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Chapter One: Out for a Drive
So let's get in the minivan. We will start downtown in an urban hipster zone; then we'll cross the city boundary and find ourselves in a progressive suburb dominated by urban exiles who consider themselves city folks at heart but moved out to suburbia because they needed more space. Then, cruising along tree-lined avenues, we'll head into the affluent inner-ring suburbs, those established old-line communities with doctors, lawyers, executives, and Brooks Brothers outlets. Then we'll stumble farther out into the semi-residential, semi-industrial zones, home of the immigrants who service all those upper-middle-class doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Then we'll go into the heart of suburbia, the mid-ring, middle-class split-level and ranch-home suburbs, with their carports, driveway basketball hoops, and seasonal banners over the front doors. Finally, we'll venture out into the new exurbs, with their big-box malls, their herds of SUVs, and their exit-ramp office parks.
We could pick any sort of urban neighborhood to start our trek, but just for interest's sake, let's start at one of those hip bohemian neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the U Street corridor in Washington, Clarksville in Austin, Silverlake in L.A., Little Five Points in Atlanta, Pioneer Square in Seattle, or Wicker Park in Chicago, where the free alternative weeklies are stacked in the entry vestibules of the coffeehouses, galleries, and indie film centers. As you know, the alternative weekly is the most conservative form of American journalism. You can go to just about any big city in the land and be pretty sure that the alternative weekly you find there will look exactly like the alternative weekly in the city you just left. There are the same concentrations of futon ads, enlightened-vibrator-store ads, highly attitudinal film reviewers, scathingly left-wing political opinions, borderline psychotic personals, "News of the Weird" columns, investigative exposés of evil landlords, avant-garde comic strips, and white-on-black rock venue schedules announcing dates by local bands with carefully grating names like Crank Shaft, Gutbucket, Wumpscut, and The Dismemberment Plan.
You look at the pictures of the rockers near the concert reviews, and they have the same slouchy, hands-in-the-jeans pose that Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger adopted forty years ago, because nothing ever changes in the land of the rebels.
If you walk around the downtown neighborhoods, you're likely to find a stimulating mixture of low sexuality and high social concern. You'll see penis-shaft party cakes in a storefront right next to the holistic antiglobalization cooperative thrift store plastered with "Free Tibet" posters. You'll see vegan whole-grain enthusiasts who smoke Camels, and advertising copywriters on their way to LSAT prep. You'll see transgendered tenants-rights activists with spiky Finnish hairstyles, heading from their Far Eastern aromatherapy sessions to loft-renovation seminars.
In these downtown urban neighborhoods, many people carry big strap-over-the-shoulder satchels; although they may be architectural assistants and audio engineers, they want you to think they are really bike messengers. They congregate at African bistros where El Salvadoran servers wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs serve Virginia Woolf wannabes Slovakian beer.
Many of the people on these blocks have dreadlock envy. Their compensatory follicle statement might be the pubic divot, that little triangular patch of hair some men let grow on their chins, or the Jewfro, the bushy hairstyle that curly-haired Jewish men get when they let their locks grow out. Other people establish their alternative identity with NoLogo brand sportswear, kitschier-than-thou home furnishings, thrift-shop fashionista sundresses, conspicuously articulated po-mo social theories, or ostentatious displays of Martin Amis novels.
The point is to carefully nurture your art-school pretensions while still having a surprising amount of fun and possibly even making a big load of money. It is not easy to do this while remaining hip, because one is likely to find that a friend has gone terminally Lilith (denoting an excessive love of sappy feminist folk music) while others have taken their minimalist retro-modern interior-design concepts to unacceptable extremes, failing to realize that no matter how interesting a statement it makes, nobody wants to lounge around a living room that looks like a Formica gulag.
Downtown urban hipsters tend to have edgy alternative politics, or at least some Bennington College intellectual pretensions, and probably the New Yorker's disease -- meaning that anything you might tell them, they already heard two weeks ago. You could walk up and tell them that the Messiah just came down from heaven and tapped you on the shoulder, and they would yawn and say they've been expecting that since last spring. But they are cool, and their neighborhoods are cool, and that counts for a lot.
We sort of take coolness for granted because it is so much around us. However, coolness is one of those pervasive and revolutionary constructs that America exports around the globe. Coolness is a magical state of grace, and as we take our drive through America, we will see that people congregate into communities not so much on the basis of class but on the basis of what ideal state they aspire to, and each ideal state creates its own cultural climate zone.
In the hippoisie cool zone, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Billie Holliday, Jack Kerouac, James Dean, the Rat Pack, William Burroughs, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed never go out of style. Coolness is a displayed indifference to traditional measures of success. The cool person pretends not to be striving. He or she seems to be content, ironically detached from the normal status codes, and living on a rebellious plane high above them.
In the cool zone's nightclubs, you find people dressed and posed like slightly over-the-hill gay porn stars. You find that at the tippy-top of the status ladder, there are no lawyers, professors, or corporate executives but elite personal trainers, cutting-edge hairstylists, and powerful publicists: the aristocracy of the extremely shallow. Late at night in these neighborhoods, you find the Ameritrash, the club-happy, E-popping, pacifier-sucking people who live in a world of gold teeth caps, colorful scarfwear, body-conscious tailoring, ironic clip-on ties, gender-bending neo-vintage Boy George-inspired handbags, and green-apple flirtinis, which are alcoholic beverages so strong they qualify as a form of foreplay. In the cool zone, people are always hugging each other in the super-friendly European manner and talking knowledgeably about Cuban film festivals. People in the cool zone pretend to be unambitious and uninterested in the great uncool mass of middle Americans, but they are well aware of being powerful by example. Drawn by images of coolness, young people in different lands across the globe strive to throw off centuries of rigid convention in order to wear blue jeans.
Highly pierced social critics in downtown neighborhoods lament the spread of McDonald's and Disney and the threat of American cultural imperialism. But in fact, American countercultural imperialism -- the spread of rock and rap attitudes, tattoos, piercing, and the youth culture -- has always been at least as powerful and destabilizing a force for other cultures. It vibrates out from these urban-hipster zones, with their multicultural Caribbean Schawarma eateries, their all-night dance clubs with big-name DJs, and their Ian Schrager hotels, which are so Zen that if you turn on the water in one of the highly hip but shallow bathroom sinks, it bounces a cascade of water all over the front of your pants, making you look like you just wet yourself because you were so awed by your own persona.
Cities, which were once industrial zones and even manufacturing centers, have become specialty regions for the production of cool. Culture-based industries that require legions of sophisticated, creative, and stimulated workers -- the sort of people who like to live in cities -- have grown and grown. In hip urban neighborhoods, there are few kids, and those who are there are generally quite young (when the kids hit middle school, their families magically disappear).
Surrounding these hip young urban areas are neighborhoods with plenty of kids, but they tend to be disproportionately populated with poor people and members of minority and immigrant groups. They carry their own brand of cool. In fact, they define cool, but with few exceptions, they never get to cash in on it. So they are often trapped in no- or low-income jobs, because it's very hard to go from being a high school grad to being a senior editor at Details, no matter how objectively with-it you are, and most of the other jobs have fled the cities or disappeared.
Cities have made a comeback of late, because the world demands cool products and ideas, but as Joel Kotkin concludes in The New Geography, they will not come back and be, as they once were, the main arenas of national life. "Rather than recovering their place as the geographic centers of the entire economy," Kotkin writes, "city centers are readjusting themselves to a more modest but sustainable role based on the same economic and cultural niches that have been performed by the core from the beginning of civilization" -- as generation centers of art, design, publishing, entertainment, and cool.
From the cool zone, we drive out of town, just across the city line, to the crunchy zone. Here one finds starter suburbs populated by people who regard themselves as countercultural urbanites, but now they have kids, so the energy that once went into sex and raving now goes into salads. They need suburban space so their kids have a place to play, but they still want enough panhandlers and check-cashing places nearby so they can feel urban and gritty.
Dotted around most cities -- especially in the northern rim of the country, through Vermont, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington -- there are one or two crunchy suburbs that declared themselves nuclear-free zones during the cold war, although some would argue that the military-industrial complex was not overly inconvenienced by being unable to base ICBM launch sites in Takoma Park, Maryland. You can tell you are in a crunchy suburb by the sudden profusion of meat-free food co-ops, the boys with names like Mandela and Milo running around the all-wood playgrounds, the herbal-soapmaking cooperatives, pottery galleries, dance collectives, and middle-aged sandal wearers (people with progressive politics have this strange penchant for toe exhibitionism).
You have to remember that crunchy suburbs are the stoner versions of regular suburbs. All the status codes are reversed. So in a crunchy suburb, all the sports teams are really bad, except those involving Frisbees. The parking spaces are occupied by automobiles in need of psychotherapy because they are filled with self-hatred and wish they were Danish wood-burning stoves. The locals sit around on the weekends listening to Click and Clack, the self-amused NPR car-repair gurus who tell other crunchy-suburb people how to repair a crank shaft on their 1982 Honda Civic -- the one with 285,000 miles and a Darwin fish on the bumper, next to the sticker attesting to the driver's tendency to practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
The true sign that you are in a crunchy suburb is when you come across an anti-lawn. Crunchy-suburb people subtly compete to prove that they have the worst lawn in the neighborhood, just to show how fervently they reject the soul-destroying standards of conventional success.
An anti-lawn looks like a regular lawn with an eating disorder. Some are bare patches of compacted brown dirt with sickly stray pieces of green matter poking out, the vegetation version of Yasser Arafat's face. Other anti-lawns burst forth with great symphonies of onion grass, vast spreads of dandelions and crabgrass, expanding waves of depressed ivies and melancholy ferns -- such an impressive array of weed life uninterrupted by any trace of actual grass that you can only conclude some progressive agribusiness makes a soy-based weed enhancer/grass suppressant, with special discounts for Nader voters.
When you are in these neighborhoods -- maybe you've been invited over for a backyard stir-fry -- you might want to ask for terrible lawn-care secrets, but you get distracted by the housepaint issue, which is another moral dilemma for crunchy-suburb residents. Painting your house exterior colonial white or production-home beige would, in these areas, be the moral equivalent of putting a National Rifle Association sign in the front yard. So crunchy-suburb residents again fall into two categories, starting with those who choose to paint their house every decade or so, but do so in such bright New Age colors -- lavender, cobalt blue, fuchsia, or purple haze -- that no one can possibly doubt the Buddhist bona fides of the people who live inside.
The other camp regards exterior housepaint in the same way they regard makeup, as something that was probably developed using animal testing. Centuries go by without any fresh coats, and the run-down drabness of the exteriors is highlighted only by the peace signs made out of Christmas lights that pop up around holiday time. The roofs in these homes tend to undulate in great waves and warps, because the residents either cannot afford roof repair or reject the rigid uniformity of straight lines, unchipped shingles, and the whole symmetry thing. The front porches are rusted and cracked, buried under sedimentary deposits of former lawn furniture picked up from neighborhood thrift shops (crunchy-suburb residents are not really into material things, but strangely, they still can't manage to throw anything away). The settlement in these homes is such that if you put a marble in the middle of a living room here, it would pick up so much speed as it rolled downhill that it would bore into the philosophically named housecat if she happened to be standing in its path.
The nice thing about these crunchy suburbs -- aside from the fact that 96 percent of all children's book illustrators live in them -- is that their residents are so relaxed. The ethos is almost excessively casual. While these folks might regard it as unusual to show up for a dinner party in anything other than black jeans and Birkenstocks, a suit and tie not made from hemp won't bend them out of shape. In other words, you may not really be part of their culture, but if you come to one of their towns, they will still welcome you. They may have little direct knowledge of anything that happens outside the nonprofit sector, but they tend to be genuinely warm toward new people. Tolerance is practically their profession. The cool zone is built on exclusion and one-upmanship, but the crunchy zone is built on inclusion and open-mindedness.
To their credit, the crunchy zones represent the last bastions of anticommercialism. The world used to be dotted with cultures that rejected the marketplace mentality. There were agrarians, old-family aristocrats, artsy bohemians, southern cavaliers, Marxists, Maoists, monks, and hoboes. But now the marketplace has co-opted or overrun each of those subcultures. Now, if you want to live an anticommercial lifestyle, or even a pseudo-anticommercial lifestyle, crunchiness is just about your only mode.
Amid the organic cauliflower stands and Moosewood Cookbook-inspired dinner parties, you'll find people suspicious of technological progress, efficiency, mass culture, and ever-rising affluence. The crunchies don't let their kids watch much TV, they disdain shopping malls, they prefer the small and the local and the particular and the old to the powerful and the modern. In any normal political taxonomy, they would be called conservative; though they are progressive on civil rights and social issues, they shelter the idiosyncratic, ethnic, and traditional institutions from the onrush of technology, homogenization, efficiency, and progress. But in the U.S., political orientations are defined by one's attitude to the free market, and the word "conservative" has been assigned to those who defend the free market, which of course is not a conservative institution. So crunchy towns tend to be associated with the left (though Rod Dreher of National Review has emerged as the champion of the Crunchy Cons -- the pro-life vegetarian high-church Catholics who can their own preserves, care too much about zucchini, home-school their kids, and read Edmund Burke while wearing Swedish clogs).
Crunchy people also tend not to have a lot of money, and some of them actually don't care about it -- they aren't merely pretending they don't care. Maybe you wouldn't want to spend your life in towns where half the men look like Allen Ginsberg, where the chief dilemma is whether to send the kids to Antioch or Hampshire College, or where Celtic folk/bluegrass songs intersperse with Phish anthems on the teahouse sound systems, but it is kind of interesting to be in a place in which the holy dollar has lost its divinity.
As we drive farther, we begin to notice that the houses are getting bigger, the lawns look professionally manicured, and the driveways tend to be filled with Audis, Volvos, and Saabs. In these upscale neighborhoods, it is apparently socially acceptable to buy a luxury car so long as it comes from a country that is hostile to U.S. foreign policy. Soon you begin to see discount but morally elevated supermarkets such as Trader Joe's. Here you can get your Spinoza Bagels (for people whose lives peaked in graduate school), fennel-flavored myrrh toothpaste from Tom's of Maine, free-range chicken broth, gluten-free challah, spelt-based throat lozenges, and bread from farms with no-tillage soil. (What, does the dirt turn itself over?)
Trader Joe's is for people who wouldn't dream of buying an avocado salad that didn't take a position on offshore drilling or a whey-based protein bar that wasn't fully committed to campaign finance reform. Someday, somebody should build a right-wing Trader Joe's, with faith-based chewing tobacco, rice pilaf grown by school-voucher-funded Mormon agricultural academies, and a meat section that's a bowl of cartridges and a sign reading "Go ahead, kill it yourself." But in the meantime, we will have to make do with the ethos of social concern that prevails at places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
You get the impression that everybody associated with Trader Joe's is excessively good -- that every cashier is on temporary furlough from Amnesty International, that the chipotle-pepper hummus was mixed by pluralistic Muslims committed to equal rights for women, that the Irish soda bread was baked by indigenous U2 groupies marching in Belfast for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation, and that the olive spread was prepared by idealistic Athenians who are reaching out to the Turks on the whole matter of Cyprus.
The folks at Trader Joe's also confront higher moral problems, such as snacks. Everyone knows that snack food is morally suspect, since it contributes to the obesity of the American public, but the clientele still seems to want it. So the folks behind this enterprise have managed to come up with globally concerned stomach filler that tastes virtuously like sawdust ground from unendangered wood. For kids who come home from school screaming, "Mom, I want a snack that will prevent colo-rectal cancer," there's Veggie Booty with kale, baked pea-pod chips, roasted plantains, wasabi peas, and flavor-free rice clusters. If you smuggled a bag of Doritos into Trader Joe's, some preservative alarm would go off, and the whole place would have to be fumigated and resanctified.
You usually don't have to wander far from a Trader Joe's before you find yourself in bistroville. These are inner-ring restaurant-packed suburban town centers that have performed the neat trick of being clearly suburban while still making it nearly impossible to park. In these new urbanist zones, highly affluent professionals emerge from their recently renovated lawyer foyers on Friday and Saturday nights, hoping to show off their discerning taste in olive oils. They want sidewalks, stores with overpriced French children's clothes to browse in after dinner, six-dollar-a-cone ice-cream vendors, and plenty of restaurants. They don't want suburban formula restaurants. They want places where they can offer disquisitions on the reliability of the risotto, where the predinner complimentary bread slices look like they were baked by Burgundian monks, and where they can top off their dinner with a self-righteous carrot smoothie.
The rule in these pedestrian-friendly town centers is "Fight a war, gain a restaurant." You'll find Afghan eateries, Vietnamese restaurants, Lebanese diners, Japanese sushi bars alongside dining options from Haiti, Cambodia, India, Mongolia, and Moscow. And this is not to even mention the Cosi-style casual dining spots offering shiitake mushroom panini sandwiches or the gourmet pizzerias serving artichoke, prosciutto, and brie pizzas (which can also come with a black-bean topping). When you stumble across Teriyaki Fajita Salad du Jardin, you realize it is possible to cram so many authentic indigenous cultures together that they've created something totally bogus and artificial.
Ozzie and Harriet would find it odd that their old suburban town center now has a vegan restaurant for feminist reproductive-rights activists and their support circles, but these inner-ring suburbs are sophisticated places. They are the home of the upscale urban exiles -- affluent sophisticated types who disapprove of the suburbs in principle but find themselves living in one in practice. Like the crunchy suburbanites, they disapprove of the sterility of suburban life, the split-level subdivisions, the billiard rooms, and the blueberry bagels. But unlike the crunchy suburbanites, these inner-ring people just happen to have landed jobs that earn them a quarter million dollars a year, darn it, and they somehow moved into recently renovated Arts and Crafts mansions with an Olympic-sized Jacuzzi in the master-bathroom spa, the emblem of their great sellout.
The people who live in the inner-ring suburbs are hard-core meritocrats and the chief beneficiaries of the information age. This economy showers money down upon education, so the fine young achievers who went to graduate school and got jobs as litigators and mortgage-company executives can now live in towns that are close to downtown theaters and concert halls but also filled with houses big enough to support a kitchen the size of Arkansas. About 15 percent of American households now earn over $100,000 a year. There are over seven million households with a net worth over $1 million. This nation, in other words, now possesses a mass upper class, and many of these folks are congregating in the upscale archipelago of such places as Bethesda, Maryland; Greenwich, Connecticut; Tarrytown, New York; Villanova, Pennsylvania; Winnetka, Illinois; San Mateo and Santa Monica, California; Austin, Texas; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. In the mornings, there are so many blue New York Times delivery bags in the driveways of these towns, they are visible from space.
Back when the old WASP elite dominated these places, they were rock-ribbed Republican. But the new educated elite has brought new values and new voting patterns. In 1998 National Journal studied the voting patterns of the richest 261 towns in America and discovered that the Democratic share of the vote had risen in each of the previous five elections. In 2000 the Democrats went over the top. A Democratic presidential candidate carried the area around the Main Line, outside of Philadelphia, for the first time in history. And the first Democrat ever won the area around New Trier High School, north of Chicago. Once Republican strongholds, the inner-ring suburbs have become Democratic zones, thanks to the influx of the educated and affluent cultural elite, with their graduate degrees, high incomes, and liberal social values.
These places have their good and bad features. On the downside, they are strangely insular. Though the people here are in most ways well informed, and often can name the foreign minister of France, they tend to live in neighborhoods where everybody has a college degree (only about a quarter of adult Americans do), and they often don't know much about the rest of the country. They might not know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are, even though these men are among the nation's best-selling authors, with over fifty million books sold. They often don't know what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal, even though Pentecostalism is the most successful social movement of the twentieth century, starting in Los Angeles with no members a hundred years ago and growing so fast there are now roughly four hundred million Pentecostals worldwide. They can't name five NASCAR drivers, though stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country. They can't tell a military officer's rank by looking at his insignia. They may not know what soy beans look like growing in the field. Sometimes they can't even tell you what happens in Branson, Missouri, though, as sort of the country music Vegas, it is one of the top tourist destinations in the country. On the other hand, they are really good at building attractive and interesting places to live. This is, after all, the red-hot center of the achievement ethos, and while few people in these neighborhoods have fought in wars, many have endured extensive home renovations.
So if you are in an inner-ring suburb, you are likely to be amid people who have developed views on beveled granite, and no inner-ring dinner party has gone all the way to dessert without a serious conversational phase on the merits and demerits of Corian countertops. People here talk about their relationships with architects the way they used to talk about their priests, rabbis, and ministers. Bathroom tile is their cocaine; instead of blowing their life savings on narcotic white powder, they blow it on the handcrafted Italian wall covering they saw at Waterworks.
The sumptuary codes in these neighborhoods are always shifting. Highly educated folk don't want to look materialistic and vulgar, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have an in-house theater with a fourteen-foot high-definition projection screen to better appreciate the interviews on Charlie Rose. Eventually these advanced-degree moguls cave in and buy the toys they really want: the heated bathroom floors to protect their bare feet, the power showers with nozzles every six inches, the mudrooms the size of your first apartment, the sixteen-foot refrigerators with the through-the-door goat cheese and guacamole delivery systems, the cathedral ceilings in the master bedroom that seem to be compensation for not quite getting to church. Later, when they show off to you, they do so in an apologetic manner, as if some other family member forced them to make the purchase.
Inner-ring people work so arduously at perfecting their homes because they dream of building a haven where they can relax, lay aside all that striving, and just cocoon. They have deep simplicity longings, visions of having enough money and space so they can finally rest. Yet you know they are wired for hard work, because they feel compelled to put offices in every room in the house. Mom has an office in the kitchen, Dad has an office off the bedroom, the kids have computer centers near the family room, and it's only a matter of time before builders start installing high-speed Internet access in bathrooms. That dream of perfect serenity and domestic bliss will just have to be transferred to the vacation home.
Inner-ring people tend to have omnivorous musical tastes. They're interested in zydeco and that Louisiana dance music they heard on Fresh Air, even if they do tend to drift back to Melissa Etheridge and Lyle Lovett. They prefer independent bookstores, and they bend down and read the recommendations in the staff-picks section. That's how they stumbled across Anita Diamant, Paul Auster, and Wally Lamb before they got really popular.
If they are not perpetually renovating their properties, inner-ring people are off on allegedly educational vacations improving their minds. When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he didn't go to Queen Isabella and say, "Well, I didn't find a trade route to India, but I did find myself." That, however, is exactly what highly educated inner-ring people are looking for in a vacation. They go on personal-growth Greek cruises sponsored by alumni associations, during which university classics professors lecture on the Peloponnesian wars while the former econ majors try to commit adultery with the lifeguards.
As you sit with them intimately in their reading alcove (not the one in the master bedroom suite; rather, the one beside the office, near the nanny suite) they tell you about the weeklong painting seminar they took with Comtesse Anne de Liedekerke in Belgium, the cooking seminar in Siena, the tiger-watching adventure in India, or the vineyard touring week in Bordeaux. When they put all this hard-won knowledge to work by using the word "geometric" in reference to a cabernet, you want to applaud their commitment to lifelong learning, but you are distracted because your butt is shaking as a result of the eighteen-inch woofer their architect cleverly embedded in the built-in divan you are resting upon.
When people in their twenties are surveyed on where they want to live, more of them answer inner-ring suburbs than any other place. It's easy to see why. These places combine the sophistication of the city with the child-friendly greenery of the suburb. The people here are well educated, lively, and tolerant (unless you want to, say, build a school in their neighborhood, in which case they turn into NIMBY-fired savages ripping the flesh from your bones with their bare hands).
As you drive out from the inner-ring suburbs, you find yourself on these eight-lane commercial pikes with strip malls up and down either side, a Taco Bell every four hundred yards, and so many turn signals and left-hand turn lanes that crossing the street is nearly impossible because you never know where the cars are coming from. These avenues are just about the ugliest spots on the face of the earth. You're stuck at one red light after another, with views of fast-food drive-through lanes, grungy convenience stores, storage-center warehouse facades, and more fluorescent-lit nail salons than the mind can comprehend. The strip malls have names like Pike Center or Town Plaza, because no one even bothered to think up a distinctive title. Every half mile or so, in between the car lots, cell-phone stores, and discount mattress outlets, there will be a lone five-story office building that has all the aesthetic charm of a sixty-foot water heater. Turn onto a side road, and you may find yourself in one of those suburban light-industry districts where, after a few years, everything comes to look like the inside of an auto garage. Most upscale suburbanites come to these neighborhoods only when they are selecting new floor surfaces for their renovated kitchen, since most of the companies in this zone distribute things most people never have to think about: truck hitches, flexible packing foam, and cut-rate sprinkler equipment.
But if you look closely, you begin to see something else: big restaurant signs with names like China Star Buffet, small Oriental groceries offering cellophane noodles, live tilapia fish, and premade bibim bap salad. Then you see Indian grocery stores with videocassettes from Delhi, boxes of crackers from Bombay, and imported spices in big brown barrels. You notice the taiga Japanese bookstore, newspaper boxes offering the Korean Central Daily, Pakistani cyber cafés, Bosnian banks, and a Shiseido cosmetics outlet offering "movie-star brown" hair coloring for Asians. Perhaps there is a Vietnamese diner featuring bunh mih xui mai, which is "sloppy joe" in Vietnamese.
These stores often have advertising posters taped to the front door -- for DynaSky calling cards to Peru, or a Christian prayer meeting hosted by Shim-San Jung and his worship team. We have crossed over into the land of the invisible. In stark contrast to the nearby inner-ring suburbs, no mass-market lifestyle magazines are geared to the people who work in these suburban distribution zones. TV shows are never set here. The big daily newspapers don't do features on the trends that sweep through the strip malls and the industrial areas. These places just have their own customs and patterns that grew up largely unnoticed by the general culture. At a scraggly playing field on Saturday mornings, there will be a crowd of Africans playing soccer, then on Sunday it will be all Hispanics. Somehow it just got established that one day was for Africans and the other day was for Hispanics, and you never see them playing each other. Then you go over to the basketball courts, and maybe the Pakistanis have ripped down all the rims so they can play cricket without any interference from the basketball players.
These places are growing. One out of every nine people living in America was born in a foreign country -- roughly 32.5 million people, according to the last census -- which means there are now more foreign-born Americans than ever before in the country's history. Traditionally, immigrants settled first in cities. But that's no longer true. Today they are more likely to go straight to midsize towns and underutilized suburban gaps. The 2000 census revealed that minorities were responsible for the majority of suburban population gains made in the 1990s, so now you'll see little Taiwanese girls in the figure-skating clinics, Ukrainian boys learning to pitch, and when I opened the Loudoun County paper one day and came across the National Scholar Award winners, these were some of the names that were listed: Kawai Cheung, Anastasia Cisneros Fraust, Dantam Do, Hugo Dubovoy, and Maryanthe Malliaris.
Over the past decade, immigrants from Asia have flooded into the Hickory and Charlotte areas in North Carolina; Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Grand Rapids area in Michigan. There are huge numbers of Asian immigrants in New Jersey's Middlesex and Somerset counties. The San Gabriel Valley in California is the largest center of Chinese immigrants in the country.
Meanwhile, Hispanics have moved in large numbers to places like Fresno and Bakersfield in California, as well as Orlando and Las Vegas. It is still true that 50 percent of the counties in the nation are over 85 percent white (if you take a brush and sweep it from Maine down through western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, across the Midwest through Wisconsin, Iowa, and into the Dakotas and Montana, you are -- excepting the big cities -- basically covering Caucasianville), but the southern and western parts of the country are quite diverse, and there are immigration pockets everywhere: Arabs in Michigan, Iranians in Orange County, and so on.
In the older northeastern and midwestern areas, the immigration residential patterns are distinct. There are certain immigrant zones and certain native zones. Old cities like Detroit and Hartford are clearly segregated. But in the new suburbs, and in the booming towns of the South and West, different groups merge. Neighborhoods in these parts of the country are less likely to have reputations or fixed points on the status system. Families are more likely to shop for homes strictly on the basis of price. So in places like Arlington or Garland, Texas; Stockton, California; Albany, New York; Saint George or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, whites, native minorities, and immigrants tend to live and work side by side.
These immigrant-heavy places defy generalization. Most of the new arrivals are just scraping by, scrounging for day labor at the contractor pickup points, lacking health insurance, crammed into split levels four to a room. Others are doing well, running a barbershop with twenty Vietnamese and Filipino coworkers and then driving home each day in a Lexus SUV. If you tour the open houses in a McMansion neighborhood of, say, Great Falls, Virginia, or Orange County, California, you will be stunned by how many of the luxury homes belong to immigrants who own businesses in these light-industrial zones. They have faded pictures of Mom and Dad in China on the grand piano, and Islamic prayer rugs from Lebanon in the basement. These peoples' attitudes about their millions are roughly the same as Pamela Anderson's attitude about her breasts: They worked damn hard to get them, and now that they've got them they are sure as hell going to show them off.
These immigrant zones are among the most baffling places in the country. Market-research firms have to scramble to help companies make sense of them. They've discovered that Hispanics spend a far greater percentage of their income on footwear and clothing for children under two, and a far lower percentage on stationery and tobacco products than the average American consumer. Whites spend much more on entertainment and much less on clothing for teenage boys. Blacks spend more on poultry and telephones and less on furniture and books. Whites are the most likely of all racial groups to visit a home-furnishing store but the least likely to visit an electronics store. These aggregates don't get you very far. You've got new groups of people in new sorts of places, so of course everyone is creating temporary ways of living.
But you can see that some powerful transforming energy is being let loose. And we can be fairly sure that the traditional immigrant entrepreneurialism will give birth to new companies and new fortunes. (Interestingly, five of the nine immigrant groups most likely to produce millionaires come from the Middle East, according to a study done by Thomas J. Stanley, the author of The Millionaire Mind.) We know that thanks to the current immigration wave, the U.S. population will surge over the next few decades; we can project, thanks to Bill Frey, that in 2050 the median age in the U.S. will be 35, while the median age in Europe will be 52; and we can be reasonably sure that the new immigrants will climb into middle-class life, using and changing established institutions as they go.
We have now driven deep into the heart of suburbia. Here there are split-level communities, cul-de-sacs, soccerplexes, regional shopping malls with ever more grand titles (plaza, galleria, court), edge cities (which have city skylines but no actual city life), and all the other stereotypical appurtenances of Homo suburbianus. When you get out here in the postwar suburbs that are now around a half century old, you can see why they've discombobulated so many social critics. All the other places we've been on our drive would be familiar to our ancestors. The city neighborhoods and inner-ring areas are organized according to the patterns and models of past great cities and towns. The immigrant clusters hearken to homelands across the globe. But the split-level/rancher suburb is an entirely self-contained civilization. These places were designed to be utopias set apart from the crowding and congestion and customs of the old places, from the problems of the past and the flow of human history. They are immune to time, geography, life, and death.
Even today, suburban streets are never just streets -- they are terraces, courts, drives, and circles. You drive by home after tidy home, each on its well-tended quarter or eighth or sixteenth acre, and you see the same icons of suburban life development after development: Big Wheels, swing sets, adjustable-height basketball hoops, garden-hose storage rolls, pink and purple girls' bikes with sparkly handlebar tassels, stay-at-home dogs barking behind the bay-shaped picture windows, allegedly squirrel-proof bird feeders, vinyl siding, rusting tool sheds, RE/MAX for-sale signs posted by the mailboxes, holiday-theme banners over the doorways, faux gaslight lanterns staked in the front yard.
Thanks to their owners' relentless commitment to home maintenance, even the older houses do not bear the mark of time. Generations have come and gone, individuals have lived and died, and yet these neighborhoods still carry the whiff of Eisenhower America. The Oldsmobiles may have been replaced by PT Cruisers. Chuck Berry is out and Eminem is in. The brick ramblers now have second-story additions, but the lawns look the same. The shrubs still get pruned, the gutters get cleaned, the cars get washed in the driveways, the weeds get killed, the driveways get patched and repaved, the decks get waterproofed and coated, and the garage doors go up and down and up and down.
The same rituals are observed, and all those things that once seemed hopelessly outré -- cheerleaders, proms, country clubs, backyard barbecues, and stay-at-home moms -- still thrive, in some ways more than ever. The trick-or-treaters are still greeted with oohs and ahs, the mischief-night eggings get reenacted, the storm windows come out and the screens go in season after season, year after year, and decade after decade.
No wonder artists are offended. Individuals don't seem to matter here. These places do not appear grand and glorious, like a canyon or mountain or a teeming metropolis, and yet they are humbling because they are so impervious to you and me. We might rail against this cul-de-sac culture, we may hate it and curse it. But it will remain this way through all the passage of time, committed to the same values: tidiness, tranquility, domesticity, safety, predictability. These hard-core suburbs will stay what they have always been: bourgeois values in real estate form. This ethos is awesomely powerful. The postwar suburbs allow families earning around $51,000 a year -- about the median income in the U.S. today -- to establish a sense of respectability, financial security, and comfort. This split-level civilization would not have remained so coherent for so long if it didn't solve certain human problems and appeal to the aspirations of many sorts of people who have moved to precisely these locales.
If you want to understand these places, you have to start with golf. You won't get suburbia right -- in fact, you won't get America right -- if you underestimate the powerful cultural influence of golf. Sometimes middle America seems shaped more by golf than by war or literature or philosophy.
I'm not talking about the game of golf, the actual act of walking through eighteen holes and striking a little white ball. For most people, the game is too expensive and time-consuming. I'm talking about the golf ideal, the golf vision of perfection, the golf concept of chivalry, valor, and success. At least in its American incarnation, golf leads to a definition of what life should be like in its highest and most pleasant state.
In the ideal world as defined by golf, everything is immaculate. The fairways are weedless stretches of soft perfection. The greens are rolling ponds of manicured order. The sand traps are raked smooth. The homes along the fairways look scrubbed and affluent. Even the people are neat; everybody is dressed casually but nicely.
But golf is more than just an environment. It suggests its own state of spiritual grace, a Zenlike definition of fully realized human happiness. In the realm of golf, that state of grace is called par. And par is the established suburb's version of nirvana.
When a golfer is playing at par, his swing is sweet and his manner is confident. He has slipped away from the tensions that usually bedevil him on the course, and he has achieved a state of harmony. He is still competitive, driven, and success-oriented, yet he feels an inner calm. He has defeated his primary foe -- anxiety -- and operates in a mystical groove. Everything seems simple, manageable. In this victorious state, it seems almost normal that he is wearing a pastel yellow sweater and comfortable-looking green slacks.
Like Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Lee Trevino, each in his own way, the chivalric golfer has mastered the fine art of false modesty. Golfers never puff themselves up, as boxers do. They fill the air with half-humorous declarations of their own shortcomings. The chivalric golfer, when playing at par, has a narrow emotional range. He does not lose his temper and throw his clubs in the pond; neither does he dance on the green. He may punch the air once or twice in an approved and highly Protestant manner. After the round, he may allow that he felt good out there. But every comment will be three notches more modulated than it needs to be.
The chivalric golfer is able to look calmly at the problem in front of him and focus his concentration on it. He is backed, as all American life is, by a great body of management theory, personal advice, and self-help takeaways. The golf life is filled with clinics, advice columns, and personal coaching. The golfer is also equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Everything he owns is made from titanium; the club he swings on the long tee has a head roughly the size of an oil drum and the technical pedigree of an Exocet missile.
Yet out there on the course, he alone is the master of his fate. He spends a good part of his time looking at things. First he looks at the fairway, then he looks at the ball. Then he looks at the green. He is manifestly good at looking at things. His face is calm yet focused. He makes subtle calculations in that engineering-like brain of his. He consults with his caddy in the ego-massaging manner of a far-seeing CEO at a board meeting. He has that slacks-and-pastels thing going. Then he decides and strides manfully up to the ball, exuding purpose. He strikes the ball, and the ballet begins all over again.
Much of traditional suburban America aspires to golf's paradisiacal vision. The modern suburb enshrines the pursuit of par. It is not a social order oriented around creativity, novelty, and excitement. The suburban knight strives to have his life together, to achieve mastery over the great dragons: tension, hurry, anxiety, and disorder. The suburban knight tries to create a world and a lifestyle in which he or she can achieve that magic state of productive harmony and peace.
When you've got your life together, you can glide through your days without unpleasant distractions or tawdry failures. Your DVD collection is organized, and so is your walk-in closet. Your car is clean and vacuumed, your frequently dialed numbers are programmed into your cordless phone, your telephone plan is suited to your needs, and your various gizmos interact without conflict. Your spouse is athletic, your kids are bright, your job is rewarding, your promotions are inevitable, everywhere you need to be comes with its own accessible parking. You look great in casual slacks.
You can thus spend your days in perfect equanimity. You radiate confidence and calm. Compared to you, Dick Cheney is bipolar. You may not be the most intellectual or philosophical person on the planet, but you are honest and straightforward, friendly and good-hearted. As you drive home, you observe that the lawns in your neighborhood are carefully tended, so as to best maintain the flow of par. Your neighbors all know that one cannot allow too much time to pass between mowings, and one cannot mow when the grass is wet, lest it lead to clumpings and unevenness. One cannot cut the grass too short, lest one stress the lawn. One cannot leave one's garbage can out at the end of one's driveway long after the garbage has been collected, lest one disturb the par of the streetscape.
All of these things are done in the name of good order, so essential to the creation of par. Perhaps in your area, the members of the community association serve as defenders of the par. They might be the ones who guard against disharmonious housepaint hues and overly assertive flagpoles. In other areas, sheer social pressure might direct everybody in the common pursuit of par. Bitter sarcasm is frowned upon, for it represents a crease in the emotional surface of the neighborhood. Brightly colored annuals in the window boxes are praised, for they enhance cheeriness. Loafers are approved of, for they send off relaxation vibes. Kids in the cul-de-sac are jointly monitored, for kids are at once the suburbs' whole point, yet the focus of so many anxious thoughts, that they are a potential chasm in the flow of par.
This common pursuit of the together life leads to the conformity that the social critics have always complained about. On the other hand, the pursuit of tranquility is also a moral and spiritual pursuit. It is an effort to live on a plane where things are straightforward and good, where people can march erect and upward, where friends can be relaxed and familiar, where families can be happy and cooperative, where individuals can be self-confident and wholesome, where children can grow up active and healthy, where spouses are sincere and honest, where everyone is cooperative, hardworking, devout, and happy.
That's not entirely terrible, is it?
Now we are out in the outer suburbs, the great sprawling expanse of subdevelopments, glass-cube office parks, big-box malls, and townhome communities. This new form of human habitation spreads out into the desert or the countryside, or it snakes between valleys, or it creeps up along highways and in between rail lines. This kind of development seems less like a product of human will than an organism. And you can't really tell where one town ends and the other begins, except when, as Tom Wolfe observed, you begin to see a new round of 7-Elevens, CVS's, Sheetzes, and Burger Kings.
We don't even have words to describe these places. Over the past few decades, dozens of scholars have studied places like Arapahoe County, Colorado; Gwinnett County, Georgia; Ocean County, New Jersey; Chester County, Pennsylvania; Anoka County, Minnesota; and Placer County, California. They've coined terms to capture the polymorphous living arrangements found in these fast growing regions: edgeless city, major diversified center, multicentered net, ruraburbia, boomburg, spread city, technoburb, suburban growth corridor, sprinkler cities. None of these names has caught on, in part because scholars are bad at coming up with catchy phrases, but in part because these new places are hard to define.
You can't even sensibly draw a map because you don't know where to center it. Demographer Robert Lang tried to draw a map of a zone north of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He located all the roads and office parks and arbitrarily drew the borders. If he'd slid his map north, south, east, or west, some roads and buildings would have disappeared, and others would have appeared. But there would have been no noticeable change in density, no new and definable feature, just another few miles of suburban continuum.
And yet people flock here. Seventy-three million Americans moved across state lines in the 1990s, and these places -- across Florida, north of Atlanta, shooting out beyond Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, and so on -- drew them in. You fly over the desert in the Southwest or above some urban fringe, and you notice that the developers build the sewers, roads, and cul-de-sacs before they put up the houses, so naked cul-de-sacs to nowhere spread out beneath you. One day I stood and watched a crew carve a golf course out of the desert near Henderson, Nevada, one of the fastest-growing cities in America. A year later, and fifty thousand people are living where there was nothing.
People move to these centerless places in search of the things people have always sought in a home: extra counter space in the kitchen, abundant storage space in the basement, and plenty of closets. Those are the three most important amenities to home buyers, according to market research. More grandly if more ironically, people move because they want order. They want to be able to control their lives. They've just had a divorce with their old suburb because it no longer gave them what they craved. They've had it with the forty-five-minute one-way commute in northern California. They're tired of wrestling with the $400,000 mortgage in Connecticut. They don't like the houses crowded with immigrants that are appearing in their New Jersey neighborhoods. They want to get away from parents who smoke and slap their kids, away from families where people watch daytime talk shows about transvestite betrayals or "My Daughter Is a Slut," away from broken homes, away from gangs of Goths and druggies, and away from families who don't value education, achievement, and success.
The outer-ring suburbs have very few poor people, and relatively few rich people. While many of the successful people in inner-ring suburbs are professionals -- doctors, lawyers, professors, and journalists -- many of the people in outer-ring suburbs are managers in marketing, sales, execution, and planning. The professionals don't think of themselves primarily as capitalists; as competitive, revenue-maximizing machines oriented toward the bottom line. Managers are much more likely to measure their success this way. The subtle distinction leads to a whole shift in attitudes, opinions, and political preferences. Managers are more likely to be competitive, sports-oriented, and, as political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Judis have noticed, Republican. Professionals are more likely to be verbally skilled, university-oriented, and Democratic.
Sometimes people move to the exurbs to get away from the upscale snobs moving into the inner-ring neighborhood where they grew up. I recently ran into a woman in Loudoun County, Virginia, where AOL is located, who said she had spent most of her life in Bethesda, Maryland, today an affluent inner-ring suburb next to Washington. "I hate it there now," she said with venom in her voice. As we spoke, it became clear that she hated the gentrification, the new movie theater that shows only foreign films, the explosion of French, Turkish, and new-wave restaurants, the streets full of German cars with Princeton and Martha's Vineyard stickers on the back windows, the doctors and lawyers and journalists with their educated-class one-upsmanship.
She sensed they looked down on her, and she was probably right. So she did what Americans always do when something bothers them. She moved on. The philosopher George Santayana once observed that Americans don't solve problems, they leave them behind. If there's an idea they don't like, they don't bother refuting it, they simply talk about something else, and the original idea dies from inattention. If a situation bothers them, they leave it in the past.
The exurban people aren't going to stay and fight the war against the inner-ring traffic, the rising mortgages, the influx of new sorts of rich and poor. They're not going to mount a political campaign or wage a culture war. It's not worth the trouble. They can bolt and start again in places where everything is new and fresh. The highways are so clean and freshly paved you can eat off them. The elementary schools have spick-and-span playgrounds, unscuffed walls, and all the latest features such as observatories, computer labs, and batting cages.
The roads in many of these places are huge. They have names like Innovation Boulevard and Entrepreneur Avenue. They've been built for the population levels that will exist in two decades, so today you can cruise down flawless six-lane thoroughfares in trafficless nirvana, and if you get a cell-phone call, you can pull over to the right lane and take the call because there is no one behind you.
People who move out here are infused with a sense of what you might call conservative utopianism. On the one hand, those who move to the exurbs have made a startling leap into the unknown. They have, in great numbers and with great speed, moved from their old homes in California, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, and elsewhere to these places that didn't exist ten years ago. The places have no past, no precedent, no settled conventions. The residents have no families or connections here. There are no ethnic enclaves to settle into, and no friends. Sometimes people move here without even a job.
When they make the decision to move, they are picturing for themselves what their new lives will be like. They are imagining waterskiing buddies and Little League teams. They are imagining happy high school graduations, even though that high school may still be nothing but a steel frame. They are imagining outings with friends at homestyle Italian restaurants that don't exist yet, outings to Science Olympiads with unformed teams, road trips to spring training with friends they haven't met, who are now sitting in their old suburb and haven't contemplated moving here. But they will.
And while they are making a radical change in their lives, they are really pursuing a conservative vision. It is no accident that people in the exurbs, while instinctively apolitical and often cynical about the political process, are, when they vote, overwhelmingly Republican. These places are sometimes seventy-thirty Republican, and if you look at every state where Republicans scored an upset senatorial victory in 2002 -- Georgia, Colorado, and Minnesota, to name a few -- they did so with huge gains from the fast-growing exurbs.
The exurbs are built to embody a modern version of the suburban ideal. Demographic studies show that they look like 1950s suburban America -- intact two-parent families, 2.3 kids, low crime, and relatively low divorce rates. You sometimes get the impression that these people have fled their crowded and stratified old suburbs because they really want to live in an updated Mayberry with BlackBerries.
There is nobody here who is socially far above or below you (at least until the country clubs get built and the tennis rankings come out). Unlike in the cities or the inner-ring 'burbs, there is relatively little social competition. You can go through your entire life -- at home, at the office, in church -- wearing comfortable, conservative nonthreatening casual wear that emphazises khaki, navy blue, and other unobtrusive colors. Postmen get hernias lugging all the Lands' End catalogs.
This is, after all, where those cheery people who broadcast on the morning drive-time radio shows live. The exurbs are the new epicenters of competitive cheerleading and other sports that you can do while smiling. Theology is too troubling a topic for general conversation, and politics is not that interesting, so the new neighbors converse happily about how much better the traffic is here than wherever they used to live. People talk a lot about sports, the kids' ice-hockey league, NBA salary levels, college football, or the local over-sixty softball league -- the one in which everybody wears a knee brace and it takes about six minutes for a good hitter to beat out a double. Since nobody can understand what their neighbors actually do -- she does something with cell phones, he's involved in some sort of marketing -- residents are likely to be known by their leisure-time interests: He's the one who spends his life e-mailing practice schedules to the soccer parents, she organizes the drill team, she's scuba woman and perpetually off in the Caribbean underwater, he's Carnival Cruise man, longing to tell you how many restaurants there were on his last vacation boat.
When these exurban communities started exploding in the early 1990s, people wanted to live around golf courses, because that was part of the suburban ethos they grew up with. During that decade, the number of golf communities nearly doubled to 2,386, according to the National Golf Foundation, even though the number of golfers scarcely budged. But by the year 2000, there had been an interesting shift in values, according to surveys done for the building industry. Prospective home buyers were less likely to demand country clubs in their new neighborhoods. Instead, they wanted walking paths, coffee shops, Kinko's, clubhouses, parks, and natural undeveloped land. In other words, they wanted community.
They come here, remember, with visions of friendships and happy barbecues. They want everything new but also a sense of place. They also want community; and, confronted with a Bowling Alone world, they have shifted their priorities. So they have been ideal customers for the new but burgeoning theming industry. Themists are people who can take something bland and give it a personality and a sense of place. They are hired by builders and retailers to make sure people have a more intense experience when they visit a store, a restaurant, a mall, or a residential development.
The most influential exurb communities are Kentlands or King Farm in Maryland; Ladera Ranch in Orange County; Belle Creek in Colorado; Celebration, Florida; and the Parks of Austin Ranch in Texas. These are attractive new urbanist communities with front porches on almost every house, and people are so community-oriented and friendly that as you walk down the sidewalks, they're going to make damn sure they say "Howdy!" These are places that have village greens, wooded playgrounds, community centers with neighborhood spas, protected-view corridors, Transit Tot day-care centers next to light-rail commuter stations, faux antique tower clocks in recently constructed town squares. There are more pagodas and koi ponds in these places than in all of Asia.
The new-urbanist ethos started in socially conscious communities like Portland, Oregon, but it has spread nationwide. It's made life better and more community-oriented. A man can wake up on a Sunday morning and take his family to the seeker-sensitive nondenominational Willow Creek-style megachurch, which has a 3,800-seat multimedia worship auditorium that was completed the month before. If he's in the mood, the man can watch the service via video in the outdoor café by the parking lot, or if he's feeling traditional, he can watch the video in the faux-Gothic basement stone chapel. After services, which he can watch on the projection-TV screens hanging from either side of the stage, with hymn lyrics projected helpfully below, he can take his wife and kids out to the lifestyle center ten minutes up the road. That's the Italian piazza streetscape that a shopping-mall developer plopped down in the middle of nowhere. You park on the fringe, near the retro-design eighteen-screen movie theater, and walk down Main Street, which has a Barnes & Noble, a Crate and Barrel, a Galyan's, an artisanal bread store, a few Cosis or a Starbucks, a Restoration Hardware, and of course a brew pub. The stores all have awnings, different brick-and-stucco storefronts, and maybe a few loftlike mixed-residential apartments up above, to give them the streetscape feel that Jane Jacobs, an urban theorist, described. There's a cell-phone transmission tower designed to look like a campanile, and the street has been artfully curved so there are no long view lines of the surrounding parking lots, thereby allowing the pedestrians to feel comfortably enclosed.
The man and his family can eat outside at one of the Europeanized panini grills, under wicker shade umbrellas, and the servers will fill their iced-tea glasses every thirty seconds or so. They can watch the trolley go by, wait for a concert by the Dixielanders, the senior-citizen jazz band, or be entertained by one of the street jugglers hired by the development firm to give the place the vibrant street life that is required if the builder has any hope of winning national development awards.
Later, the man and his family can go over to the town rink, which has ice skating in the winter and mini golf in the summer; or browse through the pomegranates at the farmer's market, featuring real live Mennonite agriculturists.
Then the family can split off to take care of the Sunday-afternoon chores. Mom takes the girl off to her stick-handling clinic at the ice rink before heading off to run her errands, and Dad takes the boy to baseball practice before going off to buy that new barbecue grill they need.
The Grill-Buying Guy
I don't know if you've ever seen the expression of a man who is about to buy a first-class barbecue grill. He walks into Home Depot or Lowe's or one of the other mega-hardware complexes, and his eyes are glistening with a faraway visionary zeal, like one of those old prophets gazing into the promised land. His lips are parted and twitching slightly.
Inside the megastore, the man adopts the stride American men fall into when in the presence of large amounts of lumber. He heads over to the barbecue grills, just past the racks of affordable house-plan books, in the yard-machinery section. They are arrayed magnificently next to the vehicles that used to be known as riding mowers but are now known as lawn tractors, because to call them riding mowers doesn't fully convey the steroidized M1 tank power of the things. The man approaches the barbecue grills with a trancelike expression suggesting that he has cast aside all the pains and imperfections of this world and is approaching the gateway to a higher dimension. In front of him is a scattering of massive steel-coated reactors with names like Broilmaster P3, Thermidor, and the Weber Genesis, because in America it seems perfectly normal to name a backyard barbecue grill after a book of the Bible.
The items in this cooking arsenal flaunt enough metal to survive a direct nuclear assault. Patio Man goes from machine to machine comparing their various features -- the cast-iron/porcelain-coated cooking surfaces, the 328,000-Btu heat-generating capacities, the 2,000-degree tolerance linings, multiple warming racks, lava-rock containment dishes, or built-in electrical meat thermometers. Certain profound questions flow through his mind. Is a 542-cubic-inch grilling surface enough, considering he might someday get the urge to roast a bison? Can he handle the TEC Sterling II grill, which can hit temperatures of 1,600 degrees, thereby causing his dinner to spontaneously combust? Though the matte-steel overcoat resists scratching, doesn't he want a polished steel surface so he can glance down and admire his reflection while performing the suburban manliness rituals such as brushing tangy teriyaki sauce on meat slabs with his right hand while clutching a beer can in an NFL foam insulator in his left?
Pretty soon a large salesperson in an orange vest -- looking like an SUV in human form -- comes up to him and says, "Howyadoin'," which is "May I help you?" in Home Depot talk. Patio Man, who has so much lust in his heart, it is all he can do to keep from climbing up on one of these machines and whooping rodeo-style with joy, still manages to respond appropriately. He grunts inarticulately and nods toward the machines. Careful not to make eye contact at any point, the two manly suburban men have a brief exchange of pseudo-scientific grill argot that neither of them understands, and pretty soon Patio Man comes to the reasoned conclusion that it would make sense to pay a little extra for a grill with V-shaped metal baffles, ceramic rods, and a side-mounted smoker box.
But none of this talk matters. The guy will end up buying the grill with the best cup holders. All major purchases of consumer durable goods these days ultimately come down to which model has the most impressive cup holders.
Having selected his joy machine, Patio Man heads for the cash register, Visa card trembling in his hand. All up and down the line are tough ex-football-playing guys who are used to working outdoors. They hang pagers and cell phones from their belts (in case a power line goes down somewhere) and wear NASCAR sunglasses, mullet haircuts, and faded T-shirts that they have ripped the sleeves off of to keep their arm muscles exposed and their armpit hair fully ventilated. Here and there are a few innately Office Depot guys who are trying to blend in with their more manly Home Depot brethren, and not ask Home Depot inappropriate questions, such as "Does this tool belt make my butt look fat?"
At the checkout, Patio Man is told that some minion will forklift the grill over to the loading dock around back. He is once again glad that he's driving that Yukon XL so he can approach the loading-dock guys as a co-equal in the manly fraternity of Those Who Haul Things.
As he signs the credit-card slip, with its massive total price, his confidence suddenly collapses, but it is revived as wonderful grill fantasies dance in his imagination:
There he is atop the uppermost tier of his multilevel backyard dining and recreational area. This is the kind of deck Louis XIV would have had if Sun Gods had had decks. In his mind's eye, Patio Man can see himself coolly flipping the garlic-and-pepper T-bones on the front acreage of his new grill while carefully testing the citrus-tarragon trout filets simmering fragrantly on the rear. On the lawn below, his kids Haley and Cody frolick on the weedless community lawn that is mowed twice weekly courtesy of the people who run Monument Crowne Preserve, his townhome community.
Haley, the fourteen-year-old daughter, is a Travel-Team Girl who spends her weekends playing midfield against similarly ponytailed, strongly calved soccer marvels such as herself. Cody, ten, is a Buzz-Cut Boy whose naturally blond hair has been cut to lawnlike stubble, and the little that's left is highlighted an almost phosphorescent white. Cody's wardrobe is entirely derivative of fashions he has seen watching the X Games. Patio Man can see the kids playing with child-safe lawn darts alongside a gaggle of their cul-de-sac friends, a happy gathering of Haleys and Codys and Corys and Britneys. It's a brightly colored scene -- Abercrombie & Fitch pink spaghetti-strap tops on the girls and ankle-length canvas shorts and laceless Nikes on the boys. Patio Man notes somewhat uncomfortably that in America today the average square yardage of boyswear grows and grows, while the square inches in the girls' outfits shrinks and shrinks. The boys carry so much fabric they look like skateboarding Bedouins, and the girls look like preppy prostitutes.
Nonetheless, Patio Man envisions a Saturday-evening party -- his adult softball-team buddies lounging on his immaculate deck furniture, watching him with a certain moist envy as he mans the grill. They are moderately fit, sockless men in Docksiders, chinos, and Tommy Bahama muted Hawaiian shirts. Their wives, trim Jennifer Aniston lookalikes, wear capris and sleeveless tops, which look great on them owing to their countless hours on the weight machines at Spa Lady. These men and women may not be Greatest Generation heroes, or earthshaking inventors such as Thomas Edison, but if Thomas Edison had had a human-resources department, and that department organized annual enrichment and motivational conferences for midlevel management, then these people would be the marketing executives for the back-office support consultants to the meeting-planning firms that hook up the HR executives with the conference facilities.
They are wonderful people. Patio Man can envision his own wife, Cindy, the Realtor Mom, circulating among them serving drinks, telling parent-teacher-conference stories and generally stirring up the hospitality; he, Patio Man, masterfully wields his extra-wide fish spatula while absorbing the aroma of imported hickory chips -- again, to the silent admiration of all. The sun is shining. The people are friendly. The men are no more than twenty-five pounds overweight, which is the socially acceptable male-paunch level in upwardly mobile America, and the children are well adjusted. This vision of domestic bliss is what Patio Man has been shooting for all his life.
Patio Man has completed his purchase, another triumph in a lifetime of conquest shopping. As he steps into the parking lot, he is momentarily blinded by sun bouncing off the hardtop. He is no longer in that comfy lifestyle center where he and his family took their lunch. Now he is confronted by the mighty landscape of a modern big-box mall, one of the power centers where exurban people do the bulk of their shopping.
Megastores surround him on all sides like trains of mighty pachyderms. Off to his right there's a Wal-Mart, a Sports Authority, and an Old Navy large enough to qualify for membership in the United Nations. Way off on the horizon, barely visible because of the curvature of the earth, is a Sneaker Warehouse. Just off the highway beyond, is a row of heavily themed suburban chain restaurants, which, if they all merged, would be known as Chili's Olive Garden Hard Rock Outback Cantina -- a melange of peppy servers, superfluous ceiling fans, free bread with olive oil, taco-salad entrées, and enough sun-dried-tomato concoctions to satisfy the population of Tuscany for generations.
This parking lot is so big you could set off a nuclear device in the center and nobody would notice in the stores on either end. In fact, in the modern American suburbs, there's often not just one big-box mall, there are archipelagos of them. You can stand on the edge of one and look down into a valley and see three more -- huge area-code stretches of parking area surrounded by massive shopping warehouses that might be painted in racing stripes to break up the monotony of their windowless exteriors. If one superstore is at one mall, then its competitor is probably down the way. There's a PETsMART just down from a PETCO, a Borders near a Barnes & Noble, a Linens 'n Things within sight of a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Target staring at a Kmart staring at a Wal-Mart, a Best Buy cheek by jowl with a Circuit City.
Patio Man doesn't know it yet, but cutting diagonally across the empty acreage in the very lot he is standing in, bopping from megastore to megastore, is his very own beloved wife, Realtor Mom. She's cruising across the terrain in her minivan, but it's no ordinary minivan. If crack dealers drove minivans, this is the kind they'd drive. It's a black-on-black top-of-the-line Dodge Grand Caravan ES, with phat spoilers, muscle grillework, road-hugging foglights, and ten Infinity speakers that she controls with little buttons on the back of her steering wheel because reaching over to the knobs is too much effort.
Her eyes narrow as she heads for the Sam's Club megastore. She sees an empty parking spot just next to ones set aside for pregnant women and the handicapped, not over twenty yards from the front door. As she zooms in, she notices competition coming from the northeast. There's a rule in the suburbs: The bigger the car, the thinner the woman. And sure enough, here comes a size-six Jazzercise wife in a Lincoln Navigator, trying to get her spot. But the Navigator woman has made two horrible mistakes. First, she's challenged a minivan driver who is in no mood to appear even more tame and domesticated. And second, she doesn't seem to realize that in America it is acceptable to cut off any driver in a vehicle that costs a third more than yours. That's called democracy. So Realtor Mom roars her massive kid-hauling Caravan and swerves into the spot just ahead of the Navigator. If the Navigator woman wants to park this close to the store, she'll have to put on her turn signal and wait behind that family piling into the Odyssey, the one that will take till sundown to strap everybody in and read a few chapters of Ulysses before they pull out.
Realtor Mom is halfway through her shopping expedition. She's already trekked through the Wal-Mart Super- center to pick up a CD head cleaner and a can of Dust-Off. America clearly entered a new phase in its history when Wal-Marts started supersizing; it was as if somebody took a blue whale and decided that what it really needed was to be quite a bit bigger.
Though Realtor Mom likes Wal-Mart, it's the price club that really gets her heart racing, because price clubs are Wal-Mart on acid. Here you can get laundry detergent in 41-pound tubs, 30-pound bags of frozen Tater Tots, frozen waffles in 60-serving boxes, and packages of 1,500 Q-tips, which is 3,000 actual swabs since there's cotton on both ends. These stores have been constructed according to the modern American principle that no flaw in design and quality is so grave that it can't be compensated for by mind-boggling quantity. The aisles here are wider than most country lanes. The frozen-food section looks like a university-sized cryogenics lab, and the cutlery section could pass as a medieval armory. The shelves are packed from the linoleum floor clear up to the thirty-foot fluorescent-lighted ceilings with economy-sized consumer goods on massive wooden pallets. Sometimes you look up and consider what would happen if there were an earthquake right now, and you think, Great, I'm going to be crushed to death under a hillside of falling juice boxes.
The first time Realtor Mom went into one of the places and got a load of the size of the household goods, she naturally wanted to see what kind of person would come here shopping for condoms. But what's truly amazing is that wherever you go in a price club, everybody in every aisle is having the same conversation, which is about how much they are saving by buying in bulk. Sometimes you overhear "If you use a lot, it really does pay" or "They never go bad, so you can keep them forever" or "It's nice to have fifteen thousand Popsicles, since someday we plan on having kids anyway..." All the people in all the aisles feel such profound satisfaction over their good deals that they pile the stuff into their shopping carts -- which are practically the size of eighteen-wheelers, with safety airbags for the driv-er -- so that by the time they head toward the checkout, they look like the supply lines for the Allied invasion of Normandy.
But they feel they've accomplished something. In purchasing Post-it notes by the million, they have put something over on the gods of the marketplace. They have one-upped the poor nonclub members who have betrayed their families by failing to get the best deal. They are the savvy marketplace swashbucklers who have achieved such impressive price-tag victories that they will return home in glory to recount tales of their triumphs to tables of rapt dinner guests. Bragging about what a good deal you got is one of the many great art forms that my people, the Jews, have introduced to American culture.
This trip, Realtor Mom is saving a bundle on frozen sausage-and-pepperoni Pizza Pockets. She's making a killing on tennis balls and vermouth-flavored martini onions. She has triumphantly advanced in the realm of casual merlot and inflatable water-wing acquisition. She has stocked up on so many fat-free, salt-free, lactose-free, and cholesterol-free items that the boxes she's carrying might as well be empty.
She, too, heads back to her vehicle with a sense that she has shopped victoriously. In this complicated and time-stressed world, she has demonstrated, at least for an instant, her mastery of everyday life. She has achieved par.
As it transpires, she finishes her rounds just as Patio Man is pulling out of the mall with his backyard wondergrill tucked snugly into the back of his Yukon. She recognizes his dadstoy vanity license plate (she has the momscab companion plate), and she honks brightly to get his attention. Pretty soon they've both got their cell phones with the walkie-talkie features out four inches in front of their noses, and they chat affectionately about their tremendous purchases.
They drive home together. They turn left on Executive Avenue and head past the Chez Maison apartment complex and the Falcon Preserve gated-home community toward their own townhome cluster.
The town fathers in their suburb have tried halfheartedly to control sprawl. As Patio Man and his wife cruise over a hilltop and look down on the expanse of suburb below, they can see, stretched across the landscape, little puffs here and there of brown smoke. That's bulldozers kicking up dirt while building new townhomes, office parks, shopping malls, firehouses, schools, AmeriSuites guest hotels, and golf courses. As a result of the ambivalently antigrowth zoning regulations, the homes aren't spread out with quarter-acre yards, as in the older, more established suburbs; they're clustered into pseudo-urbanist pods. As you scan the horizon, you'll see a densely packed pod of townhouses, then a half-mile stretch of investor grass (fields that will someday contain thirty-five- thousand-square-foot Fresh Mex restaurants but are now being kept fallow by investors until the prices come up), then another pod of slightly more expensive but equally dense-packed detached homes.
Realtor Mom and Patio Man's little convoy is impressive -- 8,000 pounds of metal carrying 290 pounds of human being. They finally bear right into their community -- their street has been given the imperious but baffling name Trajan's Column Terrace -- and they pull into their double-wide driveway in front of the two-car garage and next to the adjustable-height Plexiglas backboard.
Their home is a mini-McMansion gable-gable house. That is to say, it's a 3,200-square-foot middle-class home built to look like a 7,000-square-foot starter palace for the nouveaux riche. On the front elevation is a big gable on top, and right in front of it, for visual relief, a little gable juts forward so it looks like a baby gable leaning against a mommy gable.
These homes have all the same features of the authentic McMansions (as history flows on, McMansions have come to seem authentic), but everything is significantly smaller. There are the same vaulted atriums behind the front doors that never get used and the same open-kitchen/two-story great rooms with soaring Palladian windows. But in the middle-class knockoffs, the rooms are so small -- especially upstairs -- that the bedrooms and master-bath suites wouldn't fit inside one of the walk-in closets of a real McMansion.
As the happy couple emerges from the vehicles, it is clear that they are both visibly flushed and aroused. With the juices still flowing from their consumer conquests, it's all they can do to keep from humping away like a pair of randy stallions right there on the front lawn under the shade of the seasonal holiday banner hanging above the front door. But that would violate the community association's public copulation guidelines. So, with the kids away at their various practices, and not due to get carpooled home for another hour, the two erotically charged exurbanites mischievously bound up to the master suite and experience even higher stages of bliss on the Sealy Posturpedic mattress, on the stainproof Lycron carpeting, and finally and climactically, atop the Ethan Allen Utopia-line settee.
This today is one version of the American Dream: wild, three-location suburban sex in close proximity to one's own oversized motor vehicles and a brand-new top-of-the-line barbecue grill. In the course of our drive through middle- and upper-middle-class suburbia, we've seen other contemporary versions of the dream. But still, in all our segmented diversity, there are certain traits that Americans tend to share, traits that join the many flavors of suburban culture and distinguish us from people in other lands. We'll get a glimpse of some in the next chapter.
Copyright © 2004 by David Brooks