Archives for category: suburbia

While I’m having trouble getting Tableau Public to do anything resembling co-operate, here’s a screen grab of the narrative locations of Disney’s live action films from 1960-1999.

Disney Live Actions 1960-1999

Compare that to the locations of the top 25 films set in the US during the same time period:

Top25 1960-2000

There’s much less of a focus on New York for Disney, and quite a bit of the SoCal locations are more or less speculative – it’s not quite clear where the films actually take place. For instance, a number of Disney live action films, like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) take place in a fictional location – Medfield College. In cases like this, I combine shooting location and fictional location to say that the film takes place in Pomona. Disney featured a fair number of mountain west locations, in contrast to a relative lack top 25 films set there (although the next 25 have quite a few mountain west/southwest settings). In addition, the upper midwest features quite a bit more in Disney – again in speculative locations like “Hickory, Iowa” in Follow Me, Boys! (1966) (which was a film they showed to all of us at Hough Street School one year – a 16mm print that was in pretty good shape, seeing as how it never once broke or melted) and in real locations like the Dakota Territory ones in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968).

Perhaps most interesting to me is the way in which the Disney live action films don’t linger anywhere. It’s a smaller set of locations, but no place appears more than two or three times, with the exception of the fantastic Medfield. To preview the argument in the book, it’s this set-all-over-ness (and this includes the rest of the world) , combined with a general avoidance of avowedly urban settings, that makes Disney films so powerful as hegemonic white suburban texts – they’re set where those kinds of people are – various anonymous suburbs and small towns all across the country. But more or less minus the south. The chapter after the Disney live action chapter will cover that – first in terms of Burt Reynolds as a necessary movie star and then in terms of prestige films after the Civil Rights Act.

If there’s one thing that makes The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) really interesting, it’s the way it shows the logic behind post-war suburbanization without getting 100% behind it. I’d say the film’s more like 75% pro-suburbanization. Of the three main male characters, the younger two return to live with their parents. This return home bespeaks not just the relative youth of the military, but also the mid-century housing shortage. Suburbanization addressed the very real problem of where to put the demobbed, but it wasn’t the only or inevitable solution. The Best Years of Our Lives shows that at the end of the war, suburbia had its appeal, but it wasn’t the only potential route to coming back to the American Way of Life.

When the three returning servicemen share a cab home, they go to Homer’s (Howard Russell) place first. They’re crowded into the rear view mirror, with what we’d recognize as inner-ring suburban houses offering a spacious, homey counterpoint to crowding and enclosure.


Homer, who lost both his arms in the war, returns to a family that, while it’s not always aware of how to help Homer, really wants to help him. The utopian potential for suburbia shows up in establishing shots that put a shine on Homer’s street, giving it a sense of happiness and hope.


At the other end of the spectrum we find Fred’s place, in a slum in the shadow of highway overpasses. It’s dark, dingy, and crowded – and Fred doesn’t think much of it when he returns:


Fred struggles to re-integrate into Boone City (Cincinatti, Ohio) society, finding the shift from war hero to order-taking soda fountain worker jarring. In the end, Fred discovers purpose in work building the new suburbs that will spread out from Boone City like the airplanes lined up for recycling (the first image resembles a street of houses, the second a well-establish suburb’s tree canopy):



In this way, The Best Years of Our Lives is pretty straightforward in its embrace of suburbanization. But the Sergeant, Al Stephenson, represents the appeal and acceptance of urban living. Al returns to his family home in a large, quite nice, apartment building. It’s not Central Park West, but for a middle-American provincial city, it’s plenty good.


Al should be an asshole – he’s a banker, he lives in a swanky apartment – but he’s a good guy. He’s married to Nora Charles! The Stephenson family place has lots of room, looks expensively appointed, and has enough frippery to let us know that Al is on the high end of the pyramid.



In the first image, the children who flank the image, directing our gaze to the warm reunion, are key. The Stephensons raised kids in an apartment in the city. When it comes to domestic life, Al has a rough road to getting his shit together, but the kids are pretty alright (if anything, Al is a bit of a jerk about how his kids lead their lives, although he does see reason in the end) and his wife is supportive and perceptive without sinking into sainted suffering. When Al is at work, he approves a loan for a tomato farm on the edge of town for a returning veteran who doesn’t have any collateral (the scene is the humane version of Buck Swope’s humiliation in Boogie Nights (1997, PT Anderson)). That is to say, Al’s third of the story shows that while there’s something exciting and appealing about the suburbs, there is also a lot to recommend the city (even if it puts your kids into contact with possibly unsavoury sorts) and even the country/farm life.

Rachel Toor has a nice enough piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about writing. Much of her advice is the exact stuff that I hammer into my students. However, one of the anecdotes she uses combines suburbia and maps in a gloriously infuriating way:

During a workshop with our graduate students, a visiting writer said, “Don’t write like a suburb.” He talked about how he always flipped through the pages of a manuscript to see what the look of the thing could tell him. I did the same thing when, as an editorial assistant, I had to choose which manuscript I wanted to read and report on next. I avoided the drafts that looked like they would be no fun because the text presented itself as boring blocks, with long uninterrupted paragraphs made up of endless sentences—the manuscript equivalents of army bases or grid cities. Instead, I went for those that presented themselves as appealing and interesting, more like maps of Paris or lower Manhattan.

Sure sure grey space is deathly. But when I open a Henry James novel I see lots of grey space, lots of really long sentences, and – here comes a shock – great fucking literature.

Manhattan is set up on a grid system. The map of lower Manhattan shows this grid system with slight variations:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 12.40.30 PM A grid system allows you to navigate the city. That’s how good, well-organized writing works too. The map of lower Manhattan, I’m happy to report, looks a little bit like a map of that midwestern metropolis Green Bay, Wisconsin:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 12.52.32 PMBoth cities turn their grid to the northeast. This is the reason that my brother-in-law always gets lost when he drives in Green Bay. It’s just slightly off. For some reason the visiting editor didn’t use Green Bay as an example. I’d say that’s because of the thing that bugged me the most about the anecdote.

“Don’t write like a suburb” is, like almost every catchphrase, a bit too facile. I doubt the writer meant a suburb like my home town, Carpentersville, Illinois. When I was moved there in 1977, it was an almost entirely white working-class suburb. By the time I moved to New Hampshire in 2001, Carpentersville was 40% Hispanic, and now it’s 50% Hispanic. It’s still working-class, but one corner of the town fancies itself, and they have found it hard to understand C’Ville’s identity. I was absolutely mortified to read about my home town as the poster town for anti-immigrant sentiment in the New York Times Magazine.

If I want to be kind to the visiting writer (and mix up the editor’s suggestions and hers/his), it’s the map of a suburb that drives the critique. Suburbs, with their culs-de-sacs and winding “aesthetically pleasing” roads, take you nowhere, in circles. Here’s the part of Carpentersville I lived in:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 1.06.24 PMAs you can see, Carpentersville doesn’t have a lot of “grey space” – it’s broken up by empty spaces. The long sentence of Route 25 is broken up by the shorter sentences of the bending Kings Road, the 45 degree Amarillo, and the weird half-loop of Sacramento Drive (none of which are my old neighbourhood – I lived on Papoose). True, the limited-access nature of each subdivision seems to preclude the kind of interconnections that an interesting piece of writing would achieve.

But what “write like a suburb” means is “boring,” for people who have boring jobs. I don’t know if Carpentersville even registers in the editor’s world: a working-class new-immigrant suburb where property values have remained stagnant. Places like Carpentersville – multilingual, multicultural – should be where the new and interesting writers emerge from. We can’t all live in Park Slope, after all.

The revisions the outside readers asked for in an old chunk of my dissertation were not the revisions I would have asked for (I would have asked for better sentences – there’s not a S-V-O sequence to be found). One of the stranger ones was the request to chop out sections because there was too much going on. Fine by me – I kill my darlings. I thought this reading of American Beauty was clever enough to stay in, but them’s the breaks. The advantage of chucking it up here – pictures.

“Here comes the neighborhood”: Gay men, gentrification, and class mobility in the suburbs

Finally, American Beauty indicts homophobia alongside racism and nativism in the maintenance of the imagination of normalcy in American suburbia as exclusively white and middle-class. In the final analysis, American Beauty represents suburban normalcy as primarily a product of not only sexuality, but also, most powerfully, economic behavior. Homosexuality is, for lack of a better word, tolerated in American Beauty’s suburbs. Reflecting larger trends highlighted in, to cite one book-length example, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren-Tiagi’s The Two-Income Trap, the sole stable family in American Beauty does not take the form of the traditional wage-earner father stay-at-home mother (the Fittses) nor the working mother and “downsized” father (the Burnhams) but rather the two-income family with no children. The Two Jims occupy a privileged position in the film’s ideological universe. The Burnham and Fitts families are unhappy in distinct ways that nevertheless intersect in the figure of the successful gay couple. The Two Jims – tax attorney and anesthesiologist – verge on parody in their respectable, middle-class professional suburban happiness. They are the embodiment of the suburbs as seen by Carolyn (they can afford and keep a nice house), Lester (they have a stable relationship), and Colonel Fitts (they’re another part of the world going to hell). With his high and tight hair cut, all-business demeanor, and self-identification as retired Marine Corps Colonel, Fitts places himself in his new home in terms of the reasons Brooks lists for continued sprawl: order, control, education, achievement, success, and most of all, a manageable mortgage. William H. Whyte and C. Wright Mills would recognize their Organization Man and White Collar suburbanite in either Jim before they recognized it in the retired military man Fitts or the full-time realtor Carolyn. Were Jim and Jim not a married gay couple they would be the embodiment of the painfully ordinary suburbanites Jane and Rickey cannot wait to leave behind. 

amb1In this sense, the stiflingly uptight and white inner-ring suburb in American Beauty reaches its suburban – as in sub-urbane, banal, drab – zenith in the form of the Two Jims, who do exhibit none of the ennui Catherine Jurca, in White Diaspora, identifies as the default white middle-class position. Jim and Jim are ironic suburbanites – since gay men as a group have come to signal gentrification. Could the presence of Jim and Jim mean that more gay couples will move into American Beauty’s upper-middle-class suburb, leading to the gentrification of an already-affluent but slightly monochrome town? The Fitts’ family car trip that follows the Two Jims’ early-morning welcome visit writes the anxiety of sliding out of the middle class onto the suburban built environment.

At the breakfast table, Fitts voices the usual suburban concern of declining property values, barely looking up from the paper to tell Rickey that “This country is going straight to hell.” As if conjured by the statement, the Two Jims arrive with a welcome basket full of homegrown vegetables. During the drive to school, Fitts excoriates his new neighbors in pedantically homophobic terms: “How come those faggots always have to rub it in your face?  How can they be so shameless?” Ricky barely looks up from his drug-dealing accounting to defend the Jims, but Fitts cuts him off angrily. Ricky, sensing what his father wants to hear, looks directly at his father, saying with palpable irony that Fitts evidently misses, “those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” If Carolyn’s sing along drive reveals a subjective landscape rooted in her sex life and Lester’s post-quitting drive shows the business world rolling off his back, Colonel Fitts’s drive with Ricky similarly deploys transit through the built environment to make concrete Fitts’s vision of suburbia. Throughout this scene, the Fitts take the very same route their neighbors the Burnhams followed in the opening sequence of the film, since both trips were home-to-school from the same starting point. However, rather than Lester’s point-of-view shots looking into a mostly empty gray sky, the street behind Fitts is a series of picket fences guarding brick houses. In every shot of Fitts during the trip, the visual shorthand of 1950s suburbia plays counterpoint to Fitts’s reactionary sense of the incursion into his suburban retirement – how, in this ideal Ozzie and Harriet setting, can people like the two Jims belong? amb2

Such a background reveals a distinctly nostalgic subjective landscape. The nondescript streets that rush behind shots of Ricky during the conversation indicate that for a military child who never made connections to his surroundings, the built environment is not worthy of sharp focus. Fitts’s violent reaction to gay men in his picket fence is without doubt based in homophobia, but there is an economic subtext to Fitts’s homophobia: his town is not slipping toward Burnfield-like stagnation, but rather may be creeping up the ladder, into not only something not white-heterosexual, but also, significantly, a price bracket he cannot afford on a military pension fixed income. 

Sometimes a character actor gets to play the lead – as when Guy Kibbe played Babbitt in the 1934 film version (alongside another great supporting player, Aline MacMahon). The good people at TCM have a couple of short clips up, and in the “Entering Zenith” clip, there’s a wonderful shot of the billboard that advertises Floral Heights, the development where the Babbitt family has a house, but not a home:

Babbitt Floral Heights billboard

Most of my forthcoming article in Journal of Language, Literature and Culture wants to reclaim Babbittry as a relationship to urban and suburban space (Babbitt pays attention to his surroundings in transit, and paying attention during transit means that you end up seeing things like poor people. This attention disappears in post-war suburban narratives, more or less.) but when I see the casual racism I cringe. As carefully as I stake out my reclamation project, it’s shit like the Floral Heights billboard – a fairly paint-by-numbers bit of set dressing – that makes me say “oh lord I hope I was clear about only wanting to reclaim this narrow strip of Babbittry.”

During the domestic hullabaloo that opens Sixteen Candles, suburban dad Jim Baker (Paul Dooley) gets shut out of the bathroom by his getting-married-tomorrow daughter, who tells him, “I happen to have a serious problem.” Enter twelve-or-so year old Mike (Justin Henry) to explain things to his father.

Mike: She’s got her period. Should make for an interesting honeymoon, huh?

Jim: Where are you learning that stuff?

Mike: [with a smirk] School. [exit]

Jim: Good. Getting my money’s worth.

Sixteen Candles tells us quite a lot about the town where the Bakers live – Evanston, Illinois – through this line. While we can ascribe some of Mike’s worldliness to the pedagogical power of hierloom issues of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler, that information isn’t in the movie. What we do have is a line of dialog that says “sex ed in middle school.” And Jim Baker, suburban dad, is totally cool with it. In fact, he’s satisfied that his kid is learning something in school.

I find it difficult to imagine this scene in a film made in the last fifteen years, mostly because American public education decisions are one of the last holdouts in the move toward greater inclusion.

This more or less tossed-off dialog exchange led me to think about what high school looked like for 80s teen dramas. To look at John Hughes’ other high school films: Sixteen Candles also has study hall, mentions of a class called “independent development,” and gym class (including a scene that lingers over a headless nude female torso while still managing to retain a PG rating). For all the group therapy in Breakfast Club, the classes they talk about are gym (Andrew), shop (Brian and Bender), and physics (Brian). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feature’s Ben Stein’s economics/history class. And Weird Science has science and gym class. Curiously, there’s no literature class in any of these.

Nor is there in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which orbits around a hodgepodge world history class. Say Anything opens with Diane Court (Ione Skye) being introduced as excelling in “history…oceanography…creative writing…and biochemistry” as a way to drive home how smart she is, but there’s no classroom for creative writing, although we do get to see Corey (Lili Taylor) workshop her songs. Better Off Dead mines French class for some of its jokes. Finally, in a more serious vein, Stand and Deliver is about a calculus class.

And here an article is a waitin to be born. Of Reagan’s Secretaries of Education — Terrel Bell, Bill Bennett, and Lauro Cavasos — Bennett seems to be the person to look at for a sense of what the national conversation about education policy looked like. The other figure to consider is ED Hirsch, who published Cultural Literacy in 1987. After I refamiliarize myself with these two gents and their contributions to the debate, I’ll have more to say.


I grew up in Carpentersville, Illinois, a suburb on what used to be the northwest edge of Chicagoland. It was as good a place to grow up as any, I guess, and I have mostly fond memories of it. I was absolutely mortified when C’Ville was the New York Times Magazine cover story on anti-immigrant politics – especially since I grew up in the eastern part of town, the very predominantly-Hispanic part of town that those dickheads were intent on demonizing. But in spite of my affection for C’Ville, Chicago-suburb set films don’t make me homesick, perhaps because the best-known “suburban Chicago films” – the John Hughes cycle, Chris Columbus’s stuff , and what my friend and Lansing, IL native Luke Mundo called “all that North Shore shit” – concern a very narrow strip of the region that looks and acts nothing like my old block on Papoose Road.

However, a couple of movies (and a television show) make me homesick: Fargo, A Serious Man, and Mystery Science Theater 3000.

MST3K, The Joel Episodes: Joel’s sleepy delivery reminds me of my friend John, perhaps the preeminent MFA-holding car mechanic in the Chicago suburbs. This creates a very strange kind of homesickness, one that combines the upper-midwestern accent of half of my family with the aw-shucks irony of one of my best friends from my teen years. I may be alone among academics, but I had a perfectly pleasant adolescence. Joel episodes are as close as I can get to experiencing the best parts of hanging out with my friends, only across the gulf of time.

Fargo: For the last ten years, I’ve not experienced a proper Midwestern winter. I spent two winters in New Hampshire, which was a good way to farewell the cold. I moved from New Hampshire to Nashville in May 2003 (and it snowed on the day I moved); Nashville could get cold, but not Illinois/Wisconsin cold. Christchurch is dank and unpleasant during winter, but it never hurts to go outside, nor does any trip require thermals, half an hour of warming up the car, scraping the windshield, and that painful sound of tyres packing down snow. I can’t say that I miss winter, but it’s easier to miss the rituals and shared pains of winter than it is the actual lived experience of it. I was in Illinois in January-February 2011, and the two blizzards during my stay, coupled with the face-numbing cold, convinced me that I actually kind of prefer not slogging through a “real” winter. But there’s something about seeing a horizonless white-grey image that stirs memories of driving up to Green Bay for Thankgiving or Christmas. This was the view from the backseat of our Pinto station wagon many a trip to Grandma and Grandpa Long’s:

And then there’s A Serious Man. On the one hand, the gloriously Kodachrome-y shots of Larry standing on his roof make me miss C’Ville’s suburban aesthetic.

The flatness, the not-quite-grown-in trees, the regularity of the pattern, all the things that, for example, my (New England 4H farm girl) wife found unsettling about the Midwest and suburbia are the things I remember most now that I live on the side of a hill looking out on the Pacific Ocean.

But while MST3K and Fargo both let me look back in time in the standard nostalgic homesickness kind of way, toward fond memories of C’Ville, the suburbs, and the Midwest. A Serious Man does something else entirely. It generates in me a feeling of what my life would have been like, had I been the adult me in the C’Ville of my youth. I was fairly interested in religion as a kid – George Carlin taught me to take what they said at Catechism seriously, because that was the best way to get laughs and make trouble (I also thought about going to seminary) – so when Larry the academic turns to the three rabbis to deal with his troubles, I can see a credible imagined past for an amalgamation of 1975-born Christian and a speculative 1955-born Christian. In other words, my ability to remember C’Ville, and growing up there, owes more to the Larry Gopnik I am now than to the John Bender-Brian Johnson mix I was.