Suburbia Calling

Posted: February 5, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture

A post at Vulgar Morality caught my attention recently in its celebration of suburban diversity and dismissal of fashionable loathing of suburbia (whether the suburban way of life or the mere location was not clear). That post links to a Washington Post article exposing 5 Myths about Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture, which reads like an apology for car manufacturers. I don’t want to get bogged down in the car debate, although that is certainly one reason I loathe the burbs. Like many others, I grew up in the burbs. But I now live in Chicago, and I take mass transit to work weekdays. Though clearly not everyone’s preference, I far prefer the “L” to having to climb into my car whenever I go somewhere.

I admit that my first thought upon reading Vulgar Morality was that, yes, I am in fact a good example of that artistically and intellectually chic form of disapproval. However, it’s neither a mere flag with which I drape myself nor a posture adopted out of some snarky superiority felt by being a city dweller. I’ve referred to suburbia as “franchise hell” for years: the long corridors of four- and six-lane boulevards lined by Home Depot, Olive Garden, Best Buy, etc., all of which divide up the housing subdivisions where families go about their familiness. Sure, it’s possible to find mom-and-pop businesses, parks, and worthwhile destinations in suburbia, but the big box stores, endless fast food options, and network of heavily trafficked roadways pratically define suburbia.

What disturbs me most about suburbia, though, is the mental landscape that springs from the physical one. Those who live in suburbia often regard the big, bad city nearby as something dangerous and dirty, something to be avoided. So suburbanites (or their parents or grandparents by now) retreat or have long since retreated to the suburbs to be free of the presence of, among other things, the class struggle. Because while there are rural poor and urban poor, the taint of poverty is notably absent from suburbia. The impulse to isolate and insulate oneself from human suffering is quite understandable. We would all rather go shopping at the suburban megamall to spend our hard-earned dollars and indulge in our conspicuous consumption without feeling the implicit judgment of those less fortunate. But after a while, suburban life becomes insipid, a quiet though forceful rejection of the value of mixing with folks less fortunate or even those just different. The dominant culture in the burbs isn’t about rubbing up against other people and participating in civic events; it’s about creating a psychologically impenetrable fortress in one’s living room, where the world comes to you via the TV, the cable box, the satellite dish, the Internet, and the online shopping emporia, and from where you launch into the world to gather the resources (either work or more shopping) necessary to make the daily retreat back into the cocoon. And of course, the commute takes place within the relative isolation of the car, which for the SUV in particular has come to resemble a rolling living room, complete with the electronics to provide the digital morphine.

See, for all the problems, costs, and offenses of urban living, it still offers a semblance of community, although that’s eroding, too. Of course, the Vulgar Moralist thinks that I exemplify a syndrome, that I have pictures in my head to which I have attached strong emotions. It’s probably true. The problems of suburbia are, in a sense, the same problems of social organization to be found elsewhere. Jeremy Rifkin addresses this in an article called “The Risks of Too Much City.” He doesn’t distinguish between urban, suburban, or even rural settings. His thesis is really about population, and the facts aren’t any too pretty.

No one is really sure whether this turning point in human living arrangements ought to be celebrated, lamented or merely acknowledged. That’s because our burgeoning population and urban way of life have been purchased at the expense of vast ecosystems and habitats.

Cultural historian Elias Canetti once remarked that each of us is a king in a field of corpses. If we were to stop for a moment and reflect on the number of creatures and the amount of Earth’s resources and materials we have expropriated and consumed in our lifetime, we would be appalled at the carnage and depletion used to secure our existence.

I think Rifkin is too polite, even though his conclusions are scathing and depressing. We already know our current way of life ought not to be celebrated, but we’re not yet ready to make sacrifices. And whereas rural living remains somewhat more connected to nature, and urban living offers some salutary efficiencies in our use of resources, suburban life in particular is based upon a willfully blind sort of conspicuous consumption. While we can probably afford such a lifestyle within the narrow time horizon in which the suburban lifestyle became so normative — another 50–60 years, perhaps — we simply can’t afford to recreate the families and homes of our parents and grandparents into an inexhaustible future. It still looks mightily appealing as of this date, but ecological, economic, cultural, and yes even population collapses are all nearly upon us.

  1. MediocrePiracy says:


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