Motormouth Maybelle: If we get any more white people in here, this is gonna be a suburb.
Suburbia in the United States is connoted by multifarious popular representations. The harsh representations of suburbia where ruthless homogeneity reigns are particularly evident in Edward Scissorhands (1990), one of Tim Burton’s earlier cinematographic works. In this movie, Burton powerfully belittles the conforming aspirations of middle-class America and challenges the ‘naff’ confirming order of suburbia by introducing the strange character of Edward Scissorhands to the residents of a street of perfectly lined up and candy coloured houses.
The rat race of the American dream contained in the achievement of accessing and maintaining home-ownership in the ‘tranquility’ of suburbia remains a recurrent theme in popular culture. Besides, its apparent homogeneity and blandness, suburbia presents an ideal setting for out of the ordinary events: the arrival of an extra-terrestrial creature in E.T (1982); disturbing ghosts in Poltergeist (1982). The television series Desperate Housewives (8 seasons between 2004-2011) is particularly efficient at using sometimes incongruous and often mysterious happenings to uncover with exaggeration what lies behind the facades.
When visiting the United States, I am always fascinated by what lies behind these popular representations. This section is a collection of photographs I took in Mira Mesa, a suburb situated in the North East of San Diego in Southern California.
The suburbs of ‘white flight’ (cf quote above) are now changing and Mira Mesa is one of the striking examples of this change. Mira Mesa has seen in recent years a growing population of Asian-American residents making this suburb their home.
The first set of pictures was taken in an area of Mira Mesa where the houses were built in the 1980s.
What is particularly interesting here is the fact that the houses are all extremely individualised despite the standardised architecture. The presentation of the self (Goffman, 1959) is extended to the way the front of the house is arranged and decorated translating the owner’s individuality.
Homogeneity is more evident in the second set of pictures, also taken in Mira Mesa, featuring ‘cookie-cutter houses’ built more recently. The expression is particularly telling of how the suburban landscape is perceived as homogeneous. But homogeneity does not necessarily means homogenisation. This will be a running point of investigation throughout my travels in suburbia.
Overall, what is particularly noticeable in American suburbia is the ubiquitous presence of cars in the streets and on the driveways as part and parcel of the house. The garage, the double garage, is rarely used for its initial intended purpose of parking cars. Instead, it becomes an extension of the living area. However, it remains a standard feature of houses of all styles and ages translating the status value that it expresses.
Goffman, E (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Harmondsworth: The Penguin Press