Bench Pressing

Here in the heart of my middle age, I keep thinking about living in suburbia. I remember as a college student being sure that’s what I didn’t want to do, but now I have to admit that I find it largely satisfying. That is substantially just the lived difference between being a college student and a middle-aged man. But I’m also minded of how I was prompted, as someone who aspired to be an intellectual, to think that the suburbs were dead and sterile, the cities were cultural and cutting-edge, and the rural was a sort of last bastion of authenticity (but also supposedly boring). There was a whole subgenre of films and novels about the repellent and artificial character of suburban life that flourished between the 1960s and 1980s. It’s a trope which I think has declined in influence but which still has some punch to it.

It’s a densely historical and layered vision, and it’s more than just a weapon in a long-running culture war. The suburbs didn’t happen by accident and they aren’t a pure expression of the natural market desires of postwar Americans. But they aren’t the spiritually and culturally vacated wasteland of The Ice Storm or American Beauty, either. Or maybe that’s just what the Fred Flintstones and Harry Angstroms think when they look about, mere heartbeats before thwarted desire or disease or failure come for a visit?

So at least I suppose those who write fiction from the peak of Mount Olympus may think when they gaze down on the tract-house mortals in their folly. But Saint Steven of the Extra-Terrestrial is there to bless the Big Wheels and Habitrails of yesteryear, so all may be well.

Me? I dunno, my cup doesn’t quite runneth over, but it’s pretty full. Yesterday, before the rains fell, I prowled around my little half-acre world and was happy.

And hey, the bench I’ve been working on is coming along pretty well.

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18 Responses to Bench Pressing

  1. dchudz says:

    You (at least if you live near the college) have, in walking distance, a few things that aren’t just rows of houses (pizza, a candy shop, restaurants, groceries, maybe a coffee shop, etc?). And also a quick train to downtown Philly.

    Both of those make a big difference to me. Looking around Swarthmore doesn’t bring to mind the ‘suburban cultural wasteland’ images.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    True enough, though we’re on the other side of the highway from Swarthmore–the train isn’t too far away (though it’s a perilous walk along a busy road with no shoulder), I can bike up to coffee shops and restaurants easily, and so on. So deepest darkest suburbia it is not, and I do remember living in places more like that when I was a teenager–where it was houses and nothing else for miles and miles.

  3. evangoer says:

    I can’t imagine that this trope has weakened. It’s the uber-trope. Urban settings are allowed to be positive, negative, or a mix of both. Rural settings, the same. But suburbia in serious fiction is always evil, full stop.

    If someone has pulled off this trick of writing an acclaimed novel or screenplay that emphasizes the virtues of suburbia, I would love to hear who, and what.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I suppose by weakened, I mean in part that there’s just less work for which is this almost the central idea or point of the narrative, which once upon a time was one of the sustaining themes of American fiction and cinema. But there’s also been more and more work that takes the suburbs as complex and ambivalent rather than an empty borderland between the real worlds of the city and the country. The Sopranos might be a good example of that evolution. I also think there’s a decent amount of fiction where suburban settings are more or less just a given, a kind of neutral backdrop rather than something about which the fiction has a furious point to make.

  5. evangoer says:

    Oh granted, there’s plenty of fiction where the suburbs are just a neutral backdrop. But if a work has anything to *say* about its setting, I think we’d be hard pressed to find any that basically celebrate the suburbs in the way that you can find works that celebrate the city or the country.

    The Sopranos are a great example of a work that absolutely depends on the “suburbs are evil” trope, but does it artfully, unlike American Beauty, Desperate Housewives, etc. First, the suburbs were there to show the price that Carmella paid for having married Tony — her husband is a traditional 50s-style breadwinner dad, and she has all these nice things, but it all sits on a pile of rot and evil. (Just like *you*, Mr. and Mrs. Suburban HBO Watcher!) Second, the Sopranos never quite fit in — no matter how hard Carmella tries, her non-mobster neighbors are always more tasteful and refined, and they can smell that her family is Different.

    I’m sure the show could have worked these two themes by putting the family in a wealthy urban setting…. but it would have lacked punch. Plus there’s a lot more room for comedy when contrasting gangsters against the suburbs.

  6. mlister says:

    Swarthmore seems like a really dull place to me, at least the times I’ve been there and near the college- really nothing there at all. Maybe I’m missing things. But living outside of a real city has become much, much better because of the internet, in that you can now buy books and watch movies much more easily than if you lived in many cities. For intellectual types I really think that the importance of amazon, netflix, and the like (and ebay and other things, too) for making life acceptable in smaller towns shouldn’t be underestimated.

  7. Bill McNeill says:

    I’ve been on the lookout for answers to Evangoer’s question for a while because I also find the whole suburbs-as-wasteland trope overplayed and false, and I haven’t had much luck. I can only think of a few examples in which a suburban setting takes on a specific recognizable character, as opposed to either an unconsidered background or a festering well of ennui. A lot of Stephen King has a backyards-and-supermarkets authenticity that gives the fantastic elements of his stories the ballast of reality they need. (Arguably Stephen King writes more about small town America than the suburbs, but those categories are pretty blurred at this point.) Steven Spielberg, particularly in E.T. Tim’s Soprano’s suggestion is a good one. I’d also nominate the 1996 Steve Buscemi movie Trees Lounge, because it makes suburban Long Island a very particular place, and not just generic unhappyland.

    As for unabashedly positive suburban depictions, as opposed to lived-in ones, I’m drawing a blank. There are lots of idealized small towns in fiction, but here the lines are not blurry. Mayberry and Bedford Falls are definitely towns, not suburbs. And I can’t think of any full-on romanticized suburban depictions to compare with, say, Woody Allen’s view of Manhattan.

    The obvious explanation for the suburbs-are-bad theme in fiction is snobbery on the part of urbanite writers (particularly those fleeing their suburban upbringings), and I’m sure that’s true. But there may be a structural reason as well. The suburbs are supposed to be the place you go to escape hassles, and interesting fiction requires its characters to get hassled, so there’ll be a strong pull towards subverting the setting.

  8. Western Dave says:

    In non-fiction, The Tender Bar is a pretty glowing portrayal of suburbia in contrast to the completely disfunctional family the author grew up in. The book is a memoir, but having grown up in the same town at the same time, I can verify huge parts of the book from my own life and know most of the named people and the descriptions of events which I have direct knowledge are accurate so I suspect the rest of it is too.

    In fiction, Gish Jen’s work seems to be pretty positive on suburbia. I do think there is a huge difference between the railroad suburbs like Swarthmore, Manhasset (where I grew up), Germantown (where I now live which was annexed to the city of Philadelphia) and the later car oriented suburbs, particularly those built after say 1975. Rio Rancho (just west of Albuquerque) seems a wasteland to me without even the benefit of good schools to recommend it.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Information technology and the sense of connection to a cultured world is an important piece of this history, though of course there are those who craft Putnam-style complaints that this just increases the manorial, atomistic, alienated character of suburban life at the expense of some kind of real gemeinschaft or some real avant-garde cosmopolitanism. I think as I see it, it’s what has let the suburbs be more of a having-cake-and-eating-it-too sort of thing. This might be also part of the explanation of some antagonism towards the suburbs (and the reason to introduce tension and danger into them): a sense that if life is too settled, some important source of useful change, rootlessness, ambition, fire-in-the-belly, frontier-seeking spirit will vanish from American life. (Which is certainly a theme that The Sopranos is messing around with.)

    I like our side of the highway better, by the way: Media actually has some interesting stuff going on. Swarthmore’s retail downtown has long seemed to me to be the antithesis of what a little college town could be and ought to be. But this steers into potentially tense waters–the fundamental split within Swarthmore the town over the question of what the retail portion of the town should be was exposed in a very raw way by the first vote to allow for a single liquor license in a potential inn project, and has stayed rather raw ever since.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I’d agree that the pure car suburbs of the American West and the denser suburbs of the East, many of them built on top of or near to existing towns of some age, feel very different. That’s also the difference between my teenage experience and now–one of the places I grew up in Southern California was an entirely new creation that we moved into right after the plaster on the houses dried. (It looked almost exactly like the suburb in E.T.) It had some nice features–kids could wander pretty freely, you could hike up in the Santa Monica Mountains very easily, the houses were large, the lots were generous, but on the other hand, I couldn’t go anywhere outside the development without my parents driving me, it was only connected to Santa Monica by a very long access road that went down to the very tail end of Sunset Boulevard.

  11. evangoer says:

    The comments above are really helpful. I particularly like what Bill and Tim say about the structural reasons for subverting the setting. This issue is one I’ve been chewing on for some time now, and you all have definitely given me some new things to think about. 🙂

  12. Tim, I think you, dchudz, and Dave are are clarifying (whether you mean to or not) what lived realities give enduring power to anti-suburban tropes: the fact that some suburban environments, twenty or thirty years after the modern American suburban development was born in the flush of post-WWII wealth and planning, had very little to connect themselves to (spatially or conceptually) except more suburbs, the result being an endless expansion of pre-fabricated homes, parks, bike trails, etc. As you note, that’s not necessarily bad: if those trails can lead the kids to natural or urban environments where they can explore and develop themselves individually, then their secure homestead probably won’t easily play on their minds as stultifying. But of course, that wasn’t (and isn’t the case) for many suburbs; instead, the miles and miles of bike trails go nowhere. And that’s just the kid’s imaginations: for many adults (the breadwinner negotiating endless cul-de-sacs only to emerge on a freeway, the homemaker having to create of social environment for him or (almost inevitably) herself and the kids out of neighbors who had no more reason to choose where they lived than affordability), the pull of the trope is even more strongly grounded in really existential experience.

    I say this as someone who looked at your delightful pictures (love the swing!) and thought, “that’s not suburban at all.” I’ll allow that maybe there’s some hair-splitting going on here–for city planners and census-takers, there’s probably an explicit demographic definition of “suburban” for which all historical/economic/cultural speculation is irrelevant–but I see your variety of overgrown flora, the messy space for landscaping projects, and I see very little there which smacks of the physical realities of the mass suburbs which dominated from the 60s through the 90s, and which many examples can still be found today. Technically, we live in the “suburbs”–but it’s never felt like it, because we’re right between an undeveloped, weed-covered lot and a creek run-off filled with frogs, and we’re just off a main street heading downtown and are in walking distance from church and school (and I can bike to work). Of course, one of the results of that is that we’re not as “safe,” the homes are older, and property values are lower (and aren’t likely to increase). But in a match-up between some rural and urban ideal, I think where we live, and where you live, probably aren’t really existing in the hypothetical, alienated, suburban middle-point, but rather enjoy something that falls outside those unenviable parameters.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    See, the thing is, I suspect that the not-really-suburbs that you’re identifying are more typical examples of actually-existing-suburbs after 1960 than the typical ones that Pete Seeger was singing about in the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes”. The suburbs where creeks (perhaps silted, lightly fouled) wove in between half-acre parcels, where malls were close at hand but so were tangled woods, vacant lots, and so on. Where the sameness and ugliness of a fresh-baked development gave way forty years later to individuality and hominess as successive owners remodeled, reconfigured, and just plain lived in what was once made as homogenous. The neighborhood I live in is full of houses built at the same time to the same plans, but at least they were situated on lots in slightly different places or at variant angles, and more importantly, over time people have just done a variety of things with the houses and the lots. I’m probably the most hippieish, non-conforming person in terms of my plantings and projects, but the folks on one side of us took an old decrepit greenhouse and made a sweet little playhouse, further down they put a really big addition on the back side, further down on the other side they’ve done some great looking stonework in the front and built a porch, and so on. I just suspect that this is not an odd exception to how suburbs become as they’re lived in–that much of the anti-suburb trope is marked by the first encounter with the suburb from people who came of age in a world where the suburb per se had not existed.

  14. Western Dave says:

    And let’s not forget, suburbs date back to the 1880s, they weren’t some post-World War II invention. And my own pro-suburban leanings, formed as they are by lived experience as well as historical research, are as much a reaction against gated communities just as the suburbs themselves were often valorized for being “not city.”

  15. Tim,

    I just suspect that this is not an odd exception to how suburbs become as they??e lived in–that much of the anti-suburb trope is marked by the first encounter with the suburb from people who came of age in a world where the suburb per se had not existed.

    Perhaps–I’m surely no expert in how Leavittown, etc., was received in the popular American imagination in the 1950s and 60s. However, I would argue–simply on the basis on my own observations, as well as the homes we rented in Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, and here in Kansas before we bought this one–that our blessedly “not-really-suburbs” suburbs are relatively odd exceptions. Or, perhaps it might be better to say, they’ve become the exception. Sure; maybe these were the dominant suburban model a half-century ago. But as you say, following that you have forty-years of homeowners investing in their places and neighborhoods. I think the suburban tropes you’re attacking didn’t come from those aging and changing suburbs; they came from those which became standard two or three decades after WWII, the car-centric ones built for commuters for whom public transit was an under-funded dead option and suburban schools offered salvation from Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg. I still see plenty of that dominant model today.


    Let?? not forget, suburbs date back to the 1880s, they weren?? some post-World War II invention.

    Fair enough; you’re right. But then, as I said, there are probably strictly economic, demographic, or zoning-related definitions of “suburb” which, while true, have relatively little to do which the particular lived realities which seem to long have (and which continue) to give validity to the tropes being discussed.

  16. G. Weaire says:

    (Warning: didn’t grow up in the US and have never lived in a US suburb* – probably ignorant.)

    One additional ingredient: changes in the image of the suburb are inextricable from changes in the image of central cities. As a particular hostile image of the “crime-ridden” big city has tended to diminish, so has the hostile image of the “boring” suburb, and vice versa.

    *From what little I have seen, I’d second the point about variety. One can talk about car-driven suburbs in the West as the epitome of suburban horror – but I don’t know that I’d feel all that sorry for someone who was condemned to the sheer hell of living in Claremont, CA.

  17. MissTrudy says:

    I guess it really depends on the area. I spent the last 10 years living in a very nice suburb, 1930s house with huge back yard and big, shady trees, a veggie garden and a porch… it was okay. Comfortable. Yet I am so happy that I am now right back in the middle of a historic downtown with a very rich cultural and night life, a balcony onto old rooftops and church belfries, and don’t have to worry about the yard and all that jazz. Both have its pleasures, I guess, the suburbs and urban living.

  18. Western Dave says:

    I have done research on suburbs and can say that from the 1950s many urban elites sneered at suburbs. Herbert Gans’ Levittowners (based on his participant anthropology of the Pennsylvania Levittown and one of the most widely read and cited books) argued that the suburbs were sterile, homogeneous and stultifying.. But Gans’ own research showed that the suburbs were dynamic, heterogeneous, and contentious. It’s just that the issues that were most discussed in Levittown weren’t national or international but local. The school budget was the hottest issue and dominated discussions as pro- and anti- school budget factions formed. I also think Gans simply was lost navigating the world of women he found himself in. In retrospect, the stultifying discussions on child rearing he documented were, perhaps, vitally important ways of identifying and partnering with child caregivers to create support networks to replace the old kinship networks. Other widely read works, like Split Level Trap tended to echo those sentiments. In retrospect, again, I think they were reacting to the overwhelming skewed sex ratios of suburbs in the day time. The city was masculine; the suburb was feminine. City dangerous, but dynamic and good. Suburb, safe and sterile. Works that tended to disagree with this consensus (Working Class Suburb, for example) didn’t get wide play.

    The New Yorker. was another site that constantly ridiculed the suburbs in it’s cartoon section. (I actually did a project on that in English class in High School).
    @Gavin Claremont and Rio Rancho are entirely different beasts.
    @Trudy Sounds great, when I was 25. But at 43 with 3 kids, Center City is unaffordable. So it’s a rundown 1880s suburb within the city limits for me.

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