Atrios and Kevin Drum have been ruminating on urban vs. suburban living patterns.  This matters for all sorts of reasons, not the least being that suburbia is a real political battleground, while urban centers are routinely not just Democratic, but often even–yipes!–liberal. Hence, insight here matters–at least potentially.  So, if you’ll sit through a bit of a recap, I promise to talk a bit about Desperate Houswives and Sex In The City.  

They are talking about why urbs and suburbs don’t seem to mix, when it seems like there’s good reason they ought to.  And I say that there’s a lot here that parallels the failures of Kerry and Democrats generally to translate reasonable ideas into winning campaign.
So, Atrios said:

On my way to Europe I read Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere, which I recommend. He’s mostly preaching to the choir with me, but he emphasizes a lot of issues which often get lost in the discussions of suburban vs. urban, etc.

It will always puzzle me how much of our country chooses to organize their existence, that a certain kind of suburban living has been elevated to the ideal existence. Discussions of this often end up devolving into a strawman dichotomy of “suburbia” versus “Manhattan.” This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that other options for existence have been reduced and we frequently lack a common language to discuss these things in terms which people can collectively understand….

What puzzles me is the fact that there are relatively minor changes to how we construct our suburbs which would both allow some people (not everyone probably) to reduce their degree of auto dependency while simultaneously adding a bit of nearby “small townness” for the rest of the nearby residents. One can transform an absolutely tiny piece of land into something more resembling a town – build a few blocks of mixed residential/commercial development with street level shops – without fundamentally transforming the way most people live….

Many of the early suburbs already have this (and many such earlier suburbs tend to be incredibly pricey, and not just because of their proximity to the urban core) pattern of development, but it’s rarely replicated these days.

And, Drum weighs in:

Good question. Why are suburbs so relentlessly chopped up via single-use zoning into antiseptic checkerboards that separate living from shopping from work?

I don’t think it’s the fault of developers. After all, if you could build a shopping center on a piece of land, and then in addition build some apartments (or co-ops) on top of the shops and maybe some commercial office space as well, that would be a gold mine, wouldn’t it? Landowners would love it.

Is it the fault of city councils? That doesn’t really make sense either. It’s common knowledge that residential developments are money sinks, using up way more in services than they pay in tax dollars. That’s why most cities are so hellbent on letting commercial developers build anything they want. Without them, most cities would go broke.

That pretty much leaves one option: residents of suburbs themselves don’t like the idea of mixed-use development and they let their planning boards know it in no uncertain terms. What’s more, since developers don’t seem to be fighting residents very hard about this, I have to assume they’re skeptical that they could rent out all the space. If they really thought they could make a buck off developments like this, they’d be bribing city councilmen left and right.

In other words, I suspect that just because people visit Downtown Disney on their vacations, it doesn’t mean they’re pining away for small town life.They aren’t pining away for roller coasters in their backyards, either. In the end, some people like cities and some people like suburbs, and it’s just a matter of taste. The people who like cities whine about gentrification and white flight, and the people who like suburbs whine about anything that increases noise or traffic congestion. Both sides seem pretty dedicated to keeping their own patches of land just the way they are.

Which is too bad, because those mixed-use “community oriented” developments that Atrios is talking about always seem sort of cool to me. I must be in a pretty tiny minority, though, because most people seem to loathe either suburbs or cities and fight to the death against any encroachment from whichever living pattern they hate. I have a feeling the reason those mixed use communities don’t exist is because instead of being the best of both worlds, most people think of them as the worst of both.

Now, the problem I have with Drum here is the problem I often have with him–the texture of his thought is reminiscent of oatmeal.  He says “it’s just a matter of taste,” even though he himself admits that “most people seem to loathe either suburbs or cities and fight to the death” over matters of taste!  Well, maybe in New Yorker stories, or The Silence of the Lambs, but in real life, taste just doesn’t quite capture what’s involved, IMHO.

Here’s Atrios looking for something more than porridge:

I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to this, though I don’t think it’s a complete explanation….

I used to live where Kevin does, in the kingdom of Irvine (a place I could talk about ad nauseum if I thought anyone cared). While I was there I was told an anecdote. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, so don’t take any of the precise facts as gospel, but the basic gist is true.

Larry Agran, who has served as mayor a couple of times, had at some point pushed to put an urban corridor some place in the city. From what I remember this wasn’t even a serious mixed-used multi-block area, but instead a few blocks on one street which would have street level commercial/retail and perhaps some apartment blocks on either end. Artist renditions of this were printed up, and the opponents of this plan (which, it must be made clear, would’ve involved an infintesimal portion of the land of Irvine) took these renditions and for their ad campaign added in pictures of panhandlers, the homeless, etc… The point was that anything even slightly resembling a “city,” even a tiny version, was going to attract The Wrong Types.

Now, aside from being a great Larry Agran fan (gave him money for his 1992 Presidential bid), why do I get to this level of detail along with Atrios?  Because I want to underscore what’s going on here: it’s demonization, and it’s very heart and soul of Orange County (read “post-WWII, Southernized non-South GOP”) politics.  The book to read on this is Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right by Lisa McGirr.  Someone I know well wrote for Publishers Weekly:

Prototypical rather than typical, suburban Orange County, Calif., provides Harvard historian McGirr with an illuminating microcosm of the historical transformations that took conservative activism from the conspiracy-obsessed fringes of the John Birch Society to the election of Ronald Reagan, first as governor of California and then as president. Drawing heavily on interviews with grassroots activists as well as a wide range of primary documents, McGirr paints a complex picture exploring the apparent contradiction of powerfully antimodern social, political and religious philosophies thriving in a modern, technological environment and translating into sustained political activity.

Federal spending, beginning in WWII and continuing with massive Cold War defense contracts and military bases, was the driving force behind Orange County’s booming economy. A frontier-era mythos of rugged individualism, nurtured on hatred of eastern elites who funded western growth before Uncle Sam conveniently hid this dependency. The local dominance of unfettered private development chaotically disorganized in the county’s northwest, corporately planned elsewhere [particularly Irvine] destroyed existing communities, producing an impoverished public sphere, a vacuum conservative churches and political activism helped fill. Migrants primarily from nonindustrial regions became more conservative in reaction to the stresses of suburban modernity, while selectively assimilating benefits. Racial and class homogeneity nurtured a comforting conformity consciously defended against outside threats.

United by enemies, libertarian and social conservatives rarely confronted their differences. Against this complex, contradictory background, McGirr charts the evolution of a movement culture through various stages, issues and forms of organizing. Incisive yet fair, this represents an important landmark in advancing a nuanced understanding of how antimodernist ideologies continue to thrive.

Now, interestingly enough, Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City provide neat little windows onto this world–what it is and what it isn’t.  One of the SoCal Kossacks at our meetup last weekend lamented the constrained roles that actressess like Teri Hatcher had to play on Desperate Housewives, and I surely agree in those terms. A comparison was also made to the roles in Sex and the City, which also, of course, featured women in mutually supportive roles vs. the competitive hostility and/or alienation of Housewives.

But constrained roles can still allow for great acting, and there’s certainly a very wicked (in a good sense) reason for the constraints of Desperate Housewives–it is a classic suburban melodrama, presented as dark comedy, most assuredly from an urban sensibility and perspective.  Putting the two shows side by side, we see that the physically constrained, even (to some) claustrophobic city of Sex is the realm of incredible psychic freedom and power–despite whatever dangers and disappointments it brings. OTOH, the bucolic, wide-opened suburbs of Housewives is psychically claustrophobic.  

And what of taste?  What of the preferences and desires that Drum has neatly analyzed to explain why the worlds stay apart?  Well, in the very first episode, Gabrielle explains to her gardener-lover, that yes, her super-successful businessman-husband gave her everything she ever wanted. The problem was, she wanted all the wrong things.

More to the core: Desperate Housewives is driven by secrets. Sex and the City is driven by exposure and revelation.  And that’s the paradigm for the modern suburban/urban split that Drum and Atrios are talking about.  

Logically, the two can interpenetrate. In fact, they must. But psychologically–psychologically, the entire logic of Desperate Housewives is based on denying, suppressing, resisting with everything possible–not least the suicide of the narrator in episode one–precisely what must be.

My conclusion–hey, I don’t have a conclusion. My conclusion is that we need more conversations. Conversations draw people in. Conversations are what urban life is all about. Conversations are what create the textures of community on which liberal politics thrives. If we want to do better in suburbia, we need to engage people in more conversations. And if we want to diversify our settlement patterns–which Peak Oil alone tells us should–that will not come from top-down policymakes, but from reinvigorated public dialogue–and not just the high-faluting kind they write books about, but even just plain folks talking about…whatever. Even just Desperate Housewives.  The more people converse, and deepen their hunger for more conversation, the more they hunger to connect, the more they will open themselves up, and overcome the instinctive turn to fear.

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