Suburbs, Jesus and Teh Gay: Unliving the American Dream

Every place is different, and some places are more different than others.

… So we’re channel surfing and working at the same time … Amanda is working on her Transitive Phosphorescent Anisotopy or whatever the heck it is she’s working on, and I’m messing around with making networks work, and Super Nanny comes on. They’re in Boston and they’re bowling, and Amanda looks up and goes “What the f*ck kind of bowling is that?”

So I look up and see the nine pin bowling and say “That’s nine-pin bowling. That’s how they do it in Boston”

“Uffda.” Eyes Roll. Click off TV. Back to the anisotopy thingie.

People who are bi-coastal often fail to realize how different, say, the Upper Midwest can be in both the sensibilities of day to day culture and the trappings of day to day life. It is not all bars and hotdishes. This can involve basic language constructs like where and when to use the words “yet” and “still.” Obviously, cultural differences are more complex than described by the large regions I mention above. The US is divisible into many smaller regions, and there are differences in suburban/urban/rural, there is an ethnic overprint, a wealth (or lack thereof overprint) and so on.

I saw a talk given by a student graduating from our program the other day that demonstrated multiple aspects of cultural diversity and at the same time fundamental sameness of humans everywhere. The student’s degree was in ancient Near Eastern studies, and she looked at a hypothetical Jesus as a member, maybe leader, of a group of repressed northern Galileans who in those days were being repressed by the Rome-symp southern Galileans. In her talk she described the parallel between that repression and the GLBTA revolution/evolution over the last couple of decades, as she herself moved from a high school girl living in a southern California suburb “like they exist everywhere” to a dyke living in San Francisco, and eventually, to being the co-owner of the major GLBT nightclub in the Twin Cities (Pi-Bar, if you know it). Her work with the Galilee of two thousand years ago and lesbian politics and economics in the 1990s fit perfectly together, and at the same time demonstrated diversity (and its costs and benefits) and sameness. Of course, her talk started several minutes late because the talks got started late, and one of the previous speakers went over time, so she had to be cut short (why her talk had to be the one trimmed I am still asking myself…) so there was not enough discussion. But I digress.

Well, many things struck me about that talk, but one of them was this: The speaker made the claim that every suburb in the country is the same, and she had a reasonable basis for making that claim having lived in several places. But it is not really true, because there are some differences, and sometimes that difference can be startling especially if added to other differences (like the urban-rural one).

I grew up in a nearly suburb-free zone in which the suburbs were eventually be avidly built. Oh, suburbs existed even before my existence, but they were not where most people lived, went to school, and shopped. I lived in a very urban place and we could walk six blocks to the edge of the city where there was a creek bounding that city, beyond which was a farm and some woods, with a yellow brick road leading down the hill to the old wrougth iron bridge over the creek, and so on and so forth. There were suburbs beyond this point, but they were not the thing, and there was no mall or significant strip mall, and big box had not been invented yet. So the only thing these suburbs had that we claim as an important trait of American suburbs today is the giant central high school and some sprawl. Otherwise, nothing.

Then I moved to Boston where the urban sprawl is so big that if there were suburbs out there somewhere, I did not know about them. Frankly, I think that most people who did not grow up in the megalopolis would find it different because of these scale effects. I lived in Cambridge or Somerville for years, and there were few chains or big box anywhere. Chain restaurants were actually illegal in Cambridge (as were nuclear weapons, by the way).

So one day I moved to the upper Midwest, and having moved here during the absolute height of a housing crisis, ended up living in the semi-remote working class suburb of Fridley. Friendly Fridley we call it. And one day a colleague came to visit and we went out to dinner, and picked The Olive Garden as a place to eat.

I remember thinking, “Ok, the food here isn’t bad, but the way they manage the place, you’d think it was a chain.”

I kid you not. I thought it looked like a chain, but I did not know it was a chain. I did not know that most of the restaurants near my house were chains. OK, let me rephrase that. Every single restaurant and store of any kind anywhere near where I lived, in Fridley, Spring Lake Park, Blaine and Mounds View were chains (almost), and I was previously unaware that all these chains even existed. Having spent years in the dead middle of the Megalopolis or in the Rain Forest of Central Africa did not provide me with an education of this side of American Culture. So here I was in the late 1990s discovering the American Dream. Or Nightmare. Or whatever.

Now, anyone can argue that what I’ve observed is all wrong… that this is as much my inability to see what is around me as it is a difference in what is around me. And that would be partly true. In the Boston Area, I blanked out the malls, because I did not live near them, did not need them, and did not like them. So I shaved off that part of my surrounding culture and it did not become part of my lived experience. In Fridley, had I done that it would have been impossible to survive. To deny the big box grocery stores, to avoid using any chain for any purpose, would have left me starving, naked, and unentertained. In the mean time, I admit that there was at that time a handful of family-owned businesses in Mounds View and Blaine (or at least I think there were) back then. But, gain, my lived experience consisted of the bulk of what was happening around me, and I was not making it my business to replicate my Boston experience in the Upper Midwest. I was too busy raising my child and supporting my wife in her tenure bid.

Nine pin bowling uses only nine pins, not ten, and they are shaped differently, and the ball is not the same either. So bowling varies. Super Nanny almost always finds herself trying to help people who have had too many kids in too short a time. Birth spacing … it always matters. QED

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0 thoughts on “Suburbs, Jesus and Teh Gay: Unliving the American Dream

  1. Suburbs are set up as a place for bunch of people to all live the same dream. Yes, that dream changes from suburb to suburb, but if none of them are your dream, they might as well all be the same.

  2. RI is an interesting case study. In a 10 mile radius you have dense urban settlement and then suburban and rural settlement.

    I much prefer the urban. I live in Providence and I cannot think of one chain restaurant in the city, other than fast food crap. And you can get Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Soul, and many other varieties of food at those restaurants too.

    The city truly is mutli-cultural but also has a common thread pulling it all together.

  3. I currently live in standard suburbia hellhole (at least as far as culture is concerned. It’s very pretty otherwise.) All stores are chain, all chains are stores. I’m not far from urbia though, so it’s always possible to get to that.

    What I grew up in, however, is very hard to describe. It was, and is no longer, Island; which is a strange mix of rural and urban life. Things are compact, there were effectively two major roads to which all things are a part of. It’s possible to ride your bicycle to nearly anywhere on the Island, save for the narrowness (automobile dangerousness) of certain roads. Unlike every other urban area I’ve been in though, it is very uni-cultural. It’s strange.

    That has since changed, and the big chains have run nearly every local business out of ‘town’ (unincorporated area). Where there were once a couple of fast food chains struggling along with the multitude of locally owned businesses, there are now a couple of locals still hanging on in a sea of franchise advertising. In doing so it has still resisted multi-cultural status. Just, the same aging residents flock to Outback and the disney corporation owned mall every day.

  4. I am trying to avoid chain stores. Living in North Dakota, this is somewhat complicated, but I try. and at least it results in my stuff breaking less often and actually getting experts with knowledge to work on my broken bike/computer/whatnot (as opposed to the standard, 1-week-of-training generic employee at a big box store). I also get funny looks from everybody for avoiding Walmart at all costs

    anyway, I wanted to post about something else though… my biggest “cultural” thing about the Midwest are the recurrent, pointless arguments with my friend that go something like this

    me:”so, how’s your soda”
    friend:”it’s not soda, it’s pop!
    me:”oh ffs…”
    friend:”if it doesn’t have sodium bicarbonate in it, it’s not soda!”
    me:”great. and I generally don’t have pops in public, because I’m not an exhibitionist”
    *mutual glaring*

  5. One of the factors that leads to “samehood” among the suburbs is our mobile society. Towns like Woodbury, etc, are the homes of people who get transferred and live there for a few years and then get transferred to someplace else. Seeing the same stores in the suburbs of St. Paul as they do in the suburbs of say, Atlanta and St. Louis, etc, give them a feeling of “home” no matter where they live.

    It’s like the Perkins effect. When people are traveling and get off the freeway, they may not necessarily love Perkins (or the Olive Garden,) but they at least know that the food they eat at the Perkins in St. Louis will be the same as what they get in Chicago. They don’t have to worry aboout the strange tasting food that they might find in a locally owned restaurant.

    Incidentally, a town like Woodbury is also likely to be conservative because people don’t expect to stay there long, and so they defeat tax initiatives, not worrying about the implications for the education system after they have moved on.

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