American Beauty, corrected version

January 29, 2007

I recently watched a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie on TV, in which the villains, called “Merchants,” were pointedly said to live in “the suburbs.”  The Merchants, who spread plague from profit motive, wore business suits and drove ostentatious cars.

I have posted about this before.  Unspeakable loathing toward the suburbs is an emotional requirement of every American artist and intellectual.  Why?  Something to do with children, I would guess — or the lack thereof.

It is, without question, an abiding passion.  There is only a difference in production values between my sci-fi horror, The Graduate (“Plastics”), and American Beauty (“In a way, I am dead already”).  The suburbs of the imagination have inherited the rage right-thinking people once reserved for equally imaginary small towns, like Main Street’s “Gopher Prairie.”   Both were seen as stifling, repressed, ugly, inauthentic spaces — with the suburbs adding, to the list of old vices, a new one called “sprawl.”

Of course, nobody believes it.  The stars and directors who make these movies live in suburban palaces.  The rest of us make do with our bit of green lawn, asphalt driveway, and the neighbor’s kids playing in the back yard.  The suburbs aren’t perfect, but they are a wonderful place in which to live.

Now this amazing WaPo article takes on the “five myths about suburbia, cars, and sprawl,” neatly demolishing the most intellectually fashionable line of attack on suburban life.  Americans, it turns out, are scarcely more addicted to cars than Europeans:  88 of all travel for us, to 78 percent for them.  “And the Europeans,” the article observes, “are gaining on us.”

Mass transit isn’t the answer.  Even in New York, most people drive cars to work, and for good reason:  they get there in about half the time.

What about air pollution?  Most people think it’s a growing problem:  in fact, pollution levels have been decreasing sharply all over the developed world, including the US.

What about the nature-killing ugliness of the suburbs:  overdevelopment?  Well, most of our very large country happens to be empty.  No more than 5.4 of it is developed.  Meanwhile, forest land is expanding.

But aren’t houses getting bigger?  Indeed they are, by about 50 percent in square footage since 1970.  I have trouble seeing this trend as a bad thing, but in any case house lots have grown smaller in the same period.  Bigger houses — smaller sprawl.

That the WaPo, a mainstream, nay, establishment daily, should publish such truths is to be commended.  Therefore, on behalf of all suburban dwellers (aka graduates, beauties, gophers) I would like to present this newspaper with the much coveted yet wholly obscure Dancing MSM Dinosaur Award, with gratitude for showing us that the unevolved sometimes can rock.

COMMENT FROM PETER V: . . . Thought you might be interested in my perspective. I grew up in Northern Virginia. (You might remember me as Adam’s friend who drove the sports car from the graduate) Now I live in New York City. My problem with the suburbs is as simple as the lack of family run businesses and entertainments. Every restaurant is Outback, every supermarket Giant every, Saturday-night-out is the multiplex. No doubt these institutions are on the rise everywhere but here in a big city there is enough density that the little stores with unique goods/perspectives/anything still survive. But, I do think things will get better in the suburbs. Their only real sin seems to be their immaturity. It takes a while for any inhabited region to develop character (just like a human being). First in, are the carpet-bagger institutions with big corporate support to help them survive in a new low density and fickle neighborhood. Eventually, once populations stabilize, and wealth accumulates, smaller businesses with unique wares and originality (bakeries, Dramatic theaters, fine non-corporate restaurants) can take root and survive. I like New York more than Northern Virginia simply because it’s old and has those institutions which grow more slowly but bear more exotic fruit. Most of the suburbs across the nation have only been around since the 70s/80s/90s and are still infantile as far as culture is concerned. This will change.  . . .

VM RESPONDS:  Great to hear from you, Peter.  Thanks for the perspective, which I’m sure is widely shared in NYC.  I won’t pretend that there are more choices for food or theater in our corner of Virginia than you would find in the city, but in my capacity as Defender of Sururbia and Sword of the Well-Mowed Lawn, I feel obliged to argue back.

When do populations stabilize?  NYC has been losing people for decades.  Our county, as you know, has grown tenfold in my lifetime.  It may actually be the case that some are leaving the former and coming to the latter.  In any case, carpetbagger is as carpetbagger does.  There are at least three Outback restaurants in Manhattan, and they are no doubt as crowded as the one in our home turf.  Customers like the fare.  That’s why they invade places and thrive.

There are hundreds of family restaurants in Northern Virginia — that’s what most restaurants here are.  I won’t draw up a list, but if I did it would go from the swankiest, Chez Francois (Alsatian), to the most modest, Happy Family (Chinese).  I’ve eaten at both, and both serve delicious stuff.

I have tickets for I Pagliacci at the GMU Center for the Performing Arts.  The Signature Theater in Arlington (please! a suburb if ever there was one) just built new facilities.  Wolftrap bangs away every summer, a couple of blocks from your parents’ home.  I saw Evita there, and My Fair Lady, and Carmen, and I heard wonderful music.  Also heard Johnny Winter and John Mayall play the blues at the State Theater.

But here’s the thing:  if I want to go downtown, I can!  To the Hirshhorn or the Smithsonian, or the National or the Kennedy Center.  I have a fossil-fuel-consuming car.  It can take me to the city, and it can take me back to the suburbs.

I don’t expect to persuade you — in fact, I wouldn’t want to.  Life would be boring if we all wished to live in identical places.  But remember that every human life is a series of phases.  Maybe at the age you were when you lived here, you thought every supermarket was a Giant and you couldn’t escape the multiplex come weekends.  You’re older now, and your perceptions are more mature.  It’s natural that you should enjoy where you are.  But you will grow older still:  that’s a prediction I’m willing to stand by.  You may even have children some day.

When that happens, let’s pick up the argument again.

NOW BRUTUS CHIMES IN:  I intend to write about this idea at length on my own blog, but let me say briefly that loathing of suburbia may not always be mere intellectual chic. There is an ugliness about suburbia (and I grew up in the burbs) that offends my aesthetic sensibility — not that the city doesn’t also offend in its own many ways. But the thing you don’t really speak to, which I will develop when I blog, is the collapse of mental space that the demographic shift to suburbia represents. There is a homogenization and sanitation and packaging of life that is quite disturbing and yet paradoxically appealing.

VM RESPONDS YET AGAIN:  Well, I can’t speak to your esthetic sensibilities, but I would rather take a walk in one of my neighborhood parks than, say, Central Park.  To address your worries about the “collapse of mental space,” we could try an experiment:  has the IQ of the Nobel winners at GMU collapsed since they arrived there?  It’s a testable proposition.  As for homogenization, I cite (wearily) wikipedia on my county:

Fairfax County is home to people from diverse backgrounds with significant number of Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Pakistani-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans along with other Americans of Asian descent. There is a sizeable Latino population primarily consisting of Salvadorians, Peruvians and Bolivians.

I suspect that you, and to some extent young Peter, exemplify the syndrome I mentioned in my original post.  You have pictures in your head to which you have attached strong emotions.  That’s okay.  It’s a free country.  But don’t confuse the suburbs of your imagination with an actual place on earth, where actual people live and work and raise their kids.