Monday, October 12, 2009

Whiteopias and Dystopias

Rich Benjamin has a big excerpt up at Tapped from his new book Whiteopias. Its worth reading the whole thing but I wanted to pick out one thing--at least in the excerpt Benjamin talks about the new White enclaves as both a new thing and a throwback to a fifties ideal:

Imagine moving to a place where you can leave your front door unlocked as you run errands. Where the community enjoys a winning ratio of playgrounds to potholes. Where you can turn your kids loose at 3 P.M., not worry, then see them in time for supper. Where the neighbors greet you by name. Where your trouble-free high school feels like a de-facto private school. Where if you play hooky from work, you can drive just 20 minutes and put your sailboat on the water. Where you can joyride off-road vehicles (Snowmobiles! ATVs! Mountain bikes! Rock crawlers!) on nature's bold terrain. Where your family and abundant friends feel close to the soil. Where suburban blight has yet to spoil vistas. Just imagine.
And, indeed, many of the people he interviews describe themselves as moving from an urban experience to an explicitly ex-urban experience that is modeled on an idealized version of the fifties. But I'm wondering whether we might not better understand what is going on if we realize that these people are, perhaps, actually the failed remnant of an earlier utopian planned community--the post war suburbs and they only imagine that they sojourned in "the city" with "all its diversity."

What I mean by that is the description of this happy land, filled with happy young families and their happy young kids going to school, and little league, reads like the same thing in the post-war suburbs. And these, famously, came to naught not because of an influx of non white people, or diversity, or anything else but because they were badly designed, aged badly, and produced socio-pathologies of loss, anxiety, and anomie rather than the healthy, ideal, families that people thought they were going to get. I'm thinking of Susan Faludi's brilliant book Stiffed and her discussion of the losers of the post war suburbs--and the post war "daddy knows best" family model. Faludi devotes several gripping chapters to the rise of a totally risible "gang" of teenage boy wanna be thug celebrities whose only claim to fame and TV time were a few sexploits and their name the "spur posse." What's interesting about the story Faludi tells is her interviews with these boys. All the wonderful attributes of the post war suburb--and especially the endless games of Little League and Pop Warner football--created in these boys a restless sense of anonymity and loss that they tried very deliberately to assuage by seeking temporary infamy and notoreity. The things their parents wanted to get them, by moving to that generations whiteopia, were precisely the thing the suburbs could never produce: true community, true economic security, good education, authentic sense of self, real religious identity. Because, as people have argued for a long time, modern pre-fab suburbs are alienating places for men, women, children, and families. The model of a society which severs work from play, and work life from family life, creates stresses and strains that simply are unendurable (eventually.) In the case of the spur posse what seemed like a very good thing for young children and their families seems to have turned sour as the children and parents aged, needed to find work, needed to find new jobs, generally didn't find the rewards of the cocoon and baby lifestyle overcame the costs associated with bedroom communities, commuting, and the estrangement of work and home life.

What I'm wondering, and I plan to read the book in detail soon, is whether the new residents of the whiteopias are themselves the survivors (the ones who ended up with enough money) of the failed suburbs of the past and whether they have any insight into how to stave off a similar crash for themselves. Or whether, thinking that they are taking refuge from an urban hellhole filled with a roving band of urban non -whites, they are satisfied merely with the gates and didn't bother to check the viability of the community inside the gates.

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