Satirizing the suburbs by poking fun at past depictions of suburbia

A review of a new television comedy notes that part of its appeal is that it plays with previous portrayals of the suburbs:

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The layers of brilliance within the writing continue. While the series satirizes the suburbs, the trio takes it a step even further. The show also makes fun of all the clichés in film about American suburbia – from Blue Velvet to American Beauty toThe Stepford Wives. Because each one of those films is trying to say something about the darkness of the suburbs, Three Busy Debras pokes fun at them by doing exactly not that. The series is so perplexing and over the top, not a single character learning anything to “progress” in their worldview, that it pokes fun at these tropes through their use of absurdist comedy. You can immerse yourself in the surreal world of Lemoncurd and witness the masterful work of Three Busy Debras for yourself by streaming the latest season on HBO Max.

The genre of suburban critique is alive and well in numerous culture industries including poetry, books, music, film, and television. For at least seven decades, these works have depicted the darker sides of suburbia, the true issues facing suburbanites beyond the shiny single-family homes and nuclear families. This is a familiar genre that both speaks to some realities in suburbs and tells similar stories over time.

Thus, I am intrigued by an absurdist or surrealist take on this. Are the suburbs just absurd and the only way to deal with them is to laugh rather than to try to overcome them or find out what is truly going on?

It will also be interesting to see how this fits in the long run with the other critical depictions of suburbia. Laughter and humor can be good ways to address difficult situations. Would suburbanites, the majority of Americans, laugh gently at absurd or surreal depictions or would it be the laughter of realizing how absurd the suburbs actually are?

Familiar story: suburb that looks like paradise but is not, The Villages edition

The Florida community The Villages has roughly 80,000 residents living northeast of Orlando. Is it paradise or a sinister place?

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For the residents, it’s one of the most successful experiments ever undertaken in creating a community from scratch…

But critics say there’s something not quite right about The Villages, a sprawling suburb an hour’s drive north of Orlando in Florida…

She likened The Villages to Jim Carrey film The Truman Show about a flawless but ultimately fake town.

The filmmaker has now produced a documentary about the world of The Villages called The Bubble which has its Australian premiere at this month’s Sydney Antenna documentary film festival

Days for its residents are crammed with exhausting rounds of golf, cardio drumming, belly dancing and cheerleading lessons, even synchronised golf cart displays. And day drinking – lots and lots of day drinking…

The company that runs The Villages were none too keen on Ms Blankenbyl and her film crew’s presence.

On one hand, this is a familiar suburban story told for decades: the suburbs present themselves as the place for happy and successful family life. They aim to be green, quiet, and friendly. But, are they really? When a crime is committed, this might be a crack in the facade. Or, family life is not what it seems. Or, the community is built on the basis of exclusion and who is not welcome and/or present. There are plenty of real-life examples of this plus numerous films, novels, and stories that explore these themes.

On the other hand, The Villages appears to have some unique features that might set it apart from typical suburban experiences. It is a 55+ community which changes the entire social structure. The American suburbs broadly are built around protecting children and providing them room to thrive and succeed. It is in Florida so there is warmth and sun in levels that many suburbs cannot match. It is relatively new with a limited history and set of traditions and practices plus a particular architectural and natural approach that still looks new.

Is it a bubble? Many middle to upper-class suburbs might be accused of this. Is it different than many suburbs? Just by its population composition, yes. I look forward to seeing this documentary and thinking about it more.

Halting new development out West due to lack of water

Drought conditions in Utah and other Western states means communities are rethinking development:

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So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West…

Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California…

Developers in a dry stretch of desert sprawl between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years’ of water to get approvals to build new homes. But extensive groundwater pumping — mostly for agriculture — has left the area with little water for future development.

Many developers see a need to find new sources of water. “Water will be and should be — as it relates to our arid Southwest — the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, the vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure water supply, obviously development shouldn’t happen.”

Critics of sprawl have discussed this for decades: new subdivisions and development in arid areas taps already precious water supplies. It is not just about drinking water; it includes the water used for lawns, agriculture, parks, and other uses that come with expanding populations.

As the article notes, numerous communities are trying to encourage homeowners and residents to use less water. Replace lawns. Limit watering. Use greywater. Some have argued that water in the United States is too cheap, encouraging more use.

But, simply having more people and business might be the problem. If drought conditions continue, it will be worth watching how development – often assumed to be necessary for a good community – is treated.

Chicago’s suburbs as quintessential American suburbs in cultural products

A number of Chicago suburbs have appeared on television and in movies in recent decades:

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Rightly or wrongly, I concluded that suburbia was segregated and snobbish, an attitude I’ve never been able to shake. I didn’t get that attitude from movies about just any suburbs, I got it from movies about Chicago’s Northern suburbs, which, over the last 40 years, have come to be seen as representative of all American suburbia. (My first job in Chicago was covering the Lake County suburbs for the Tribune. That didn’t change my mind.)

During the first wave of suburbanization, in the aftermath of World War II, the suburbs of Northeastern cities got all the attention, in movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and in the fiction of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates. When Hollywood rediscovered Chicago in the 1980s, though, it also discovered Chicago’s suburbs, through the work of writers and directors who grew up there. Paul Brickman, who directed Risky Business, was from Highland Park; Hughes was from Northbrook.

In the 1980s, suburbia was in its prime. Back then, nobody with money wanted to live in urban America. Rich people wouldn’t start moving back to cities for another decade. The suburbs are often mocked as a cultural wasteland, but towards the end of the 20th century, that’s where a lot of Chicago’s cultural energy was coming from. Even The Blues Brothers, which is revered as a document of post-industrial, pre-gentrification Chicago, was co-created by John Belushi of Wheaton. Steppenwolf Theatre Company was co-founded by Jeff Perry of Highland Park and Gary Sinise of Blue Island. According to his National Lampoon colleague P.J. O’Rourke, Hughes in particular was eager to rescue his native grounds from the notion that “America’s suburbs were a living hell almost beyond the power of John Cheever’s words to describe.”Chicago’s 1990s alternative music scene may have been born in Wicker Park, but its leading lights were suburbanites: Liz Phair of Winnetka, Billy Corgan of Elk Grove Village, Local H of Zion. Urge Overkill formed at Northwestern University. High Fidelity, the movie which celebrated that scene, starred Evanston’s own John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a guy from the suburbs who opens a record shop on Milwaukee Avenue.

Chicago’s suburbs continue to define suburbia in popular culture. The 2004 movie Mean Girls, the quintessential depiction of high school cliques, was set at fictional North Shore High School (i.e., New Trier). The characters even shopped at Old Orchard, although it was inaccurately depicted as an indoor mall. Greater Chicagoland also makes an appearance, and provides a contrast: Wayne’s World, set in Aurora, and Roseanne, set in the fictional, Elgin-inspired collar-county town of Lanford, are on the outside, physically, culturally and economically.

As someone who has researched locations and television shows, this raises several responses:

  1. Would viewers of these different suburbs know that the Chicago suburbs were unique in some way or do they look like suburbs all over? For example, does North Shore High School look or feel different than schools in Westchester County or outside Boston? One of the films cited, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, clearly shows Chicago locations but the suburban shots could fit in many American suburbs.
  2. There is an empirical question here: were Chicago suburbs depicted more often than suburbs of other locations? Or, based on viewers or ticket revenue or albums sold, how does the creative energy of the Chicago suburbs compare to cultural products linked to other locations?
  3. There is still some sense that suburbs are not creative places. This stereotypes dates back to at least the mid-twentieth century when suburbs were criticized as conformist and bland. True creative energy can only come from cities, not homogeneous and exclusive suburbs. Yet, as more Americans lived in suburbs compared to cities starting in the 1960s, it is not a surprise that cultural products would come from suburbanites.
  4. Even as a number of creatives grew up in suburbs, how much did their adult work and products rely on cities, including Chicago? The major culture industries in the United States are often located in big cities so even suburban or rural themes are mediated through more populous and denser communities.

The random name generator for Chicago suburbs

After thinking about Chicago suburbs with elevation clues in their names, I was reminded of the names of Chicago suburbs more broadly. To quote again from the WBEZ story:

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

So how exactly did developers and local leaders come up with all of the existing Chicago area names? It could have looked like this:

I had to check on Willowridge because it puts together two commonly used words in suburban place names. I found some companies with this name as well as one suburban street but no official place.

Here are the next ten names generated:

Romeowoods

Franklinsville

Elmburn

Hillhurst

Musmukda

Glenside

Rolling Bluff

Hillwoods

Highfield

Crystalfield

Out of these, I would vote for Glenside as the most probable.

On one hand, this all makes sense: suburbs often want to invoke nature and idyllic settings. On the other hand, such anodyne names invoke the conformity and dullness of suburbs many suburban critiques have noted.

McMansions as a symbol of excessive consumption, end of life satisfaction edition

One of the more interesting definitions of McMansions I encountered in my 2012 study involved the homes serving as a symbol of excessive consumption. Here is a recent example:

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The survey shows—and it’s not even close—that the No. 1 way in which people define a good life is “having family and friends that love me.” The answer was nearly universal, cited by 94% of respondents. After this came “making a positive impact on society (75%). Having a high-powered job or bunking down each night in a McMansion might be nice, but in the end such things don’t mean that you’re loved or respected or that you’ve made your community a better place.

This finding is a common one: people at the end of life say relationships matter more than what they bought or consumed. For example, see the results of the Grant Study:

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” Vaillant says. Close relationships, the data indicates, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction, and better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, wealth, fame, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

Yet, the comparisons made to what really matters – relationships – are interesting as they target key markers of success in the United States. The first is a high-status job. Adults often define their worth and status by their job. Second is the home. In a country that idealizes owning a single-family home, this makes for a striking alternative to prioritizing people.

Why pick a McMansion here as opposed to a typical suburban single-family home? There could be several reasons. A McMansion is a particular symbol of success, a home whose facade tries to exude status. A McMansion is larger than a typical single-family home, usually coming in between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. And, perhaps most important here, the McMansion is a symbol of the wrong kind of consumption. Owners are trying too hard with their home to show off. The home is poorly designed. Compared to life-giving relationships, the McMansion pales in comparison. Rather than think of people who are McMansion-rich but house poor, think of people who own a McMansion but have poor relationships…a furthering of a long-standing suburban plot where people look like they have achieved the American Dream but their lives are falling apart.

The Limbaugh soundtrack to suburban life

For decades, the suburbs were said to be more politically conservative. One writer describes hearing Rush Limbaugh in his suburban childhood:

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As a kid growing up in Sacramento, I had a few friends I liked, but dreaded going to their houses to play. I suggested riding bikes, playing tag or hide and seek — anything to avoid their homes. I avoided their houses because their families usually had the radio tuned to KFBK, listening to a guy who was always furious about nothing, as though he was pleasant background noise — elevator music for single family, one story homes in the suburbs.

To my young ears, there was an uncanny vibe about his voice. He sounded like Santa Claus if Santa swallowed another Santa whole, but that Santa got stuck in his throat. Boots, beard, and furry coat, all jammed against his larynx as he croaked on and on, complaining about “illegal” elf workers wanting fair pay, health care and for him to stop grabbing their tiny butts.

My friends’ “nice” families had him on, all the time, stinking up their homes with hate the way others baked to make homes smell like cookies.

I wondered what that did to us, constantly breathing in his vitriol — for non-white people, for women, for gay people, especially if they were richer, smarter or more powerful than him. I wondered what he’d think of me, what they all think me — a Black kid with a working mom and absent dad — skin so light it sometimes camouflaged me from their sight.

The main contrast here is between the “nice” suburban families and the constant sounds of Rush Limbaugh. On the whole, the suburbs are often pitched as idyllic: single-family homes for families, middle-class people who have made it, green lawns and a quieter life compared to cities. The suburbs are supposed to be the retreat from the difficulties of the world.

Yet, from the beginning, whether the suburbs have delivered on these claims is debatable. Who could make it to these locations? How idyllic was it really or was it perceived to always be under threat? Did the gloss of suburbia cover up darker truths involving race, class, gender, broken families, and more?

It would be interesting to back and see if there is evidence of suburban talk radio listening patterns. Or, to mirror current political patterns, was Limbaugh more popular in exurbs and the outer suburbs and his listernship dwindled closer to the big city?

Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

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A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.

Hints of growing art scene in English suburbs, towns

COVID-19 and housing prices have pushed more artists out of English big cities:

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Now, the pandemic is prompting a wider exodus from the British capital, pushing up real estate values in outlying regions. Months of remote working have made city dwellers reassess their housing priorities. And like many office workers, contemporary artists such as Mr. Allan — who makes art under the moniker “Dominic from Luton” — are also finding that they no longer need to be in a big city…

Hastings, with its scrappy mix of stately but unkempt 19th-century houses, 1970s seafront amusements, poor transportation links and limited employment opportunities, was recently ranked as the most deprived town in southern England by Britain’s housing ministry. But its distinctness and affordability have long been valued by artists…

Supported by a new [Croydon] City Hall-funded initiative called Conditions, 27 such spaces are being offered for £138 to £230 a month in a repurposed bicycle factory and office building. Katie Sheppard, one of the artists based in the complex, makes digitally embroidered portraits based on selfies; another, Felix Riemann, makes sound sculptures for performances…

This vision of an accessible, locally grounded art scene is very different from the elitist flying circus of blockbuster exhibitions, auctions, fairs and biennials in destination cities that has dominated the art world in recent years.

On one hand, as is noted in the story, the Internet and the smartphone make art possible from anywhere.

On the other hand, art is more than just a single genius creating while sitting quietly somewhere. Local conditions, such as housing costs, matter. Having a set of like-minded arts around who provide support and spur creativity may be essential. Funding, local resources, and neighborly or community goodwill help.

One of the biggest barriers to art in these communities may just be the decades of suburban and small town critiques that suggest they are dull and backward locales. Can art only work there when conditions in big cities are too difficult for artists?

More broadly, this speaks to the concept of art worlds in which artists and numerous other actors operate. The creation of art is a social activity involving multiple pieces and social forces. Art can indeed flourish in many locations, including suburbs and small towns, if the conditions are right.

Are suburbs now cool or are they just an attractive option at the moment?

An analysis of why the suburbs are currently attractive to millennials starts with a headline about the suburbs being cool but mainly discusses practical life issues:

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Changing attitudes about commutes.

Credit analyst Kailyn Hart was living in a 1,300-square-foot apartment in bustling Mid-City, Los Angeles with her fiancé, Dominic Wilson, and their 1-year-old son when the pandemic forced her to begin working from home. Being able to work remotely gave Hart—who had been watching mortgage rates for a good buying opportunity since 2017 —the kick she needed to purchase a 4-bedroom, 2,300 square-foot house with a backyard in Fontana, Calif, a 47-mile drive from L.A. “My boss told me that I’ll at least be working remote until December, and after that I may only be going into the office just once or twice a week,” says Hart, 32…

A need for more space…

“We’ve seen a surge of buyers who want to leave downtown for the suburbs,” says Nicole Fabiano-Oertel, a real estate agent at Compass in Chicago. “The most common reason is they want more space, whether that’s indoor space or outdoor space, or both.”…

Why pay city prices, when you can’t live the city life?…

Corey Jones, a real estate agent with Better Real Estate in Plainfield, N.J., says affordability is a driving factor for a lot of urban residents who are decamping to the suburbs. “What we’re hearing from clients more and more now is: why rent and pay city prices when you’re working from home?”…

Good public schools.

Generally, public school systems in the suburbs outperform schools in urban areas with respect to test scores, graduation rates, and college placement. Suburban schools also usually have more outdoor space for sports and other recreation. And, a number of parents who send their kids to expensive urban private schools have expressed that they’re less willing to keep paying if the schools go remote this year.

None of these reasons sound particularly cool. They sounds more like calculated decisions given the current circumstances: Americans tend to like larger private spaces, they have a lot of stuff, and they think certain places are better for raising children. These are all part of the ongoing appeal of the suburbs.

Going further, I wonder when suburbs were cool. Even as Americans moved to suburbs in large numbers in the twentieth century, were they ever the place to be? All during this period, critics of the suburbs pounded away at the problems: exclusion, conformity, soulless, mass produced, overreliance on driving, and on and on. Even as millions adopted a suburban lifestyle, it was not always portrayed in media products as the exciting or hip or sophisticated choice. Suburbs may have more entertainment centers than ever but they do not compare to the vibrant cultural centers and neighborhoods of big cities.

Perhaps the connection here is that millennials may be more interested in suburbs right at this moment. As relatively young adults, they have a higher cool factor and are not as locked into life paths. Just moving to the suburbs suggests younger Americans think the suburbs are a viable option…and this may be as cool as the suburbs get.