"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Suburbs–From Cheever Country to Rockville, Maryland

The suburbs, the sprawling residential communities built with GI Bill money after WWII, were considered by Village socialists, Beats, and liberal academics to be vapid, uninspiring, deadening places - spiritual and creative wastelands.  Families went there to find a better life than the one they left in Brooklyn, North Philadelphia, or Bayonne, but found only social gulags – Kafkaesque nightmares of propriety and enforced good taste.

Writers long before the suburban explosion of the Fifties, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson (Babbitt; Winesburg, Ohio) described small town America in the same way – socially insular, conformist, and intellectually conservative.  Later on John Cheever made the suburbs infamous, exposing their sanctimony and hypocrisy. In one of his most upsetting short stories, The Swimmer, Neddy Merrill decides to swim across the county. Wearing only swimming trunks he crosses fields, lawns, and highways; and swims every suburban pool on his way home. At each one he stops to have a drink, greet and laugh with old friends.  The story becomes darker as he swims along; and by the time he nears his home neighbors are dismissive, angry, and hateful. He arrives home to find an empty, derelict, and overgrown house which has not been lived in for years.

At each stop on his suburban swim, Neddy becomes more and more disoriented.  His memories are not those of his friends. His past might not be as he remembers it. Men refer to his debts and even his dishonesty.  Women he may have loved dismiss him as ludicrous and irrelevant.  Neddy is mad, unhinged, and obsessed.  Everything is familiar – the drink bar, pool toys, cigarettes, and easy laughter – but when he arrives the guests turn unsettlingly cold and hostile. The suburban idyll of his past is really no such thing.  There is no congeniality, easy friendship, and summer romance.  Those he thought were his friends and lovers had become bitter, nasty, and unforgiving.  In Cheever’s mind, they always were nasty and unforgiving – shallow and unsympathetic figures simply dressing and acting the part of wealth and comfort.

In the Sixties the suburbs had become a symbol of the fatuous bourgeoisie – uninspired, uninteresting, smug, and ignorant.  Richard Yates’ book Revolutionary Road (1962) told the story of a young couple who had moved from the city to the suburbs.  They were complicit in their disdain for the small town’s self-assured haleness, but despite their scorn and commitment to go to Paris and regain their enthusiasm for life, the suburbs retain them, and tragedy follows.  In Yates’ mind, the suburbs are organisms which swallow, assimilate, and digest; and individuals have no chance of survival. Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer were no less savage.

The suburbs gave the Sixties generation a target for their anti-social, revolutionary movement.  The suburbs represented everything that was wrong with America – a great enterprising nation which had become intellectually sedentary, self-satisfied, and comfortably fat.  Betty Crocker, pools, patios, lawn furniture, and church were the enemy.  The Sixties generation was radical not so much for its anti-war and civil rights agenda; but for its more fundamental desire to change America from a predictably bourgeois happy society into an edgy, demanding, and soul-searching one. Communes would be the communities of the future, neighborhoods which were unified by love, intimacy, and individuality. Hippies wanted a complete social makeover.

Suburbs indeed had a frightening side, and Levittown was it.  Levittown was the symbol of postwar suburban development; and the expression of American bourgeois ambitions.  If the Sixties were good for anything, they would eliminate this creeping scourge.

For a while the Sixties activists got what they wanted.  Even the most insulated communities of the country realized that it felt good to wear what you wanted, to choose your own rules, and follow an internal compass; and the idea of a programmed, paint-by-numbers existence became déclassé or at least suspect.

It was too good to last, and soon America returned to its roots.  Not only are Levittown developments back, they are back with a vengeance – a bit more upscale, perhaps, but no different than those of fifty years ago.

Residents still commute into the city or to economic centers in the periphery; and while both husbands and wives make the trip, the trajectory and purpose are the same.  Americans today are no different from those of two generations ago – a single-family home with a lawn and garden.  Although young metrosexuals may first settle they soon move out of city centers for air, green, and room to grow.

The suburbs, however, are no longer the socially isolated enclaves of yesteryear. People who live in Gaithersburg don’t stay in Gaithersburg, but shop up and down Rockville Pike which has become as cosmopolitan as metro centers a few decades ago. The Beltway has made friendships between families in Rockville and Arlington possible.  The New York, New Haven, and Hartford commute between Greenwich to NYC has been replaced by a network of connections in the New York Metropolitan area.

If anything, the suburbs of today are even more isolating than those of the Fifties.  Neddy Merrill could indeed swim across the county and know everyone on his path; but neighbors in the downscale suburban settlements of Washington, DC are only physically adjacent.  Every morning they head in different directions.  Their children go to different schools, their friendships are scattered.  There is no community focus or centrality – the town green, city hall, the old post office. 

In other words, the suburbs are physically no different than they were in the heyday of Arthur Levitt.  Houses are inexpensive, tooth-by-jowl, and boringly repetitive.  The families within and their patterns of life, however, have changed.  Bi-racial, single-sex, his-and-her children, multiple jobs and interests have replaced the homogeneity of Cheever-land and Levittown.

What has not changed at all is the fundamentally middle-class nature of the suburbs.  Their residents are uniformly rooted in the 21st Century version of Kinder, Küche, Kirche plus economic ambition.  The radicals of the Sixties underestimated the pull of the American Dream, one in which wealth and family values intersect.  Art, music, culture, and self-expression are irrelevant or at best peripheral to that dream.  The suburb is still a place to live and remains a state of mind.

The hostility reserved for the Fifties version of the suburbs has abated. The condos in Chantilly or Rockville are ‘diverse’, and that is enough for liberal commentators, many of whom are remainders of the Sixties.  Their social activism, however, is muted and modest compared to the old days.  Today they tilt at the windmills of Wall Street and the One Percent instead of going after la petite bourgeoisie.

America, if you discount its Pacific and Atlantic edges, is one big bourgeois suburb; and it will always be.  We are middle-class and middle-brow; and while the suburbs no longer have the political and cultural homogeneity that they once did, we are still one nation.

Intellectuals have always hated the small town and the suburbs.  Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen over 100 years ago wrote about the stifling insularity of the provinces; and only the willful – Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Hilde Wangel, Laura, and Ivanov – were able to reject conventional morality and the whole construct of good and evil.  Only Chekhov understood the nature of provinciality and had great sympathy for those who were unable to reject it.

There is such a thing as national culture after all; and in America we all fly one banner which says proudly, We Are Suburbanites!

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