Suburbia and the stock backdrop

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Since moving to Washington, D.C. almost two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I can no longer stand suburbia. Every time I go back out to the suburbs, I want to leave after 24 hours – if that.

At the end of last summer, I was driving back from a camping trip in West Virginia with a few friends, and we stopped at a Chick-fil-A in the suburbs on the way back. One of them made a comment about how the shopping center we were in comforted her because it made her feel like she was at home, with its plaza full of nice chain restaurants like Pei Wei and Chipotle and stores like Office Max and Best Buy.

I agreed. It reminded me of my own home in California. You can find plenty of shopping centers like that in Bakersfield or Santa Clarita.

My friend was from Texas, though. And we were in Virginia. You could have swapped out one for the other and no one would know any better.

A week or two later, while listening to an obscure Switchfoot song called C’mon C’mon, it hit me. The first verse goes like this:

You’ve been living life like it’s a sequel

And you’re already bored with the plot

As if the cast and the score

Are more money than before

But the script and the backdrops are stock

The backdrops are stock.

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That’s it. Songwriter Jon Foreman is speaking about life in a much more holistic, poetic sense than the place you happen to live, but in the chain-restaurant-stocked malls of America, gleaming with affluence, we see the “real life” embodiment of the stock backdrop. It’s like those internet stock photos that make blog posts look like a dime a dozen. The pictures are framed correctly and well-lit, the models are attractive, the scenarios they communicate are clear, but my goodness they’re boring. They’re so ubiquitous these days that we can spot a stock photo in a second. They’re better than no image at all, of course, but they carry the stale whiff of banality.

It’s colorful and pretty, but excessively pastiche, the suburban scene. How can Virginia, Texas, and California all look the same? Why the hundred-store-chains?

More money than before.

There’s something remarkable about how a person can drive 2,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States and eat at the same restaurant every stop of the way. It’s one of those unprecedented facets of our era of late-capitalism. I can understand why postmodern thinkers and urban hipsters feel like the wealth of the suburbs is just a façade of marketing tricks obscuring reality. I can understand how people worry that the suburbs turns our experience of community into a series of isolated dots on a map rather than warm circles of neighbors.

At this point I suppose some readers will conclude I’m saying corporate chains are dehumanizing. Maybe I am. “Dehumanizing” is probably a little too strong though.

As a middle-class consumer, I’m glad that Walmart exists and appreciate how it frees up my budget, but it doesn’t make the world a more interesting place. There are better sights to take in than shopping malls full of Foot Lockers and American Eagles and Forever 21s. There’s more to savor than Starbucks and TGI Fridays. There’s more to do on the weekends than catching a flick at your local AMC Theater.

I love how Switchfoot’s song ends:

So C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s abandon this darkness

Oh C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s follow this through

Yeah so C’mon C’mon C’mon

Everything’s waiting

We will live like fire and gold

When everything’s new

When everything’s new.

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“Variety is the spice of life,” goes the old cliche, but it speaks to something intrinsic in human nature: the drive to find newness. I have found the true wealth of cities to lie not in dollars or possessions, but in their trove of experiences: the bars and coffee shops; the parks and museums; the neighborhoods and architecture; the surrounding rivers, beaches, and forests; the people from so many tongues, tribes, and nations. Yes, there lies the city, living, pulsating, breathing all around you, an inexhaustible well of newness – flawed and wretched of course – but still a taste of life as it was meant to be.

ADDENDUM: Tyler Castle has a wonderful piece at Values & Capitalism entitled “How the Hipster Ethic Is Revitalizing the American Economy.” It takes a much less subjective and much more clearly articulated angle on the idea I’m trying to get across here.

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Edwards Scissorhands and Suburbia

Again, another long drought in posts. But don’t worry, I refuse to let this die. Here goes:

I was excited to open my spring break by watching “Edward Scissorhands“, a film that has always intrigued me even though I knew very little about it.

I mean, just look at the poster. Who wouldn’t wonder what some creepy pale guy with wild hair and scissors for hands is all about? I understand it left quite a mark on the film scene, and it stands out among Tim Burton films as one of his masterpieces. No doubt many great film analysts have waxed eloquent on the nature of the isolated Edward character (Johnny Depp) or Burton’s brilliant ability to walk a fine line of crazed creativity. But even above these, something else about the film drew me in and rankled my heart with a righteous indignation. The inciting incident comes when Edward leaves the castle where he was created to go to the suburbs.

And the cast of suburbanites that Edward falls in with in his new life, well, I despise them.

(SPOILER ALERT: I’m not filtering my writing for spoilers at all, so I may say some things that give away the plot. You have been warned.)

Apparently Burton did not intend for his portrayal of suburban American to be so harsh. He said he wanted to depict suburbia as “not a bad place. It’s a weird place. I tried to walk the fine line of making it funny and strange without it being judgmental. It’s a place where there’s a lot of integrity.”

I do not want to condemn suburban America either, because it isn’t a bad place, per se. I grew up in a decent suburban neighborhood in Bakersfield, California–same home for 21 years and counting. My upbringing was about as stable as they come, and I’m very thankful for it.

That said, Burton may not have wanted to be judgmental, but “Edward Scissorhands” judges the suburbs, and it judges them pretty accurately. As someone who has spent most of the past four years in Santa Clarita, the city that Burton allegedly patterned the suburbs after, I saw a world in Edward Scissorhands eerily reminiscent of my own. Continue reading →