Suburbanity

As I wrote in Why This? Why Now?, a big reason for me starting this blog was the sort of things I was reading in the Comments section of EV Grieve’s blog. I was struck by the provincialism displayed in many of the comments, directed at people who may have at one time lived in the suburbs, or visit from the suburbs, or at stores that are associated with the suburbs. At first I thought the commenters were just supercilious, and I’m sure that’s true of some of them, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what people were referring to as “suburban” was only incidentally suburban, or rather tautologically suburban.

When the International House of Pancakes opened on 14th Street, commenters railed against it as “suburban”. When it was announced that 7-Eleven would open on Avenue A and 11th Street, it was vilified as “suburban”, and the people who would shop there as suburban, living out their suburban childhoods, turning the dirty Lower East Side into a suburb. Here are some examples:

Commenter:
evg-suburb-120403-comment

Commenter:
evg-suburb-130306-comment

No 7-Eleven NYC meeting announcement:
evg-suburb-130108-n7e-announcement

So what are they opposed to? It has more to do with standardization than with geography. What is referred to as “suburban” is nothing less than the direction that retail-capital took after World War 2. This was the time that franchising grew significantly. Cities were too prohibitive to build in — ground rent was high, zoning and existing structures restricted what was possible — but the interstate highway system allowed for expansion outside of the city. The land they moved into was not only cheap but plentiful. If there had been enough cheap land in the cities in the 1950s, franchises would have developed here, because capital would not have moved to rural areas to seek higher returns.

There’s nothing wrong with critiquing franchising, but to confuse it as “suburban” masks the real driving force.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joe
    Mar 21, 2013 @ 16:14:14

    “If there had been enough cheap land in the cities in the 1950s, franchises would have developed here.” Okay, that’s fine. But what if the cities were as they were (built up and lacking in cheap, easy to develop land) but the suburbs hadn’t been opened up by massive state spending (on highways, the GI Bill, government-backed mortgages)? Capital would have taken a different development path. We wouldn’t have experienced what Robert Beauregard called ‘parasitic urbanization’ with explosive suburban growth on the one side and urban crisis on the other. Nor would we be talking about suburbanization, franchising, or the Pringle-ization of the EV. We would have had a different city with a different capitalist political economy and a different vocabulary seeking to describe it.

    Reply

    • shmnyc
      Mar 21, 2013 @ 17:03:23

      Franchising is, among other things, a method of standardization that started before WW2. If there had been no suburbs, there would still have been franchises, but we would decry them as such (if we were so inclined), instead of referring to them in a way that disguises what they are.

      Actually, there are people who do that. Me, for one. But there seem to be more who do not. Above-commenters, for example.

      Reply

  2. joe
    Mar 21, 2013 @ 22:00:48

    Both franchising and suburbanization started before WWII. But let’s stay with your original periodization in which you suggested a new direction “after World War 2”. After all, the postwar period radically altered and extended both suburbanization and the franchise. During this period the suburbs and the franchise come to dominate the American landscape and the culture. Suburbanization and McDonaldization go hand in hand. After 1970, more people live in the suburbs than in cities and rural areas. McDonald’s is probably the most recognizable face of American culture. Terms like the suburbanization of the city (or some equivalent) capture this political-economic-cultural formation in a way that simply saying ‘franchise’ does not.

    My one other thought is that the suburbanization of the city is not about the suburbs displacing the urban, as one tweeter had it, but the swallowing of the city and the suburb into some larger, centerless regional metropolitan unit (a phenomenon that whose origins also predate WW2!). In this vast space both city and suburb lose their distinctive character. So today there are more poor in the suburbs than in the old cities and the suburbs draw increasing numbers of immigrants and people of color. Inversely the city gets the big box stores, Wal*Mart, 7 Eleven, etc. — the stuff that fuels anxieties about the loss of some notional authentic urban experience. I would call it metropolitanization but then I’d be an audience of one. Perhaps suburbanization of the city is just the way residents of older cities experience this new metropolitan space just like suburban folk getting exercised over ‘urban problems’ coming to the burbs is the other way this new space is encountered.

    Reply

    • shmnyc
      Mar 22, 2013 @ 09:51:25

      Terms like “suburbanization of the city” obscure the issue, since it carries with it too many associations unrelated to standardization of brands.

      I was hesitant to post this piece, since a topic like suburbanization is what people stake their entire academic careers on — in economics, sociology, anthropology, geography, others? — and I knew it could go far afield in a short time. But, no matter. These things take on a life of their own.

      Reply

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