Compulsive Suburbia

Housing and living habits of the rising American generation have long interested JOHN KEATS, who now considers the social consequences of the warrenlike settlements outside some of our metropolitan centers. Mr. Keals is the author of THE CRACK IN THE PICTURE WINDOW, an account of the construction industry, and THE INSOLENT CHARIOTS, a scrutiny of American automobiles.

NICK and Fran Baxter live, so to speak, with their three children in one of the five hundred threebedroom houses of a real-estate nightmare we shall call Apple Drive. Neat, clean, wholesome, slightly vacuous, the Baxters look like one of those idealized suburban families you see in the fullcolor advertisements of the women’s magazines. They bought their house because a) they were told that a family should own one, and b) they imagined it would be cheaper to buy a house in the suburbs than to rent in the city. This was thoughtless of them, and they are now beginning to discover the hidden prices: the years wasted in commuting, the rising assessments. Together with all others trapped in this development miles from nowhere, the Baxters are the prey of pressures less readily apparent to them, but which conspire to make suburban life somewhat disappointing. For one thing, Apple Drive, like most developments, is a jail of the soul, a wasteland of lookalike boxes stuffed with look-alike neighbors.

Here are no facilities for human life, other than bedrooms and bathrooms. Here is a place that lacks the advantages of both city and country but retains the disadvantages of each. Each suburban family is somehow a broken home, consisting of a lather who appears as an overnight guest, a put-upon housewife with too much to do, and children necessarily brought up in a kind of communism. For Apple Drive children, life is play school at age three, preschool at age four, kindergarten at age five. Thus do suburban mothers force their primary responsibilities upon someone else as soon as they can, in order to cope with the lesser but insistent needs to drive to the supermarket, clean the house, gabble on the telephone, and attend the Kaffeeklatsch. So, suburban children learn the dreary steaminess of group life as soon as they can walk, and after school they are plunked down before the television set to watch the slaughter in the late afternoon while mom thaws supper. In the evening the baby sitters arrive.

In addition, the families who live in our nation’s Apple Drives are divided by the rifts in interest between mothers and fathers; they encounter the schizoid experience of the boring workday and the glittery weekend, the problems of shopping in person by automobile at the low-quality stores of the anonymous shopping centers, the eternal chauffeuring of the children, the pressure of having to be friends with the folks next door simply because they live next door. Then they try to reconcile the fact that this is a man’s world with the obvious fact that suburbia is a world of women without men, a matriarchy by default. Uneasily, some suburbanites suspect — along with many psychiatrists — that a matriarchy is no fit place to raise a child.

Moreover, suburban developments are stratified societies — stratified by difference in price. All families in the $14,000 ranch houses are very much like each other but are different from the families in the $7500 Cape Cods and different again from the people in the $17,000 split levels. Specific effects of this stratification will be seen in a moment, but meanwhile it should be remarked that nearly everyone in suburbia is in transit between one and another of America’s social classes. The residents believe they are either on their way up or that they have taken a step down. For instance, there is a current argument over the local school that serves one sprawling Pennsylvania development area. No racial question is involved. The problem is that some of the people in the $17,000 houses do not want their children to attend the same school that children from the $14,000 houses attend.

HERE is certainly a milieu that shrieks for mitigation. It is absolutely different from any other society that America has ever produced, and it is new since the last world war. Its pressures are great, but rather than attempting to deal with these uncomfortable realities in any constructive way, most suburbanites, like the Baxters, try to drift away from them. The most prevalent form of escape can be called compulsive buying, and Nick is a practitioner and victim of it.

Easygoing and affable, Nick wears a grin and is generally regarded as a good guy. Of course, he pads his expense account, an act which makes him a liar and a thief, but Nick sees nothing wrong with doing what everybody else does. At the end of his working day, Nick drives home in his new, unpaid-for car. He mows the lawn with his encumbered power mower, then relaxes in his mortgaged house to watch a program on his notentirely-paid-for television set. Last summer he hitched his still-unpaid-for outboard cruiser behind the old car that he has not yet finished buying and, using his gasoline credit card at filling stations end his hotel credit card at restaurants and motels, anjoyed three weeks of family fun in America’s Northwest. He allows Fran charge accounts at the shopping center’s clothing and furniture shops and is thinking about a fly-now pay-later vacation in the Caribbean next Christmas. His $8200 a year just meets all the monthly payments.

What is wrong with this? And how does this make Nick immoral? Frankly, Nick doesn’t see a thing in the world wrong with it; as he says, “I’m feeling no pain.”

The answer is that Nick is immoral because he has no sense of obligation. Morality pertains to action with reference to right and wrong, with reference to duty. Credit, after all, is a promise. The too-casy acceptance of too-easy credit is clearly immoral, for there is nothing behind such promises except naked, hopeful greed on the part of both debtor and creditor. Morality, by definition, implies hard thought and conscious choice, but Nick neither thinks nor chooses.

Nick and Fran Baxter never ask each other, “Do we really need this or do we just want it?” Nor do the sellers, who batten on customers like the Baxters, nor do the credit agencies, who batten even more, ask themselves, “Should I sell to this guy or do I just want to make a sale?” Instead, the Baxters simply wonder, “What will the payments be?” and the merchants tell them.

Neither Nick nor Fran ever wonders what would happen if, for any reason, that $8200 stopped coming in. Their basic immorality is that they not only have mortgaged their own future but, worse, are also trifling with their children’s future. They have mortgaged that, too, when it is their clear responsibility to do exactly otherwise. If it is immoral to shirk responsibility, surely it is even less moral to accept implied responsibility without being able to distinguish between a sound value and a passing fad.

It is precisely here that suburbia’s basic immorality begins. It is not lurid but rather a kind of garden, or crab grass, immorality, and the occasional drunks and adulterers of suburbia may be regarded as the logical end products of a consistent failure to act thoughtfully and choose wisely in homely things.

Living on credit and buying compulsively are by no means limited to suburbia; indeed, this sort of drift is a national failure. In suburbia, however, the drift is seen at its flaccid worst, because nowhere else in America do people drift together in such huge, homogeneous clots, so moored to nothing. This homogeneous grouping, together with the physical deficiency of cluttered isolation, is what makes suburbia such a special place, so inviting to the anthropologist. Both the homogeneity and the isolation occur because housing developments do not grow out of life’s conditions and needs, as a city or a country village grows. Developments are simply collections of cubicles that rise out of a bulldozed plain at a real-estate promoter’s desire; they are connected with no reality but a bank and have no roots but mortgages that are valuable solely to the builder. Because America still tends to stratify itself by income, the difference in the prices of development homes works to create populations that share the same basic tastes and ideas; within each development people hold the same kinds of jobs, enjoy the same incomes, meet the same problems, have the same number of children, and, possibly, have a common blood type.

Proof of suburban homogeneity is pathetically obvious. In one housing development, for example, nearly every house has a peculiar lamp, with an enormous shade, in the exact center of each picture window. In another, a couple of miles away, nearly everyone has built little shelves across his picture window and has filled these shelves with small glass animals. In enterprising Apple Drive, nearly everyone has thrown out the old sling chairs and has gone in for French Provincial. In these barrack communes, where nearly everyone is alike to begin with and where all are subjected to the same advertisements and limited to the same shopping centers, compulsive thingpurchasce becomes an attempt to escape in lock step. Fran didn’t buy new chairs because the old chairs wore out; she bought them because they were the new thing. Her chandelier does not light her life but represents her joining in the new fad for chandeliers.

When any activity reaches fad proportions, sociologists remark that it is evidence of public boredom and an attempt to escape from boredom. But the sociologists add that, because a fad is by its own nature boring, it is quickly exhausted; the boredom returns increased, and the stage is set for the new fad. Thus it is that the French Provincial and the chandeliers will be gone tomorrow from Fran’s life.

BEING segregated populations, suburbanites may have a natural tendency to conformity, but, more than any other group of people, they tend to look anxiously around to see what their neighbors are doing and buying. In a sense, this is a rather pathetic clutching at a mutual straw; at any rate, suburbanites seem to think they must have whatever anyone else has, not because they need it but because other people have it. and they seem to want very much to be part of the group. It is not altogether clear just why suburbanites want to be groupy. Perhaps, being largely the generation now in its late thirties and early forties, they inherit a legacy of groundless from the Depression days, or from the New Deal, or from the experience of the war, or, more prosaically, it may be because they share a feeling of inadequacy. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that suburbia’s watchword is “Get with it.” Heresy is the worst suburban sin, ostracism the worst fate, adjustment to the group is held to be the highest good; and suburbia’s factorylike new schools are generally temples to this creed.

Getting along with the group is a good thing only if it can be generally established that what everyone is doing is good. Suburbia is immoral in that it applies no such test. Nick Baxter, as noted, pads his expense account because this is a general practice. Since everybody else does it, he says, he would be silly not to. His wife, Fran, unthinkingly goes along with the party game that nearly everyone plays in Apple Drive. A simple game, it goes like this: The men gather in the kitchen for another drink while the wives cover themselves with sheets and lie on the floor. Then the men try to find their proper mates by a careful, prolonged feeling of the forms under the sheets. They call this “Braille.” The big switch is for the women to grovel around on the floor, blindfolded, trying to identify their husbands by feeling bared male legs.

“It’s just fun,” Fran explained, “I guess.”

The fact that Fran was moved to guess whether such a pastime was fun or not is the best news from suburbia since the bulldozers batted down all the trees. One by one, an increasing number of suburbanites are beginning to wonder whether their communal life is good. Fran’s neighbor Sarah Howard, for instance, questions the second most prevalent form of suburban escape, the weekend cocktail party. Her objection is important, for it goes past a simple loathing for the games played on these occasions and strikes at the basic reason for the parties. “The trouble with us,” she said, “is that we drink too much.”

Sarah made her discovery after nursing a single Martini through a Saturday night. It was purely an experiment. Cold sober, she saw the emptiness of her life for the first time, or, rather, she discovered that nobody had anything to say to anybody else.

“Everybody was standing around yakking and laughing,” she said. “It was all gabble, gabble, gabble. People would say the same things over and over again, never finishing sentences. Nobody really listened to anybody. Everybody stood around dumb and happy with a big, fat smile, talking louder and louder about nothing at all. A big, fat nothing is what it was.

“I tell you,” Sarah said, “next time I’m going to drink. At least you think you’re having a good time when you’re half crocked.”

She said this quite simply, as though it made perfectly good sense. She saw nothing fantastic in the idea that a group of young American parents, like herself and her husband and the Baxters, could find only the illusion of happiness when they gathered together, and then only when half stoned. At the same time she realized a) that everyone drank too much, and b) that no one had anything to say. Asked why she intended to go to another such affair, Sarah explained, “We have to live with these people.”Only to an outsider would this suburban proposition seem open to question.

What hope for suburbia there is lies in such twinges of healthful doubt as are now beginning to assail Fran and Sarah. Nothing can be done to cut the commuting time that produces the daily divorce. A little, but not much, can be done to relieve the physical monotony; something can be done now and again to make the development more than a collection of bedrooms. For instance, one group of suburbanites bought one house when it came on the market and converted it into a library. In the main, however, a development is an environment that cannot be altered for the better by any means short of dynamite and bulldozing; if anything is to be salvaged out of suburbia, it must be the people who live there.

Since salvation is always acutely personal, dependent upon self-examination and self-imposed tasks, you will find no detailed formulas here under the heading “How To Be Yourself.” On the other hand, we can make a general observation: It is fairly obvious that suburbanites will have to dispense with their drive toward groupiness if they are to be saved, that each must conclude for himself that group activity is generally so much back-scratching, that any group is most often merely the infinite reflection you see in the distorting mirrors of the glass house at the amusement park.

The chances are nil that suburbia will come to any such conclusions in the immediate future, however, because most suburbanites are apt to join Nick Baxter in saying, “What are you crabbing about? We never had it so good.” Then off they’ll go, drifting from one vague disappointment to the next, deep in the narcotic trance of advertised promise, never thinking of themselves but always of their diversions, entirely unaware that they are neither giving nor receiving anything of value. Feeling no part of the city where they work and uninterested in the monotonous bedroom area where they sleep, moored to nothing, they make no decisions. They say neither yes nor no when their Martinis are replenished, and it is a short step from this kind of acceptance to acceptance of crime in the cities, thievery in government, knavery in labor unions, unconscionable business practices, mindlessness in the public schools, and the disappearance of anything that could remotely be called the national will. Such are the penalties of drift; such are the results of moral failure around the house.

At the moment, suburbia has a long way to go if it wishes to head in the direction of reality, for as one suburbanite said, “If the networks were smart, they’d take the payola from the record companies instead of letting the disc jockeys get it.”

When you hear remarks like this, you sometimes think that maybe fire should be fought with fire. For instance, could suburbia’s immoral groupiness be turned to advantage? It is interesting to speculate that suburbia’s salvation may depend on Sarah Howard’s ability to make a fad out of not getting drunk at cocktail parties.