Saturday, November 03, 2012

Aspirational Geographies

The American dream is dying. The turf in crisis is suburbia. So claims the Irish Times:

Last month Kansas City unveiled plans to create a new attraction. The National Museum of Suburbia will allow visitors to wander through a re-created ranch-style home, peep through a white picket fence and spy on fake neighbours played by actors. There will also be a bowling alley for visitors to play on, along with exhibits of suburban and middle-class life.

“For many, suburbia equates to the American dream, a hopeful vision with roots dating to the Great Depression,” reads a promotional brochure. “It is a dream of home ownership and better opportunities for one’s self and one’s children.”

The timing seems apt, for in the United States today there is gnawing uncertainty and anxiety about what future awaits the country’s middle class.

Emphasis added. Nothing says yesterday like a museum. To the contrary, Joel Kotkin contends suburbia is in the midst of a revival. The American dream is shaking off the foreclosure crisis. The burbs are growing, not shrinking. The urban core boom is more hype than reality. Wishful thinking won't bury the dominant residential geography.

As an aspirational geography, go ahead an stick a fork in suburbia. Feel free to regale me with your population numbers. I'm not buying it. For people who have lived the dream, life is elsewhere.

Review the paragraph in bold, "For many, suburbia equates to the American dream, a hopeful vision with roots dating to the Great Depression." This dream existed before the numbers supported the notion. Northern industrial cities had yet to peak in population. Sprawl was already in motion. Suburbia was the place to be before it was the place to be.

By some measures, suburbia may continue to thrive for decades to come. That's doesn't make it a frontier, where we are headed. Life in the suburbs used to be a goal, something you worked for. Cosmopolites who give up on Big City when starting a family are heading back to the familiar. You go where you know.

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.

Once upon a time, Huckleberry Finn was describing the drive for suburban living. Before then, there was the exodus from the Rural South to Urban North. Today, we live in the Age of Return Migration. Where we dream of going is not where we grew up. We've been there, suburbia, before. We must escape Aunt Sally.


Tom Mc said...

Jim - When did the American Dream change to owning a house? I always thought is was the freedom to aspire to do better or be the best you can be. I do not care if the Irish American dream dies. I am concerned of the idea that "America" was trying to aspire to more than you are now. The freedom to have the opportunity to try and fail or succeed. The American dream is not tangible, it is an idea that is not locked by land.

Jim Russell said...

Tom - The American Dream has always, in some form, been about owning a house. Most iconic was Jefferson's yeoman farmer. One could rise above class and caste, staking claim to a piece of turf.

Patrick Prescott said...

"The American dream has made us all insane." - Some guy I used to work with.