Selling Schaumburg, Illinois

Schaumburg, Illinois, nearly 30 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, is a prototypical edge city. Home to Woodfield Mall, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, and over 70,000 residents plus located at the convergence of I-290, I-90, and IL-390, journalist Joel Garreau mentioned Schaumburg in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. When I heard Schaumburg advertising on the radio, I wondered: is this an aggressive or a desperate move in these particular times? Where does Schaumburg fit among other Chicago suburbs also trying to get their name out there (examples here and here)? A few thoughts on this.

https://www.villageofschaumburg.com/

-Woodfield Shopping Mall is one of the largest in the United States. Even with numerous shopping malls struggling plus the problems of brick and mortar retailers, Woodfield will probably survive due to its size, location, and status. It may need to transform significantly – can it still support hundreds of stores? – but it is likely in good shape compared to numerous other Chicago area malls that are exploring new paths (other examples here, here, and here).

-Office space may be hard to fill. Schaumburg is not in a city; other suburban office parks have become less desirable in recent years with firms looking to appeal to young workers. Add the complications of COVID-19 when more workers are not going to the office. At the same time, many workers going to Schaumburg are doing so via car and they may be coming from relatively well-off suburban areas.

Growth is important to American communities. Like many edge cities, Schaumburg experienced explosive growth early in its history: it had 986 residents in 1960, in 1980 had over 53,000 residents, and peaked in 2000 at over 75,000 residents. Where does it go from here? Population loss and/or the loss of businesses would not be a good image for the community as it tries to chart a bright future.

Compared to other Chicago suburbs, Schaumburg is likely in good shape. At the same time, the growth and status of the past and present does not have to continue amid new social pressures and internal decisions. If Schaumburg is advertising in order to attract businesses, perhaps this hints at broader issues across suburbs: can they all succeed in what may be a challenging several year period?

Slight uptick as nearly half of Americans say they would prefer to live in a small town or a rural area

New data from Gallup suggests a slight shift among Americans toward a preference for moving away from suburbs and cities:

About half of Americans (48%) at the end of 2020 said that, if able to live anywhere they wished, they would choose a town (17%) or rural area (31%) rather than a city or suburb. This is a shift from 2018, when 39% thought a town or rural area would be ideal.

The recent increase in Americans’ penchant for country living — those choosing a town or rural area — has been accompanied by a decline in those preferring to live in a suburb, down six percentage points to 25%. The percentage favoring cities has been steadier, with 27% today — close to the 29% in 2018 — saying they would prefer living in a big (11%) or small (16%) city.

Current attitudes are similar to those recorded in October 2001, the only other time Gallup has asked Americans this question. That reading, like today’s but unlike the 2018 one, was taken during a time of great national upheaval — shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the public was still on edge about the potential for more terrorism occurring in densely populated areas…

The preference for cities is greatest among non-White Americans (34%), adults 18 to 34 (33%), residents of the West (32%) and Democrats (36%).

There is a lot to consider here and it is too bad Gallup has only asked this three times. Here are some thoughts as someone who studies suburbs, cities, and places:

  1. The shift from 2018 to 2020 is very interesting to consider in light of the shift in preferences away from small towns and rural locations between 2001 and 2018. What happened between 2018 and 2020? The analysis concludes by citing COVID-19 which likely plays a role. But, there could be other forces at work here including police brutality, protests, and depictions of particular locations or different factors could be at work with different groups who had larger shifts between 2018 and 2020.
  2. One reminder: this is about preferences, not about where people choose to live when they have options.
  3. Related to #2, Americans like the idea of small towns and there is a romantic ideal attached to such places. In contrast, there is a long history of anti-urbanism in the United States. But, people may not necessarily move to smaller communities when they have the opportunity.
  4. The distinction in the categories in the question – big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area – may not be as clear-cut as implied. From a researcher’s point of view, these are mutually exclusive categories of places. On the ground, some of these might blend together, particularly the distinction between suburbs and small towns. More toward the edge of metropolitan regions, do people think they live in the suburbs or a small town? Or, how many residents and leaders describe their suburb as a small town or as having small town charm (I have heard this in a suburb of over 140,000 people)? Can a small but exclusive suburb with big lots and quiet streets (say less than 5,000 people and median household incomes over $120,000) think of itself as a small town rather than a suburb? I say more about this in a 2016 article looking at how surveys involving religion measure place and a July 2020 post looking at responses when people were asked what kind of community they lived in.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Five on poetry and patterns

Starting with Jo Gill’s questions in the Introduction of the book The Poetics of the American Suburbs, summarizing some of the academic work on novels and suburbs and screens – television and movies – and suburbs, and then considering what a more robust study of music and suburbs might consider, it is time to conclude this series of posts on cultural works and the suburbs.

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To go back to the beginning, how does Gill conclude her study of poetry and the suburbs? Here is the final paragraph:

Postwar suburbia has been understood and depicted as a place where little of significance can be said, where there is a profound absence of meaning, where communication is stylized, superficial, muted almost into silence. Yet as the poems discussed in this study indicate, suburbia is replete with meaning. Its poetry is bold, innovative, and engaging – both formally and thematically – in its evocation of this space and time. Indeed, the suburbs we know are known to us, in part, because of the ways in which poetry has constituted and mediated them. In turn, this poetry shows the signs of its own discursive, spatial, and historical contexts. As Doreen Massey has argued, “Social space is not an empty arena within which we conduct our lives; rather it is something we construct and which others construct about us” (49). For Roger Silverstone, suburbia is a “geographical, an architectural and a social space,” but it should also be understood as “an idea and ideology, as form and content of texts and images and as product of a multitude of social and cultural practices” (ix). Poetry, as this book has demonstrated, plays a vital – if until now overlooked – role in these processes. It offers a startling lens through which to view suburban landscape and architecture and to understand the nuances of the suburban everyday, and it demands of us that we read it with acuity and sensitivity. In its diversity and frequent ambiguity, poetry breaks the stranglehold of polarized thinking or, what Robert Beuka calls, “our continued cultural reliance on a restrictive binary system in defining the suburban milieu” (10). The Poetics of the American Suburbs has argued that the poetry of this time and place is critical, interrogative, evocative, expansive, and suggestive in turn. Most importantly, it is a poetry that is often skilful, occasionally luminous, always intriguing. The song it sings is sometimes familiar, sometimes subtle, sometimes discordant. As I hope this book has demosntrated, it deserves a hearing, and rewards attentive listening. (Gills 2013: 181)

This is a good description of what Gills does throughout the book, analyzing both popular and more literary poetry, showing how the constraints and possibilities of poetry help lead to insights about the suburbs, and how poetry reacted to and was shaped by suburbia. I recommend the book for those interested in studying the interaction of cultural works and the suburbs.

As I reviewed this academic work, it led to a few more thoughts on patterns within the work:

  1. One idea that emerges from a number of these texts: understanding the suburbs requires analyzing what they mean and how narratives about them develop. Cultural narratives are influential and these cultural works contribute to an ongoing conversation about what the suburbs are and how they are to be regarded. For sociologists, both the facts about the suburbs – how did they arise, how are they changing, what social forces affect life there – and the interpretation of the suburbs – what are the processes of meaning-making around them – matter.
  2. The academic literature addresses both works that praise or celebrate suburbia and works that critique suburbia. There are many works in this latter category, particularly in more recent years.
  3. This is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor with scholars across a number of disciplines – Communications, English, Geography, Sociology, History, and more – contributing. These different perspectives help illuminate varied aspects of the cultural works and what they mean.
  4. Related to #2, much of the work I have seen in this employs close readings or case studies of particular works or collections of works. There is less work that takes a quantitative approach to such cultural works.

In sum, I am grateful for all of this good academic work. It has helped me think more comprehensively about the suburbs and be more aware of how cultural works contribute to and/or challenge my and our perceptions of the suburbs. I am sure the academic conversation – and the public conversation about suburbs as well – will continue as suburbs change, new cultural works are produced, and the larger social context evolves.

“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.

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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.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Three on screens (TV and movies)

Poets, as described by Jo Gill in The Poetics of the American Suburbs, and novelists, with two key works by Jurca and Beuka analyzing themes, wrote about the growing American suburbs. But, the cultural products most studied that depicted and commented on suburbs are television shows and films. Writers, actors, networks and production companies, and others helped bring the suburbs to many screens. Some of these products are well known – think the suburban sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s that still influence scripts today or the Oscar winning film American Beauty – while others are more obscure.

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With all of this academic study, I want to highlight the work of one scholar whose work I have found very helpful in my own research on suburbs on screens. After that, I will list several other books that cover similar ground from different angles.

Lynn Spigel published Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and the Postwar Suburbs in 2001. This collection of essays covers a lot of cultural objects but the work on television in fascinating. This includes analysis of the “fantastic” family sitcom, television for children, and how TV reruns affected the memory of viewers. After finding this book, I went back to her earlier 1992 book Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. In this book, Spigel considers how Americans discussed the role of this rapidly-adopted technology and how its presence affected everyday life. Combined with her numerous additional works on television and other parts of popular culture and her focus on gender, I would recommend anyone interested in screens and suburbs start here.

A number of other scholars have also addressed screens and suburbs. Here is the bibliographic information for several recent texts I have cited multiple times in my work:

Coon, David R. 2014. Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television.

Huq, Rupa. 2013. Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture.

Rowley, Stephen. 2015. Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs: Building Hollywood’s Ideal Communities.

Vermeulen, Timotheus. 2014. Scenes from the Suburbs: The Suburb in Contemporary US Film and Television.

It makes sense that there is more academic work on television and movies and suburbs. As mass suburbanization picks up in the United States after World War II, television spreads rapidly and Americans quickly devote hours a day to watching the box in their living room. And television often had a particular angle on the suburbs, as the studies above suggest. While films had been around longer, the prosperous postwar era expanded their reach. Furthermore, while poetry or novels might appeal to a smaller slice of the American population, these mediums are clearly popular and accessible. Together, these dominant visual mediums in the twentieth century provided many images of the suburbs.

Tomorrow, I will come back to the question at the start of Gill’s book – “who sings the song of suburbia?” – and address studies of music about the suburbs.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Two on novels

Jo Giles’ book The Poetics of the American Suburbs is the first academic study I have seen of poetry about or influenced by the suburbs. And the questions posed at the beginning of the book are worth considering – see Part One.

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At the same time, the study of other cultural products or works about the suburbs is alive and well. Today, I will profile several academic studies involving novels and the suburbs. Poetry and novels might be very different forms of writing yet there is some overlap in themes. Additionally, writing and reading a novel might be more similar to poetry than other forms of cultural products – like television and film – which I will address tomorrow. (On Thursday, I will address a fourth category of works – music – that some commonalities with poetry.)

Two scholarly books, in particular, are great introductions to examining novels about the suburbs. In the 2001 book White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth Century American Novel, Catherine Jurca looks at how such works discuss the homelessness of suburbanites even as they have succeeded by acquiring the suburban single-family house and the representation of suburbanites as a whole – “empty white people” – as a sociological fact. In the Introduction, Jurca puts these two narrative strands together:

this study examines the tendency in twentieth-century literary treatments of the American suburb to convert the rights and privileges of living there into spiritual, cultural, and political problems of displacement, in which being white and middle class is imagined to have as much or more to do with subjugation as with social dominance.

Robert Beuka’s 2004 book SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth Century American Film and Fiction emphasizes the important role of place and how fictional works addressed both fixed ideas about suburbs and variation within suburbia. From the end of the introduction of the book:

For the authors and filmmakers I discuss, the suburbs present a reflection of both the values and the anxieties of dominant U.S. culture. Their various gazes into the heterotropic “mirror” of suburbia reveal a landscape both energized and compromised by manifold cultural aspirations and fears.

These two books cover a lot of literary ground: there are a number of novels that explicitly address suburban life. Additionally, their analytical lenses help shed light on important themes and patterns. There are lived suburban experiences and then there are narratives about suburban life. Both are important and influence each other – both facts and interpretation matter for a full understanding of suburban life.

More broadly, novels are important. Long, important books are signs of culture and sophistication. I am thinking of sociologist Wendy Griswold’s work on the development of a reading culture that requires a number of elements to come into place for producers to create novels and a reading public to consume them. Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of novels and the suburbs converged given the significant social change of suburbanization as well as the development of the American literary scene. For novels and fictional works to coalesce around certain themes involving suburbia matters.

Tomorrow, several of the important scholarly works I have drawn on that analyze television and film representations of the suburbs.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part One

The Introduction to Jo Gill’s The Poetics of the American Suburbs starts with a question and conclusion from a 1989 essay by Philip Nicholson:

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“Who sings the song of suburbia? Where is its poet?” In his conclusion he answers his own question firmly and in the negative: “There is no official school or philosophy of suburban culture; just as there is not poet, artist, or sculptor to present its voice, its face, or the dimensions of its imagination” (206, 208). (Gill 2013:1)

Before I go on to read the entirety of Gill’s text, these are provocative questions about who speaks for the suburbs and whether there is a specific suburban culture. I will offer a few thoughts on these questions today and then in subsequent posts highlight several scholars whose work I appreciate in helping to answer these questions regarding cultural products and suburbs.

The question of who speaks for the suburbs is a fascinating one. Particularly in the postwar era, the suburbs are often discussed as a mass of largely white residents flocking to new subdivisions. Is there anything interesting about this mass? Later academic works help explain important variations across suburbia – like Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own or My Blue Heaven by Becky Nicolaides – but it was relatively rare to even get in-depth studies of suburban life – such as The Levittowners by Herbert Gans or The Moral Order of the Suburbs by M. P. Baumgartner – as it was happening. This mass was critiqued from numerous sides for its conformity, consumerism, and exclusion, among other issues.

There is indeed a specific suburban culture. The particular way of life connected to the American suburbs involves single-family homes, an emphasis on family life, driving, exclusion, middle-class expectations and lifestyles, a preference for local government, and proximity to nature. See my seven posts on Why Americans Love Suburbs. But, I suspect this is not the target of Nicholson’s question. What great cultural works have come out of the suburbs or what ideas and works have been created with a suburban ethos? A typical look at this might instead emphasize the consuming nature of suburbs where suburbanites take in culture from elsewhere rather than focusing on what is produced in suburban settings. And if culture is produced in the suburbs, is it worth considering or is it tacky and low-brow?

Tomorrow, I will continue the discussion of academic work that examines cultural products and suburbs by focusing on works that I have drawn on in my own research on this topic.

The most popular posts of 2020

With the start of 2021, here on thoughts on the top five posts of 2020 on LegallySociable:

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  1. Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments. This post about possible changes to the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois had the most views. The local aspect of the story hints at the local dimensions of this list: #1, #4, and #5 had specific mentions of nearby suburbs.
  2. New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories. With much written about COVID-19’s effect on cities, this post from March 2020 hints at the different ways COVID-19 played out in different communities. This is still a story to watch in 2021.
  3. Designing your own Peytonville, Part 1. The Peytonville commercials started in Fall 2019 and I wrote five posts about specific aspects of the ads. The first one was the most popular.
  4. When protests make it to the wealthier suburbs, this means… The protests of 2020 took place in many communities, including suburbs. This post discusses the implications of protests moving to wealthier suburbs that are not used to protests.
  5. How garbage is moved out of suburbs. Posted just a few days ago, this one looked at the garbage infrastructure in suburban areas but likely received a lot of views due to local disagreement about the possible waste transfer station.

All of these popular posts had something to do with place. This is a primary focus of this blog with a particular emphasis on western suburbs of the Chicago region. The top five posts either involved suburbs or cities. Even as 2020 renewed focus on both locales – with effects from COVID-19 and its effects, police violence and protests, and national and local politics – I would argue that place and communities still do not receive enough attention. My published research attempts to tackle several of these dimensions. It is hard to predict what exactly will be worth posting about in 2021 but I do know I will continue to focus on places.

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:

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“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.

Peytonville, the suburbs, and football

With the return to the airwaves of Peytonville ads from Nationwide, I noticed something in the commercials I had not thought about before (see Peytonville Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5): the possible connection between suburbs and football. Notwithstanding a possible caveat that Nationwide might want to appeal to suburban customers, here are some ways the suburbs, football, and Peyton Manning might go together.

First, the majority of Americans live in suburbs. It is a slight majority but the percent in suburbs outnumbers the percent living in cities by a little more than 20%. Where is football played the most? Which communities have the most interest in football? The romanticized image of a football community might be a small town in the Heartland obsessing about football on fall Friday nights but much of the activity might be happening on suburban fields and on suburban television screens.

Second, the Peytonville commercials at least hint at college and pro football as well as suburban and urban life. For both college and pro football, where are the majority of fans? For college, perhaps the thousands of alumni for major football schools have largely settled in suburbs. With a college degree, people have the opportunity for higher-paying jobs and put those resources into suburban single-family homes. For pro teams, the majority of residents in a metropolitan region are suburbanites. Take Chicago as an example: there may be a lot of Bears fans in Chicago but there are over 6 million more residents in the suburbs than the city.

Third, the social and cultural life of the suburbs might lend itself to football (and other sports as well). With games on the weekend, many suburbanites are free to sit at home and watch or attend games. For kids, families have the resources to enroll them in activities and there are plenty of organizations ready to funnel kids into high school and college football.

Perhaps this is off yet certain sports are associated with certain places. Is football truly a suburban sport or does it belong to all of American places?