The suburbs as a museum piece
Share with others:
There are those who think America's suburban existence will not survive the coming age of expensive gasoline.
Among the first images I saw after walking into the Carnegie Museum of Art's new exhibit, "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes," with its curators the other day, was a pair of oversized photos of lawn mowing, one man pushing and another riding.
All that mowing, shopping, golfing, schooling, game-watching and one-to-a-car commuting is based on the expectation that nobody will go broke simply filling and refilling the gas tanks. Now that way of life, known for generations, seems imperiled.
"The eco-critique has always been there," says Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
But neither he nor the exhibit's co-organizer, Tracy Myers, curator of architecture at the Carnegie, is buying the notion that the end is near.
They've been working on this for three years and, had they started a year or so later, it might have had a different look, with more foreclosures and such. It doesn't matter. This 15-week show is a testament to suburbia's adaptability and flexibility, its ability to reinvent itself.
The three overriding themes are homes, cars and retail. About three dozen artists and architects blow past the narrow sterility and conformity found in Hollywood takes such as "The Stepford Wives" and "American Beauty" to offer neither a condemnation nor a celebration of suburbia but something trickier, a bit of awestruck contemplation of the way more than half of America lives.
Lee Stoetzel's photo of his playful scale-model sculpture, "McMansion 2," uses McDonald's Filet-O-Fish as the stucco for a large two-story home. Laura E. Migliorino's stylized photos quietly explode the lily-white suburban stereotype by showcasing a rainbow coalition of residents. (Almost half of new immigrants move straight to the suburbs.) Paho Mann's photos show how Arizona's abandoned convenience stores live on as tattoo parlors and tuxedo rentals in "Re-Inhabited Circle Ks."
Scale models explore new retail trends. For one, as Mr. Blauvelt says, no new enclosed mall has been built in the United States since 2006. (The Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills, which opened off Route 28 in Frazer in 2005, may be among the last of its kind.) Retail's new wave is a "power center" such as The Waterfront, where a string of big-box retailers loom above an assemblage of smaller stores and restaurants dotting an asphalt sea.
The painting that drew me in and took me back, however, was a stark one, "Site," an oil by Sarah McKenzie. It depicts the frame of a single home under construction, and beyond the deliberate, upright maze of lumber are trees in the near distance.
In my youth, this was every young boy's -- and not a few girls' -- playground. My little town was a single square mile of suburbia on Long Island, where the famed suburban builder, William J. Levitt, bought about 19 acres not long after World War II. Mr. Levitt's crews built about 600 little affordable homes near the train station, the prototype for the thousands he'd build later on potato farms a few miles away and call "Levittown." Mr. Levitt would repeat the trick outside Philadelphia and elsewhere.
Our family wasn't in that first wave, but we'd move from our Queens apartment in 1960 to one of a handful of Cape Cod homes on a dirt road. There were rabbits and toads and vacant lots and, every so often, a new house going up. On weekends and early on summer evenings, when the big guys with the tools went home, kids would swarm over the site for games of tag and exploration.
Our parents gave us that freedom because they survived the Depression and won World War II and so, when they scanned the landscape, they didn't see much to worry about.
The children of the baby boom grew up to be far stricter, hypervigilant parents because they know all the ways a suburban kid can get in trouble, and don't want their kids having quite that much fun. Plus the stuff they watch on cable scares the pants off them.
The suburbs of the next generation will be different, too. Light rail should go to more places, and the old "bedroom community" may evolve into more of a village with less driving and more walking. The big supermarket chains are already taking baby steps back toward small community stores. Barber shops and the like could move from the strip malls to the neighborhoods, too.
Push mowers may take a little longer.
First Published October 5, 2008 12:00 am