500,000 New Yorkers have left the city, a new article suggests “some” Chicago residents are leaving. The evidence:

Incidents of widespread looting and soaring homicide figures in Chicago have made national news during an already tumultuous year. As a result, some say residents in affluent neighborhoods downtown, and on the North Side, no longer feel safe in the city’s epicenter and are looking to move away. Aldermen say they see their constituents leaving the city, and it’s a concern echoed by some real estate agents and the head of a sizable property management firm.

It’s still too soon to get an accurate measure of an actual shift in population, and such a change could be driven by a number of factors — from restless residents looking for more spacious homes in the suburbs due to COVID-19, to remote work allowing more employees to live anywhere they please…

The day after looting broke out two weeks ago, a Tribune columnist strolled through Gold Coast and Streeterville. Residents of the swanky Near North Side told him they’d be moving “as soon as we can get out.” Others expressed fear of returning downtown in the future.

Rafael Murillo, a licensed real estate broker at Compass whose primary market is downtown high-rises, said he has seen a trend of city dwellers looking to move to the suburbs sooner than initially planned, due in part to the recent unrest in the city.

Three pieces of data I see i this story: aldermen reporting on actions in their districts; journalists talking to some people; and comments from people in the real estate industry. This is not that different than what is being said in New York City (plus information from moving companies).

The caveat that leads the second paragraph above – we do not have an accurate measure yet – may be correct but then it is difficult to square with the rest of the story that suggests “some” people are leaving. What we want to know is the size of this trend. Is this a trickle of people in a city that has been losing people or a recent flood? And if the numbers are larger, what exactly are the motivations of people for leaving (being pushed over the edge, fear, housing values, etc.)?

Someone could find some more certain data. Work with the local utilities to look at usage (or nonusage in units)? Traffic counts? Post office address changes? Triangulate with more data sources? If this is indeed a trend, it is an important one to highlight, explain, and discuss. But, without better data, it is hard to know what to make of it.

Sundown towns receiving attention through show “Lovecraft Country”

A new HBO show highlights the little-known but widespread phenomena of sundown towns in Northern states:

“The first thing you need to know about sundown towns, and what Lovecraft Country gets right, is it’s not a Southern phenomenon,” Loewen tells Yahoo Life. “They’re all over the place.”

In his book, he writes, “Between 1890 and 1960, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African-Americans from living in them, creating ‘sundown towns,’” explaining that these towns “are (or were) all white by design,” and adding that, at least in part, “these facts remained hidden because of our cultural tendency to connect extreme racism with the South.”

In 2019, Heather O’Connell published a paper in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity called “Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black-White Inequality.” In it, she wrote that “sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible, piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States,” and argued that these towns are “(primarily) a thing of the past.” But just last month, author Morgan Jerkins wrote regarding sundown towns, “With the rise of hangings of Black men across the nation this summer, I’m not so sure anymore.”…

Loewen says that although Black people are beginning to live in areas that were once sundown towns, they still suffer from the residual effects of such violent segregation, which he calls “second-generation sundown towns.” He notes that some of their key characteristics are “an overwhelmingly white police force that engages in [Driving While Black] policing and an overwhelmingly white teaching staff,” and names Ferguson, Mo., where Black teenager Michael Brown was killed in 2014, as one of these.

Loewen found most of these communities did not have formal signs or regulations that told non-whites that had to be out of town after dark. As I noted in a recent post, making certain forms of discrimination illegal does not necessarily lead to whites wanting to live near other people or even come into contact with others as there are other means of keeping people out.

The article above also hints at how places today understand or enact these past sundown policies. My research on suburban communities suggests a past sundown status could be unknown. This makes sense: some communities would not want to broadcast this today and local histories tend to emphasize positive moments in a community’s history. Perhaps more local residents will work to make these histories known. Even if better-off suburbs today have goals and/or means to keep certain people out, it would not be said so brazenly as that might threaten their status.

More broadly, Loewen’s work focuses on portions of Americans history regularly ignored or intentionally covered up. With his work on textbooks, monuments, and sundown towns, Loewen was ahead of his time in pointing out how Americans do not cover issues of race as well as other ignoble parts of the past.

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)