Dec
14

“At first it’s beautiful to just watch that white line reel into Willie’s snout but when I start looking around out the window there’s just endless housing tracts and new blue factories everywhere—Sez Dave: ‘Yes, that’s right, the population explosion is gonna cover every bit of backyard dirt in America some day in fact they’ll even have to start piling up friggin levels of houses and others over that like your cityCityCITY till the houses reach a hundred miles in the air in all directions of the map and people looking at the earth from another planet with super-telescopes will see a prickly ball hanging in space—It’s like real horrible when you come to think of it, even us with all our fancy talk, shit man it’s all millions of people and events piling up almost unimaginable now…hundreds of millions of hungry mouths raving for more, more…”
Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

“Sprawl is claiming farmland at the rate of 1.2 million acres a year. Throw in forest and other undeveloped land and, for net annual loss of open space, you’re waving good-bye to more than two million acres.”
John G. Mitchell, “Urban Sprawl,” National Geographic, July, 2001

“Between 1994 and 2002, real estate developers completed about 1.5 million new units of housing every year, most of them suburban single family houses.”
Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000

The suburbs are what is wrong with America. Maybe they are just as bad in other countries but since I was born and raised here I will speak only about here. I should qualify all of this by letting you know up front that I was raised in a very rural area and that I now live in a city.

But, I do know the suburbs in my heart and in my heart I hate them. They exemplify all that is wrong with this once great nation; all that is wrong with the economy right now, and much that is wrong with the environment. And they are at least partially to blame for the racial and socio-economic divides in this country. The suburbs represent all of the foolish hubris and avarice that exists in our version of society. The greedy, desperate grab for more, more, MORE, and screw anyone or anything that gets in the way.

I won’t get into the history of the suburban movement here. Read Dolores Hayden’s book if you want to know that. It will anger you if you have half a brain and any type of heart. What I want to talk about is the psyche behind it all and why it is inherently wrong in every way. So, here we go…

The American Dream Must Die

What we have come to know as the “American Dream” is not sustainable, at least the post-Depression, post World War II version that most of us have always known. In fact, it is crazy and probably evil. And we must stop believing in it to save ourselves and our future generations.

The “American Dream” myth has conned millions of people in this country into believing that if a person works hard enough and “does the right things,” then they will have success and earn for themselves and their family a better life than their parent’s had. And somehow this is supposed to go on and on forever because there are always enough resources, and enough land, and enough space, water, food, etc. etc. to maintain this delusion. Right?

The other lie inherent in the American Dream is that we are all equal in this country and all have the same opportunities. The sad thing about this lie is that so many white, upper middle class and higher people actually believe that it is true. They actually believe that the child of a single mother in a ghetto in urban Detroit who goes to terrible schools and dodges bullets and needles on his way home, eats less than he needs, and sleeps in a rat invested tenement with 5 other children has the same level of equality and opportunity as an upper middle class or higher kid who lives in a perfectly fabricated development, gets driven to school in a minivan with a DVD player in the back seat by his stay at home mom (and to band practice, and soccer, and TGI Fridays), goes to fully funded schools filled with children who look just like him, has all the food, clothes, video games, and computers that he could ever dream about. And if the kid from the ghetto doesn’t “make something of his life” he simply didn’t try hard enough. Right?

Blow Up the Suburbs

You can see most of the ugliness and lies of the “American Dream” myth in suburban reality. Over the past 50 plus years the suburbs have been spiraling farther and farther from the city center and the wealthy, mostly white, suburban dwellers have followed them. Cheap gas and inherent greed for bigger, newer, better houses have caused the development and destruction of millions of acres of farm and forest land, replacing land that used to be covered in apple orchards with cookie-cutter cutout houses on streets named things like “Apple Orchard Lane.” Meanwhile, the huge monstrosity box stores that supply the greed fueled Molochs who inhabit suburbia ship their apples from places like Peru and Guatemala at the cost of billions of gallons of gas and billions of tons of carbon dioxide spilling into the atmosphere. Add the billions of tons of CO2 belched out due to the billions of miles driven each year by denizens of the suburbs and a sad and ironic cultural pattern emerges that is the farthest thing from sustainable that anyone could imagine.

As suburbs moved farther and farther from the city center, they developed their own warped versions of community. Since so many of them were built where there were once fields and woods, they have no real downtown. So, the developers build strip-malls, malls, and huge box stores where the residents of suburbs (known nowadays only as “consumers”) can find entertainment by gorging themselves on needless junk, clothing, and fast-food disguised as real food. Time not spent manicuring one’s postage stamp yard, sweeping one’s roof, or washing one’s $20,000 car, is spent pursuing the true philosophical passion of suburbanites: shopping.

Couple this almost inconceivable waste with the terrible homogenous appearance and attitudes prevalent in most suburbs and you are left with a dangerous cultural waste land. Nothing says comfortable conformity like rows and rows of houses that all look exactly the same and all populated by people who look exactly the same. To me, the suburbs are the very definition of a kind of societal psychosis. But, like a staggering junkie out for his next fix, our society can’t seem to shake whatever fevered need that suburbs fulfill.

Salvation

Well, soon we might not have a choice. Eventually, nature and the cosmos will right itself and we will be forced to find another, saner, way. We are starting to see it happening already. Gas prices are making living 20, 30, 40, 50 miles from where one works non-practical, which will only get worse unless a new method of powering our entire system is found. Oil is nonrenewable, lets remember. No matter if the price at the pumps drops a few cents here and there; the only guarantee is that it’s going to run out some day. Probably sooner rather than later once China and India are fully online and sucking as greedily as America.

Oil prices and the collapse of our credit and debt based economy, which for decades has been subsidized by the government to allow millions of people to believe that they could afford houses, cars, and clothes that they really couldn’t, have coupled together to make many come disturbing and truthful realizations about the “American Dream” myth. Hopefully, this will lead to the proverbial “silver lining” on our current hurricane cloud of eminent disaster. I believe that the high cost of energy may well have the positive effect of forcing people back to the city centers, or at least closer to where they work. This will in turn cause an influx of not only working people but the economic stimulus that cities so desperately thirst for. With sound planning and sane practices, once crowded inner-cities can be rehabilitated. First generation suburbs, now in some cities approaching 100 years old, can also be rehabilitated and repopulated. These suburbs have been abandoned in the past as cheap gas made it possible for people to leap-frog these areas for the new and outer suburbs.

More expensive energy and more intelligent thinking may also lead to a rebirth of local farms and industry. After the outlying suburbs are torn down and recycled, farmers can once again reclaim their fields and grow the food that is currently being shipped to America from other countries. We will eat seasonally, as people are meant to, and we will eat well. Local industry has the potential to once again be reborn as well as the cost of shipping products from China outweighs the cost of making them locally here.

And, who knows, perhaps the influx of middle class white people returning to cities will force an intermingling of ethnicities that could lead to the eventual solving of many racial issues. Or, at least bringing them further along than keeping entirely separated has done. There will be growing pains and possibly even violence, but I believe that if people are forced to find solutions that work, they will. If urban areas can be ignored, and minorities forced to live there ignored with them as they have been for the last 50 years, then they will be ignored. We see the terrible results of doing so in the conditions of many of our inner cities today.

Perhaps all of this sounds too good to be true. Well, maybe. Maybe I’m just a progressive liberal loud-mouth with a head full of hallucinations and a heart full of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. Maybe. But, to that I will quote from John Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” I hope.