Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The High Suburban

For reasons too trite to recall, I found myself the other day meandering about the suburbs of Oakville, Ontario. These are much more developed suburbs than the one that Claire and I inhabit; if the suburbs are a style, this was High Suburban. Our neighborhood has people smoking on their front porches all evening, we do our own lawn work; it's a vulgar Low Suburban enclave.

The High Suburban style is very clean plane geometry. The grass looks frosted on and the houses have a military regularity to them. This is the triumph of central planning over environmental contingencies. The landscape has been rationalized, standardized, and stripped bare (by its grooms) of anything eye-catching. It is an amazing accomplishment. These houses are very well-maintained, often by various crews of day laborers. They're as much homes as they are enterprises.

There is also something uninhabitable about this neighborhood; like living on a golf course, it doesn't seem possible. These people feel like tenants in a vast hotel that would as easily exist without them. The place seems somehow sterile and inhuman; alien even. Overplanned.

People often talk about the "conformity" of the suburbs, but the homes tell you nothing about how these people live; the landscaping is what conforms. What is more noticeable here is a sort of vast, oceanic boredom leveling everything out. Life is done here. You can leave if you so choose. There is, literally, nothing to see.

The suburbs often represent normalcy in art, but nearly as often artists use them as ciphers for some sort of hidden evil. The psychotic is supposedly always ready to strike here, like a sleeping adder. On one hand, this often strikes me as the snobbishness of urban artists portraying a world that many of them avoid at all costs; American Beauty struck me as false.

On the other hand, when you wander through a landscape denuded so completely of anything remotely fascinating, the mind turns quite easily to thoughts of violence and perverse sexuality- in order, I think, to assert its selfhood, as well as avoiding imaginative brain-death. Sex and violence jolt the central nervous system. J.G. Ballard wrote that "The suburbs dream of violence". What else is there to think of here?


Holly said...

Blank lawns in the suburbs were an American invention of the early middle class, a means of displaying that they were just as morally upstanding good Christians as the actually rich, who could afford to have their lawns tended by others. Arguably, the suburbs themselves serve the same function... mini-estates. No coincidence they're so often called estates...

Here, even the richest suburbs have lush lawns abundantly adorned with wild flowers. Even dandilions are totally acceptable, and eaten even by the wealthy, in restaurants as well as at home!

They have real, productive fruit trees in the yard, they have formal flower beds, and window boxes, and kitchen gardens. It's almost as if the luxury is indicated by having these things right at the house, and having the means (money & leisure time) to tend them yourself.

It's so unlike the lego suburbs I'm accustomed to, it's almost embarrassing, but I kind of wish I were a part of that. Shit gardening skills aside...

Rufus said...

It's funny you mention this. We're actually just about to replace our entire front lawn with a whole bunch of stuff- combine, hostas, day lilies, nest spruce, Korean lilac, spreading yew, and a few I can't remember. It's a personal preference, but I hate grass- it's a pain in the ass to keep and not worth the energy spent. And when it's well-kept, it just looks stupid.

I'll take pictures of the front garden when we get done.

Brian Dunbar said...

In my memory, the development where my parents bought a house in 1977 was 'rationalized, standardized, and stripped bare'

Thirty-two years have passed: they still live there. Trees have grown, houses and yards have acquired personality and individual touches.

It's a place to live.

Still not a lot of smoking on the front porch: houses are set too far back and the porches are wrong for that.

I wonder if your high suburban development just needs more seasoning?

Holly said...

That's kick-ass, Rufus! Looking forward to the pictures. I'll see if I can get some quality lawn pictures here. Walking through the Stadtpark yesterday, I was noticing how even those grassy areas are covered in flowers. It's understandable to have open expanses in the park, and I'm glad they don't spend a lot of time and money making it a monoculture.

Brian... in 1977, the ideal suburban paradise was still a place for people to live. People still went outside to do things. Newer developments have a decided "cars live here" aspect. There IS no front porch, just a 3 car garage and a front door for guests and deliveries. Many places have opted for putting the houses closer together than the width of a single home, presumably because if you're not inside watching TV or something, if you actually leave the building, you're going to get in the car and go somewhere. A few decades will give most anything more character if it's not abandoned in that time, but some of these places are so, so bleak! Glad your parents have a nicer way to live.

Rufus said...

Brian: people live on the tundra too. I know it can be done. I just don't think many newer suburbs are terribly conducive to doing it. It could need more seasoning- part of the problem though is just the way High Suburbs are designed- one long runway with fortress-like houses and little to no common spaces to visit. Not to mention that the mortgages are so high that people have to work constantly, which isn't conducive to an active neighborhood culture either.

I think Holly is on to something here- there does seem to be a big change in suburban design with the building boom in the 80s and 90s. Our neighborhood ("neighbourhood" in Canadian) was built for Canadians returning from WWII, and it's designed in such a way that we're actively involved with each other- we all share certain spaces with our neighbors. Also our street ends in a few little stores, which encourages me to walk all the time. Actually, come to think of it, the other thing is that it's located among grocery stores, schools, churches, and libraries- there's much more to walk to. What bothered me about the High Suburb was that it was so damn far from anything. If you want to walk to the store and chat with people along the way, which I like to do, you just can't.

So, I think people can make it work in those places, but it might help to be antisocial.