Suburbia is a tragically simple target for criticism. Its characterization as meek, quiet, and spiritually desolate is only slightly more flattering than what is often the reality: a crass, de-citified bedroom community for a chicer urban center. In fact, suburban life is the target of odium the country over, since it seems to spawn an insubordinate brand of child, a restive, troubled youth whom delves into pastimes too deeply: for instance, everyone skateboards, but suburban kids believe in skateboarding. Everyone likes Sublime, but suburban kids venerate Sublime. Everyone enjoys a trip to the city, but suburban kids worship the city.
Most of all, suburbia is a culture of hallowed tribesmen and much-ballyhooed TV shows. There is a discernable, peculiar type of suburban self-effacement, in which suburban youth overlook themselves in favor of unattainable, preposterous abstractions of someone else’s life. In lieu of their own, these kids tell the war stories of siblings, cousins, friends, enemies—someone, anyone else. To borrow equine imagery, these horses mount a carrot in front of themselves, insistent upon basking in, and suffering from, others’ unattainable gains. There is no personal satisfaction other than what another has achieved. The anomie and purposelessness that plague each individual stands in stark contrast to the idolization of another, such that an entire social society is constructed in which many individuals think themselves inconsequential and everyone else eminent. Personal quiescence, even for a moment, cannot be.
At its worst, moreover, the psychological refrain for suburban kids is, “We are so alone—and no matter what we do, the TV has to go off eventually.” If my passions weren’t just as regrettable, and if I hadn’t been reared on The Simpsons and Just Shoot Me, I’d condemn everybody. But not only would that be rather insensitive, it’s also unnecessary; having grown up in a suburb myself, I am present to the censures that those with whom I grew up piled on themselves. Even if further rebuke was called for (and it’s not), it could never match the hand-wringing that goes along with the guilt and the “I shouldn’t be this way” that dominates the hearts and minds of kids who live inside a white picket fence and enjoy 1.5 siblings.
Limiting misery and discontent to suburban neighborhoods is a misguided, mistaken generalization. So too is eliminating the perfectly happy and content citizens who hail from the ‘burbs. But there is simply too much evidence—with myself and others as living, testifying primary sources—to discount the sobering emptiness that clouds over an empty suburban street at 11 at night, devoid of people and cars, the houses dark and their doors locked. It’s chilling, if not stupefying. How could a place be so emphatically joyless? How could it could be that the only place scarier than the forsaken street is inside one of those noiseless houses, where dogma and workaday pragmatism masquerade as warmth and joviality?
Stay Somber, Suburban Streets