Suburbs vs. cities -- whose utopias?

Condominiums in downtown Vancouver. Photo: Gord McKenna/Flickr

In the suburbs I, I learned to drive

And you told me we'd never survive
Grab your mother's keys we're leaving

- The Suburbs, The Arcade Fire (Merge, 2010)


It's fitting that The Arcade Fire, the band most associated with urban hipsterdom, has decided to examine their roots with their third record, The Suburbs. While we tend to remember the second half of the 20th century through the lens of novelists like John Updike and John Cheever -- a landscape littered with picket fences, manicured lawns and broken dreams -- the new millennium has witnessed its reversal: a generation of bored teenagers fleeing cookie-cutter subdivisions, leaving gentrified urban centres in their wake.

Yet just as white flight was rooted in xenophobia and racism, gentrification relies on the displacement and neglect of marginalized people; at the heart of both stories is the suppression of alternative narratives. The suburbs were simply the lot of white, middle-class businessmen and their frustrated wives, while the city promised boundless potential, diversity and freedom. "You told me we'd never survive," croons Win Butler. Grab your mother's keys, we're leaving.

The problem with that story is that it's no longer really true -- if it ever really was. Like a married couple together for far too long, the suburbs and the metropolis are beginning to resemble one another. Wal-Marts and big-box stores have invaded the city while the social problems white flight meant to avoid -- gang violence, poverty, congestion -- are popping up in suburbs across Canada. Downtown cores in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Montréal are metal and glass castings of one another while their satellite communities boast rich ethnic and retail diversity.

Yet more and more, contemporary culture inundates us with shows like AMC's Mad Men, films like Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road, and The Arcade Fire's latest record, all of which preserve this fantasy of the suburbs as the curator of the doomed American Dream, and the city as the site of regeneration, pleasure and renewal. Why are we suddenly so nostalgic about suburban spaces even though all the old myths -- joyless marriages, unfulfilling jobs, self-delusion -- are still hanging about?

Like the cloverleaf interchanges which signal the divide between urban and suburban, the relationship between the two is complicated. The enduring image of suburbia has galvanized all kinds of progressive policies, from modern mass transit to mixed-use neighbourhoods, but, like the urban escape narrative which accompanies suburban malaise, these attractive changes come partnered with the displacement of the homeless and ethnic minorities. The postwar sin of white flight has been replaced by the postmillennial sin of gentrification.

Just as the impetus for urban sprawl was predicated on African-American diaspora from the American South and Midwest moving to the cities of the Eastern seaboard, the colonization of the suburbs by persons of colour and new Canadians could be said to prompt gentrification -- a renovated white flight from the ennui of the suburbs to an imagined cosmopolis made up of thirty-something white hipsters. If we've moved as a society from one that privileges suburban values to one that privileges urban ones, it's not because we're more enlightened, it's because something in our social make-up has changed. And, as usual, our new story, populating the minds of diasporic suburbanites, is doing its best to cover-up everything that's radical about the suburbs.

A Chilean friend of mine recently told me about her childhood visits to her aunt's family in Orange County, California, the suburb par excellence. It was like Christmas, she said, as she and her cousins would travel the winding subdivisions looking for furniture and appliances left on the curb. Whatever treasures she would find on the streets, she would take to Mexican swap-meets and neighbourhood parties, trading for trading and bargaining for whatever they were looking for. It wasn't until years later when she started to wonder why, while she frequently ran into other Latino families on their treasure hunting, she never ran into any white families.

She realized the suburbs harboured at least two worlds, operating on different planes superimposed on one another. Rich folk, it seems -- the very people for whom most of her family worked as gardeners, caregivers and nannies -- have very expensive garbage. Nevertheless, her memories from these trips are of belonging, celebration and community. Even in her insulated world, out of the refuse of all the inequalities which put paid to the American Dream, pure, unadulterated joy flourishes.

In her book Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, Mary L. Gray meets a group of young Kentuckians who call themselves the Highland Pride Alliance (HPA), a community-based social support group for area lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people and their straight allies. Gray was surprised to discover that as part of their weekly social docket, the HPA would regularly hit up the local Wal-Mart to perform drag shows for one another -- a stark challenge to the stereotype of suburbs as factories of prejudice and intolerance.

As customers -- "guests" in retail parlance -- the burgeoning drag queens felt that their rights would be protected more easily in a commercial space than in their schools or even in their homes, especially since they purchased many of the outfits, lipstick and shoes they tried out. And, friends who worked at Wal-Mart could intervene and protect them should any trouble break out. It doesn't always work -- Gray describes a disturbing episode of queer bashing which took place during one of these drag shows -- but the kids of the HPA make clear that despite the barriers and constraints typically associated with suburbia, small packets of freedom can still be staked out.

It is this kind of joy which lurks just underneath the conventional narrative of bored-suburban-(white) boy-finds-liberty-in-the-city. It hides in the sepia tints and fuzzy lenses of Mad Men, in the lyrical prose of Updike, teasing out all the ways in which suburban life maybe wasn't that bad after all. Certainly, the youthfulness that radiates through The Suburbs (if the band sold a copy for every time they uttered the word "kids" it would surely go triple platinum) communicates playfulness and potential: even in banality there is hope. If some of my fondest memories are spent in the food court at my local mall, or in the front seat of my parents' 1988 Ford Tempo, why should I discredit them simply because Richard Yates says so? More importantly, what alternative stories, like my friend's holidays to Orange County or the Wal-Mart drag shows of the HPA, does our white hero fleeing the suburbs for the city conceal?

In The Suburbs's "City with No Children," Win Butler muses that despite spending his whole life rebelling against the hypocrisy he saw all around him in the suburbs, perhaps he's not so different after all from "the millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount" he used to despise: "I used to think I was not like him, but I'm beginning to have my doubts / my doubts about it."

Such a predicament is the evident risk of romancing the suburbs: not learning the lessons a half-century of stories have taught us. The trick, learned when first merging onto the freeway from your neighbourhood's off ramp, is to proceed cautiously, but eagerly; to question the authority of Roth's American Pastoral like we did our parents when confronted with an unjust curfew; to revel in the small joys suburbia offered us, the tiny freedoms carved out of the most unlikely and most commodified of places: the strip mall, the school playground, the backseat of a Ford.

Of course, this new rebranding project could simply be the result of millions of suburb-raised young families returning to sumac-lined streets with visions of organic gardening and commuter bikes after a long sabbatical at an urban university. But, as suburbanites have known for a long time, we don't make the rules. Grab your mother's keys, we're leaving.

Michael Stewart is a moderator on babble and a doctoral candidate in the department of English at the University of British Columbia. His work focuses on utopia, excess and modernity. He grew up in an Ontario suburb and lives in downtown Vancouver.

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