Novel suggests McMansions gentrify small suburbs

A new novel suggests McMansions can upset small suburbs:

Novels about small houses in small towns can feel cramped. But in Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, the locals fight to keep things that way in their property battle with a builder who puts up McMansions. Set in the suburban Maryland town of Willard Park, the story depicts a married couple’s struggle with their defunct sex life, middle school kids and their awkward, back-stabbing drama, a pot-head attorney whose marriage is in trouble, and numerous sketches of other denizens. White Elephant has a long, slow start, but once it gets going, it bolts straight to the end...

White Elephant is a gentrification story which focuses on suburbs and small towns. This tale will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner suburb and woken up one morning to the shock of McMansions going up nearby. Suddenly all the talk is of assessments, property values, equity, and second mortgages. The new houses tower over neighbors. Or, if a block of expensive townhouses has been installed, suddenly the local school is too small. It’s not as pernicious as urban gentrification, booting out locals to make way for wealthy hipsters and their $10 latte watering holes, but it’s a menacing cousin. Costly houses and townhouses open the door for luxury apartments, and once those appear, all the old affordable ones raise their rents. A person working full-time on minimum wage can hardly afford a one-bedroom apartment in any American city, and this is the next step, as the blight of gentrification seeps out into formerly cheap suburbs.

I believe that McMansions can upset residents’ conceptions of their neighborhood or community. There are plenty of cases in the last 10-20 years that suggest some believe McMansions, whether in new subdivisions or as teardowns, ruin locations they like.

On the other hand, the description above of how all this works seems a bit odd to me. A few questions:

  1. How many inner suburbs become home to many teardown McMansions? Inner suburbs can be wealthy, working-class to poor, or somewhere in-between.
  2. My guess is that McMansions and more expensive housing do not just pop up in a community: there are precipitating qualities of the community that lead developers and local officials to think that the more expensive housing would take off. In other words, wealthier communities beget more housing for wealthier residents.
  3. Cheap suburbs, if just going by cost of housing, can be located throughout a metropolitan region. If gentrification is simply more expensive redevelopment, it could happen in many places throughout a region.
  4. Why is this gentrifiation not as pernicious if new development makes it harder for locals to stay? It may be happening in a suburban area but not all suburbs are that well-off.
  5. Is there a small-town suburban life worth defending? Decades of suburban critiques suggested suburbanites and their communities have all sorts of deficiencies. Are suburbs now to be saved from McMansions?

The McMansion is a monster to invoke in today’s fictional tales as its size and lack of good taste relegate it to at least shady, if not menacing, status.

Can you sell a product with the main pitch that it will help consumers “keep up with the Joneses”?

Comcast is currently running an advertisement titled “The Joneses” that makes an explicit connection to keeping up with the consumer’s reference group:

It is regularly stated that consumers want to keep up with others around them. Reference groups matter as look to others around them as they consider what to acquire.

So, can you run a successful advertising campaign based on (1) regular human behavior (2) that is regularly maligned? “Keeping up the the Joneses” is not often a positive term. Instead, it implies striving to be like others. These strivers are not content; they have to earn approval through acquiring what others have. All of this can lead to conformity if everyone is chasing some trend or perceived advantage. Suburbanites have heard this critique for decades: they are trying to look like the leading middle- to upper-class suburbanites. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps these people are viewed as violating the tenth commandment.

Perhaps this is all meant to be ironic. “Keep up with the Joneses” while winking or doing something unusual with all of that high-speed Internet. But, this commercial does not seem to have that tone. The goal does seem to be to have the same high-speed connection as everyone else. Maybe the true story is something like this: “keep up with the Joneses’ and everyone can use that Internet to hide in their private residences and do their own thing online and in social media.

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…

“To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil”

A reflection on the recent book Radical Suburbs includes this paragraph about critiquing American suburbs:

To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil: sprawl is an environmental disaster, subsidized by lavish post-World War II road-building programs and the mortgage interest deduction (which promotes home ownership) and turbo-charged by low interest rates. Why would any sophisticated architectural thinker want to get involved with such iniquity? In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art tried to rouse a group of high-caliber architects to stage a suburban intervention in the wake of the 2008 recession and the foreclosure crisis that followed. The show, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” was well-meaning and inventive but it left no trace in the real world, and the designers who were recruited to rethink towns and subdivisions didn’t return to the topic. The trouble with throwing up your hands at suburbia’s obstacles and contradictions is that it means giving up on most of the country.

And plenty of suburbanites notice the negative assessment of suburban living:

Getting ignored by snobs is just fine with millions of Americans, whose only complaint about their center-less towns is when they become too much like cities: clogged, expensive, and big.

Presumably, this writer is trying to model a different way: working in small ways to push suburbs toward more density and more community without asking suburbanites to give up everything they say they like:

One radical step would be for towns to hold competitions, inviting the world’s designers to make adjustments to their layouts—not to plow them under or replace them with faux urban centers, but to find new ways to tweak roads, shorten commutes, and encourage people to live in closer quarters—all while satisfying the desires of privacy, peace, and contact with nature that lured people out of the city in the first place.

Tying far-flung suburbs together with public transit is expensive, complex, and controversial, but modest modifications aren’t. It’s not insurmountable to recycle dead malls into community centers, art spaces, and indoor plazas; to lay down footpaths that steer clear of cars and converge on a park or a playground; to legalize back alleys and rentable granny flats— standard items in the New Urbanist toolkit.

This approach might be dubbed “urban-lite” or “retrofitted suburbia” or “surban.” All of these get at putting together denser pockets of suburbia without needing to get rid of all of the sprawling areas. This is the pragmatic approach to transforming suburbs rather than hinting at the nuclear option of moving everyone to cities (as some fear).

Similarly, middle-range steps to altering suburbs also can help those opposed to suburbs make strong value judgments that will simply provoke defensiveness among suburbanites. Tell someone their lifestyle is evil or wrong and this likely will not prompt the response the critiquer desires. And American suburbanites have heard some version of this critique for at least six decades and continued to move there. Amidst the similar architecture, the conformity, the mass consumer culture, the private space that enriches only the homeowners, the lack of community, and the effect on the environment, Americans have moved to and have been pushed to the suburbs in large numbers. Did these critiques have any effect on making some think twice?

Recognizing and learning from “radical suburbs”

A new book from journalist Amanda Kolson Hurley looks at “radical suburbs” that do not fit the stereotype of sleepy, homogeneous, bedroom communities. From an excerpt:

Clichés and misconceptions still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity. My suburban experience is riding the bus as people chat around me in Spanish and French Creole. It’s having neighbors who hail from Tibet, Brazil, and Kenya as well as Cincinnati. It’s my son attending a school that reflects the diversity—and stubborn inequality—of America today…

Radical Suburbs is about waves of idealists who established alternative suburbs outside of Eastern U.S. cities, beginning in the 1820s and continuing through the 1960s. These groups had very different backgrounds and motivations, but all of them believed in the power of the local community to shape moral and social values, and in the freedom provided by outskirts land to live and build in new ways.

As opposed to the groups who went far into America’s interior to settle isolated communes, these were, in a paradoxical-sounding phrase, practical utopians. Staying close to the city let them try out new ways of living with a financial lifeline and emergency exit. Now, at a time when—it could reasonably be argued—the future of the country hangs on what suburbs do over the next 20 or 30 years, their history shows that bold social and architectural experimentation is not alien to suburbia. In fact, it’s a suburban tradition…

Over the past 150 years, suburbanites have lived in large communal dwellings and tiny shacks, Modernist apartments and neo-Gothic mansions. They’ve been renters and homeowners, domestic servants and corporate executives. They’ve cultivated both emerald lawns and food crops. They’ve sought escape from social progress, and freedom from convention.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. I would be happy if academics and the public alike, particularly those interested in urban regions and issues, would acknowledge and analyze the variety of suburban communities. This book and multiple other studies make exactly this case: the suburbia that is often criticized may fit some suburbs but certainly not all. As jus ta short list, there are suburbs of working-class residents, suburbs of non-white residents, communities built around different ideals than single-family homes and cars, edge cities, and more. Suburban communities may share some fundamental features yet differ significantly on other parts of social life.
  2. I’ll have to read the book but I would be interested in knowing if there are patterns as to how at least a few suburbs could pursue less conventional ideals while a good number of suburbs simply followed convention. In other words, how did radical suburbs start and how can other communities follow similar paths? If these communities present some models worth emulating, how do established suburbs change course? It is possible for suburbs to change but going against local inertia can require significant decisions.

McMansion literary tales: a proposed teardown leads to local dysfunction

The McMansion continues to feature in literary works. A new book from a Washington D.C. area author uses a proposed teardown McMansion to highlight suburban issues:

Coincidence or not, Langsdorf’s success comes after leaving her longtime suburban existence. Following her 2012 divorce, Langsdorf moved to Adams Morgan in the District and devoted herself to writing while teaching yoga on the side. And yet, the book takes her back to that former life: “White Elephant” seems to channel all of the frustrations she felt juggling her identities as a mother and creator in a stifling suburb. The novel follows the residents of the fictional enclave of Willard Park — inspired, in part, by Langsdorf’s hometown of Kensington, Md. — where an interloper’s plans to build a McMansion amid the cozy bungalows leads to angry town halls, scandalous romantic dalliances and shady high jinks.

Like Langsdorf, two of the main characters in her ensemble are mothers grappling with their identities beyond being wives and mothers. Allison Miller, who has lived (mostly) happily in Willard Park for more than a decade, wonders what to do with her photography — more than a hobby, less than a career. Her new next-door neighbor, Kaye Cox, can’t figure out who to be, caught between her role as a fixture in her husband’s behemoth of a house and her own interest in interior decoration. These women and their author are well-acquainted with the eternal dilemma for parents, the pull between caregiving duties and other interests, professional and personal…

Almost every neighborhood in the D.C. region has experienced a version of the changes in “White Elephant.” Even Adams Morgan: The Line hotel, for example, occupies a building that was once a church. Langsdorf laughs about some of the struggles she’s seen in her own building, hastening to add that her fellow co-op residents are all great neighbors.

The residents of Willard Park come to realize that houses matter less than their inhabitants — and that the suburbs aren’t for everyone. Langsdorf understands this, too; in her current existence she feels more herself. “My life is much more vibrant,” she says. “I love being able to walk everywhere, and I do have more time to write.”

That a proposed McMansion could lead to “dalliances” and “high jinks” is intriguing to consider…the angry public meetings are much easier to verify.

While it would not have been possible to discuss McMansions before the 1980s since the term did not exist, it sounds like this new work draws on several common suburban critiques featured in novels, films, television shows, and other cultural products. Suburban residents, particularly women and mothers, feel trapped by suburban expectations and a landscape that does not easily lead to human connection or diverse experiences. They then look for ways to break free of the suburban mold and explore different outlets.

These works tend to emphasize those that feel “the suburbs aren’t for everyone.” At the same time, many Americans live in the suburbs by choice and I assume a good number of suburbanites feel their existence is at least okay. Is it because cultural works need crises to overcome (the hero on their journey must overcome something) or are the suburbs are a unique target because they are so common in the United States (over 50% of residents live there) and so reviled?