Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Suburbia Ready to be Memorialized?

Ahh, suburban Kansas City.

Subdivisions, shopping malls, freeways, and low-rise office complexes.  Even if you've never been there, you can probably picture it.  And while the image in your mind likely includes a healthy dose of sprawling ubiquitousness, it almost certainly isn't one of cosmopolitan exuberance, is it?

The main reason for that likely is because Kansas City itself isn't cosmopolitan.  Busy and respectable, yes, but entirely representative of the Middle America in which it stands.  Not a bad thing, of course, since as large cities go, the Kansas City area boasts a far more affordable cost of living and conventional standard of living than most American urban centers with a far more cosmopolitan vibe, which usually translates into pricey hovels, higher crime rates, and greater concentrations of stress and conflict.

Straddling the state line between Missouri and Kansas, the "City of Fountains" is home to less than half a million people, although two million people live in its broader metropolitan region.  It's the corporate home to a surprising mix of iconic American companies, from tax preparer HR Block and telecommunications giant Sprint to the legendary Hallmark Cards company and AMC movie theaters.  The Applebee's chain of overpriced greasy spoons is also headquartered in Kansas City, but in terms of cuisine, let's recognize the town more for its barbecue and steak, themselves staples of down-home, backyard Americana.

The city boasts a modestly impressive skyline and a modestly impressive symphony, although the symphony is famous more for its conductor, Michael Stern, son of the late violinist Isaac Stern, the man who saved New York's Carnegie Hall from demolition.  On a less lofty level, Ed Asner, Walter Cronkite, and Dr. Phil are some of Kansas City's famous sons.

Indeed, it all smacks of Middle America Americana, being decent but not decadent.  Indeed, this mélange of vanilla goodness helps explain why some people think suburban Kansas City is a good place to create a museum dedicated to the most American icon of middle America:  the suburb.

A museum in ode to suburbia.  In an abandoned bowling alley, no less.  In the prototypical suburban city of Overland Park, Kansas, just south of Kansas City.  Deep in the heart of flyover country.

More Than Toasters, Chevys, and Bowling Alleys

At this point, according to an obviously bemused Wall Street Journal, it's mostly the pet project of officials at another local museum, and some county commissioners.  With an anticipated pricetag of $34 million, it won't be the most stunning spectacle tourists could expect to visit in suburban Kansas City.  And, like the Journal points out, it won't be America's only suburban-themed attraction already out there, or even the best-curated one.  Instead of a true, academic exploration into the good and bad of suburbanization's phenomenon, quaint artifacts like old toasters and the obligatory 1950's-era Chevrolet sedan will share space with a wooden fence featuring peepholes through which visitors can witness some live tableaux of suburban life by real actors.

Assuming, of course, you can feign amnesia over the fact that plenty of city folk had toasters back in the 1950's, as one of the Journal's readers pointed out.  Or incredulity that any of the tableaux live actors will reenact behind that goofy wooden fence will be more compelling than what goes on in the museum visitors' own backyards when they get home from visiting the place.

Basically, it sounds like the project's boosters in Overland Park want to create a 1950's museum, but there are a lot of those around already, even if they're not housed in an old suburban bowling alley that's already been tagged with graffiti.

And while it's not inappropriate to recognize the fact that America's suburbs have now begun to show their age, and that exurban development beyond our conventional suburbs has become the new frontier for city-weary home buyers, is the suburb facing the sort of extinction that would merit any sort of museum?

Suburbs are evolving, of course, and in ways not all of us appreciate.  The graffiti on parts of the old bowling alley in Overland Park represents an infiltration of urban reality on some of the aging parts of suburbia, and not just in suburban Kansas City.  Virtually every suburb around the country now boasts a far more diverse demographic than that sought by the whites fleeing urban integration in the 1950's.  Indeed, even the push for exurban development has come not just by affluent whites, but affluent people of all races who can afford to insert some geographic cushion between where they want to raise their upwardly-mobile families and the problems which plague not just inner cities, but aging suburbs as well.

Instead of the white flight which helped create suburbanization, I've dubbed it "ecru flight," since middle-class blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are all participating in perpetuating continued sprawl beyond our established suburbs.  Skin color isn't the motivation today for this resegregation as much as lifestyle and economic class.  And to a certain extent, that may be a healthier factor for future residential development than what drove our early suburban pioneers.  It's still a refutation of the broader benefits of social diversity, but at least people are making separating themselves based on less pejorative interpretations of economic status, rather than raw bigotry.

Should We Memorialize or Reinvigorate Our Suburbs?

Interestingly, our maturing suburbs are being emptied of young families and empty nesters who either head back into our urban cores for whatever grungy vibe they need to feel hip and trendy, or out to the exurbs, where school districts are still considered more family-friendly, and the countryside more conducive to the active lifestyles all those SUV ads keep telling us we want.

Meanwhile, those maturing suburbs have retained many of the older, more conventional folks who don't want to move from the suburban tract houses they've spent the past few decades turning into their homes.  They've been joined by minorities who had been stuck in inner cities until the zero-interest mortgage craze hit.  Indeed, in many cities, the meltdown from the ill-conceived mortgage rush that crashed down in 2008 can be most plainly seen in neighborhoods where newly-arrived minorities purchased aging suburban homes whose original owners were moving on into the exurbs.  It remains to be seen how many of these newly-desperate suburban communities will be able to maintain the level of services earlier suburban stakeholders took for granted, now that property values have tanked.  It's a scenario eerily reminiscent of what old urban centers experienced as suburbanization originally took hold after World War II.

Hopefully, as we recover from this sub-prime mortgage mess and its ensuing Great Recession, Americans will have learned our lesson when it comes to where we decide to live, and how we want to live in our communities.  To the extent that suburbanization has evolved into something less homogeneous and fresh, will Americans who generally despise old infrastructure be willing to tolerate the aging suburbs' cracked streets, fading tract homes, and sprawling parking lots around empty shopping malls?  How innovative will we be in repurposing the structures like those shopping malls and bowling alleys that have become obsolete as technology and other trends have given society new ways of doing old things?

For better or worse, the book isn't closed on suburbia.  Not by a long shot.  And who plants flowers at the grave of somebody who isn't dead?  Therefore, taxpayers in Overland Park might want to consider spending the money some of them want to spend for a museum in ways that would aid in a sustainable repurposing of that which they want to memorialize: their own suburban hometown.  Maybe even through tax refunds, instead of more spending!  It might not be very glamorous or tourist-friendly to spend those millions of dollars on street repair, paying down debts, or buying new technology for public libraries, but suburban Overland Park, like suburbia itself, is going to be around for quite a while.  Maybe not in the same form or fashion its original developers depicted on their glossy brochures.  However, like the urban cores we're learning to appreciate, our suburban neighborhoods have now been constructed, they're part of our built environment, and we're going to have to learn how to make the best use of them for generations to come.

Like so much in life, looking to the future will hold Overland Park in better stead than spending money to commemorate a past that itself isn't over yet.

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