What we build not only reflects but determines who we are and who we'll be. 'A city is an attempt at a kind of collective immortality,' wrote Marshall Berman in an essay on urban ruin; 'we die, but we hope our city's forms and structures will live on'. The opposite is true in the suburbs. They have no history and don't think about the future; very little there is built to last. Posterity is irrelevant to a civilisation living in an ongoing, never-ending present, with as much care for the future or sense of the past as a child. In his classic 1961 study The City in History, Lewis Mumford describes the naivety of the suburbs, which sustain in their inhabitants 'a childish view of the world', a false impression of security, if not an outright political apathy. Terrible things happen elsewhere, but never here, not now, not to us. It's the most natural paternal instinct to want to give your children a better childhood than your own; but the generation of city dwellers who invented the suburbs blew past 'better' in their pursuit of an impossible social isolation. It is as if they were trying to give not only their children but themselves the childhood they never had. The suburbs present the world to their children as if padded in felt, as if life were something gradually accumulated through commercial transaction, store by store. Often American literature and films about the suburbs feature children and adults alike losing their innocence, surprised, unprepared, for how terrible life can be: The Virgin Suicides, American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Weeds — all of these ask not only 'is this all there is?' but 'is there really that, too?'

(lauren elkin, from flâneuse: women walk the city in paris, new york, tokyo, venice, and london)
elkin's take on the suburbs (she grew up on long island) is a savage one, but it tracks with what i remember and how i talk about orange county in the '80s and '90s (and even how i talk about going to college in a suburb*): it was a very conservative and homogeneous place to be, i would never want to live there again, but it was a safe place to grow up, and i know that my parents chose our unremarkable** stucco house in our unremarkable neighborhood because it meant that my sisters and i could eventually go to the very good, exceptional, local public high school. i also felt like a freak until i got to college, and i think sometimes about what i would do now with all the hours i spent in, say, church-related youth groups because i wanted friends.

*i didn't have a car or even a bike in college, incidentally; my bikes were stolen so quickly that i decided the universe wanted me to be a pedestrian. i started taking long late-night walks around campus when i was a freshman and crawled all over the school for four years, but those nights were nothing like the ones i'd later spend in san francisco and new york. those are other stories, though.

**architecturally speaking, that is. the roof was fantastic for climbing and there were so many places for lizards to hide.


LPC said...

I was raised in the hippie suburbs, just down the hill from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. They, unsurprisingly, didn't feel like this. We might have been insulated, but it was a vivid, prickly, hallucinatory sort of felt.

lauren said...

i wanted to excerpt pages and pages of elkin's lines about long island, because they get into more specific beefs - the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian culture, the thoughtless strip malls that were barely interested in housing the chain stores that cycled through them. my suburban tract was cut into a low hill an hour from los angeles and a few miles from the 5, built in the late '70s for the late '70s; as a kid i could go months without seeing a building that was much older than i was. one should also differentiate between orange county's bucolic beach communities, which predated our settlement by decades, and the inland ones built along the freeways to serve the freeways. my sister's mother-in-law (who lived in the former) tells a terrible story about a high-speed car ride she took before having one of her sons because she was afraid that he would be born at a hospital in one of the latter. (my sister, as it happens, was born in the place she feared.) but that is a different class story.

LPC said...

You know my suburb, I suspect. It was built in the 50s, next to another suburb that has since outgrown its university town days to become a small city. We were settled in waves, we have layers, I still find it boring and annoying a lot of the time but I love the access to sky and greenery. The good things are more diversity, walkers, and native plant landscaping in civic spaces. The bad things are more money, more plastic surgery, more traffic. Very specific world I suspect.