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"The [suburban] man is a man without a city -- in short a barbarian. Small wonder that bathtubs and heating systems and similar apparatus play such a large part in his conception of the good life. These are the compensations that carry him through his perpetual neurosis." -- Lewis Mumford, "The Wilderness of Suburbia" (1921)The sentences were written decades apart, but the sensibility remains remarkably consistent. There is no easier target of scorn in American culture than suburbia, and for almost a century cultural critics have leveled their big guns at it, finding in the suburbs the evils of middle-class existence -- standardization, conformity, assimilation, and alienation -- all in their purest form. Suburbia becomes a synecdoche for America. In decrying its lack of imagination, its murder of the spirit, critics are able to indict an economic system.
What's striking about that indictment, however, is the paucity of the evidence and the hysterical tone of voice in which the charges are announced. Suburbia, after all, has become so capacious a term that it has lost all meaning. It embraces Westchester County, the San Fernando Valley, and the bedroom communities outside Dallas, but it also includes Levittown, Macomb County in Michigan, and the working-class towns that surround Pittsburgh. It's so hard to say anything that's simultaneously true about all these communities that the best way to say it is by using the broadest strokes possible. More curiously, perhaps, even these broad generalizations often contradict one another. Suburbia is supposed to be the haven of conformity, but also the ultimate expression of atomized individualism. Its citizens are said to be withdrawing from civic life, but are also inveterate, at times frenetic, joiners without inner lives. They are isolated from each other, car-bound for most of their lives, but also too connected to their individual neighborhood.
Some version of each one of these attacks can be found in Richard Linklater's film version of Eric Bogosian's 1994 play subUrbia, which depicts one long day in the lives of five suburban kids living in Burnfield, Texas -- an archetypal suburban town located somewhere outside a big city. Mostly the kids hang out in front of the local convenience store, which is run by an enterprising young Pakistani who is putting himself through school, and bitch in one form or another about the emptiness of their lives. Everyone either wants to get out or wants simply to disappear. Jeff, the film's anti-hero, has a meaningless part-time job and takes one class at the community college. His girlfriend Sooze makes truly horrendous performance art and plans to go to New York to visit it upon the unknowing urbanites. Buff makes pizza and is generally blissful, albeit in a wonderfully stoned way. (It's probably telling that Buff's the only one who seems at all attuned to the strange pleasures suburbia offers.) And Tim, at once the film's most interesting and obvious character, is a former high-school football star who now gets through the night by drinking up his disability checks from the Air Force.
The film does have something resembling a narrative arc, but in the end the story is simply incidental to what seems to be the movie's main thrust -- namely the depiction of a world in which there is nothing to do and nowhere to do it. Still, since this is an attack on suburbia, and since it's written by Eric Bogosian, all this nothing is accompanied by lots of screaming and histrionic pronouncements. The strange thing about the film, in the end, is that it's not willing to let us see what the real slowness of a suburban summer night feels like. The film wants to be about boredom, but can't figure out a way to be anything but shrill.
subUrbia is frustrating in any number of ways, above all because it seems so out of character coming from Linklater, whose previous movies, including Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1994), showed a real respect for the details and momentary sweetnesses of everyday American life. But subUrbia is also not really about suburbia at all, and the fact that Eric Bogosian apparently thought it was tells us something interesting about what "suburbia" continues to mean to urban artists and intellectuals. The kids who hang out at the convenience store in Burnfield look no different, and act no different, from the kids you'd see in the East Village in New York. Their combination of world-weary alienation and artistic buoyance would be right at home in any Seattle coffee shop. But, at the same time, the peculiar reveling in the dead-end-ness of life in Burnfield, and Tim and Jeff's willingness to accept that there is no place to go and no reason to leave, seem far more reminiscent of urban working-class neighborhoods like South Boston than of places built, after all, because people imagined that something better was just over the horizon.
In that sense what's missing from subUrbia is not just what's interesting or comforting about suburban living but also what is truly troubling about it. Compared to a film like the 1979 classic Over the Edge, which tried to explain what it would be like to be a young person in a suburban community that didn't know what to do with young people, subUrbia seems like a movie about random existential alienation. That's fine, I suppose, but it doesn't really have much to do with suburbia at all, and doesn't tell us anything interesting about what it's like to live there.
What's telling, really, is that Bogosian should have located his screed against the banality of modern life in the suburbs, because it makes obvious the way in which suburbia becomes the place to which cultural and political anxieties can be displaced. More to the point, it makes clear how much of the suburban critique depends on an utter lack of interest in the suburban experience. It's not how people in suburbia think they live, or how they understand the way they live, that matters. What matters is that their lives are awful, and that that awfulness poses a threat to the rest of us -- with "us" understood to be the representatives of culture, art, and civic concern.
The best attack on the suburban critique probably remains Herbert Gans's book The Levittowners (1967), which makes sense, since Gans is a brilliant sociologist and since he actually lived in suburbia before deciding what he thought. As Gans writes,
[I]f Levittowners report that they find their community satisfying, as they do, their opinion ought to be respected.... [M]uch of the suburban critique is ... a thinly veiled attack on the culture of working- and lower-middle-class people, implying that mass-produced housing leads to mass-produced lives. The critics seem to forget that the town houses of the upper class in the nineteenth century were also physically homogeneous; that everyone, poor and rich alike, drives mass-produced, homogeneous cars without damage to their personalites; and that today, only the rich can afford custom-built housing."Brownstone, brownstone, brownstone, store front, brownstone, brownstone.
Still, class bias and lack of self-examination aside, the truth about suburbia's critics is probably that everything they dislike about suburban life is everything that's likeable about it: the sense of safety, the comfort of diversity in the context of seeming uniformity, the solace of a house of one's own, the sense of a life in which no great decisions need be made. The suburbs in the summertime have an air of melancholy lassitude that's not about alienation so much as it is about ease, about the ability to while away the hours riding a bike or sitting by the pool. Certainly the suburbs can be stultifying, conformist, and oh-so-dull, but listen to any Pavement song or go see Linklater's Dazed and Confused and you can get some sense of the way in which suburbia seems to promise that, in the end, everything will be all right. Not spectacular, but at least all right.
In the end I suspect that this is what's most troubling about suburbia -- that it is not so much a bland utopia as it is an anti-utopia, a place dedicated to the idea that struggle is not the guiding principle of existence, and that aimless comfort is an okay thing to want. The heart of suburbia is the idea that it's enough to be in-between, that the everyday has charms of its own. It's not an enviroment that welcomes radical change or that should be expected to produce great art. It's pragmatic rather than visionary. It's the place where America gave up its dreams of transforming the world and settled for mowing the lawn. But it's only if you think that transforming the world is possible that mowing the lawn can seem contemptible. And it's only if you've smelled fresh-cut grass that you can understand why suburbia sometimes seems like not such a bad place to be.
James Surowiecki is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Lingua Franca, The Village Voice, and The Boston Phoenix.
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