Monday, June 20, 2011

Everything Spreads Out

Paradise Drive, begins with a description of a drive through the urban-to-rural transect of an American city, starting with the downtown "urban hipster zone" and ending in the exurbs, the domain of Patio Guy and Realtor Mom. Often riotously funny, David Brooks' narrative on Middle American culture is freewheeling and painfully insightful. One of the most piercing chapters, "Working," skewers the pop business world of motivational speakers and bestselling books, such as Who Moved My Cheese?. Brooks fantasizes that he might have been Ray Croc, creating a motivational empire around "Find Your Fry! Follow Your Fry," ultimately shortened through loving familiarity to Fry!. Good stuff.

Perhaps the most insightful proposal Brooks makes in the book is that the American suburbs are a reflection of a peculiar cultural phenomenon - finding new geographic space for personal interests. If you don't like your neighbors, find some you like and move there. This leads to the characteristic dispersal of the suburbs and exurbs, with the penultimate example being the gated community. Contrast this with the historical association with Place that is typical of urban life. If you consider your identity to rooted in a particular Place, then the motivation to resolve cultural tensions exist in situ. Certainly, there are innumerable enclaves within any city that cater to particular (and peculiar) tastes and people choose to locate and relocate according to those interests. However, these choices are exercised within the hierarchies of existing city fabric, not through dispersal. Furthermore, cities foster the idea that my Place is worth fighting for - the cause of much tension, both creative and destructive - but reinforcing the sense of Place nonetheless.

The psychological, sociological and cultural isolation that result from the suburban lifestyle has been widely discussed. Inverting the discussion, Brooks suggests that a culture of deliberate, cellular dispersal is reflected and empowered by the suburbs.

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