The ending to Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch 1986) stinks. How, exactly, does Andie picking Blaine over Duckie constitute a happy ending? While it might be easy to blame meddlesome Paramount Pictures for changing screenwriter John Hughes’s ending, producing a romantic couple who solves class differences is not at all foreign to Hughes’s films. In particular, Hughes’s Shermer sequence set in the affluent suburbs of Chicago – Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club and Weird Science (both 1985), and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (1986) – reveals more than a passing interest in understanding class in America as teen romance. In Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, for example, Mrs. Buehler works as a real estate agent in wealthy Glencoe and Winnetka and worries over the hood (Charlie Sheen) her daughter meets at the police station.  Sixteen Candles takes place in a town so staid and upper-middle-class that it must import the gross racial caricature of a Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong, to introduce anything resembling a class difference that disappears after one night of passion. While high-school films such as Hughes’s consistently connect romance, education, and class mobility, they tend not to engage zoning (perhaps for obvious reasons). One film that does confront the importance of zoning is Tamara Jenkins’ 1998 film Slums of Beverly Hills.

Slums of Beverly Hills begins with the Abromowitz family moving out of their apartment in the middle of the night.  They spend the night driving around before moving into a dingy little one-bedroom unit similar to their previous home.  Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), the film’s voiceover narrator, introduces the apartment complex as “Casa Bella.  Another dingbat.  Dingbats, that’s what they’re called.  Two story apartment buildings featuring cheap rent and fancy names that promise the good life, but never deliver.”  While Vivian’s too-weary-for-a-teenager voice certainly implies the standard negative-judgment connotation for the word, her description also uses dingbat to refer to Casa Bell’s specific architectural form: “a type of small apartment building, popular throughout the Sun Belt, which sits on stilts over a parking lot – a direct outcome of the ubiquitous American on-site parking requirement.  The construction of a single dingbat on a street of row houses is all that is necessary to bring down the real estate value of the entire block” (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck 175-6).  As a group, fourteen-year-olds tend not to use “dingbat” as a term of real estate art.  Vivian’s vocabulary, then, highlights the “Slums” portion of the title to signal the film’s interest in the ways in which setting rules for the built environment perpetuates and solidifies class distinctions. Her comment also points to the delicate work of rationalizing the unequal distribution of public services like education. In a word, Vivian tells us about zoning.

The Abromowitzes may move often, but they never leave the boundaries of the Beverly Hills School District because success in the classroom means much, much more there.  Murray (Alan Arkin) sells cars, but his second job is to keep tabs on affordable housing in Beverly Hills, whose schools offer college-prep curriculum that can turn the family’s class position – tenuously lower-middle-class – into a temporary stop on an upward trajectory. When Richie (Eli Marienthal), proposes moving outside of Beverly Hills, “somewhere cheaper….in Torrance [where] maybe we could afford other stuff like furniture,” his father dismisses the notion by explaining the one advantage to living in lousy, unfurnished Beverly Hills dingbats. “God damn it,” he yells, “we’re here for the school district.”  Though his slumped body language argues otherwise, Murray pedantically reminds his kids, “furniture is temporary.  Education is permanent.  Forget furniture.  Forget Torrance.”  The sense of education as going hand-in-hand with other long-term investments like real estate significantly motivates the continued growth of suburbia; finding “a good place to raise kids” tends to hinge on good schools. And good schools like those in Beverly Hills, predominantly funded through property taxes, tend to be found in affluent suburbs.  What’s a working-class or lower-middle-class family to do when the mechanism that makes “good schools” possible in suburbia – zoning – depends on drawing borders to minimize the number of potential beneficiaries of education-driven upward mobility? Slums of Beverly Hills and John Hughes films show that the grim secret to class mobility is an ability to work within the constraints local zoning codes put in place to find affordable housing in an otherwise high-dollar school district. But zoning is not an impartial referee; municipalities’ property-value protecting zoning restricts this sort of residential mobility to limited areas. Not-quite-middle-class teenagers like Slums’ Vivian Abromowitz, and Hughes’s Andie Walsh and Andrew Johnson locate the source of personal, familial, and social problems in suburbia not “at home,” but in a differently-zoned building.

BeverlyHillsZoning

BeverlyHillsSchool

[edited to fix word order problem]

Advertisements