Man With A Mission
In defense of the suburban life.
By David Dawson
JUNE 19, 2000: The suburbs are under siege. What else is new? For the past 50 years, at least, high-brow smarties have been looking at the residential perimeters of almost all American cities and smirking about all sorts of social sins. Conformity. Consumerism. Creative constipation. Racism. Classism. Anti-intellectualism.
There are indeed some heavy burdens heaped upon suburbia's shoulders these days. Almost without question or objection, the burbs are viewed both as a land of Gap-clad robots wasting their shallow lives in identical ranch houses and a quasi-spiritual force sucking the life out of our cities and destroying any semblance of community.
Need media examples of this consensus about suburbia? Most prominently, there's the movie palace, where you don't have to "look closer," as the marketing campaign for American Beauty dared us to do. Just a quick glance will do: Happiness, The Ice Storm, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and The Virgin Suicides (to name just a few recent films).
Television once used to portray the suburbs as paradise in shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. Now you turn on the tube and you get The Simpsons and The Sopranos.
All around us, the diagnosis has been made, and it's terminal: Those of us who live in the suburbs are shallow and self-absorbed, addicted to our lawnmowers and our minivans, blind to our own misery. Our hallmarks are boredom, anonymity, self-delusion, secrecy, and a smug sense of security.
To which I say, nuts. It's high time to lay this dangerous nonsense to rest.
The suburbs, in truth, are terrific places to live. Diverse, stimulating, and full of interesting people, the suburbs are where people are building solid foundations for their lives, finding inner security, and creating real communities built upon values which have deep roots in America's history, and which are more potent by far than the latest fad handed down by the marketing honchos at MTV.
In fact, the only thing lacking in the suburbs -- and I mean the only thing -- is someone to stand up and refute the stream of silly clichés.
I present myself as just the person for the job.
My credentials: I grew up in the suburbs, came of age during the culture wars of the late '60s and early '70s, and lived for a good while in the old neighborhoods of Midtown. There was a spell when I, too, bought into the belief that the suburbs were little more than nesting grounds for Honda owners or a place where lesser Carnival nobility could languish during the off-season.
Then, a decade ago I moved back to the burbs, interested in finding a good place for my own kids to grow up. It's here, to cop a phrase from the Dead, that I chose as my place to mellow slow.
I quickly found that I like it out here -- where the sun is always shining serenely on the sidewalk and there's always someone interesting on the other end of the cell phone -- even more than I had thought I would.
Hey, I know it's not perfect. Sometimes the cops are a bit trigger happy with those radar guns, and some days the parking lots at Saddle Creek and Wolfchase get a bit full. But by and large, I have to admit that there's little that I love more than to hunker down at the end of a busy day in the trusty Barcalounger, relax myself into a near-cadaverous state, and fire up the home entertainment center (heavy on the subwoofer, please). That, my friends, is living.
There are plenty of ways to go about correcting the mistaken impression that the suburbs are somehow evil or corrosive. Some of the tools I'll employ will be essays, interviews, reviews of relevant films and books, and straight-up reporting, all with the hope that I can shed some light on the many virtues and values of suburban life.
But the most useful item in my toolkit will be to directly answer whatever questions you might have about the burbs. Here's your chance, smarties. Fire away (send e-mail to email@example.com or send snail mail to 460 Tennessee Street, 38103). Who knows, if you get lucky, I might even enlighten you.
And look here, we already have our first handy question to ponder!
Lance B., from Southaven, writes in to ask: "Where are the suburbs, anyway?"
To which I answer: Dude. Get off it. Are those Oakleys or alien eyeballs on either side of your nose? I'm sure that some Harvard sociologist with a hyphenated Eastern European name (with too many vowels in it) could go on and on about demographics and neighborhoods and whatnot, but right now we need brevity. We'll get to the meatier definitions in the weeks to come.
For now, I'll offer a much simpler answer: The suburbs are where all the best pediatricians and psychiatrists have their offices. Say no more.
Now, send me some questions, class. I'm on a mission here.
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