Exurban Dystopia Art

Say’s Law in Theory

Supply constitutes demand.

Say’s Law in Practice

Supply constitutes demand….of bulldozers!

The Exurbs as Disaster

It makes sense, does it? Dollars and cents
They’re stretching barbed wire across the picket fence
That is surrounding your housing development
Just in case you lack the confidence
– Desaparecidos “The Happiest Place On Earth”

I have some experience with the exurbs. My family did the flight from southwest Chicago to the far southwest suburbs right around the time I started high school. Later, after college, I worked in the giant northwest Chicago exurbs of Schaumburg (yes, it is a lot like this Onion article) while living in the city. I had friends who lived and bought places, often massive places in exurban subdivisions, placed perfectly equidistant from interstates and from big-box megastores complexes.

As such, I was naturally disposed to enjoy cultural products that deal with suburban life in general, and the exurbs more specifically, in a surreal or critical fashion. I enjoyed watching Kevin Spacey give up on his life while his wife had a careerist meltdown in “American Beauty.” I listened to Connor yell about malls and Starbucks and housing developments paving over his Omaha in the Desaparecidos. I read James Kunstler talk about the Geography of Nowhere and the ugliness of the new McMansion models, though was smart enough to avoid it when it started to trail into the deep end, especially the fiction he wrote consisting of him as a crunchy con Mad Max Casanova.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve sampled less from the genre, in part because I’m simply around the exurbs less and out of sight = out of mind. But right now should be a Golden Age of this genre – will we see it in the culture?

Check out that youtube video above. Notice the kind of terror of a brand new home without a scratch on it, on a beautiful day, being torn down. You see videos and images of abandoned subdivisions and megastores; perhaps you live near them. It’s one thing for life to be bored and a bit desperate; it is an entirely other thing to have that going on in the middle of a collapse, a collapse with you directly in the sights.

Are these narratives and anxieties going to get turned into movies, songs and novels anytime soon? How do we even begin to process it? I heard it over the weekend when a realtor, after I asked about places in Oakland, suggested going into the exurbs of the East Bay, where I could get a $600K McMansion in an abandoned housing division for $300K. I giggled “no”, but then was kind of saddened. What is life like for the people living in that subdivision, the people who bought early at the peak?

Journalism is doing its part. I had to view this Boston.com Scenes From A Recession in small chunks, because it was fairly overwhelming to process. There’s also the genre of Debt Confessional among upper-middle class types. But I want more focus on the houses themselves and the lived environments, because it is easy to feel that a real rot has settled in what was once a big part of the American Dream.


Perhaps the shock is too high. Perhaps the chaos and abandon in the exurbs now mirrors the panic in other areas like factory towns. Perhaps the shock that we experience from the destruction is less art and more pornographic – not about broad critiques but just about heavy suffering. I don’t know, but I’m curious as to how the Critical Exurb genre progresses, especially if $4 gas starts to smother the green shoots of a recovery in the frontier exurban lands…

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3 Responses to Exurban Dystopia Art

  1. Pingback: Morning Skim: Terrorists Among Us, Wall Street Watchdogs, Collapsing Houses and More - The Opinionator Blog - NYTimes.com

  2. ginandtacos says:

    My guess would be that it is going to take a long, long time for people to process exactly what happened here. Cultural recognition of the Great Depression lagged the actual events by a number of years.

    Another problem is that I don’t think the people who bought this shit make very sympathetic figures. There’s no sense of loss of community felt by anyone outside of these subdivisions because they aren’t part of any community. They’re just these big boxes on flat land populated by people who don’t know the next-door neighbor’s name. When that disappears, who really gives a fuck?

    We’ll see a little bit of “We flew too close to the sun; such is the folly of man!” cultural output in a few years, but overall it’s just way too easy to “other” these people given the transparently poor choices they made and their desperation to exclude themselves from the rest of society. Other than post-mortems, I’m not sure how much there is to say about what happened here. Maybe “Well, duh.” but I don’t think that contributes much to the conversation.

  3. Mike says:

    G&T: I really wish there was at least one giant statue of someone perched next to the I-80 expressway in New Lenox, or perhaps next to the IKEA in Schaumburg, raising his fists at motorists, with a sign that says “Look On My Subdivisions Ye Mighty and Despair!” Getting to drive by that statue falling apart and laying around in crumbles would make me visit home more often.

    There’s talk about exurbs as the new ghettos – as rich people trade exurbs for urban enclaves, poor urban dwellers will get displaced out. I sort of felt that along I-290 leaving the city as my time in Chicago ended, but was gone before the really kicking started. I’m curious if that will happen. Or if they’ll become ghost towns – little towns where their main factory has closed down, in this case the factory being the mortgage industry.

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