The end of the suburban dream

June 07, 1999|By Neal R. Peirce

WAS THE American suburban dream a victim of the bloody shooting spree by two crazed teen-agers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.?

Yes, say several critics.

"The biggest thing suburbia ever had going for it was that it was a safe place to grow up. Now that's shattered," said Peter Katz, co-author of "The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community."

What has many Americans puzzled is that the chilling armed attacks on defenseless students erupted so far from where popular culture would have predicted -- the scorned ghettoes and barrios of troubled inner cities.

Instead, the bloodshed hit affluent Littleton and such other "nice" spots as Springfield, Ore., Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and most recently, Conyers, Ga.

Critic's view

We shouldn't be surprised, argues James Howard Kunstler, the biting social critic who authored "The Geography of Nowhere" and "Home from Nowhere."

Just take a look at standard faceless suburbia, with its endless strip malls, big box stores, franchise fry pits, look-alike subdivisions, autos everywhere and pedestrians practically nowhere, notes Mr. Kunstler: "You cannot overestimate the anomie and ennui that's being produced by these environments. They ooze utter purposelessness -- places with neither a past nor a future, and not much of a present."

The language is so tough one wonders if it's an unfair hit.

But the argument about dull sameness is hard to avoid. Writer Lakis Polycarpou, a 1990 graduate of Columbine High School, recently wrote a commentary, which was published in the Washington Post, concerning the eerie feeling that possessed him after entering the school to register as a 10th-grade student. The year before he'd been at another suburban school 10 miles away:

"As I entered the building, I discovered that Columbine's floor plan was identical to that of the school I had left. The library, the gym, the cafeteria, the lockers, the classrooms -- all were in exactly the same locations."

Boring sameness

In the name of "economy" and "efficiency," school officials in suburban Colorado were into the interchangeability of place that's the distinguishing mark of modern American suburbia.

Mr. Polycarpou describes Wadsworth Boulevard, the major road near Columbine, as "an endless series of chain stores. . . . Driving the whole road is unremitting deja vu; every so often the stores repeat themselves, and one discovers yet another Office Max, Best Buy or Red Lobster."

It's a totally automobile-centered world, in which everything is a vehicle, interchangeable with every other.

That has immense social implications, argues Mr. Kunstler. We've created a spread-out, impersonal world you can't even access until you're 16 and a licensed driver. Children go through a critical developmental change between 6 and 14, when they're anxious to explore their everyday environment, to learn about the greater world.

But for social health, argues Mr. Kunstler, that must start with the organism of a real town -- a place with "commercial organs, civic organs, government organs, entertainment organs, recreation organs -- all organs of a civic environment." The authentic town or city or village, he suggests, is a real living organism "inhabited by other living organisms -- people."

But in suburbia, he insists, "the organs of commerce and work and civics and culture are purposely isolated and poorly integrated."

Setting out by foot, by bike, bus or trolley, Peter Katz suggests, kids learn town-square and city life, can get to know (and be known) by storekeepers and other adults. They become familiar with civic places, get exposed to people of other races and classes, even learn to cope with street people.

In the process, they have a much better chance to break through the pervasive aloneness, the teen-age isolation, the separation and sometimes rage that child psychologists report has become a scourge in our times.

Is there some danger in exploring a town on one's own? Sure, says Mr. Katz. "But do you want your kid beaten up once -- or gunned down out of the blue?"

When a young person learns street smarts and reasonable self-defense, the temptation is far less to descend into the intense solitude of video games. And there's less compulsion to idolize action film stars whose message is that it's fun and OK to blow away anyone you like, just to show off your destructive power.

It's ironic that Littleton has impacted our national psyche just as the moment that "smart growth" -- the push for more compact, environmentally benign communities -- is welling up across America.

Littleton reminds us we need to tame and convert the soulless sameness of classic modern suburbia, to retrofit all our communities to be more special, welcoming places. Equally, the school shootings are a reminder that it's only by getting to know each other in real streets and stores, parks and public places, that we have a chance to be a truly democratic -- and safe -- society.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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