The mixed messages of a new subdivision sign with red brick but a modern font

A new subdivision I drive by regularly has this as its sign at the entrance off a busy road:

I think I get what the sign is trying to signal:

-Tradition and permanence with the red brick. It signals this is an impressive community that is here to stay. This is not a small sign either; it will be noticeable from a road on which people are driving 45 mph.

-The modern font suggests the neighborhood is not stuck in the past, even if other parts of the sign suggestion a connection to the past. The clean, crisp lines of the letters plus the all-caps first word and not capitalized second suggest dynamism, not stodginess.

Can a subdivision sign have it both ways? Can the font push one direction while the structure of the sign push another?

(Bonus features of the picture: the sales sign for the subdivision is more standard emphasizing “MODELS OPEN” and the starting prices, this is a good encapsulation of what February in the Chicago suburbs often looks like.)

Naming modern phenomena “traditional,” evangelical tradition

To label something today as traditional is to reference the past, to perhaps suggest an unchanging connection between the modern manifestation and what something was (or what we think it was) before. Historian Kristen Kobes Du Mex highlights how evangelicals claim to be traditional:

Photo by Patricia McCarty on

“America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion,” inveighed 1920s evangelist Billy Sunday, self-proclaimed preacher of that “old-time religion.” In 1963, when an Episcopal clergyman accused Billy Graham of “putting the church back 50 years,” Graham responded: “I’m afraid I have failed. I had hoped to put the church back 2,000 years,” suggesting that evangelicalism was a return to a pristine, ancient Christianity.

As historian Timothy Gloege explains, however, early-20th-century evangelicals called their movement “old-time religion” even as they pioneered a new, consumer-oriented faith. Frequently sidestepping traditional denominational structures, evangelicals have excelled at using modern promotional techniques to deliver their message through celebrity spokespeople and an elaborate Christian media empire — think of ubiquitous televangelist Joel Osteen. Prioritizing an individual’s personal relationship with God and plain reading of the scriptures, they also created new standards of orthodoxy, including the “inerrancy” of the Bible. These innovations were often sold as “traditional” Christianity, but they developed the faith beyond what even Reformation innovators could have imagined.

This reminds me of a discussion in a grad school class involving the sociology of religion. In a discussion of different religious traditions and where they might fit in a current understanding of liberal or conservative, the professor jumped in at one point and noted that even the groups that claim orthodoxy or tradition tend to have moved over time from earlier practices and beliefs.

So, perhaps being “traditional” exists on a continuum with some versions closer to tradition and others further away? This might even be less of a changing of something and more of a shift in emphases. Think of the hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States who would highlight different aspects of faith as being more important or the major Christian traditions – Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, etc. – and how they might each claim to retain traditional elements of Christianity.

It would be worth noting what groups claim tradition more strongly, how they make these arguments, and for what reasons. Did evangelicals at the turn of the twentieth-century claim “old-time religion” and tradition in order to distinguish themselves from other religious changes? For various religious groups that have called fellow adherents back to the fundamentals of their faith, why do so at that particular moment? In a competitive religious marketplace in the United States, promoting tradition could appeal in particular ways – and not others.

More “comfort architecture” on Long Island

Many homes are built in current styles, even if that style is a return to traditional architecture:

On an island where the traditional is king, most residences can easily be dated — Capes to the postwar Levittown era; ranches, split levels and then high ranches in the ’50s and ’60s, cedar-sided contemporaries in the ’80s, and during the McMansion boom in the late ’90s, “colonials on steroids.”

Over the last decade, many architects and builders have veered toward a more ageless, classic approach.

Some of the materials used to achieve that nostalgic charm, however, are increasingly 21st century, more energy efficient and durable. The exterior trim on the stone manor is a resin-based material called AZEK that looks like wood but is rot-proof. Ira Tane, the president of Benchmark Home Builders in Huntington Station, recently completed a gabled Victorian in South Huntington with fake cedar siding, a cultured stone facade on the front porch, authentic-looking but modern windows with “simulated” divided light panes, AZEK-type trim, fiberglass porch columns; composite porch rails and decking, “all of which contribute to a look that will stand the test of time.”

 Homeowners stick to traditional styling because “there is a real comfort zone in what is very familiar,” Mr. Tane said. “It conjures up a warm, fuzzy feeling. For eating, we have comfort food. For homes, we have comfort architecture.”

Two things stick out to me:

1. Even though these homes are built in a traditional style, they can be easily dated just as much as other homes like 1950s ranches or 1990s McMansions. If you look, for example, at the picture of the home at the top of the story, I think most people could tell it is recent construction. While the homes may have certain traditional style, I don’t think they are going to be confused with older homes.

2. The goal here is invoke tradition withiout really being traditional. As the story notes later, people don’t really want the “100-year-old house with 100-year-old problems.” So they simulate the sense of permanance and tradition instead AND they get all of the modern amenities including big closets and energy efficiency.

I would be interested to hear builders and others explain how these homes are really that much different from McMansions. Perhaps the main difference is that they are not as mass-produced on smaller suburban lots, though it sounds like a decent number of these traditional homes have been built. They are still large homes for wealthy people though they may be more energy efficient. Maybe these new traditional homes are just mansions which are at least not as common as McMansions. Would the same people who complain about McMansions also complain about these homes?

Big cities promote new ideas

Big cities are generally thought of centers of innovation for both business and culture. This article suggests this effect is particularly pronounced in developing Asian countries:

“Cities are the first to embrace many concepts that are a taboo in towns and villages,” says Sandhya Patnaik, a sociology professor at Delhi University, referring to pre-marital sex, live-in relationships or divorces.

“Anything new or modern touches cities first. Trends percolate to smaller towns at a very slow pace.”

Occasionally in India, the battle between village tradition and liberal city culture can have deadly consequences, such as the “honour killings” seen in Delhi’s migrant areas…

But experts say cities across the world generally serve as a positive melting pot, where different cultures intermingle, encouraging tolerance and the interchange of ideas.

“The freedom in a big city comes from diversity,” Jirapa Worasiangsuk, a sociologist at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told AFP. “It’s the choices and the opportunity to choose that make Bangkok or other big cities a better place.

“People have more choices to choose how to live, to choose their career, to do whatever they want.”…

Sociologists say the freedom of cities often stems from a feeling of anonymity — but this can often tip over into loneliness.

This article seems to suggest that modern, Western ideas are found in the city. I assume most Westerners would look at news like this and think that these changes are long overdue but the article suggests these new ideas are not always met favorably. Such changes are not easy (and some places could argue whether they are desired) as the early sociologists recognized when looking at the changes urbanization was bringing to Western Europe in the 1800s.

It would be interesting to read diffusion studies from these countries that track how new cultural and social ideas leak out of cities and come to dominate social interaction.

Thinking more about this, are there major cities in modern times that have been business centers but also that remained culturally conservative? Or does being open to business tend to correlate with more liberal ideas? This would be interesting as neoliberalism is often thought of as being conservative since it is capitalistic.

“A vestige of tradition” in Orange County

One common view of California from the Heartland/Midwest/flyover county is that it is a liberal state that leads the way in many social problems. But historically, Orange County has been a bastion of conservatism (see Suburban Warriors about the rise of political conservatism in Orange County after World War II) and can still be considered conservative today even with an influx of immigrants:

Analysts, however, say the county’s loyalty to convention is not due to a push to maintain its image as a pillar of social conservatism. Instead, they point to the bustling Latino commercial districts in Santa Ana, the Vietnamese American coffee shops in Garden Grove and the halal butchers in Anaheim — to an influx of immigrants who have imported the old-fashioned family structures of their homelands.

Orange County’s ethnic enclaves are founded on religious and cultural values that include strong family ties, said Jack Bedell, a sociology professor at Cal State Fullerton…

Orange County, home to 3 million people, has the lowest percentage of single-parent households of any county in Southern California, according to a Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau figures, as well as the lowest percentage of households occupied by opposite-sex unmarried couples.

It also has one of the lowest percentages of same-sex households and has retained one of the highest percentages in the region of nuclear-family households — those with a married man and woman who are raising children under age 18.

The article suggests that traditional family arrangements are declining in Orange County, just at a slower rate than other places. What I find most interesting is that the article makes no reference to political parties but rather stresses moral values or “family values.” How do “family values,” particularly among immigrants, match up or conflict with “social values”? Do these immigrants vote more for Democrat or Republican candidates?

The slow death of Christmas cards?

One of the traditional objects of the Christmas season, the Christmas card, is on the decline:

After experiencing slowing growth since 2005, Christmas card sales declined in 2009. While the drop was slight, 0.4 percent, according to research firm Mintel International Group, evidence is building that the next generation of correspondents is unlikely to carry on the tradition with the same devotion as their parents.

The rise of social networking, smart phones and Apple iPads is changing the way friends and family stay in touch, diminishing the Christmas card’s long-standing role as the annual social bulletin…

Americans sent more than 1.8 billion Christmas cards through the mail last year, according to greeting card industry statistics. That figure is expected to drop to 1.5 billion this holiday season.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Compared to other forms of communication, the Christmas card takes time and money. Interestingly, the same story says the Christmas card was born out of an interest in saving time:

A British businessman is credited with creating the Christmas card in 1843 — as a way to save time. Too busy to write a personal holiday greeting, Henry Cole hired a well-known London artist to design a card he could send to all his acquaintances, according to a version of the story recounted by greeting card maker Hallmark Cards Inc. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, is said to have brought the Christmas card tradition to America in 1875, printing a card depicting Killarney roses and the words Merry Christmas.

Some of my thoughts about this tradition that may die a slow death:

1. I’ve always enjoyed getting and reading Christmas cards (and the letters within). It is the one time a year you can count on getting mail and updates about people’s lives.

2. Many of the letters that are included in the cards are just fascinating. The typical one reads something like this: “We all had a great year, Son #1 did amazing things, Son #2 was comparable, and Daughter #1 is only 7 years old but is setting the world on fire!” On the whole, the letters are upbeat and tend to produce the image of “the perfect family.” And if they are Christians, there might be a paragraph or two at the end (or perhaps a verse printed in the card or at the top or bottom of the letter) about bringing the focus back around from their wonderful family to “the real reason for the season.”

2a. Perhaps I am too cynical about these cards. But on the whole, it seems like an exercise in taking a few moments to paint a particular image of one’s family.

2b. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the picture card, the one that puts the family in some sort of Christmas pose.

3. Even with the general tone of such letters, it does suggest someone has put some time into it. The idea that a card or letter (even though most of these letters are typed) is more meaningful than a Facebook post makes sense to me. But maybe this is just nostalgia talking and if the original cards were just a quest for efficiency, perhaps Christmas cards are just another symbol of the efficient modern culture.