From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007

In my study of suburbs, I have run across numerous scholarly sources that discuss the role television played in promoting American suburbs. A number of them suggest that the idealized image of nuclear family life taking place in the single-family home presented in shows in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged Americans to make the move to the suburbs. My recently published paper (published online in Sociological Focus, forthcoming in print) aimed to put these arguments in context: just how common were these suburban television shows? Did such shows reflect the millions of Americans who already moved to the suburbs or create demand for the suburban life?

The short answer: suburban-set TV shows were relatively rare among the top 30 ranked shows from 1950 to 2007. There certainly were some classic shows – ranging from Father Knows Best to Home Improvement – but many of the top 30 shows were set in cities. Here is my concluding paragraph:

Even though the United States has become a suburban nation, its most popular television shows from the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century did not match this demographic shift. The suburban sitcom or drama, satirized in films like Pleasantville or featuring anti-heroes in more recent television shows like The Sopranos, was a relatively rare figure in the top 30 television shows. The suburban show is a recognizable form with its emphasis on family life in a single-family home without much social strife, and new fall lineups continue to include variations on the genre, yet many popular American shows were set elsewhere. Thus, these longitudinal findings suggest popular television shows had a limited influence on pulling and/or pushing Americans to the suburbs. America may be suburban but its most popular television shows are not.

There is much more to explore here. The scholarship on the topic thus far has focused on particular key examples of suburban-set shows but has rarely considered the full scope of television or how exactly watching a show set in the suburbs would change people’s behaviors.

Creative writing at the suburban shopping mall

The Mall of America is offering a unique opportunity:

The Mall of America is taking applications for a summer writing residency, which makes now a good time to question whether our collective taste for absurd mash-ups has gone too far. Is this an attempt to out-quirk the Amtrak residency, where writers typed on trains? What’s next — a sculptors’ retreat in a Chevron station? A poetry workshop at Ikea?

Maybe, but think about it: The people-watching alone would make easy fodder. Look — there goes a man in a plaid shirt, walking past Foot Locker into Sephora. He emerges with a small bag. The story practically writes itself.

Submit your residency application by Friday, and you could be selected to commemorate the shopping destination’s 25th birthday by spending five days writing while “deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere.” (Nights are spent in a hotel, not sleeping on a department store mattress as I’d hoped.)

I agree: the shopping mall could be part of all sorts of interesting stories. But, I do wonder how many of them would be positive in the hands of today’s writers. Too often, stories of suburban life follow a similar script: happy looking family or couple ends up spiraling downward as the facade falls away from their American Dream. Such scripts could involve the postwar suburban tract home, current McMansions, or the shopping mall, perhaps the symbol of suburban affluence, consumerism, and emptiness. What is the shopping mall but the poor facsimile of authentic Main Streets?

Maybe this would be an even more challenging task: do such a residency and craft a range of stories representing the experiecnes of all those mall visitors and employees.

Update on CN freight traffic on the EJ&E

The purchase of the EJ&E railroad tracks by Canadian National in 2008 was contentious in a number of Chicago suburbs. Here is an update on freight figures as the federal requirement that CN report data to local communities has ended:

Freight trains on the old EJ&E tracks have spiked from about four or five daily to 19 or 20 in communities stretching from Lake Zurich to Barrington and West Chicago.

But municipalities such as Buffalo Grove and Des Plaines are getting fewer trains. There were 3.6 freights a day in November compared to 19 before the merger as CN moved trains to the EJ&E tracks, which form a semicircle along the North, West and South suburbs…

Barrington and the Illinois Department of Transportation, with support from U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, want to extend the oversight period by two years and get CN to chip in for an underpass at Route 14. The underpass will allow ambulances to reach Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital quickly and prevent traffic backing up, Darch said…

The freight train increase is no surprise and is below projections on average, the railroad has stated.

Looking back, it appears that the train traffic has shifted further away from the Chicago. This was the original plan as so many tracks and trains go through the Chicago region that congestion is a major issue. For the whole region, this changed freight train pattern is probably a good thing. But, if “all politics is local,” this may be truest in suburbs where any perceived negative change – such as an increase in trains – is seen as destroying an idyllic locale where homeowners have invested much money.

Apartment construction increases in the Chicago suburbs

The construction of apartments in the Chicago suburbs reached some high marks in 2016:

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, more apartments were opened last year than in any time in the past 20 years and demand for those units meant suburban rents grew more than the increases downtown, according to research by Appraisal Research Counselors…

The rents in new or almost-new units in the suburbs increased 6.7 percent in 2016, while they increased just 2.85 percent downtown, according to Appraisal Research. The median rent was just $1.39 per square foot in the suburbs in 2016, while downtown it was $2.89 a square foot for space in a newer building. In other words, for 1,000 square feet a renter would pay on average $1,390 in the suburbs and $2,890 for one of the new downtown apartments. An older but well-kept Class B building downtown would be $2.52 a square foot, or $2,520 for 1,000 square feet…

The strongest occupancy in 2016 was in DuPage County, with 95.7 percent of the apartments full and the median price of a two-bedroom apartment at $1,315. Northwest Cook County was 95.4 percent full with a two-bedroom apartment averaging $1,390. The weakest area was the North Shore at 93.8 percent occupancy and a two-bedroom apartment at $2,446…

“From Schaumburg to Naperville, you are starting to see new construction,” said Stephen Rappin, president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association. It’s a trend that’s occurring nationally after the surge of construction in downtown areas.

This is where the debate between whether cities are growing or suburbs will win the day breaks down. What if the American future is denser suburban development and a shift away from single-family home ownership even as people stay in the suburbs? This would represent a change from “typical” suburban life – single-family home, lawn, lots of private space – while better mimicking some urban conditions such as denser housing, renting, and giving up a home to be near certain amenities.

As this article suggests, it is not surprising that the suburban apartment demand would be high in places with more economic and quality of life opportunities, places like Schaumburg and Naperville that have little greenfield space but where people would still want to live. Just like Chicago where apartment construction has boomed in the Loop but lagged elsewhere, a similar process will likely take place in the suburbs. This may be good for developers since there will be high demand for certain places but isn’t necessarily good for aiding issues of affordable housing.

When a suburb dismantles a plane in a homeowner’s driveway

You don’t see too many airplanes parked on the typical suburban street but this incident in New York may serve as a warning to those interested in just that:

A 70-year-old Long Island man who allegedly ignored 17 summonses calling for him to remove a plane parked in his driveway threatened to use a crossbow on town officials who dismantled it.

Crews spent most of the day Thursday disassembling the single-engine Cessna parked outside Harold Guretzky’s home in Oceanside, ending a 1½-year saga that pitted Guretzky against his neighbors and the town…

Town officials said housing the aircraft in Guretzky’s driveway violates building safety codes…

Last year, Guretzky likened it to parking a boat in a driveway and has said he didn’t have money to house the plane in a hangar. Some neighbors, however, said there’s no comparison.

What a production that included local officials giving a press conference in front of the plane in the driveway of street of raised ranch homes. The main reason given for removing the plane was safety but no one said exactly why it was a safety hazard. The owner compares it to a boat and the safety issues there could be similar: large gas tanks just sitting there. Presumably, he is not going to try to take off on the suburban street (though wide streets of many recent suburbs would help avoid clipping mailboxes).

My guess is that this is more of an eyesore/property values issue. For similar reasons, communities may not allow RVs or work trucks to be in driveways. Is a plane that is rarely used really more of a safety hazard than a large truck? However, it does look unusual (particularly with the wings spread out) and probably draws the ire of some neighbors who are worried about potential homebuyers or outsiders getting the wrong idea about the block.

One solution is for Guretzky to find a suburban airplane subdivision. They do exist: see the example of Aero Estates in NapervilleAero Estates in Naperville.

Four suburb annexation plans thrown out by a judge

Efforts to combine Warrenville, Woodridge, and Lisle with Naperville were derailed by a judge earlier this week:

Judge Paul M. Fullerton granted motions to dismiss the question filed by mayors of the three smaller communities, who oppose the idea of annexing their towns into their larger neighbor…

The question will not come before Warrenville and Woodridge voters because the idea’s originators — who have not come forward publicly — failed to gather enough signatures.

In Warrenville, 177 signatures are required to meet the threshold of 10 percent of the voters in the previous municipal election, but only 81 signatures were filed. In Woodridge, 235 signatures are necessary for ballot placement and 50 were filed…

The petitioners’ attorney Avila did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment. Avila previously said petitioners brought forward the idea as a way to decrease property taxes in Lisle, Warrenville and Woodridge, but mayors say there is no proof such a merger would have resulted in lower taxes.

An odd affair all around: not enough signatures, no public campaign to support the effort, the mayors of all four suburbs denounced the annexations, and the reason for the proposed changes has not been clearly explained.

Still, the idea raises interesting questions. In an era of tight budgets, it is worth it in American metropolitan regions to maintain separate communities and taxing bodies? Would there be advantages in some merging? In denouncing the idea of annexations, the mayors of these suburbs said it is not clear how the cost savings might happen (property taxes around here primarily support schools so merging municipal boundaries may have very little effect) and that residents of each community like their distinct characters. But, if voters were told that merging would reduce their tax burden at least $500 or $1,000 a year (particularly given the property tax burdens in Illinois), would that overcome an interest in local control and character?

Can you say you are from a city when you actually live in its suburbs?

The debate continues on whether suburban residents can claim to be from the big city:

Fowler was criticizing Trump for bashing Chicago while failing to reach out to Gov. Bruce Rauner about potential solutions. When he says “I’m from Chicago,” he’s quickly cut off by Caldwell whose “Bruh, you’re from Evanston” comment quickly excited Chicagoans on Twitter…

Perhaps this is even a bigger issue in Chicago where identification with a neighborhood or community area is very common among urban residents.

While suburban residents shouldn’t try to boost their image by claiming to be from the big city when they aren’t, they are in a difficult place when talking to people from outside of the region. When meeting someone, telling them the name of your suburb can often produce blank stares. The Chicago region has hundreds of communities of varying sizes and it is difficult to expect people to know even most of them (even if they are from the region). The big city becomes a kind of shorthand of where you are from. One other option that might work could be to identify a noteworthy or large suburb that others may know – I’ve been surprised how many people register some familiarity when I say I live near Naperville.

Additionally, there are certainly instances when saying you identify with the big city does make sense. Sports teams are the first example that comes to mind. There are very few American major sports franchises that identify with the suburbs. The only two that come to mind are the Long Island Islanders and the New Jersey Devils but they are from the largest region in the country and there are three hockey teams to differentiate. There are certain resources that big cities have that suburbanites could identify with, such as major airports (many people who have spent little time in the Chicago region can hold some kind of conversation about O’Hare Airport) or museums and cultural attractions.