Saturday, September 1, 2007

the loneliness of yards

How lonely are the yards I pass in this town. Loneliest of all are yards featuring some instrument of gaiety and pleasure, a trampoline or swimming pool, say -- which stand slack and silent.

The dream of consumer America since World War Two has been this: to imagine some public or mass facility (swimming pools, playgrounds, parks, ice cream machines, movie theatres) as owned by oneself and one's family. I remember as a kid when my parents bought a deep fryer. Wow -- we can make fried dough and donuts just like at the fair! Except that they are all for us. This titillating dream of possession is one of the chief engines of consumer spending. No matter how much nostalgia hangs in the air over public facilities that went kaput (passenger rail, movie theatres, parks, video arcades, ice cream counters), the mainstream of our society is eagerly seeking after yet more insulation from the public. "Home theatres" are now in vogue.

That little thrill of exclusive access dies quickly. Proof of this statement may be observed easily by cycling the streets of any suburb in the summer: count the empty, silent swimming pools, trampolines, swing sets, basketball hoops, yards.

And yet hope springs eternal that the next home-this-or-that will really be the one, the one thing that finally makes suburban life exciting. But suburbs are the physical contours of a philosophical and emotional prudery that simply cannot be exciting. Suburbs are anti-culture, if we take culture to be the creative mixing by which humans collectively produce. Suburbs are destined to be deadening because they are designed to separate, to withdraw away from the road and toward the woods.

And yet ironically, this cowardly, greedy withdrawal (dreams of exclusive pleasure) inward is at the same time a rapacious expansion of the sizes of human settlement. The more Americans dream of retreat from society, the more nature pays the price. Not to mention culture, left behind in the cities to its diminished fan base.

How lonely stand the yards, how silent the pools. They are the stillborn descendants of lively city parks and pools. And yet how suburbanites dream that these facilities will enliven their days!

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