The Suburb

    The term “suburb” was first coined by the US Census Bureau to designate an area that had economic ties to a city, but was outside of its geographic limits. Since then the concept has taken on more weight and meaning as the population of the US considered suburban has overtaken that of the urban and rural combined (Harvard Law Review Association, 2003). Despite the fact that this spatial designation apparently defines the living space of so many Americans, the concept of the suburb is still very much abstract in academic circles, representing a geographic anomaly. “The literature on suburbs is extensive”, claims Hinchcliffe, “yet the subject always seems elusive. For some the suburbs is a geographic place; for others, a cultural form; while for others still it is a state of mind” (Hinchcliffe, 2005). Some attribute the suburb's loss of locational identification to mobility: “The suburbs were essentially constructed for those who were able to move, marketed for those who were willing to do so, and defined by the hyper-mobile who were eager to escape the city before anyone else” (Harvard Law Review Association, 2003). The sudden prevalence of the automobile in a way created a new concept of space that was more diffused than ever before. A new landscape was defined where goods and commodities did not have to be available by foot and thus made mobility a requirement of everyday life (Harvard Law Review Association, 2003). In this way everything in a suburb has less emphasis on physical locality, most importantly in regards to community. “Commodification renders the concept of one's community relatively static; existing before a resident's presence and to be chosen and abandoned based on preference alone” (Harvard Law Review, 2003). Residents in a suburban neighborhood, then, are less inclined to define themselves and their culture by place, allowing them the ability to pick and choose friends and acquaintances across space to such a degree that a social network is formed.

                            Figure A: The neighborhood in 'Edward Scissorhands' as a representation of the dramatized homogeneous suburban lifestyle

    A lack of traditional cultural meaning that is strongly attributed to place has allowed for the view of the suburb as “an earthly limbo”, to arise: “It is the perceived insubstantiality of suburbia, devoid of culture and aesthetic value so that the very absence of signification becomes a haunting presence” (Webster, 2000). The fact that identity is not as ingrained in the landscape contributes then to the “heavily stylized vacuity of suburban life” (Vaughan et al, 2009) that we see in visual mass media interpretations of the suburb. One example of this is the depiction of the suburban neighborhood in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (as seen in Figure A): all the houses and cars are alike, down to their pastel color scheme, and all the lawns seem to connect in one sea monochrome green. This visual interpretation of the suburban landscape is also diffused into the perceived homogeneous and meaningless lifestyle of suburbanites. As the Harvard law review claims: “the suburb only exists as an unlived space, outside of experience and devoid of history...socially these communities have neither history, tradition, nor established structure, no inherited customs, institutions, socially important families or big houses...” (Harvard Law Review, 2003). The goal of this paper, then, is to disprove claims like these. By mapping out the culture of the suburban settings that I study I will create a descriptive concept of the cultural geography of Bellevue and Redmond that will help to anchor the abstract concept of suburbia to a real physical example of suburban space.

Works Cited:

Hinchcliffe, T. "Elusive Suburbs Endless Variation." Journal of Urban History 39. (2005): pp 899-906. Web. 5 May 2010.

"Locating the Suburb." Harvard Law Review Association Vol 117. (2004): pp 2003-2022. Web. 1 May 2010.

Webster, R. Expanding Suburbia: reviewing suburban narratives. New York: Berghahn Books, 2000.