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Suburbs: Dream come true?

By Martina Law

It hit me one day while talking to an American friend of mine. He told me that there had been a terrible incident at his son’s school. “What happened?” I asked. There was a stabbing, he said. And then he added, “And I thought we were protected.”  

Now, to me he has everything typical to American suburban life: a stay-at-home wife who is an excellent homemaker, two kids, a big house on a cul-de-sac, a meticulous garden, two cars, a cat, a dog and camping trips on the weekends. 

Of course, he was shocked about the stabbing incident, but he seemed to be more shaken up over the fact that it actually happened at this particular school: a school with a very good reputation, nestled in the heart of a well-off suburban area. Kids that go to that school usually come from “good” families. So how was it possible for evil to infiltrate? 

The answer it simple, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ doesn’t work anymore. Cities are expanding, and urban social issues are slowly sneaking up on suburban folks. And they don’t seem to like it much.  

The suburbs started growing dramatically in post-World War II America, altering the dynamic of urban life in the United States. Millions of Americans fled from the inner cities to the crabgrass frontier. Today more than three quarters of Americans live in metropolitan areas, with more than two-thirds of those living in the suburbs. And isn’t this environment, where picket fence privacy is paramount and the automobile reigns supreme, the embodiment of the American Dream? 

To be honest, as a European I find the idea of the American Dream a little distressing. American suburbs, with their lack of neighborhood shopping, coffee shops, museums and public squares are basically missing everything that makes an urban place vibrant and exciting. Many are nothing but monotonous bedroom subdivisions. I truly wonder why so many Americans want to flock to neighborhoods that only offer carefully manicured ballparks, strip malls for “soccer moms” to shop in, parking lots, freeway exchanges and drive-through fast-food joints. “Because it’s better for our kids,” the majority of suburban parents would say. Suburban sprawl as safety haven for children? 

To a certain degree I can understand their concerns. As diverse as American society may look from the outside, in my opinion it rather consists of many smaller homogenous societies inside. Better-off neighborhoods don’t mix with poorer ones. And if you want to offer your child a better education, you better make enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood with a decent school.  

Life in the suburbs revolves around life in the suburbs. Suburban families like to hang out with their clones. Life comes in a box, and thinking outside the box is considered dangerous. Does it mean that the majority of suburbanites are conservatives?  

In the 1950s, political scientists and sociologists argued that suburban families were indeed increasingly conservative Republican voters. However, over time that view dissipated, and by the 1990s conventional wisdom was that people in the suburbs were mainly liberal. I’d say they are mainly pseudo-liberal. Of course, they feed the hungry and donate to the homeless. But when their neighborhood church suddenly offers to use its property to build shelters for the homeless, than there is an outcry among suburbanites: “We don’t want those in our neighborhood!” I am also positive that many suburban parents would rather see their daughters married off to a nice guy who is …I  guess … from the suburbs. 

Europeans never had the opportunity to experience the phenomena of ‘suburbs,’ due in part to the fact that urban space in Europe became denser in the pre-automobile era. There was no simple way to escape the city life. Instead Europeans had to learn to face them on a daily basis. European children come from all walks of life and sit together in one classroom, giving them an opportunity to develop an understanding and tolerance that exposure to diversity offers.  

With the world closing in, hard-core suburbanites can only hope for technology to advance fast enough to let them escape planet earth. I can already hear them wailing, “Beam us up, Scotty!”