The Suburban Condition

What is the suburban way of life?

Subways, submarines, substitutes, subtractions, submissions, suburbs. The etymology of the word ‘suburb’ suggests a sub-form of urban life. A way of living that is (sub)urban, i.e., under or inferior that which is urban. A lifestyle that lacks qualities of the urban which originates it and which still defines it. A sub-life, or an urban life under conditions which do not quite meet a definition of life in the city.

Suburban life is very different from rural life The rural is erected upon the reproduction of human beings through their engagement with nature, through transformations of land and its productivity which are at the very essence of labor and existence, toil and pleasure. Suburban life, on the contrary, seeks to offer human beings the amenities of urban life, without the stress of urban overpopulation and sensorial pollution.

An existential transformation occurs when one moves out of the urban setting. Suburban provides the opportunity of rediscovering the horizon. The utmost experience of a horizon is at a beach or on top of a mountain. Cities subtract the horizon from human sight, and overlap rectangular blocks in a mosaic that has as its primary objective to subtract the philosophical vision provided by the horizon. Urban nearsightedness is a cultural form of myopia. Inhabitants of cities are shortsighted, and believe all that matters in the world to be inside their curveless mosaic. No horizon leaves them without perspective. Can suburbs recover perspective?

There is a wildlife adapted to urban life — crows, owls, small rodents, skunks and raccoons — and there is wildlife which would never survive inside cities. Indeed fox, wolves, coyote, hawks and deer finds suburban life rather attractive. There must be some parallel between the kind of animals who enjoy suburbs and humans who also prefer this habitat.

Suburban lifestyle is frequently links to driving cars, long distances, highways and shopping centers. It is true. All the above are important elements of the logistics of like in the suburbs. All of them, however, are solutions, as a matter of fact bad ones, for problems that arise from not being able to arrive by foot at urban facilities and consumption venues. The myth of the driving force of cars and highways must be met with some skpeticism. Suburban life would be impossible without mass transit railroad networks, a major form of public transportation that take commuters to and from work in the city. The existence of public transportation, not the preference for cars and highways, is the defining of the mobility of suburban people. If they depended on their car to get to work, they would have moved back into the city.

Silence is a primitive element of the construction of the suburban way of life. The one who chooses to move out of the city usually seeks a place to live where the level of noise is significantly lower. City pollution is sensorial: the smell of carbon dioxide, the sight of too many billboards, the noise of buses and cars, the rubbing against other people on sidewalks and mass transit, and the tastelessness of the hurried lunches over a half-hour break. No noise, green images, flowery smells, loads of armspace and homemade food. Silence as metaphor for the sensorial transformation provided by the suburban condition.

There is a middle class that discovered that it can afford something better than the all too expensive, tight and crowded life in gentrified inner cities. There is another, poorer, middle class which also found out it afforded something better, in their case a house away from the ghetto and away from all that was associated to a prior experience of deprivation. These two middle classes converge in their angst to flee the city. In their new suburban condition, they seek to preserve the urban lifestyles they inherited and to cleanse their daily existence from the perils of overgrown cities and their deteriorated quality of life.

Aesthetics. Suburban beauty is a strange concept. Starts from architecture. Every house looks the same. There is no concern with differentiation in the suburbs, as the residences lined up on every street look so similar that one frequently is surprised with mistaking one’s house for another’s and vice versa. Uniformity of architecture is coupled with uniform landscapes. Cities often share similar traits, for instances the brownstone residences in cities in the East Coast. Yet that which has historical roots in urban settings, and which explains the dynamics of gentrification therein, is the product of explicit aesthetic human impulses in the suburbs. We are not before working class housing converted into chic upper middle class nieghborhoods; that is, houses do not happen do be all similar in the suburbs; people, residents or developers choose that way, and none of it has historical roots. Suburban beauty, in other words, is about being like others, mingling and taking pleasure out the anonymity that springs from it.

Cars line on main streets flowing towards the station. It is early in the morning and commuters flock to catch their train to work. Yellow buses stop throughout the itineraries to pick up kids to school. At the station, passenger side doors opens for the working crowd to unload. Others park their vehicles in designation spot and rush walking running to the platform. Ladies stand in front of the station waiting for their lady bosses to come pick them up for the daily chores and babysitting for which they are hired. In the end of the afternoon, a similar period of intense activity invades the suburb’s otherwise placid routine. Twice a day. Before work and after work. For two moments in a workday, the suburb can be as active as the city. Only two moments.

A suburban village is not a small town. (elaborate). Next to a suburban village, however, there is always a small town carrying those services the villagers want out of their local commerce. Hospitals, shopping centers, fast food chains, there are many types of service that villages do not carry because the people who live off of its services refuse to license other establishments. Liquor stores, dry cleaners, delis, local restaurants, real estate agents, doctors, dance and music schools — these are the sorts of businesses villages seek.

Crows build their nests on high trees and take care of them in crowds, noisy crowds. Red-tailed falcons furiously attack those nests in search of food. Alone, they make eggs and young their prey in a battle they lose in numbers, but not in efficiency. What does this have to do with suburban life? Crows and falcons.

To those outside the suburbs, deer seem like cute animals imported into more urban settings from the wilderness. To the suburban, however, they are only carriers of lyme disease that need to be kept off one’s property. Almost every deer in the suburbs carries ticks that transmit the illness.

Moms. A suburban mom is a different spin on maternity. Suburban life is a choice to leave the urban setting and all it entails from the standpoint of raising kids. That means, above all, that someone in the household must take on the responsibility for the kids’ mobility and ensure the house is properly stocked with supermarket goods. In the city, the chores are often shared by a couple, both working and using spare time to carry them out. In the suburban setting, however, commuting eats so much time and the new setting requires so much more back and forth, here and there, by car, that one must sacrifice work to become a different kind of provider. An old style one, indeed, a house mom, but nowhere is it written that such role must be performed by the mom. A suburban mom is a character, more often than in the city, carried out by daddy. Why? (explain)

From my window I can see an old swing, two seats, abandoned next to a doghouse, wood and shingles. These two staples of our imagination about the suburban landscape are not an integral part of suburban lifestyle, not for dogs, not for kids. One rarely sees dogs in houses set for them in the front yard. In the suburbs, dog are meant to receive all freedom and nature cities do not provide. Thus dogs walk with their owners through greener sceneries, kids are taken by parents to greener, larger and better equipped public parks. A dog on a lawn, in front of the house, is generally wearing a visible collar that keeps him within an invisible fence. A kid on a swing on that lawn is either lonely or bored. Neither one, however, is to be found that easily on the suburbans lawns. That is why the swing is broken and the doghouse abandoned.

The suburban cycle. Starts as an imperative linked to the cost-benefit analysis of living in the city versus getting better quality of life in suburbs. Part of this imbricated calculus is the kids and the school for your tax bucks you get in the burbs. But kids grow, and grow out of suburban life. When they go to college, game over. The advantages of suburban life wither away as the tax cost, which includes the big bucks school taxes that finance good education and reproduce the politics of exclusion for public schools, based upon these taxes tied to property and, more specifically, one’s address. there are always houses for sale and buyers for houses in the suburbs. The cycle created by growing kids ensure that.

I wonder how much of America’s do-it-yourself culture can be attributed to the suburban way of life. The obvious explanation is the price of manual labor which make hiring services a costly solution to problems, particularly home maintenance ones, that can be resolved with some learning, a few cheap tools and time, mostly time. This is an irrefutable trait of the American way of life in general, but it has a deeper layer of meaning when looked at with the eyes of the suburbs. There, it is not only the price of labor which determines the preference for do-it-yourself solution. but also the distance which services have to travel in order to attend to demand. An hour each way, in order for a service to come until you and then return to its base, puts an enormous burden on service fees, as these are, more often than not, priced by the hour. No particular service provider will gain from this logistics hurdle, as all work under the same strain of arriving at the distant place where services will be rendered. But there is no way around budgeting the time to get there when you operate with hourly fees to pay your workers and to charge your customers. In general, suburban services cost more than urban ones. It is one of those cases where time and space conflate. Longer distances equal longer response time which equals higher costs which equals higher prices.

Suburban garbage is not that different from urban garbage. First, one should not expect the diet or consumption habits of the surburban to differ much from that of his urban counterpart. Both are intensive in producing litter, particularly plastic, aluminum and paper. Recycling, therefore, is a important part of suburban policies. Although the habit of recycling is there, the power to recycle is not. The small town of suburbs do not have enough resource or scale to engage in sustainable recycling and, as a consequence, they are force to seek partners in their enterprise — they can sort and pick up separate type of garbage but require someone to actually process and recycle. This is where the Chinese come in. Nowadays, they are the main purchasers of suburban recyclable garbage. And they are becoming more demanding everyday, particularly about reducing the content of non-recyclable garbage that is delivered to them with that which is recyclable. The result is public authorities that invest in information to the public and good garbage separation habits. The Chinese are nowadays the moving force behind how suburbans recycle their garbage.

Cars have always been a item of display and ostentation in American culture. Initially, in the 50s, these cars social value was determined by size and fins. Later, as cities regained their status as poles of attraction to the rich and middle class, their cars had to adapt to urban spatial constraints. Cars becomes smaller, models began to express the shameful feeling of those who drive them in public transport oriented environments. In the suburbs, where spatial constraints remained less important, cars are bigger. But now it seems, bigger is less important than expensive. In the world of leases, suburbans are over the top. They lease cars they cannot buy. Everybody drives a Mercedes, Audi, Volvo, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, you name it. Seniors to school, moms to the market and dads to the station.

Pollution, all kinds, was a main reason for fleeing large cities in the second half of the twentieth century. In the last two decades, the reasons do not seem to have changed much. Visual pollution that originally motivated suburbans to leave town was the results of tall buildings and their overgrown billboards. Marketing everywhere and no horizon or spot of blue sky to be found. Suburban contemporary culture has not forgotten these forms of pollution, but pornography and poverty are also in play. Suburbans flee the city because they hate the scene of naked pierced bodies having sex and doing drugs and also the spectacle of beggars in dirty close everywhere they go.

Noise pollution has also been very high amongst the motivations that lead to the suburban phenomena. Cars, buses, trains, crowds, construction workers on building sites, an infinity of loud experiences overwhelm the urban environment and make the silence of suburban life an enticing alternative many seek. Nowadays, part of this noise is reduced by urban inhabitants with their earphones always in place, playing some music to override the surrounding cacaphonic orchestra of squeechs and bangs. Indeed AirPods can mitigate those noises. But there are visual signs that denounce their presence. Suburban silence just seems like a better solution though. One cannot spends an entire day with earphones without suffering the pains of this kind of social exclusion. After all, it is not only noise pollution that gets blocked by music in the ears.

Despite the aversion to noise pollution that leads urbans to become suburbans, once they reach their spacious homes away from city noises, they discover a new noise, as annoying as any city noise, that invades their routines at periodically, every week. Like giant mechanical bees, gardeners and landscaping companies invade lawns to cut grass, blow leaves, trim evergreens. Different companies, different days at each house, one noise. Annoying noise.

In the overpopulated cities, all eyes are always on us. In the woods, no eyes are on us. In the suburbs one is not certain. Eyes are at a distance, houses apart, density low. But one is not in the woods. Eyes may be watching. In the cities they most certainly are and one creates survival strategies to maintain privacy. The assumption in the suburbs is that such privacy has been recovered. Yet the neighbors are there, somewhere. Vigilance in the suburbs is achieved without real eyes. I can see through that neighbors’ window, perhaps he can see thru mine.

(to be continued)

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