Our suburbs are built to be inconvenient, and they succeed very well. The common feature of all suburbs is distance – more of it, that is. The only reason the suburb as a category of town makes any sense is that the suburb contrasts with the city it is presumed to surround. This myth of city/suburb symbiosis continues to be believed despite the fact the suburbs, not cities, are the center of our population, our mainstream culture, our national psyche. Suburbs are not “sub” at all, except around those very few urban centers exalted on television for glamor and grit. Cities’ main cultural function now is to serve as reservations for these twin commodities which cannot plausibly exist in the deep quiet of the suburbs. The myth of urban cores surrounded by suburban hinterlands which service them, continues despite the fact that one can drive for hours through “suburbs” with no cities in what are essentially low-density urban belts. The only reason these urban zones (where farming disappeared long ago) still take the name suburb is not due to any economic or geographic symbiosis with urban centers but rather due to the simple fact of internal distance – the suburbs’ only reason for existence as a cultural category. The suburb is no more nor less than a city exploded, its parts stretched apart, its neighborhoods fragmented, distended, stores and services scattered across the landscape. The suburb is no more nor less than a city where walking has disappeared, and where all economic and social intercourse is mediated by the car.
How is it, then, that the suburb is cited as the scene of total convenience? I believe the convenience alluded to is emotional convenience. There is no evidence that getting in the car to go to the store is more “convenient” than walking or taking the bus. And yet the belief persists. It is the tenacity of this faith which must tell us that something in the national psyche finds suburbs convenient. The convenience is not objective, that’s for sure. It is purely subjective: the convenience of being allowed to ignore any and all humans one may come into contact with. Even if this privilege can only be attained through massive transformations of landscape and infrastructure, not to mention huge quantities of air pollution. To create the suburb, the city must be placed on the rack and its bones and blood vessels yanked apart. The rack is the highway; the winches that lengthen it is the car. And the executioner’s brain is science. The bones refers to the organic infrastructure of communities that grew up without the “benefits” of “planning.” The blood vessels refers to the organic social ties that grew up within the spaces of pre-automobile life. The body of society was wrenched into a thousand pieces and strewn through the fields and woods. But, strangely, the brutalized body reassembled here and there, a Frankenstein with long, spidery limbs that straddled the landscape.
Even more strangely was the fact that after World War II society rushed to be strapped onto the rack. It can only be that the anguish of ripping social bonds was overwhelmed by the anesthesia of soothing isolation, in which the mind depressurized from social obligations could fantasize more easily about the very things that had been lost. Nostalgia for cities and towns, fed intravenously by nurse Hollywood, dates from this era, and is as intense now as it ever was.
I see the emotional convenience of suburbs in the Stop and Shop in my suburban home town of Madison, Connecticut. Several checkout aisles are now without human employees. At first, few ventured there. But now lines of shoppers pass through it, holding their loaves of bread and frozen pizzas up to the red light of the scanner, bagging it, and inserting a card for payment. It is no faster than checking out with a human. It is no more convenient: one must bag one’s own groceries, handle one’s own food. But no matter, for the perfunctory “how ya doin’ today?” of the teenage cashier – itself only a tiny remnant of earlier sociability – is apparently so intolerable to some people’s wilted, delicate psyches that they can only relax in the (anti-social) silence of an empty aisle, with a “beep” the only acknowledgment necessary – not of a social encounter, but of a financial transaction. Thank God, they must say, I am free, free at last. From the intolerable burden of uttering, “thank you.” At last the financial can be totally separated from the human. Beep. I can go now. Free – free to go to my car. Beep. Now I can go. Beep.
This emotional convenience – one might better term it an addiction – trumps all else. All other inconveniences – the loneliness that breeds despair and school shootings, the anger of the less-well-off that is unmitigated by social obligations, the air pollution due mainly to the car, the rap and country music which plague us with fantasies of social connection but do nothing to actually increase our connection with other people, the toxic partnership of nostalgia and militaristic nationalism, the isolation that brings addictions and other self-inflicted wounds just to remind us we are alive – none of these real inconveniences matter before the soul-soothing emotional convenience of a check-out line empty of humans. Beep. I may go now. I may go to my car.
The suburbs are eminently insecure, though security is their other great slogan. They are thought more secure than cities. The mugger is farther away; the arsonist, assumed not to own a car, will have to catch a bus. But there are no buses. Those cans of gasoline will look pretty conspicuous on the back of a bike.
Security, like convenience, boils down to distance. We will outrun them. With our cars, they’ll never catch us on their bikes, subway trains, or old black Lincoln Towncars. Racially they are pigeonholed by place of residence. There are no blacks here, not living here, anyhow.
The distance opened up between suburb and city dangers is highway and forest. Socially, it is empty. Legally, the land between us and them belongs either to the state or private owners. But vast stretches are not monitored. Hell, my parents’ half-acre of land is beyond their view most of the time. They don’t know most of the neighbors except maybe by sight. Cars fly down the neighbors’ driveway day and night and I would not be able to say if one car did not belong. What fills up the space between us and them? The same thing that fills up the space between us. The original “us” that fled the city thus fragments into a smaller “us” – the nuclear family, and a smaller “them” – fellow suburban dwellers. They are strangers, but they look like us.
The walls of our containers harden and expand. The two containers are house and car. Size and technology come to equal security. Without the constant watchful eyes of a community, an old grandma, a neighbor, the neighbor’s child, gossip and rumor – the social ties, deliberately severed, are replaced by strong doors and locks. The lock on the door is what enables us to drop the ties that once bound us, ties of surveillance, laughter, and security. The ties chafed our hands, rubbed us raw. The ties stung our skin with intimacy. We dropped them. The space between us empties of social ties and social meaning, and fills us with our projected fantasies, images, angers. Our isolation is a hothouse. The stand of trees between I and my neighbor that once marked our cooperation in trimming and cutting, or as the place where we would share a drink and a chat, is changed into the boundary marker. A fence will go up. The social meaning is emptied of trees in the suburbs, and they turn into simply natural objects.
ADD IN something on video rental places – which had displaced the social aspect of movie theatres – are themselves threatened by netflix, which remove even the small social aspect of going into the store. The internet is thus the ultimate harbinger of suburbanism taken to an extreme: the possibility of living as a total social recluse, with even groceries delivered.