Suburban Nation, Ch. 7: Everybody’s a Victim
In chapter seven of Suburban Nation, the authors attempt to make the reader aware of the scope of victimhood associated with sprawl. They do a great job. It oftentimes goes unnoticed by the general population, and for many of us that have only known sprawl, we don’t realize how bad it really is. The suburban way of building is a social experiment unprecedented in world history, and all signs point to it ending badly. It is excess, and badly composed excess at that.
The chapter starts with a great quote from Philip Langdon’s book A Better Place to Live: “Surplus wealth enables people to persist in building wasteful, inadequate communities and then compensate for the communities’ failings by buying private vehicles and driving all over the metropolitan area in search of what ought to be available close to home.” The term “rat race” comes to mind. We build overly complicated and wasteful systems in place of what should be simple, sucking life out of our lives in order to get by. It shouldn’t be so hard. For more examples of the make-things-needlessly-complicated-in-order-to-create-industries-of-unnecessary-experts-and-pointless-jobs meme, see “tax code,” as well as most government operations in general.
The distinction between the booming economy and what the boom yielded can’t be stressed enough. The great suburban build-out generated huge volumes of business. The farther apart things spread, the more cars were needed to link up the separate things, the more asphalt and cement were needed for roads, bridges and parking lots, the more copper for electric cables, etc. Each individual suburban house required its own washing machine, lawnmower, water meter, several television sets, telephones, air conditioners, swimming pools, you name it. Certainly, many Americans became wealthy selling these things, while many more enjoyed good steady pay manufacturing them. In a culture with no other values, this could be easily be construed as a good thing. Indeed, the relentless expansion of consumer goodies became increasingly identified with our national character as the American Way of Life. Yet not everyone failed to notice that end product of all this furious commerce-for-its-own-sake was a trashy and preposterous human habitat with no future. James Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere
The authors focus on seven victim groups: cul-de-sac kids, soccer moms, bored teenagers, stranded elderly, weary commuters, bankrupt municipalities, and the immobile poor. So, pretty much everyone, though each group is impacted in different ways.
Cul-de-sac kids are one of the more helpless groups; they can’t do anything about their situation, and are subjected to it without being asked. Their mobility and ability to see outside their yard is solely dependent on their parents’ ability and willingness to cart them around. They can’t walk anywhere (because there’s nowhere to go), can’t go play in the woods (because there aren’t any), and can’t learn any sort of autonomy (because they would get ran over if they ventured too far). It’s also sad to think that, in a large part of America, the movie Sandlot could never happen. No vacant lots, no ability to ride a bike around, no community swimming pool, parents too scared to let their kid go play baseball without them hovering, no wise old James Earl Jones to learn valuable life lessons from, etc. A great read on this topic is Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.
Soccer moms go hand-in-hand with cul-de-sac kids: having to cart their children around in order for them to get to what should be close by, the moms bear a great burden. Too often, I think, this feeling of burden gets blamed on having kids, when in fact the blame should lie on the urban planning that makes the transportation of kids a burden. The parents are trying to give their kids a good life, and the way we have built our cities and towns makes that difficult to do. They are chauffeurs more than moms, and that has detrimental emotional and psychological effects this book can’t begin to address.
Bored teenagers are next. A sterile environment devoid of public gathering spaces and things to do leads to all kinds of trouble, say the authors. The life lessons lost from growing up in suburbia have given way to atrophied imaginations, less self-reliance, less decision-making ability, and less inquisitiveness about their surroundings. They also lead to a propensity to escape these surroundings when they are able: by driving. Car accidents lead to a Vietnam War’s worth of deaths (45,000) every year, but few go out and protest about that.
(Let’s put this in perspective. A popular measure of the unlikely, a person’s odds of getting struck by lighting stands at 1 in 240,000. Parents spend so much time worrying over whether their kid will get kidnapped (odds: 1 in 610,000) or get bit by a snake in the woods (1 in 50 million that it’s fatal), yet they don’t do anything about a system that nearly requires their child to get a drivers’ license at 16, even though their odds of dying in a crash are 1 in 7,100, or 86 times more likely than being kidnapped.)
They go on to talk about how we as a society are more than willing to spend insane amounts of money to make sure our cars have a nice, smooth piece of asphalt to cruise over, but balk at the cost of building a nice school for our kids. We spend $30 million dollars/mile on nice new highways. $30 million will also build a pretty jam-up school that the kids would be proud to go to and the community would be proud to use. Here’s a good example:
On the right is what is now the Greensboro Center, but it used to be Starkville High School back in the day. The current high school is out of the downtown, and only a very small percentage of the students could be reasonably expected to walk or bike there. Notes: 1) the only picture I could find of the current high school building was in the header of the Starkville High School webpage. 2) The Starkville School District has a picture of the Greensboro Center in the main site header, even though no classes take place there. 3) This lack of publicity about the current Starkville High School is odd, considering the fact that just a year ago they completely updated the facade of the building. To me, this demonstrates precisely what has been lost: civic pride in public buildings. We don’t want to/can’t afford to spend money on civic buildings because we spend it all on roads and the other infrastructure necessary to support suburbia. This ties in perfectly with the “bankrupt municipality” victims mentioned later in the chapter. Also, see “postal service” as an example of an organization done in by sprawl.
Stranded elderly is another huge problem, and it’s only going to get worse. We all know the Baby Boomers are getting older, and along with the strain they are going to place on health care and Social Security, the loss of driving ability will be nearly as large a strain. Because they won’t be able to drive around, they’re going to revert back to being cul-de-sac kids and bored teenagers, and their kids will become soccer moms all over again, bearing the burden of the suburban model to transport their aging parents where they need to go. And what to do about the elderly whose family has moved away? Someone’ going to have to get them to the doctor, and that means either an expansion of public transportation (where will you put the bus stops in the suburbs, and how will the elderly walk there?) or transportation financed by the medical facility (can you imagine choosing your doctor based on whether they have a shuttle service or not?) Needless to say, this is going to be quite the big deal.
Finally, the authors mention the immobile poor. Another huge problem, this one tends to get glossed over more than most. People with cars simply have a tough time understanding how hard it is to get around without a car. They also underestimate how expensive it is to own car, especially when you have a low income (which, oftentimes, is the best you can do because you don’t have the transportation necessary to get you to a higher-paying job. Commence cycle of poverty.). These poor are often forced to move out of downtown areas where they could get around because the rent got too damn high, so they have to move to where they can afford shelter, making the need for a car even worse. One puzzling aspect to me is how this is rarely portrayed as a freedom issue. The prevailing sense is that Americans must own a car, and screw the ones that don’t. How this fits into what is “American” I do not know. What I do know is that we have to do a better job.