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Friday, December 03, 2004

Loathing the suburbs and the SUV

Between reading this article in The Stranger about how the suburbs that have latched themselves onto St. Paul and Minneapolis only to then lay an assault on the city by voting Republican and listening to my boyfriend explain why he loathes SUVs but still admires the hell out of people who rebuild old gas guzzlers, I realized that in my take of the rural/urban divide I ignored the suburbs. I did it on purpose. I don't consider suburbanites to be rural people and I have no desire to defend them like I do rural people. Yes, I have hate in my heart for the 'burbs.
The most common thing you'll hear from surbanites if you ask them directly why they like the suburbs is that you get more footage for your dollar, which is how we ended up living there for a year to save money. Now I live in a smaller house, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. It's amazing now that all it takes to be considered scandously Bohemian anymore is to express a desire for a small house that's easy to clean.

But simply wanting more house for your dollar can't explain why the suburbs around Austin, at least, are so thoroughly dominated by Republicanism, assholery, and populated by Suburban Assault Vehicles like Hummers and the like. There's a definitive trend and the SUV is its symbol, which is why it's easy to hate the SUV but not hate car collectors.

For one thing, collecting and rebuilding gas-guzzlers of old isn't exactly the hobby of huge numbers of people. Its relative enviromental impact is small compared to the SUV, especially if you factor in that car collecters don't commute an hour plus everyday, spewing fumes into the air the entire time. On a symbolic level, car collectors are appreciated because they aren't followers. They know why they do what they do, and it's out of pure love for the mechanics and aesthetics of cars. Their motives are transparent and completely understandable.

The problem with the SUV is not just that it's popular or that it guzzles gas. Neither of these things really explains the rage directed towards it. To my mind, it's what it represents. It's the big, fat symbol for the resentment we urban-dwellers have towards the suburbs that article from The Stranger describes so well.

For one thing, it's a tank. Someone who drives their SUV into the city is broadcasting loud and clear that they think we're all just skeevy criminals. You sit behind one at a light with its multiple locking and alarm systems and you just know that this is the sort of car that the suburban types at work who ask you, "You really live in that neighborhood?" drive.

The sheer size of the vehicles speak volumes about the feelings of entitlement to take up space that drives people to the suburbs, too. This, more than anything, will cause many an urban-dweller who lives peacefully on top of her neighbors to go bananas. We may be paranoid, but I know a lot of urban people think that the surbanites just want to suck up all the space and resources for themselves. When I lived outside of Austin, I even noticed it waiting in line at the grocery store--people would not make space for others. The commuters that my boyfriend works with complain constantly about having to share the road with pedestrians and bicyclists, which translates out politically whenever there's a fight over more bicycle lanes and more compact car spaces. And of course, it comes out when the suburbs want more of what we consider our water and other enviromental resources. Suburban commuters in their slow-moving SUVs also create traffic problems for city-dwellers, though I can't complain too much about that as they extend my drive time from 10 minutes to 15, whereas they have an hour drive ahead of them.

The SUV also symbolizes pre-packaged, mass-marketed "individuality". Choosing between which American-made gas-guzzling tank you want is like choosing between which of the shitty chains that are all over the suburbs that you want to eat at. It's all crap. I don't think there would be so much resentment for these corporate chains if there wasn't the overriding fear that they are trying to infiltrate the cities and run your local taco stand out of business. And it's the same thing with the SUV, the fear that the commuters will eventually win and have the streets widened and everything homogenized to their benefit with a bill presented to those of us who live here.

This post is long and rambling, but I think I have a point, which is this: For all the bleating about Red and Blue America, there is a real struggle that has gotten pushed by the wayside. Urban Americans have a beef with the suburbs and our beef is real. It's not that they are stupid or religious or whatever defensive posture is being taken today. It's that we urban people really, truly don't think the suburban people can manage to find a way to leave us the fuck alone.

And this is where I think an alliance between blue urban types and red rural types can be made, to bring them back to the Democrats. It's not just helpful rural policies, though those are critical. We can make a case that we are both under assault from suburban cookie-cutterism, when all we want is to be left the fuck alone to live how we please. Urban people have a lot in common with rural and small town people. The tolerance for eccentricity. The resentment of big corporate chains running the locals out of business. The friendliness--everywhere I go in Austin, I run into friends, just like I did in Alpine. Not so in the suburbs. My city houses and my house in Alpine both had front porches and friends who actually came and went in the back door. People walk to the store in small towns and in cities. There is a cultural alliance there that's just waiting to be grabbed at.

Of course, that probably means making a common enemy of the suburbs. Which is unfortunate, but is already underway.

450 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I can totally deal with making a common enemy out of the suburbs.

I think you're dead on about the similarities between urban and rural areas. For one thing, there's the matter of dress--I would feel inconspicuous running around in a man's flannel shirt and jeans in a city, and in the country, but *not* in the suburb I grew up in. I grew up in the Suburb to End All Suburbs, and in some ways I think (though I'm horribly biased) that suburbia has the absolute worst of American culture: self-centered affluence without the cosmopolitan broad-mindedness of the urban areas, parochial attitudes without the sense of community and mutual responsibility of small rural towns, and a deep-seated desire for everything to be slick and easy and neat and conformist. One reason why I say I'll settle down in either the city or the country, but not suburbia.

-Linnet

12/03/2004

 
Blogger Anne said...

Well, if you want to avoid SUV-laden suburbs, stay far, far away from Atlanta.

Another thing -- SUV drivers have been known to cite as a reason for their purchase the fact that if they get in *coughcausecough* a wreck, they know that THEY'LL live, regardless of if "the other guy" dies. It's pure selfishness. Culture of life, indeed.

12/03/2004

 
Blogger Nyarly said...

Hey, I love your blog, but I don't think I can agree with you on this one -- I mean, SUVs? Hell yeah, I'm with you. Conflating SUV drivers with suburbanites? Not so much.

I grew up in the burbs of the one city in a mostly-rural state and now live in the burbs of the nation's capital, so I have some experience. And sure, it's true that some suburbanites -- not all -- are classist NIMBYites who drive gas-guzzlers, vote Republican, and don't care about anyone else.

So are some city-dwellers. In fact, I see more SUVs in my jaunts in DC than I do here in the burb of DC where I live, and more me-first attitude, too; I work in a second burb, where SUVs are more common, but so is left-wing voting, major support for public services (terrific libraries there), and a truly astounding network of small, well-supported charities that do real good with the paychecks of those suburbanites.

I'm not saying that there suburbs don't have their problems -- the drive-everywhere thing is certainly one of them. But not everyone lives there because they want a McMansion (for example: I live here because I can afford the rent here, unlike DC, and my parents lived in their suburb because it was the only way to get good [public] schools for me and afford a house at all -- not a big one, just a house at all). And painting all suburbs, or residents thereof, with the same brush isn't much better than calling all rural people "rednecks" or something.

And I don't even like resting my argument on "they're not ALL bad," because I think that's understating my case. I've lived in the burbs and in rural towns, and I've spent a significant portion of three years in and out of the city, and frankly, I've seen about the same amount of bullshit attitude in each place.

Anyway, again -- I love your blog, and everything in it. This piece struck a nerve, though, and I think it's a little unfair, even as I acknowledge that of course the caricature you create of suburbanites does in some cases fit -- as would the caricatures I could create of city-dwellers or residents of rural towns.

12/03/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

SUVs are potent symbols, but like many symbols, where the symbol feeds the trend. To our surburbanites who buy the SUVs, they symbolize security when they come into the city and they are a little reminder of the spaciousness back home on their commute. And that's turned them into symbols of selfishness to the city-dwellers. This trend is probably most pronounced in medium-sized cities is my guess. Atypical cities like D.C. probably have a different mix. I looked out my window and saw exactly one SUV parked in front of someone's house, and I'm pretty sure that belongs to the neighbor's boyfriend. In my old gated community (how I loathed that gate), about half the residents had SUVs.

12/04/2004

 
Blogger Roxanne said...

I just walked outside my house for a smoke (yeah, you can beat me up about the smoking later) and counted SIX SUVs on my street in NW DC.

And one of my most dismaying moments was when I returned to the states after 9/11 and saw SUVs all over the San Francisco landscape.

12/04/2004

 
Blogger zuzu said...

I don't think there would be so much resentment for these corporate chains if there wasn't the overriding fear that they are trying to infiltrate the cities and run your local taco stand out of business.Oh, don't even get me *started* on how I loathe seeing Domino's Pizza shops in NYC. Any random variation on Ray's beats them all to hell.

I live in Brooklyn, and there are a lot of SUVs here, but not the Hummer-sized ones (I think I've seen one Hummer in the past several years that didn't have New Jersey plates, and it belonged to the tremendously fat owner of a local chain of Italian ice shops). The biggest problem I have with them is that they block your sight lines when you're trying to cross the street; then again, I don't own a car, so I don't have to drive with them or try to squeeze into a parking space behind them. If I did want a gas guzzler, I would restore a Checker cab.

12/04/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Mea culpa: I was trying to suss out more what SUVs tend to represent, but I ended up talking about trends, which I'm not so good at. I still think that urbanites need to see what they have in *common* with rural people and highlight that.

12/04/2004

 
Blogger Nyarly said...

Oh, no, I'm with you on urban and rural groups having more in common than they know, and certainly I'd be all about anything that would break down the irrational fear and loathing that goes on in the divide there. I can't count the number of people here who have been amazingly condescending to me with regard to my origins (much of my home state is rural, so the fact that I'm from the burbs of a city doesn't really register with them at all, just that I must be a hick/ neophyte/ Okie of some kind). They either treat me like I'm stupid until I prove otherwise, or treat me as the exception to the "rural=stupid" RULE and congratulate me on my good fortune in "escaping" my origins...! And the people I knew from rural areas growing up weren't hostile to cities, but they did have a huge sense of being culturally and intellectually inferior -- they were afraid they couldn't ever learn how to drive in a city, that people in cities were so sophisticated they could never please them, and, to some extent, many of them were defensive toward cities for this reason, writing them off as being populated by rich people who were full of themselves.

Anything we could do to break down that division would be fine with me.

I'm just not sure the suburbs are the common enemy. I think you'd have to say "WHICH suburb" and even in many cases "which PART of which suburb?" Case in point: my hometown suburb featured a couple of McMansion sections rife with SUVs, sections like mine that were older houses with mix of middle-class professionals (teachers and so on) who probably vote Republican but also go to bat for education funding, libraries, and a lot of other quasi-liberal causes. It was mostly a conservative place -- it's a red state -- but not necessarily a "me-first" place.

Another case in point: the burbs surrounding DC, which doesn't at all strike me as an "atypical" city (compared to *what*?). Some have half-a-million-dollar houses but also grocery co-ops and a variety of other co-opy stuff and a lot of hippies or ex-hippies; some are incredibly racially diverse; some have two million dollar houses and a range of well-funded programs for education, the homeless, and the poor; some have McMansions and SUVs and chain restaurants and still went blue in the last election.

I don't think this diversity is atypical in suburbs: I think it's typical, and I think suburbs have their stuff to work on, like revitalizing their downtowns so they can depend less on mega-corporation-owned stores and restaurants, and creating community, and welcoming diversity, but I think cities need to work on affordable housing and not thinking everyone not from a city is a redneck, and rural communities need to work on diversity and education and so on....

12/04/2004

 
Blogger zuzu said...

There was an article in the NY Times recently about a very small ad that ran in an upstate newspaper's real estate section and caused a huge controversy. It was an ad offering certain downtown buildings for sale or lease, but not to artists or certain other businesses that would "change the character" of downtown.

Turns out it was planted by a NYC artist who'd bought up the buildings and apparently wanted to preserve the town in amber, while other similar abandoned mill towns were undergoing a revitalization thanks to artists and weekenders. The locals were pretty much pissed, because for them, keeping things as they were meant fewer jobs and fewer opportunities. There's a fine balance that needs to be preserved, and it helps to be more than a short trip out of the city to keep it from tipping into Yuppie Weekend Retreat, but these towns do benefit from the infusion of cash that a certain level of engagement with the city can offer.

Another good thing for rural communities somewhat near a good-sized city or suburb, particularly in areas where there are family farms losing the fight to retain their land, is community-supported agriculture. City dwellers get good, fresh, organic food and the farmers get seed money. It's definitely a good idea to encourage these kinds of urban-rural partnerships, since they're communities with common issues and with common interests, as well as interdependent.

12/04/2004

 
Blogger mythago said...

The real problem with SUVs is that they are under a loophole; they meet environmental standards as "light trucks," are sold as passenger vehicles, but do not have to follow the rules for trucks (such as keeping to 55 in the slow lane).

12/04/2004

 
Blogger Eric V said...

The biggest problem with suburbs is that they are often seen as the pinnacle of human evolution especially by those who don't believe in evolution in the 1st place. Any yet , once the price of gas hits a certain level , they will no longer be viable. Thus the reason why so many of the McMansion-SUV set voted for Bush is that he is the one seen to be the most likely to be willing to do whatver it takes , to kill however many towelheads and others as necessary to sustain that lifestyle.

12/05/2004

 
Blogger Roxanne said...

I've never ever lived in a suburb, but in my mind, based on visiting friends and relatives, suburbs=cars.

You have to drive to the market and restaurants and the dry-cleaners, etc.

12/05/2004

 
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12/06/2004

 
Blogger Kyria said...

I think a lot of people move to the suburbs when they have children: more room, better public schools, etc. Many of them seem a little obsessed with protecting the nest, as if they could somehow child-proof the universe; this accounts for the suburbs' mind-numbing tedium.

Which brings us to the SUV: not only does it give the illusion of greater safety, but it can hold a lot of people. My dear sister, who lives in the suburbs, has four kids, two big dogs and a husband loath to buy a car that doesn't hold the entire family. (I sometimes think he wants to be prepared to flee with everyone should it become necessary.)

They have three SUVs. Though I understand one is actually a "van." But what do I know? In my skeevy urban neighborhood, if you drive an SUV, chances are good that you are a skeevy criminal.

12/06/2004

 
Blogger lawrence krubner said...

The suburbs are more heavily subsidized than the cities, therefore it is rational for people trying to accumulate wealth to move to the suburbs. For that reason, people in the suburbs will have certain traits in common. They are not necessarily conformist, but there is a kind of conformity that arises naturally when your goal in life is to accumlate wealth and build security.

The subsidies poured into the suburbs take many forms. There is the construction of transportation infrastrucutre, which is much less efficient in the suburbs when compared to city living. A dense city like New York can build an awesome subway system and back it up with a good bus system. On its peak day in 1946 the New York City subway system carried 16 million passengers (that was the height of the demobilization, when the troops were coming home. Isn't it sad that the peak day was almost 60 years ago?). The suburbs are, be definition, less dense than the city, therefore they can not be serviced with efficient mass transit. Instead, expensive roads must be built to cater to people's use of automobiles. This is a quiet kind of subsidy. (Incidentally, anyone who drives a car to work and play has no room to criticize SUVs. The economic and environmental impact of all cars, small and large, are similar, especially when compared to any form of mass transit.)

More obvious forms of subsidy include organizations like Fanny Mae. Back in the 1950s and 60s the subsidy of housing loans amounted to all-out war against cities. New single-family homes on separate lots recieved preferred treatement. Only in the 1970s and 1980s were these subsidies reformed, allowing some guaranteed loans to inner-city condos. Not so remarkably, the end of America's "urban crisis" co-incides pretty well with the broadening of this subsidy to include the cities.

But still, the suburbs remain the most heavily subsizided region of American living. Therefore, it is often rational for people to go there. Only if you have a strong preference for some other kind of living can you justify resisting the billions and billions in subsidies that otherwise bribe you to move there.


"I think a lot of people move to the suburbs when they have children: more room, better public schools, etc. Many of them seem a little obsessed with protecting the nest, as if they could somehow child-proof the universe; this accounts for the suburbs' mind-numbing tedium."

Yes, when you're single you can justify living in a city, at a lower standard of living, than what you could get in the suburbs, but once you have kids, the attitude of many is, "How can I do this to my children?" Of course, our cities would be nicer if they received more of the subsidies that the suburbs get. Look at Europe for some comparisons.

12/15/2004

 
Blogger lawrence krubner said...

"SUVs are potent symbols, but like many symbols, where the symbol feeds the trend. To our surburbanites who buy the SUVs, they symbolize security when they come into the city and they are a little reminder of the spaciousness back home on their commute. And that's turned them into symbols of selfishness to the city-dwellers."

Alex Marshall has a great bit in his book "How Cities Work" about people use SUVs mostly to drive in the cities, even though they are marketed mostly with appeal to the fantasy of rugged outdoor terrain. If urban issues interest you in the least, you should read his weblog.
The Austin Chronicle reviewed his work as it applied to Austin.

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The U.S. Government is the nation's largest provider of financial assistance to women & minority owned small businesses. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is Congressionally mandated to assist the nation’s small businesses in meeting their financing needs. The SBA has small business loan programs and services to meet most small business needs. More information on U.S. Government Small Business Loans can be found at **www.SBASmallBusinessLoans.com**

How do Government SBA Small Business Loans work?

When a small business owner applies to a lending institution for a business loan, the lender reviews the application and decides if it merits a busiuness loan or if it requires an SBA guaranty. SBA backing on the business loan is then requested by the lender. In guaranteeing the business loan, the SBA assures the lender that, in the event the borrower does not repay the loan, the government will reimburse the lender for its loss. By providing this guaranty, the Small Business Administration helps tens of thousands of small business owners get financing they would not otherwise obtain.

How much money can I borrow?

Here are a few examples of what you can get from SBA small business loans programs:

7(a) Loan Guaranty Program

The 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program is the SBA's primary small business loan program. A maximum loan amount of $2 million has been established for 7(a) business loans.

Low Documentation Loan (SBALowDoc)

SBALowDoc is the SBA’s quick and easy program that provides a guaranty on small business loans of $150,000 or less. Once you have met your lender’s requirements for credit, the lender may request an SBALowDoc guaranty for up to 85 percent of the loan amount. You complete the front of a one-page SBA application, and the lender completes the back. At SBALowDoc centers, the agency processes completed applications within 36 hours.

SBAExpress

This method makes it easier and faster for lenders to provide small business loans of $250,000 or less. The SBA provides a rapid response through its PLP processing center in Sacramento, Calif.— within 36 hours of receiving the complete application package. Lenders use their own procedures to approve and service the loans.

CommunityExpress

The CommunityExpress pilot program is designed to spur economic development and job creation in untapped rural and inner city communities by providing loans and technical assistance. Loan proceeds may be used for most business purposes, including start-up, expansion, equipment purchases, working capital, inventory or real-estate acquisitions.
To be eligible for CommunityExpress, current or prospective small businesses must be located in low- and moderate-income urban and rural areas.

While CommunityExpress is similar to SBAExpress, here are some differences:

• CommunityExpress focuses on predesignated geographic areas that primarily low- and moderate-income urban and rural areas.

• The maximum loan amount under CommunityExpress is $250,000.

• CommunityExpress lenders, together with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, provide hands-on technical training and support, both before and after loan closings, through community-based, nonprofit NCRC member organizations.

7(m) Microloan Program

The SBA’s Microloan Program provides very small loans up to $35,000 to small businesses and not-for-profit child-care centers through a network of locally based intermediary lenders. In addition to making the loans, the intermediaries provide management and technical assistance to microborrowers and potential microborrowers.

What can I use the loan proceeds for?

You can use an SBA small business loan to:

• expand or renovate facilities;
• purchase machinery, equipment, fixtures and leasehold improvements;
• finance receivables and augment working capital;
• refinance existing debt (with compelling reason);
• finance seasonal lines of credit;
• construct commercial buildings; and/or
• purchase land or buildings.

How do I repay the loan?

The length of time for repayment depends on the use of the loan proceeds and the ability of your small business to repay the loan.The term is usually 5 to 10 years for working capital, and up to 25 years for fixed assets such as the purchase or major renovation of real estate or purchase of equipment. There are no balloon payments, prepayment penalties, application fees or points permitted with these small business loans. Repayment plans may be tailored to each individual small business.

How do I get started?

You submit a business loan application to a lender for initial review. If the lender approves the business loan subject to an SBA guaranty, a copy of the loan application and a credit analysis are forwarded by the lender to the nearest SBA office. After SBA approval, the lending institution closes the business loan and disburses the funds; you make monthly loan payments directly to the lender. As with any loan, you are responsible for repaying the full amount of the loan. Visit **www.SBASmallBusinessLoans.com** for more info.

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