Suburbia and terror
Back on December 2, as I was putting the finishing touches on my last blog post, little did I realize the horror that was unfolding about 50 miles due west of my little office here. That was the day of the San Bernardino shootings.
I have to admit that since that day, I had a really hard time getting my head back into “creative mode,” especially with this blog. What could I possibly have to say about this, that hasn’t already been said? And what pain anxiety, sadness, and unease I was feeling, could possibly be any more meaningful that what many, many others were feeling? I found myself reading obsessively about it in the LA Times, trying to figure out what could have motivated the shooters, that might somehow make sense to me. Well, I came up with nothing. I can’t fathom it from my own existential perspective. And much as I wanted to dive back into the blog on a positive note, it seemed plain wrong to say nothing about it. So here goes.
With the passage of nearly a month, the sadness and horror has subsided a little, and it’s given me a chance to think about how this — and previous shootings — could possibly link up with suburbia. My unsettling conclusion is that the suburbs have shifted from a peripheral safe refuge to a center of the action, when it comes to terror.
Consider this. In the 1950s, when postwar suburbs were spreading like wildfire across the country, national policy makers perceived them in strategic terms, a kind of defensive built landscape in the context of the Cold War. It wasn’t just the bomb shelters that people were building in their backyards. It was the sprawl itself that seemed to promise protection. How much damage could a Soviet-launched nuclear bomb do if everyone was spread out not just within metro areas, but across the country? (a lot, in my opinion, but that was their mindset) This was part of the thinking behind the 1956 Interstate Highway Act. As Ken Jackson noted in Crabgrass Frontier, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists devoted a whole issue in 1951 to “Defense through Decentralization.” The thinking went something like this: you avoid national destruction in a nuclear attack if you spread everyone out, dispersing people out of large cities and into satellite cities surrounded by miles and miles of suburbs. Sprawl was the ultimate defense mechanism against the terror threats of the time. Michael Sorkin, in All Over the Map, similarly called these postwar suburbs a product of “an earlier fear of terror.”
Well, obviously as the terror threats shifted, so did the role of built environments in the calculus of safety itself. Suburbia has moved from periphery to somewhere near the center. Suburbia has become a critical part of the terror story — as a site of the horrific acts themselves, but also as the place where shooting schemes were hatched and planned. Suburbia is full of soft targets, the schools, shopping malls, office parks, and the like. Remember Columbine back in the 1990s, when two kids shot up a high school in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver? Writer Christopher Caldwell blamed that attack partly on the alienating, “soul destroying” landscape of ticky-tacky Littleton. Yet other types of suburbs have also been linked to terrorism, places like Molenbeek outside of Brussels, an impoverished, immigrant suburb which the media reported was a launch pad for the Paris shootings. And then there’s San Bernardino in the Inland Empire, a satellite city with numerous suburban neighborhoods, which not too long ago was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. The city itself went bankrupt, and thousands of people lost homes to foreclosure. It’s a place with its share of recent travails, a vivid symbol of a changing suburbia.
Yet there is no easy correlation between shooters and the type of suburbs where they lived, schemed, and acted – some have been well-off, others poor. All that seems clear is that suburbia’s very diversity makes it home to a broad range of humanity – the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the engaged and disaffected, including those who would terrorize.
Suburbia, sadly, has caught up to cities — full of vulnerable places where people gather and disaffected residents live holed away in condos and homes — in this disturbing story. It’s sad to me that these “soft targets” are exactly the kinds of places that urban designer and scholars have been working so hard to revive and nurture in the suburbs, the places where people might come together and break down the walls of fear that some believe built suburbia itself.
The impulses are right, to break down those walls. It just takes more courage in all of us to stick by this mantra, and to believe that ultimately it is this very connectivity that might ultimately redeem and save us.
Staying home, forever
Here’s an image I’ll always carry in my head: my mom, sitting back in her recliner, relaxed and centered, gazing out the long tall window in the back of her home that looked out onto the hill that sloped upward just a few feet from that window. It was nature, green and a little wild, right at hand. My mom was in deep communion with that nature in those quiet moments. Her spirit was replenished.
That soulful sustenance seemed to emit from many aspects of that house. My mom loved her home profoundly. It was the home my brothers and I grew up in. We moved there in the mid-1960s, just as our house and the whole hilly subdivision around it was being constructed. We were a Greek-American family, living in modest comfort, my father puttering to his job everyday at USC Med School as a research chemist, my mom staying home with the kids. That home swaddled us. For my mom, the home was an extension of our family, a kind of sturdy vessel of the emotions, love, and life that swirled within its spaces year after year. It was thick with memories.
So after my father died in 1988, my mom stayed. Her grown kids cycled through at various times, occupying the empty bedrooms, spreading out our junk for whatever interim time we needed there — to shelter us during periods of unemployment, dissertation writing, etc. When we all finally left after getting jobs and getting married, my mom stayed. And she grew older, making do alone in that large home. She tended lovingly to her lush potted plants in the back, lined up along a buckling cinder-block retaining wall that her brother had built 3 decades earlier. She cooked simple meals for herself, the food of her childhood in Greece – okra with fresh tomatoes and onions, leek stew, pastas, green beans. She read, gazed outside, dozed off, cheered Roger Federer on in his latest match, cooked us dinners. She hung ceramic angels from the ceiling over her bed, which acted as her own “security” system, helping her feel watched over and protected as she slept.
And she got by alone. The house was pretty large, two stories with carpeted stairs, four smallish bedrooms upstairs. When her knees started giving out, the stairs became a challenge. Then the falls started. If she fell, she couldn’t get up. So she’d somehow crawl to the phone, and we’d get a call from her: “I fell down, can you come?”
That house was too big for her own good. At that point, when she was in her late 70s, we started working on her to move. “Come move in with us,” I’d say, and she’d say, “okay” half-heartedly, no doubt dismayed by the prospect of joining our family chaos with two young, noisy kids. Then she’d change the subject, or just say no, I don’t want to move. I don’t want to be a burden. I want to be independent. I love this house.
My mom was a great example of a trend that’s been unfolding for some time now – the process of aging-in-place in suburbia, which seems to be the preference for the vast majority of seniors already living in suburban homes. For people like my mom, that raises some major challenges. For her, I think the biggest one was the sheer isolation, being alone every day in that large detached structure. Surrounded by the plants and trees she loved, yes, but cut off from the energy and vibrancy of other people on an everyday basis. She could still drive, but that human interaction was a destination, not a part of her everyday existence. My mom would never consent to moving to a retirement-type community, where she might get that interaction. It would be too much of a jolt to her spirit, an uprooting that would have withered her. It would have been like losing her family.
She insisted on staying, and making the best of her familiar surroundings even as they stopped serving her well. I love the work that people like June Williamson, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and others are doing on this very issue – they’re exploring the question: how can we retrofit these existing suburbs to better meet the needs of their aging residents? June and Ellen’s work explores things like zoning revisions to allow for higher densities, re-purposing defunct stores into health clinics, or even overlaying golf-cart pathways for seniors to get around more easily.
We also need more creative ways to bring life and companionship into the everyday-life of seniors through a more diffuse array of meeting places (rather than a single community Senior Center), but also through innovative living arrangements. The trend toward senior co-housing communities is a great idea, though it’s just beginning. It’s a creative alternative to assisted living or to aging-in-place in your old family home. Here’s the concept, as described recently in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
Most consist of small individual apartments or houses with large shared kitchens, dining rooms, terraces and gardens where neighbours willingly interact. For those who want the energy of the young, there are multi-generational communities that welcome families. For others who would rather splurge on yoga mats, elevators and respite suites than on playgrounds, certain developments are reserved for empty-nesters. They are planned, owned and managed by residents, not outsiders. "
So in other words, you can still live a suburban life but in places built more mindfully to promote regular, healthy social interaction. A group called Co-Housing is pushing for this now, and I hope it’s a harbinger of a spreading movement. I think we need more of this in all of our suburbs.
I wish my mom had this option a few years ago — I think she would have thrived. She was a genuinely social person, full of warmth and bountiful hugs. And yet, her end was probably exactly as she’d dreamt it. She was lying in her bed, her angels floating over her, and she just went to sleep. She passed exactly where she wanted to be: in the home she loved fully and profoundly.
That gorgeous photo at the top taken by Andy Wiese... it also graces the cover of our book The Suburb Reader
I migrated my blog SuburbanMe to this website... losing all of my comments in the process! I am sorry to lose those terrific insights from my readers.