From Shorpy


Dull minor odds and ends today, I suspect. Not much happened. What happened does not bear describing. I wish I could share something I found yesterday, but - get this - that has to wait for the regular Friday feature about 1958 radio show interstitial music. Just has to, don’t you know.

Actually, it does. When I put it up, someone might tweet a link and give me credit for finding it, as if I found the item, converted the ancient film to digital form, put it up with annotations, and let the Google spiders draw a thin thread from its existence to the search box in my browser.

A lot of the web’s praise for “finding” and “unearthing” consists of typing into Google and having an eye for the odd result. I’ll give Brain Pickings credit for coming up with interesting stuff; it deserves its prestige, even if the tweets announcing new posts overuse “stunning” so much I wonder if every visitor to the site staggers away with stars and chirping birds circling their heads.

This piece about a primer on suburbs reveals the sort of thing that makes you bookmark a site, or just pay it the occasional visit. The reveal of a worldview that assumes its audience shares the obvious precept. I don’t make those assumptions here, beyond assuming that you enjoy “retro” content for the same reasons I do - a look at the culture of the past, an appreciation of graphical styles, an interest in advertising culture and the general top-down sense of Confidence and Unity we can infer from the artifacts. Also, it reminds us of footy-jammy time, when we were very young and secure and ate Frosted Flakes and trusted the world. All those things. Also, you’ve probably been reading for a while, and feel like you know me somewhat.

You probably do. I try to make myself a bit more ridiculous than I think I am, but I know it’s a way of admitting that I’m probably worse, and recognizing it doesn’t change the fact.

Anyway. About the suburbs.

Much has been written about what makes a great city, with recent theories placing walkability atop the list of favorable assets, deeming suburbs among the least desirable, most unsustainable, most culturally insular places to live.

Well, if much has been written about it, it must be so. Recent theories must be correct, because they are recent. I value walkability, but it’s a loaded term: I’ve read pieces from local urbanists who decry Minneapolis walkability because one cannot walk anywhere from everywhere because highways come along, and you have to go six blocks north to cross. Of course, “walkability” as a primary attribute would devalue autocentric burbs, which means them the least desirable.

To people who place walkability high on the list, and define it as “not having to walk more than 20 blocks to get what you need,” that is. The first-ring suburbs are walkable, and you can get to a commercial node on foot. The second-ring, less so; the far-flung exurbs with their cul-de-sacs and gated communities, much less so, which is why they are occupied by people who do not place walkability high on the list - even though they may enjoy walking in the neighborhood for its own sake.

“Most unsustainable.” Here Recent Theories shade into sloppy vogue-words. The big dense urban core is not sustainable. It cannot exist without constant infusions of resources it is incapable of producing. What the term means, of course, is “we will run out of gas, and before that cars will change the climate.” You can believe that if you like, and endeavor to change our behavior through persuasion or the force of law, but I’ll note this: the first-ring suburb closest to my neighborhood is compact, served by public transit, walkable as noted, and affordable. It has sustained itself better than the areas of the inner core which rotted and decayed for reasons that had nothing to do with resource depletion or carbon output.

The term “sustainable” is never applied to individual behavior beyond resource consumption or recycling habits. Never to the ways in which one’s actions sustain the strength of society.

“Most culturally insular places to live.” Ah, the sneer. Finally.

Every year in St. Paul there’s a celebration of a bygone neighborhood called Rondo, which was ethnically homogenous. It was demolished by the interstate. It is held up as a Lost World, of sorts - a place where people shared values and culture and history and tradition, in a monolithic, non-diverse community. Elsewhere in town, there was Swede Hollow, called so for a reason. Crude local lingo called St. Louis Park - a suburb, by the way - St. Jewish Park. (If you saw the Coen Brothers’ brilliant “Serious Man,” it was set there.) The great cities of the world, large and small, are diverse in the public square, in the scrum of politics, but they had their Quarters.

De Jure segregation is an evil; de facto segregation might be the result of individual choices. (Made in the shadow of something less than, but just as effective as, de jure segregation.) In a big city these individual neighborhoods are knit together with boundary blocks that bleed into each other; proximity and density lead to friction and intermingling, arguments and understanding, stereotypes and friendships, Sharks vs. Jets. In cities like Minneapolis it’s harder to see the difference; a newcomer driving through a neighborhood can’t tell that one bar was mostly Pole in ’56 and that one was Uke, on account of the owner was a big wheel the DP community. And so on.

So within these neighborhoods there is cultural uniformity, but outside, aggregated together in the gorgeous mosaic, there is Diversity. Uh huh. This manages to ignore the diversity within groups that look uniform from the outside, and reduce people to the outward trappings of their ethnicity. Oh look, hummus! I’m having a genuine urban experience.

I get my genuine hummus and Mediterranean “ethnic” food from a marvelous restaurant in the suburbs, in the bones of an old Taco Bell, which used to be Zantigos. The charming young lady in the headscarf who takes my order grew up in Alexandria. I get my rote Vietnamese from a place down the block - in the suburbs - whose owner came over on a raft.
Ah, but that’s first ring. Okay: go to the other side of the highway; best Indian food on this side of the Mississippi from a strip mall. It’s next to a Chinese place which is next to a booze shop which is across the street from a Southern chain-burger drive-in which is by a big new DENSE development of apartments developed with the goal of fostering walkability: residents will be able to perambulate across the bridge to the Best Buy corporate HQ, if they haven’t been laid off yet.

That’s the suburbs.

Granted, I’m just talking food, using “food” as an argument against “cultural insularity,” but Food is Art these days. Most Art is boring and unrewarding. You get tired of pretending it’s interesting. If it’s pretty you have to wonder if it’s meant to be honestly pretty or making a statement about “pretty” as a dominant norm; if it’s ugly you have to pull a long face because you just can’t point and laugh. Food is different. Food is moral now: to appreciate food is a sign of an elevated sensibility. That’s been the case ever since a few brave souls slapped the national palate hard and said bitch please. Cayenne. It will not kill you and we started to appreciate something beyond the glutinous glop and salted meat that formed the national diet.

This is a good thing. Introducing new tastes was like introducing the blue notes to the musical vernacular. But there’s no moral component to appreciating food. You’re not a better person for appreciating the subtleties of a particular dish. Your personal experience may be enhanced, but it says nothing about your character.

So here are the options:

1. Live in a dense multicultural city where you can either walk two blocks to get Thai, or order it delivered and maybe stiff the delivery guy because the last time they got the order wrong

2. Live in a suburb where you can drive to get Thai from the strip mall place

Which is preferable? The first, because you’re not driving. The delivery guy is, but it’s a moped, and that’s cool. Also because the first example is not culturally insular.

By which some mean: a thin patina of accents, spice preferences, skin colors, and breakroom tales about eye-rollingly strict parents paints an illusion of kaleidoscopic diversity over a solid brick of group-think concerning four or five basic core issues. This reduces human beings down to ticks and gimmicks, and uses superficial cultural differences as proof of “diversity.” It is diverse, but it doesn’t mean anything, really. Every group that looks monolithic from the outside is fragmented on a fractal level on the inside, right down to - and including - the individual.

The point of a city is to find the commonality, not the difference.

The point of a city is to encourage the difference in the context of the commonality.






If a suburb appears “culturally insular” to an outsider or touristy critic, it’s because they have such a weak understanding of human nature they think that everyone thinks alike because the lawns are generally mowed to a uniform height.

Really, you don’t know what to do with someone who has such a spectacular failure of imagination. How a suburb can contain a hard-line Catholic and a lapsed Unitarian and a vegetarian child and an internet-culture kid and a Greatest-Generation FDR-generation commutarian in the same house. To say nothing of the houses on the same side of the block. To say nothing of the houses on the other side of the block. To say nothing of the block across the street.

The suburbs were freedom.

Freedom from the shouting voices on the other side of the wall, the landlord raising the rent, the boiler that went out in February, the crash of the trashlids when the garbage man came, the heat of August, the street as a playground, the tired old look of the weary houses up and down the block, the streetcar in the dead of winter that never came, the trudge through unshoveled walks with the bags from the four-aisle grocery store, the streets where no one in his right mind biked, the blocks and blocks of unending asphalt without parks.

The suburbs were the New World. And here’s the thing: if you didn’t want to go, you didn’t have to go. Choice. Sure, it had trade-offs. Sure, you missed talking to Missus Rosenblum on the stoop. Sure, you missed the sound of the kids playing on the street on a hot night. Sure, you missed the butcher who always knew you wanted the flank steak sliced just so.
It’s all a trade-off. You choose what you want. I’ve chosen dense; I’ve chosen diffuse. It all depends.

One more line: “the slim 48-page book captures the golden age of utopian visions for suburbia, a bittersweet memento from one of history’s greatest failures of urban planning.”

She provides visual evidence.


I know, I know. The horror. It’s just stunning.

Okay, hammer away in the comments if you wish. I just typed this up and posted it without revision. Because it's 11:52 PM and I want to watch some TV.

Any newcomers who want to argue should be aware that I live in a neighborhood that was originally laid out as a suburb 100 years ago, but is now considered the City.

Odd how things change.






Returning on Thursday.





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