Wednesday, August 07, 2002

I'LL BLOG the way you're supposed to blog for a moment here and point you to "Patio Man and the Sprawl People," a Weekly Standard article by David Brooks that I found through Slate's "In Other Magazines" feature.

In an engaging piece of writing that references modern mundaniana more richly than anything else I've read, Brooks chronicles the American middle-class flight, from the old suburbs to the new suburbs and the exurbs. Although the piece is a joy to read, I came away unsure of what exactly Brooks's point was. I got the feeling that he was indicting just the kind of thing that any sensible person would describe as "nice." Sure, the big-box stores and chain restaurants are disturbingly ubiquitous. Drive through the suburbs of Phoenix and the effect is like the background of a cheaply made cartoon, with the same storefronts and landscape features repeating themselves ad loopeam.

But this is, after all, suburbia that we're talking about. The bland and crummy dime stores were replaced by the bland but better discount stores, which were replaced by the not-so-bland and better still (but, yes, disturbingly ubiquitous) big-box retailers. The independently owned but, let's face it, unreliable "Pancakes Always Open" joint evolves into Sambo's and Denny's and then the Red Lobster and then the Olive Garden and then maybe Romano's Macaroni Grill or P.F. Chang's China Bistro. The uniformity remains, but the quality improves. Is that all bad? I don't think so. I'm a city snob in many ways, but I'm not afraid to admit that I've enjoyed Outback steaks more than Morton's steaks. I haven't been to an Olive Garden in a decade or two, but I have no doubt that the chain's spaghetti marinara is the equal of any number of "authentic" neighborhood Italian joints. The new uniformity is cause for concern mainly because it's more uniform than the old uniformity, not because of anything flawed about the pieces of the suburban mosaic. As my blogging idol, James Lileks, often points out, modern convenience is underrated.

Brooks's most apt truism leaves him with a friendly-fire wound:

There is no group in America more conformist than the people who rail against suburbanites for being conformist--they always make the same critiques, decade after decade.

Brooks's most fascinating fact, to me, was this:

The biggest of these boom suburbs are huge. With almost 400,000 people, Mesa, Arizona, has a larger population than Minneapolis, Cincinnati, or St. Louis.

Mesa was where my family moved when we fled the cold and gray of the Detroit suburbs in 1979. I lived there or in a more distant Phoenix suburb, Chandler, for 10 years. And I saw Minneapolis and St. Louis on the two-week road trip my wife and I just took -- D.C. to Wyoming and back. You'll hear more about that soon enough.

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