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?

Comfort of suburbia allows for the flourishing of comedy and creativity?

I recently ran across a Will Ferrell quote where he discusses where his brand of comedy developed:

“I’ve got no dark secrets, I wasn’t beaten up, my parents were kind to me and there was a low crime rate where we lived. Maybe that’s where the comedy comes from, as some sort of reaction to the safe, boring suburbs. Although, I gotta say, I never had any resentment of the place. I loved the suburbs”, he told The Observer.

Right before this quote, the profile suggests this bucolic upbringing is unusual:

Oddly for a comedian, his was a golden and uneventful Californian childhood.

Rather than a reaction to adversity, it sounds like Ferrell had a number of advantages – including later attending USC – that gave him freedom to explore comedy. Or, perhaps this relative comfort channeled his energy into more zany humor rather than dark humor.

I am not sure it is worth a full study to explore the connections between place of upbringing and how this affects comedians but a broader look at place of upbringing and artistic creativity more broadly could provide interesting. Given that America is largely a suburban nation today, are the majority of its creative types from the suburbs or from cities? The biggest cities have long been upheld as more cosmopolitan and cultured places in addition to often serving as homes of clusters of artists and performers. In comparison, stereotypes of conformist and homogeneous suburbs abound even as a good number of those who grew up there would have had opportunities that may not have been available elsewhere.

Another quick thought: how many celebrities and famous today would freely admit “I loved the suburbs”?

Quick Review: “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

Critics of the suburbs are plentiful yet few make their argument in the style of James Howard Kunstler. I use his 2004 TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” often in class because of its clarity and humor. A quick review:

  1. He has a provocative argument: are the American suburbs placing worth dying for? Kunstler explicitly links the design and experience of suburbs to the armed forces fighting in the Middle East: are they willing to die for their suburban communities? This question helps elevate the conversation from one about personal preferences – some Americans like suburbs, some do not – to a larger question of whether our communities are worth fighting for and living in. With the suburban emphasis on single-family homes, it can be hard to orient suburban conversations around the public good.
  2. The primary critique of the suburbs Kunstler offers involves architecture and urban planning. He shows some great examples of American buildings that offer little to pedestrians and the surrounding areas. He shows what a tree-framed streetscape should look like. He discussed a typical American Main Street and how it provides useful public space. He ends up making a pitch for New Urbanism as it recovers a lost understanding of how to create lively public spaces. It is too bad that he does not have a little more time to show how a typical suburb might be transformed (a retrofitted shopping mall is as far as he gets) because of different planning choices.
  3. There is plenty of humor here. While his own books can be somewhat bombastic, he sprinkles in plenty of funny lines in the TED talk including comparing the design of a civic building to a DVD player and discussion of “nature band-aids.”
  4. As someone who teaches courses about suburbs regularly, it is hard to find succinct and effective video clips to use in class. This talk is relatively short, has some humor, and summarizes an important critique of suburban life. Of course, it does not cover everything: Kunstler has little chance to cover some of his own critiques (such as peak oil and driving – although these came along years later, I would be interested to hear him respond to the possible invention of self-driving cars that could further sprawl) and says nothing about racial and class exclusion. Yet, this is my go-to video to discuss what some see as problems in the suburbs.

TED Talks cannot easily cover the nuance of particular social phenomena. However, if they are engaging presentations, they can provide helpful summaries of an issue that can then serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Kunstler’s talk does just that: it is a worthy entree into a decades-long conversation about the downsides and merits of American suburbs.

How much Americans want nostalgic suburban recreations outside of “memory towns”

To help older Americans with dementia and other ailments, “memory towns” bring them back to their younger days:

On August 13, a brand-new town in Southern California welcomed its first residents. They trickled through the doors of a generic beige warehouse on a light-industrial stretch of Main Street in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb. Then they emerged in Town Square, a 9,000-square-foot working replica of a 1950s downtown, built and operated by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. Unlike the businesses around it hawking restaurant supplies and tires, Town Square trades in an intangible good: memories…

Glenner has partnered with the home-health-care giant Senior Helpers, which employs some 25,000 caregivers around the United States, to build Town Squares around the country. Version 2.0 is under construction near Baltimore, in a former Rite Aid in White Marsh, Maryland. Senior Helpers will own and run that facility, which is expected to open in early 2019. But franchise sales are underway, and Peter Ross, the company’s CEO, is bullish…

The onward march of private or semipublic “nostalgiavilles” (retiree-only communities, such as the The Villages in Florida, are similarly engineered to evoke vanished small-town life) raises the question: Do people respond to these places simply because they remind them of their youth, or does their form matter, too? After all, millions of Boomers grew up in postwar sprawl, but Town Square isn’t designed to mimic that.

Instead, as Tarde noted, it “really replicates [a] kind of urban experience. You’re going to a movie theater, going to a library, a department store. Engaging in these activities that may not be accessible to these individuals any longer. But they are in Town Square, and it’s safe.” In other words, the principle behind Town Square is the dense concentration of different services, as in a city (although adapted for a vulnerable population).

Sounds like a promising idea.

I wonder how much of a market there is for recreating idyllic American suburbs in various forms. This could include therapy settings (though the examples discussed above seem to focus more on urban downtowns) and senior living communities. But, it could also include history museums, parks, entertainment venues, and retail settings that want to add a unique element.

One way this could happen is through history museum. Imagine a facility like Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois. The facility seems to be well-funded and it helps a wealthy suburb of over 140,000 residents connect to the community’s earlier decades (mid-1800s to early 1900s) as a small farming community. The outdoor portion includes a number of older buildings either moved to the property or recreated that give visitors a glimpse of what life used to be like. Yet, the facility does not do as much with the postwar suburban boom era that might be the true marker of what Naperville is today. Could it move 1950s ranch homes and strip malls and other markers of postwar life that would give visitors a sense of a growing suburban Naperville?

If critics are right about suburbs, perhaps there is little nostalgia worth celebrating. After all, suburbs have been characterized as patriarchal, cookie-cutter, conformist, a waste of resources, and racist. At the same time, millions of Americans grew up in such settings and cultural products (books, films, TV shows) regularly invoke idyllic postwar suburbia (while other products in the same mediums try to show off the darker sides of the same places). These postwar suburbs also came about in an unprecedented era of American prosperity.

At some point, I expect Levittown might become part of a museum or theme park. Given the amount of people who experienced such settings plus the attention (both positive and negative) given to suburbs, isn’t this an opportunity waiting to happen? At the least, many suburbs across the United States will need to find ways to provide compelling and interactive narratives about their own growth that encompasses the era of highways, subdivisions, and sprawl.

Jell-O and “soul-killing suburbia”

A review of a new family history tells how the narratives links Jell-O and suburbs:

Jell-O might be the glistening dish of picnics and potlucks, but for Allie Rowbottom — a descendant of the Jell-O fortune — it’s both a burden and an abyss. In “Jell-O Girls,” she weaves together her family history and the story of the classic American dessert to produce a book that alternately surprises and mesmerizes. Despite its title, this isn’t a bland tale that goes down easy; “Jell-O Girls” is dark and astringent, a cutting rebuke to its delicate, candy-colored namesake…

“Jell-O Girls” could have easily devoted itself to the tragic fates of those heirs, or what the family called “the Jell-O curse.” A number of Rowbottom’s relatives succumbed to alcoholism and suicide. More money meant more money, but sometimes it also meant more to lose. A great-uncle who divorced and mismanaged his way out of his own fortune threw himself from the roof of a Sheraton hotel.

But Rowbottom’s interest is in the women of her title — namely, herself, her mother and her grandmother…

Jell-O, meanwhile, gets the full semiotics treatment, as Rowbottom shows how it went from a modern, scientific foodstuff to a relic of soul-killing suburbia. As sharp as her insights often are, this is a book in which Everything Signifies. Even a digression about the catacombs in an Italian monastery includes some Jell-O symbolism. You occasionally want to tell Rowbottom to ease up: Sometimes a Jell-O mold is just a Jell-O mold.

It would be interesting to read more about how this connection was made. At the least, I might expect to find:

  1. The rise of mass-produced goods, including food items, and suburbanization. Even as suburban homes went up in mass-produced subdivisions, the goods that filled these houses also often came out of an emerging mass-production economy. Cars, household appliances, furnishings, and food.
  2. The lives of women in suburbs. Numerous scholars have addressed the limited opportunities for women in many mass-produced suburbs as well as the numerous depictions of traditional family life in suburbs.
  3. The banality of Jell-O and the conformity and/or dullness of suburbia. Critics might argue the limited substance of Jell-O matches the boringness of the suburbs.

At the same time, if I had to create a list of consumer objects I would associate with suburbia, I do not think Jell-O would even enter my mind.

We can now look back at “vintage suburbia”

The Daily Herald introduced a new feature this week to examine “vintage suburbia”:

DailyHeraldVintageSuburbia.png

While the article discusses why they called it “Through the Film Magnifier,” I find the word choice “vintage” more interesting. This usually refers to an older item of higher quality. I suspect this would be contentious among critics of the suburbs. Are we really to look to the postwar suburbs as places that are worth celebrating? Communities marked by tract housing, auto dependency, and lifestyles only available to some should be commemorated? Yet, these postwar suburbs did offer new opportunities for millions of Americans to own a home and it was the only home known to millions more born and raised there. And those problematic suburbs continued to grow over the decades, even as the problems of suburbia became clear both to outside observers and many residents.

There are few words that could capture this nuanced past. “Vintage” strikes a more positive tone but other words like “historic” or “storied” or “complicated” may be too drab.