Friday, July 29, 2011

Life in the suburbs: it exists

THE CHICAGO READER's Steve Bogira comments on a New Yorker essay, "In Defense of the Suburbs." (Reminding me of a similar essay I was writing -- but put on the back burner a while ago.)

Anyway, as I'm a product of the burbs, and currently back in the burbs -- and, furthermore, have traveled and worked far and wide across Chicagoland, from Hipster Central to boonie trailer parks -- I have a lot of insights about the pros and cons. So here (with minor edits) is what I posted in reply to Steve.

     I'm a suburbanite -- raised out here, returned to the burbs, maybe to stay -- and I really feel no need to defend it, as if it were a crime. 
     Cities are part substance, and also in part, hype. The quintessential example, of course, is NYC. I rolled through last summer with a friend, hanging out in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Several young single folks I met (one a former Winnetka-ite) implicitly or explicitly expressed that part of the virtue of living there is the feeling of being strengthened and purified by the struggle. It's that old "make it here/make it anywhere" thing. My thought is, the world is full of opportunities to fight for something. Who said you should have to spend all your energy just fighting to pay rent, and maybe have a couple bucks left over for beer? (Forget the hipster diet of coffee and cigarettes -- $13 a pack for organic American Spirits? Forget it.)
There is definitely something of the masochist in the whole mindset. The myth becomes self-fulfilling prophecy: at some point you're just going to NYC because, essentially, you responded to the advertising. "They" (i.e., media and tastemakers, many of whom, coincidentally, reside in New York) say it's the place to be. So, you conform.  

     I like James Kunstler and much of his critique of suburbia as far as the poor planning (and the land speculation and tax policies that actually drive the logic of it all). I even agree somewhat with the perception of cultural impoverishment. Yet he and his fellow “urban archipelago” champions also go to the opposite extreme. They get all urbo-snob on us, sneering at everybody not living on their little urban islands of enlightenment while daintily sipping their proverbial lattes. Broad-brushing like that shows them to be guilty of the very narrowness and bigotry of which they accuse the non-urban world.
      Suburbia isn't any one place. There's great historic architecture, and there are subdivisions of ticky-tacky just put up yesterday. Some places live under the shade of century-old trees; others were recently planted on former cornfields. Some were long ago landlocked and built fairly dense; others, located on the edges, gobble up land like there's no tomorrow (or at least, were doing so until interrupted by the real estate crash). 
     Some are pre-automobile trainburbs and thus have walkable downtowns, mixed-use buildings, and garages behind houses; others, founded later, are all about cars, their most striking feature being malls, big boxes, and parking lots.
     Some burbs were built as golf getaways for Chicago's wealthy. Others are home to freight yards, industry (still) and biker clubs, and others are merely bedroom communities for professionals and U of C professors.
     Some suburbs are very white; others predominantly Arabic, Hispanic, black;  others yet are a diverse mix. And sandwiched in between the municipalities, you still have some semirural unincorporated areas with no snob zoning, where you can live pretty much how you like. I can walk a few blocks from home and see folks who raise horses, chickens and turkeys, park their tractor-trailers, live in RVs, collect yard cars, etc. (Live in Pilsen and collect junk, and you're a conceptual artist; live in the boonies and collect junk, and you're "trash"!) 
     My hardcore urbanist friend, an artist and former bike messenger who has not owned a car for probably a couple of decades, only recently overcame her suburbophobia and began visiting the southland for the occasional art show. Yes! Shocking as it may seem, art doesn't stop at the city limits.To stereotype the burbs as some uniformly bland, sterile cultural wasteland is just as foolish as suburbanites saying "I don't go into Chicago, it's full of crime." 
     I've run into artists out here who are fleeing the trendy artsy hoods in the city, perhaps for lower rent, perhaps because they inherited their parents' home, whatever. Various trends forecasters have seen a growing exodus of "creative class" people to the edge cities. I suspect the recession has accelerated this. The railburbs and the standalone edge cities and villages built long ago, around rivers and rails (Lemont, Joliet, Aurora, Elgin, etc.) are hospitable to singles and creatives because of their urban downtowns, mixed housing, transit, and bike-friendliness. If people are moving to real cities on the edge (as opposed to brand new subdivisions in the cornfields) this isn't sprawl, it's a shift from the mega-city to other cities, which I think is a good thing.
     I could go on and on, but I'll stop here before folks start assuming I'm with the suburban chamber of commerce. 

My memory having been jogged, it's time to get back to my writing about the suburbs and the developmental illness known as sprawl. I did do one post a while back about faux-New Urbanism, and got a couple of interesting comments.

By the way, k of c, City of Destiny blogger, is a consummate Chicago hipster (who'll no doubt deny the label, as any good hipster does) who loves riding the rails, with bike and camera, to various suburban locations. She's got a passel of suburban photos at her Flickr site.

* Update, Saturday 7/30: Speak of the devil: I just bumped into k of c last night at the Printer's Ball at Columbia College.  It's the second time I've just "bumped into" her. I really should keep in better touch with these people I always "happen" to see. I don't think it is an accident.


Annabelle Echo said...

I linked this blog to 3 of my blogs...
Anyway I just wanted to say that I do enjoy visiting NYC.
It's fun to walk around drinking coffee and eating boxes of berries and bags of chestnuts sold by street vendors. The food is more expensive but it tastes better than food in Chicago.
I also love the Cloister's Art museum and St John's Cathedral.
The weather is a little bit milder in the winter usually...
and strangely enough books and clothes are a little bit cheaper...maybe less sales tax.

the author said...

Awesome, thanx fr the lynx. If I paid more attention to this blog (and hadn't been having technical difficulties), I would've seen yr comment sooner!

NYC was fun for me both times. No question about it. First visit, age 16, I think we arrived on Friday nite and so got to see Times Square in all its trashy (literally; this was pre-Giuliani, trash swirling everywhere) glory. Sights that stuck out were: a manic street preacher calling white people the devil; a woman wearing a live boa constrictor (apparently); beautiful girls-who-weren't-girls on the subway. So yeah, craziness and zaniness, I get it. Yet, no one place needs that much of it. Certain factors have caused an artificial agglomeration of people in one place; one major factor being, that's where much of the wealth of its host country (the uSA) gets vacuumed off to, so to get a piece of that loot -- and to participate in the myth so incessantly advertised -- historically you move to NYC or LA or (if you're in a depressed Midwestern town) Chicago.
In NYC supposedly, you can eat at a different restaurant every day for the next seven years, or some similar number. Seriously, who wants to do that? Who could afford to do it?

I have heard people say, though, that you can find street eats cheap enough to help *somewhat* offset the crushing rents.

Less sales tax wouldn't surprise me.