Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What the suburbs say about us

I have a dear friend who detests the suburbs.

Her particular disdain is for the Chicago suburbs, but it would not surprise me if she harbored antipathy towards suburbia in general. Part of it, I would argue, is psychological. Suburban living was not kind to her on many levels. Another part of it is quasi-elitist. Places not open late enough, places that are open are chain eateries, et. al.

But there's a big part of her objections that are valid.

All of this was brought to mind for me by a piece on Urban Archeology on PBS' Nova. Our common conception is to think of "archeology" as involving digs in remote locations, mummies in Egypt, or at the very least bullwhips and fedoras. We don't realize that much of that field of study takes place in the neighborhoods of cities. The Nova piece highlighted work being done in the Boston area that has made discoveries as to 17th and 18th Century living in those parts. I know that here in Chicago, similar work is ongoing in the Ft. Dearborn area. This work should tell us about what happened during that era of history, who the people were that lived there, and what they as a society valued.

So if similar research is undertaken on the suburbs one day, what will it say about our society? What do suburbanites value?

To answer that question, I had to recall quasi-journalistic work I did in a previous lifetime. I once randomly asked residents of a highly-affluent Chicago suburb what they liked most about their burb. The phrase I got most in return?

"We have the Riverwalk and lots of great stores and restaurants."

Right, wrong, or indifferent, that's a statement of societal value.

The respondents did not mention the school systems, the community programs, art and culture, or even the parks. They went straight for where they eat, shop, and look at pretty things.

I am not attempting to bag on suburbia per se. I lived in one for many years and I understand why they came about in theory. There were people who wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted the amenities of an urban area but with a small town feel and safety for their children (check this: Suburb-hating is anti-child!) I can empathize. One finding of our society has been, however, that where you live helps to determine your values and your mindset. If that archeological excavation ever does take place, what mindset will the suburbs reveal?

A predilection for insipid architecture?

Subdivisions of identical housing units?

An almost sexual need for shopping malls?

An extreme preoccupation with sports?

Pathological addiction to fossil fuels despite numerous signs that oil and coal are running out?

Intellectual vapidity that is treasured and then indoctrinated into children?

Expensive, copycat fashion and architecture combined with massive consumption in order to obscure all that subfuscous matter within?

Riverwalks and chain restaurants?

Ask yourself what we leave behind.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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