Suburbs Readings

This weekend I started to read a bit more seriously about the American suburbs. My reading list is a bit random, in part, because I’m having trouble doing anything that requires sustained efforts and, in part, because the bibliography surrounding the suburbs is genuinely huge. 

The first book that I read has the least, explicitly, to do with suburbs: Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (2007). It had been recommended to me by several friends over the past few months, and is worth every minute of the few hours that it took me to read the book. Stewart writes short vignettes that seek to capture and communicate affect. These vignettes are almost always ordinary in their setting, situation, and even characters, and draw on her own experiences in hotels, Walmarts, restaurants, city streets, and suburbs. 

This book does not really offer a model (although I have to admit that I did borrow the model of “hundreds” from her work with Lauren Berlant) and presents no theoretical framework for understanding affect, but it did remind me that careful attention to the ordinary can offer a window into the affective life of our modern world. In fact, many of the backdrops to Stewart’s vignettes are the common features in the suburban landscape from the front yard to the convenience store, sidewalk, and neighborhood. These settings offer a compelling reminder to look, listen, and think carefully about how our spaces of interaction create the place for our emotional life.

Along similar lines I read D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (1995) which is set in Waldie’s home town of Lakewood, California. Lakewood was one of the largest suburban developments in the country at the time of its founding in the 1950s and Waldie lived there his entire life. The book weaves together Waldie’s memories, his experiences as a city administrator, and the history of the development and its founders. Like Stewart’s affective prose, Waldie’s work is evocative, compelling, and both personal and public at the same time. The suburb is less of a backdrop and more of a participant in the ritual of everyday life that defined Waldie’s experiences as a child, an adult, an administrator, and a resident of the place. His hopes and fears mingle with the hopes and fears of the other residents and transforms the uniformity of the suburbs into a sometimes optimistic and often humiliating space filled with human drama.

His particular emphasis on the suburbs as a place filled with human pathos and suffering offers an affective jolt and a sharp contrast to the optimistic and aspirational language of developers. In Waldie’s work, the dream of homeownership did not produce landscape defined by a deep sense of accomplishment. Instead, in Waldie’s work Lakewood became a place defined by the tragedy of death, suffering, delusion, and despair which clung to the landscape subverting the bucolic expectations of suburban ideal. 

Finally, I read the chapters on suburbs from Holly Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). The book argues that post-war corporate structure and the emphasis on the loyal, dutiful, and obedient employee stifled creativity and innovation. The creation of the “organization man” involved institutions that extended well-beyond the hallways and offices of major companies. The final section of Whyte’s book looked at the role of suburbs in creating the conformity that defined the organization man. In particular, he emphasized that many of the first-generation of suburban dwellers were transients who often moved from city to city at the whim of their national employers and seeking professional advancement. In this context, suburbs offered a kind of ready-made institutional space that allowed a new-comer to have a social network and to fall easily into a routine that is both new and familiar. The uniformity of suburban homes and apartments, their physical proximity, and the expectations that these community would provide most of what individuals need in terms of social, religious, political, educational, and consumer life created a context in which the organization man could develop various skills, relationships, and goals. These skills, relationships, and goals would, in turn, shape his professional life and aspirations. A newly wed couple who first lives in a tidy suburban apartment, aspires to a single family home like those in their development. Once they own a home, they aspire to larger more well appointed home in an adjoining neighborhood. They model their success at work and in life through their leadership positions in the community and the subtle signs of affluence shaped by their suburban context.

What was most interesting to me was that Whyte emphasized the transience of suburb dwellers. The contrast between the bucolic design of suburbs which sought to evoke more established rural housing and allude the rootedness of elite households and estates and the transience of suburban residents should have informed my reading of workforce housing in the Bakken. It did not.