Saturday, July 21, 2007

how suburbs are like movies

Suburbs are like movies in a certain way. They are beautiful things, artistic representations whose beauty depends on something ugly. Their delicate rustic flavor relies on an industrial apparatus which remains as hidden as possible. If you were to stand on the patio of my parents’ home facing back toward the neighbor’s big green yard, you would know what I mean. You could feel both aspects mingling: the bucolic ease of the tree-rimmed yards in your sight, and a hard, relentless hum and roar in your hearing. What is that roar? The highway. It is out of sight, but its noise cannot be masked.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno symbolized the utter split between the movie’s delicate representation of nature and its technological production as an “orchid in the land of technology,” a flower blooming unnaturally out of cameras and recording equipment. The suburb relies too on this chasm between representation and production.

The suburb retains the outer shell or husk of the agricultural past while injecting it cleverly with technological networks that allow a much higher density of occupation than in the days of the farmers. The shell of the farm is retained while the economic base is transformed. Places that were once remote and lonely, requiring a day or more of travel in a wagon from the nearest town, are transformed into cozy nooks for those with salaries and cars. Every corner is steadily filled up. In Madison, the Milano Corporation identifies still-remaining chunks of nature for destruction and transformation into bucolic scenes.

These productions, for efficiency, are not particularly convincing even from the standards of the suburb. As representations they are too hard, with all the trees razed, replaced by a flat green carpet. Huge houses dominate these empty spaces. It will be decades, if at all, before such developments approximate the successful suburban representation: houses nearly overwhelmed by trees on three or four sides.

Just because I do not like the essential falsity and hiding on which suburbs are based does not mean I cannot judge them on their own standards of beauty, just like movies that “work” or do not. Milano’s developments do not work because the house dominates the scene too much. You are aware of a mighty force that erased nature and dropped from the sky multiple mansions. In their brutal overpowering and ironing out of nature they are like movies that overpower spectators with technological might. A more gentle wooing – of nature or of spectators – works best, through sensitivity to the contours of the land on one hand, and through sensitivity to the charms of story, on the other.

In these shoreline towns those streets whose houses were built one at a time, by different builders, are inevitably more beautiful than those built by a single developer. This is not to say that developers cannot make beautiful houses. Not at all. My point is that the overall effect is off due to their forceful unification of the whole space under one producing hand. In more concrete terms, I mean that all the trees are cut down, for efficiency of production no doubt, and emphasis given to big empty lawns and big blank houses. Nature is utterly defeated.

If one travels along River Road in Clinton, modest houses emerge from enchanting veils of trees. One house in particular is blessed with a natural landscape that was not eradicated by the builder. As I bike past this house, I round a small hillock covered with leafy trees. As this hillock subsides, the house is revealed behind it. The driveway curves around the hill, emphasizing the topographical uniqueness of the place. As I move past the house, there is a graceful visual movement, a curving, a revealing, a subsiding – all shaded by numerous trees.

While I bike the margins of Madison, Clinton and Killingworth, I notice something too about lawns. Many homeowners feel uncomfortable with thick tree cover in front of the house, so they thin them out. But this results in a worse effect that is neither the flat shady floor of forest nor the gentle green carpet of grass. Because the shade of the trees is reduced, an opportunity is given to smaller plants which struggle for the light and space opened up. What results is a scruffy effect, of graceful trees amid a chopped and clipped space of weeds and saplings. If they had simply left the thick tree cover, been happy with the shady peace prevailing, the house could be seen between the many trunks. What they have, however, is a messy and ongoing insurgency of plants versus clipper. The owners do not have the energy to completely pacify these rebel plants under the occupation of a lawn. They were better off letting sleeping dogs lie. (Yes, I am straying egregiously here).

But whether the representation is successful or forced, however, all suburban homes depend equally on the fiction of removal from the city. All suburban domestic dreamworlds are plugged in to the same power cable: that howling waste of the highway. Only by plunging these great knives into the breast of the land could these pretty pictures of houses-in-nature be produced. No matter how pretty the picture, it is this essential dishonesty I dislike. Not to mention the illogic of violence done to nature in order to pay homage to that same nature.


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