Deconstructing Suburbia

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I spent my life growing up in the San Fernando Valley, which is essentially a large expanse of suburban sprawl to the north of the Los Angeles’ urban center. I truly became aware of my suburban surroundings when 1. I began learning about the history of the suburbs in a few of classes in high school and 2. When I got my driver’s license -- able to venture into any part of the city I desired, I began taking notice of the different kinds of neighborhoods that make up LA county’s topography and became familiar with the inexplicably bizarre feeling that accompanied driving aimlessly through the outskirts of the city.

Once simply a word denoting a hybrid between urban and rural territory, the meaning of life in the suburbs has come to represent the epitome of ordinary American life. A suburb, formally defined, is an outlying district of an urban area. Given that the U.S. Census Bureau lumps “suburban” into the “urban” category, it’s difficult to quantify just how many people live in the suburbs. But, according to data from five thirty eight, just over 50% of Americans describe their communities as suburban, a testament to the presence of the suburban lifestyle in the American consciousness.

The appearance of a suburban neighborhood can differ significantly, but in my mind, it has always evoked images of extreme normalcy. Flatlands composed of aggressively similar-looking houses and neighborhoods. A caucasian family with a middle class income living in a plain, one-story home. Averageness. Mundanity. Uniformity. The most striking example of such normalcy to me is the tract housing community model, those rows of cookie cutter homes that are slightly different from one another but much more alike than not. You’ve seen them before, or perhaps you grew up in one yourself. Passing by these communities in particular, but really any glaringly suburban neighborhood, always gave me a certain feeling that I couldn’t quite articulate. I guess it was a mix of eeriness, lethargy, ennui. But I eventually realized that I wasn’t the only one who was provoked by the suburbs. From Arcade Fire’s 2010 album “The Suburbs” to Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes;” to Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” and Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays;” writers and film-makers alike feel compelled to explore the American suburb in their work.

In one of my favorite films, Edward Scissorhands, director Tim Burton explores the notion of normalcy associated with suburban life. The very beginning of his film shows an enormous black mountain towering over a pastel-colored suburb. Burton brings this visual tension to life as he explores the dynamic between the manifestations of these opposite worlds: Edward, the bizarre man with scissors for hands (Johnny Depp) who lives atop this mountain, is removed from his isolation and welcomed into “normal” life below him. As the film unfolds, the audience witnesses how Edward, the “other,” begins to affect the neighbors, the “normal,” and it is through their interaction that we come to realize that these suburbanites are not even normal themselves. As we explore the dynamic between these two worlds, Burton deconstructs the binary between “absurd” and “ordinary” to challenge our rigid definition of “normal.”

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A mélange of exaggerated imagery and dialogue paints a picture of a suburban hyperreality: vibrant polos and khakis along with overly voluminous hair make these people look like caricatures of themselves. Their obsession with appearance adds to this idea that artificiality and showmanship are things that are normal, things that make them accepted by one another in their society. The reason such things have been considered normal, though, is because unanimous practice reinforces them. This is why Edward is key. His subdued personality and limited amount of speech are in stark contrast with the behavior of the suburban townspeople. So, even though Edward’s behavior is “strange,” what is more jarring is the ludicrousness we see in the townspeople. We come to recognize that while a set idea of normality within their town exists, the viewer is meant to look at these people with a skeptical eye and question what constitutes these people as normal anyway.

Much of the concept behind this film stemmed from Burton’s own childhood days spent in a neighborhood right next to my own -- the sleepy suburbs of Burbank, California. His entire persona, one of eeriness and absurdity exemplified in everything from his oversized midnight blue glasses and dark clothing to the creation of other notably unique movies such as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a reaction to his suburban Los Angeles upbringing. During an interview with the LA Times, his interviewer writes that what really gives Burton the creeps are the Southern California suburbs in which he grew up. What Tim Burton is much more fond of, instead, is Hollywood Boulevard, a clear display of an appetite for the eccentric. The LA Times interviewer notes how Burton became much livelier when they ventured into Hollywood, a more bizarre part of the city furnished with cemeteries, emporiums full of fake limbs and monster masks, and people walking the streets in uniquely flamboyant garb. All of the unconventionality that characterizes Burton and that which he is attracted to can be credited to his own desire to be as removed as possible from the glaring normality of the suburbs. Burton finds beauty in what may be generally regarded as repulsive; similarly, he finds the repulsion in that which the general population may regard as “good” and “normal,” just as he does in Edward Scissorhands, where he reveals how the suburbs’ extreme normalcy paradoxically manifests into its own form of absurdity.

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The popularity of suburban life among middle-class Americans shot up in the latter-half of the 20th century, with around one-third of the population living in the suburbs by 1960. William Levitt became famous for using mass-production techniques to produce large quantities of houses with identical interiors and slightly varied exteriors, capitalizing on the high demand for housing and creating opportunity for young couples to buy houses for a cheap price. The idea of these “Levittowns” dispersed across the country, standardizing what the idea of family life looked like for millions of Americans. Suburban life was enticing for more than its inexpensive price, though. Families took a liking to the idea of being surrounded by people that were like them -- being of similar age and background made forming friendships easier, but an even more important component was race. As large quantities of blacks flocked to major cities during the Second Great Migration from 1941 to 1970, whites felt compelled to escape the integration of urban neighborhoods and schools. Discriminatory housing practices also reinforced this racial division. In an unofficial policy called redlining, banks and insurance companies denied loans to homes in areas deemed unfit for investment. In practice, “unfit” meant a racially non-white area. These areas were outlined in red on maps, resulting in underdeveloped and underserved neighborhoods. Similarly, racially restrictive covenants, which were contractual agreements between real estate boards, neighborhood associations, and property owners, prevented blacks from purchasing homes in white communities.

The suburbs’ success, then, in a way, was built upon the desire to escape the “others” that whites believed were infiltrating the cities. The suburbs represent the preservation of a dream of wealth and idealism. They’re the continuation of a repackaged story that white, middle-class Americans create in order to perpetuate the idea they sell to themselves: that by living in these suburbs and avoiding the so-called dinginess of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, they’ve somehow brought themselves closer to the American dream and away from the poverty, perhaps from which they came and are now desperately trying to avoid. The aesthetic that comes as a result -- uniform houses set atop concrete, looking out onto flat, treeless streets -- reveals the sense of order and control that suburbanites desire.

Researching and writing about the suburbs have certainly helped me gain a deeper understanding of the history and significance of living in a suburb. But, no matter how much I learn about them, I still can’t seem to shake that feeling when I journey into certain suburban communities -- that peculiar sensation of dread and melancholy in the pit of my stomach that arises from basking in the supposedly appealing aesthetic we’ve manufactured for ourselves.