Photo by Lenna. Welcome to my living room. 🙂
Update: Apparently a “suburb” in America is somewhat different from what a “suburb” is in many European countries. America is a big country. Suburbs may be way out in the former cow pastures, disconnected from any sort of public transportation. Many “suburbs” in the UK for example, look urban to me, so not everything here will necessarily apply, or even make, sense to people outside the US.
For the last few years, I’ve been proselytizing in favor of renting over buying a home. I insisted I was a renter for life, and would most certainly never again buy a house.
“Never say never” is a maxim that hasn’t sunk in with me. I bought a house. In my defense, it takes a long time for me to get to know myself.
You’d think if I hated the suburbs, *I* would be the first to know.
Yet, even after I recognized my distaste, I misdiagnosed the problem. The cure, I thought, was to rent, and at first, it seemed wonderful. Somewhere along the way, I figured out it’s not home ownership I hate. It’s suburbia.
Escape from Suburbia
I’ve abandoned suburbia and now live in the heart of downtown. No longer must I hop in the car to go absolutely everywhere. I can take a short walk to coffee houses, ice cream parlors, restaurants, and shops. I’ll choose a short stroll down tree-lined streets over stop-and-go driving along a choked freeway any day.
Like all great neighborhoods, mine was established before the advent of the horseless carriage. This neighborhood was built for people, not cars. This neighborhood was established before absolutely every good business executive realized the sole, ultimate goal of any for-profit enterprise is to Maximize Shareholder Equity.
Maximizing Shareholder Equity
We learned that first and foremost in graduate school. No matter what a company says, the ultimate goal is to Maximize Shareholder Equity, and don’t you forget it, dear students. Profit, profit, profit! Even those lofty-sounding “Give Back to Our Community!” campaigns have a measurable Return on Investment that traces back to the company’s bottom line.
You don’t have to think too hard to see how this profit-maximizing-at-all-costs mentality might impact society. Profitability is not a good measure of Quality of Life. Thank you, Captain Obvious? Except that reality is remarkably easy to miss.
On one side of my house sits a larger, more expensive sandstone salt-box with gorgeous bright-colored flourishes and lovely gardens. On the other side is a tiny, run-down hovel of indistinct architectural style, perhaps on the verge of being condemned by the city. The picture window in my dining room offers a view of their junk-strewn carport so unpleasant, I’ve commissioned a local artisan to create a custom piece of stained-glass. A lovely splash of color to obscure the view.
If we were in suburbia, that eyesore next door would seriously dent the value of my house. In suburbia, that eyesore probably wouldn’t have been built in the first place, and in an odd way, that would have been a tragedy. A victory for bland conformity over the haphazard joys of rebelling against contrived “perfection.”
Here in this little town, a million dollar mansion can sit next to a hovel. Everyone commingles with everyone, rich and poor. But this is prime real estate, on a wooded hill near a park, at the edge of an established, well-respected private university, a 10-minute walk from the center of town. A modern developer would never allow this eclectic mix to tarnish the lucrative monotony of a “planned community.”
Someone like me would come in and do an analysis to ___________. Do you remember what goes in the blank? That’s right: Maximize Shareholder Equity.
Halfway To An MBA
A price point would be set for the land, which might be divided into “phases,” or areas placed along a development timeline. The choicest land would be sold to affluent buyers whose selection of homes would be limited by tight deed restrictions. Half million dollar McMansions would grace this choice land.
Less idyllic parcels would be allocated to more modest homes. That bit of flat, rather ugly turf, girded by railroad tracks and a trailer park? That’s for the “affordable” homes and apartments we’ll throw up as an afterthought, when the other, more profitable phases are complete.
What respectable MBA would allow choice land to be “wasted” on “affordable” homes? That sort of gross “misallocation” would be a crime against Michael Douglas, Social Darwinism, and the very core principles of our beloved American-style laissez-faire capitalism. Unless you’re some sort of commie-pinko-loving socialist, you recognize it’s only right to parcel land in such a way, with our ultimate goal in mind: __________. If you remember what goes in the blank, you’re halfway to an MBA.
Suburbia is the kind of place only a developer could love. Sure people throw down hundreds of thousands on their cookie-cutter, 5-bedroom American dreams, but do they really love them?
On the weekends the inhabitants escape suburbia in droves and flock to our small town. They stroll through the farmer’s market, meander through novel shops, and sample the local cuisine. Does it ever occur to them that they could simply move here? Do they really prefer their McMansion to a turn-of-the-century, graceful Italianate beauty two blocks from the town square?
Greed is NOT Good
A lot of my friends do the same work I do, and they like to help me with my calculus. A house is not an appropriate impulse buy, some warned. You might not get your money back out of this place when it comes time to sell. Didn’t you notice that dump next door? What were you thinking? Were you thinking?
I don’t care. This is not about Maximizing Homeowner Profit. Just this once, well-meaning friends, please leave the analytics at the office. This is about the Quality of Life. This modest little bungalow is about love.
It was the 1980s when Michael Douglas announced that “greed is good” in the Hollywood blockbuster “Wall Street.” And that was 20 years after the revolutionary changes brought about in the 1960s. We’re now more than a half a century into this Grand Social Experiment.
When I get to thinking about this, I really miss my mom. This was the kind of thing we used to discuss over coffee and vanilla bean scones. We concluded that American culture had peaked in the mid to late 1950s and the only worthwhile social changes that had taken place since we’re in the realm of civil rights.
The racism we can leave behind. Good riddance, but what about the good stuff we’ve lost along the way?
What Really Happened?
Was it the advent of the horseless carriage or the invention of the idiot box that put us on this trajectory? Was it the invention of “free love” and the birth control pill that culminated in the Sexual Revolution? Perhaps it was the profit-maximizing labor scheme that masqueraded as “feminism.” Or did we reach the point of no return much later, under the auspices of unabashed greed and rapid technological advancement? What is the role of globalization, labor arbitrage, and the burgeoning popularity of social media?
Does this sort of discussion interest you? If so, then I wish you were here. I’d take you for coffee and vanilla bean scones. My mother would be with us in spirit.
McCulture is profitable and soul-sucking. Humans can be irrational and the results can be bad. When we’re calculating and rational, the results are often far worse.
My purchase of this modest little bungalow is a rude, fierce rebellion against McCulture and everything it stands for. A rebellion against contrived “perfection and uniformity, against classism and urban sprawl. I commute across town to an upscale suburban office park and play cog to big wheels, finding ways sacrifice everything wholesome, decent and charming on the altar of profit maximization.
When I leave the office, I take refuge in the vintage charm of my 1920s era bungalow, a traditional hallmark of the working class, and marvel at the paradox: I’ve spent my career helping to create McWorld, yet it’s the last place I want to live.