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Disappearing in America

Tropes and theTruth

Jessamyn Miller Design Seminar I December 1, 2010


t didn’t start to hurt until I was about 14 years old. Before then, I played with my sister, brother and the neighborhood kids every afternoon until dusk. We’d run freely in the woods behind our house and poke at the edges of the nearby drainage “pond” looking for minnows. We climbed trees, swung on the tire swing, and shot hoops in the cul-de-sac. Rolling Woods, the name of our new suburban housing development, was a proud marker of success for my parents. I remember my aunt and grandmother coming to admire the new kitchen cabinets and beige carpets when we moved in. I first noticed the tinge of unease on weekends, when I began wanting to see friends from school. I couldn’t walk to anyone’s house, as my friends lived miles away in their own suburbs. Sometimes I’d turn on my Walkman and roam the looped streets alone, jogging on the edge of the asphalt. My friends and I would call each other and ask, “What shall we do?” With little money, no driver’s license, and no destination, I was often left feeling anxious. Teen restlessness swelled into small bouts of madness. With nowhere to socialize and simply “be” with my peers, I began to push at the edges of my confinement. I sometimes snuck out of the house, and performed a few worrisome acts, until finally, at 18, I escaped to college.

My ten childhood years in the Rolling Woods subdivision left me with a strong, unanswered need to feel part of something—to have some sense of community to which I belonged. Despite the hundreds of households around me, I was often lonely. Did my beautiful suburban neighborhood fail me? Why were my friends so far away?

Fig. 1 Tightly packed suburban homes

Fig. 2 Unfinished neighborhood with two homes

What was the truth behind my parents’ and my own feelings about our home and the neighborhood we were a part of? To explore Kenneth Burke’s Four Master Tropes, I’ve selected a series of images representing suburban America—at its most extreme. Attached are pictures of neighborhoods, homes and living rooms pulled from two blogs, and Both bloggers have offered up their critiques of suburban sprawl, the financial housing crisis, and the indelible mark we are leaving on our own American landscape. These photographs will serve for my discussion of the tropes both as documentation of the work of designers, (architects and builders), and as vehicles for storytelling for our bloggers. The images in the left column (Fig. 1, 3, 5) show complete, more or less ideal settlements of people living in suburbs. The right-hand column of photos (Fig. 2, 4, 6) shows corresponding scenes of failure in the suburban community: an unfinished neighborhood, a lawn crowded with vehicles and the living room of a vandalized, foreclosed home. Burke explains metaphor as a “device for seeing something in terms of something else.” Using metaphor, we may use the perspective of these images to observe the reality of a community. In Fig. 1 we see the geometric lines and curves of a large suburban neighborhood from an aerial perspective. One semi-anonymous blog commenter, Anty, sums up the photo in a single word. “Ants.” Why are neighborhoods built this way? When we look at the photos, we see circles, squares, and squiggles—clearly the urban planner is having fun coming up with original ways to lay out a new neighborhood. No boring grids here. But what does it reveal about the people living in these neighborhoods? The repetitive nature of the housing, one identical rooftop after another, suggests we are comforted by the conformity of the development—no house really stands above the rest. The designer is consciously using a tight network of streets to create a sense of close-knit community. The same-sized homes signify continuity and equality among its residents.

It is only when we compare a partially complete community (Fig. 2) that reality hits us— this dream neighborhood is a business investment. Magnifying the rush to over-develop new housing projects, the two houses alone in a swath of un-built, cleared land show us the truth. Planned communities are more profit-driven than based on the needs of

Fig. 3 Oversized car in oversized driveway

Fig. 4 Multiple oversized cars parked in a yard

families, and their existence depends on the flux of the economy. Through this pair of images, we have a clearer perspective on the nature of the housing market as a whole. Our next trope in play is metonymy, or “poetic realism.” Burke writes, “The basic ‘strategy’ in metonymy is this: to convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible.” The blush of a cheek could embody the broader emotion of shame, for example. Let’s take a look at our suburban home in Fig. 3. In the hands of an architect, housing plans for this type of neighborhood are pared down to handful of styles. This typical stucco rancher features an oversized doorway and triple garage—immediate identifiers of wealth in the suburban scene. Even the extra large tires on the pickup truck suggest luxury—in spite of the fact that the flattened, asphalted terrain will never require such power to navigate. This house, like countless others, is the reduction of one bragging right: disposable income. Its inflated sizes reflect the trend of adding extra space for the sake of show. By taking an ordinary commodity and enlarging it, the designer has conveyed that this is a luxury product. Our bloggers notice the same phenomenon in Fig. 4. Two oversized cars are parked in front of a smaller, older home than the newer stucco rancher. While these cars were probably designed in the last 15 years, the house most certainly predates them by at least a decade. Pointing fun at homeowners who have dwarfed their tiny front yard with vehicles, the photo contrasts the super-sized scale of today with the smaller scale of yesterday. In this scene of a house and cars, we see a metonymy of the concept of modern consumer excess. Together, these images of varying scale offer us a visual synecdochic relationship of modern life in the suburbs. “The noblest synecdoche,” Burke writes, “is found in… the identity of ‘microcosm’ and ‘macrocosm.’” We can look at the typical comfy, if not shabby, living room in Fig. 5 and know that we are looking at an average American household. In the entertainment center, the plush armchair and the lineup

of three remote controls, we associate the room with a modest home like Fig. 4, in a neighborhood like Fig. 1. After all, one of the appeals of suburban housing—carpeted floors, few stairs, large rooms—is that one can stretch out and relax. The positioning of the furniture around the television alludes to the type of entertainment most enjoyed

Fig. 5 Suburban living room

Fig. 6 Graffiti in a foreclosed home.

in these homes. The accumulation of tchotchkes, dolls and family photos signal a “lived in” real home. The recognizable household objects in the room reflect the sameness and conformity found in the view of street from above. A “synecdochically related pair,” this unexceptional living room reflects the wholeness of its larger surrounding suburb, in spite of its many personal touches. We recognize irony in our discussion of the suburbs in Fig. 6. A recently built, foreclosed home is left vacant, then vandalized. A once-luxurious space has been forcefully abandoned and becomes waste. The blogger who posted this image is using Burke’s definition of irony to offer a perspective on the consequences of the swift rise and fall of housing values. “True irony, humble irony” Burke writes, “is based on a sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, as one needs him, is indebted to him.” The story of the suburbs told in these photos shows a community created based on the belief in the American dream—that everyone could own a home. Designers and builders began strong, but eventually struggled to sustain the pace as the economy soured. As half-finished communities deteriorated and prices dropped, critics blamed the rapid creation of the suburbs themselves for the collapse of the housing market. Burke concludes, “We may make such prophecy more precise, with the help of irony, in saying that the developments that led to the rise will, by the further course of their development, ‘inevitably’ lead to the fall.” While not all suburban neighborhoods are doomed, desire for the symbolic stucco rancher has fallen, as the aggressive response to fill that need ultimately cheapened the dream of well being behind it. Beyond the suburb, future approaches to housing must continue to strive to satisfy human needs for home, community and a sense of belonging. Image sources:

Disappearing in America: Tropes and the Truth  

It didn’t start to hurt until I was about 14 years old. Before then, I played with my sister, brother and the neighborhood kids every aftern...