House Hunting | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

House Hunting

Meditations on the Suburban Dream

by

comment

Close to Naperville, but far from ordinary . . . --advertisement

Coffee and the Trib home section, Saturday morning at the Cambridge House. The home sections of the weekend papers, though dubious as journalism, are superb as sociology, perfect texts for a disquisition on lust among the middle class that proceeds from interdependent premises:

Regular is better than decaffeinated.

The truth in a newspaper is mostly in its ads.

The superficial can be profitably studied in depth.

People are what they want, and what Americans want more than anything is single-family detached houses--the American dream house, everyman's castle, standing on its own plot of ground amid houses just like it, with an unobstructed view of the neighbor's equity.

Builders have not been selling new houses by the hundred in Du Page and Lake counties because they are among the fastest-growing counties in the nation; they are among the fastest-growing U.S. counties because hundreds of new houses are being built there.

Getting a house is why people move to big cities; getting a house is why they eventually leave. The history of Chicago can best be understood in terms of closet space.

The subdivision house is more than shelter. It embodies a worldview: how each generation's homes are built reveals a great deal about how that generation sees nature, community, family. For that reason, the American subdivision house has always interested anthropologists more than architects.

The essentials of the standard subdivision house sold around Chicago have changed little in the last century and a quarter. New building materials and mechanical systems have modernized those houses physically, but socially they function much as they always have. They offer today's upwardly mobile family the same mishmash of architectural details, the same status mongering, and the same promise of a safe haven from a trying world.

The 1950s house offered refuge to a generation that grew up with depression and war; the catchwords were "cozy" and "snug," and every house of any ambition had a "den" and a breakfast "nook." The 1990s house by contrast is devoted as much to show as to security. The rich may have invented pretension, but the middle class made it popular. "Owning a custom crafted Kennedy home," promises one ad, "says how you want to live." More accurately, it says how you want to be seen to live. The ads sizzle with words such as "dramatic" and "exciting." People don't live in today's new houses, they act out roles in them. Inner rewards are not for Chicagoland's upwardly mobile; when they get it, they want to flaunt it.

The U.S. family may be getting smaller, but its houses keep getting bigger. The square footage of the typical new house in the United States doubled between 1950 and 1975 and seems on the way to doubling again: the average new house sold in this country lately has been about 2,000 square feet, which is at least twice the living area of an apartment in a typical city two-flat. The Trib's home-section staff looked at five of the area's top-selling house models and reported that they averaged more than 2,600 square feet. Some of the pricier models being advertised--and keep in mind that these are mass-produced tract houses, not custom-built mansions--are pushing 4,000 feet.

In Cary, you can buy a house called Casa Grande. Americans have always found pretension more palatable when it is expressed in a foreign language. Nearby you can buy models with names like the Dorchester. That's "big house" in Episcopalian.

The commodity being most conspicuously consumed these days is space. Those average house sizes would be even more imposing if we measured houses by volume instead of floor area. The vaulted ceiling (also advertised as the volume or cathedral ceiling) is quickly becoming standard. More than one-quarter of the ads in last year's Tribune's "Spring Festival of Homes" supplement specifically mentioned a tall room as a selling point.

Builders like the vaulted ceiling because it can make a small house seem larger. They first became popular in California in the 1970s, when the costs of land and money forced builders to offer houses with fewer than 1,000 square feet at prices that made it essential that they look much bigger than that.

Its appeal is obvious; or rather, its appeal is its obviousness. What better way to show off than to convert expensive space, which in lesser houses might be used for kids' bedrooms, into a foyer that will impress every mail carrier, vote canvasser, and Jehovah's Witness who comes to call? "Good things come in big packages too," says one ad. "We've spared no expanse," says another.

The vaulted ceiling certainly creates an impression. It also creates a space that is awkward to use, expensive to heat, and difficult to keep clean. In one of Chicago's more anonymous western suburbs, you can buy a tract house that features a cramped balcony overlooking the vaulted living room. While the balcony adds a specious sort of drama to the room, it offers no privacy for intimate conversation, and would be too noisy to serve as a refuge from any party that might be going on below. Indeed, it offers no advantage beyond providing the cruel-minded a perspective from which to check on the progress of their friends' bald spots.

The vast whiteness of the vaulted rooms--they are virtually always painted white--can be so intimidating that architects and decorators of model houses typically install ledges or shelves to interrupt what would otherwise be a glacial expanse of wallboard. In one of Hoffman Homes' new models, a book-filled ledge spans the very tall living-room walls that flank the fireplace. Suburban readers may not be thought to have elevated taste in books, but some of them have elevated books.

The big room in Chasemoor, Burr Ridge, is shown with a stag's head high upon the wall. It's the icon of the retrograde English-squire life-style and is thus assumed to be popular among the executive class. Live deer are already part of the decor of Chicago suburbs--this one probably died when a vice president backed over it in the driveway as he left for the office. How many deer will die before the vaulted-ceiling fad has run its course?

Pasquinelli Builders advertises a vaulted-ceiling living room with a sofa-size painting on the wall, above which--maybe ten feet off the floor--is a bric-a-brac shelf. Above it is displayed a hunting horn.

If it's hard to find cleaning help willing to do windows in the remoter suburbs, how hard must it be to find someone willing to rappel down a wall from a chandelier to dust that shelf?

The midwestern middle class has always preferred traditional houses, as long as they derive from the traditions of some other place. The first big fad in the last century was houses in the Greek Revival style, which was followed by a Gothic revival. As World War I approached, U.S. suburbs were swept by architectural riot; there are streets in places like Oak Park where you can see French mansard, Italianate, Queen Anne, shingle style, and Romanesque-revival houses within a single block. In the 1920s so-called period houses were the rage: knockoff English cottages, Spanish haciendas, and New England farmhouses--only bigger--that incorporated the latest in interior design and appliances. In the 1950s and '60s all gave way to the ubiquitous postwar split-level ranch house and the third--or was it the fourth?--generation of the colonial house.

Conundrum after conundrum. Is a "colonial" house a house built--or reminiscent of a house that was built--in the pre-1776 United States (many of which were Georgian or Spanish)? Or a house built in a style that evolved in the colonies, such as the Federal? Or is it whatever real estate agents say it is, which means any house built in this century or the last that is decorated with Palladian windows, doors with broken pediments, or silly shutters that wouldn't cover the windows they adorn even if they worked, which they don't?

In the first case, "colonial" has a historical meaning; in the second, an architectural meaning; and in the third, its meaning derives from marketing convention. The colonial house is chop suey, network TV, George Bush. It is the single most popular style of house in the United States, apparently because it reminds the status-anxious lower middle class of the houses rich people live in. In a real red-blooded country such houses would be burned down, not imitated.

New England borrowed its models of domestic architecture from Italy via England, California borrowed from Spain via Mexico, and Illinois just borrowed from other parts of the United States. The houses of Illinois' first European settlers were stone cottages built by Vermonters, or brick houses in the Federal style imported by merchants from the east, or French-style plantation houses.

Like the people who lived in them, the immigrant subdivision houses interbred and created hybrids that are indisputably--and indescribably--American. The Cape Cod saltbox for instance has degenerated until it bears no more resemblance to the original than a journalist who becomes a TV anchorperson. Today it is a generic house, a mere simulacrum of a style.

The prairie-style house pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples debuted in Chicago's suburbs at the turn of the century. It is the midwest's only important contribution to domestic architecture. (Midwest patriots have suffered for years in the knowledge that this region always gets the shortest chapter in any honest history of U.S. vernacular architecture.) It is as rare today in the newer suburbs as grass huts or adobe cliff dwellings. Yet the suburban prairie house has been revived in the city, specifically in the South Loop in the expanding Dearborn Park, an essentially suburban-style enclave.

None of our popular housing designs constitute a genuine architectural style. Internally, houses in the same price range are essentially the same; externally, their style is expressed in any of a dozen or so major design languages. A covered porch says "Victorian," just as shutters say "colonial."

Some of the Chicago area's top builders offer dozens of house models. Each must be differentiated from other models in its price range even if--especially if--there is no real difference between them. Occasionally the resulting profusion of hip roofs and dormers and chimney boxes adds a pleasing complexity to the look of a house. More often it produces a house on which, as Philip Langdon put it in his 1987 book American Houses, "all the architectural components are calling, almost brawling for attention."

That calling may be loudest at the front door. The foyer of one of the Abbey Woods town homes being built in Oak Brook is framed by large boxed beams that serve no apparent function beyond making the space "interesting." And they are supported by twin pairs of mostly Doric columns rising from a marble floor, producing a vaguely neoclassical pergola that looks like the set for a summer theater production of Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, the door the pergola frames is flanked by panels of colored glass in the turn-of-the-century Craftsman style. Taken as a whole, the entryway is a doomed attempt to suggest both homeyness and pretension; it is painfully American in its desire to show the world that the owners have arrived without ever having left.

The ad says "Alcoves provide drama." To a house painter, maybe.

There are some house types that even the most aesthetically promiscuous suburban home buyers have not embraced. Indigenous local designs such as the early wood-frame "Chicago" house or the brick Chicago version of the California bungalow are as rare in the postwar subdivision as a cheerful property-tax payer. True, these particular houses evolved to fit specifically urban environments, and thus can be assumed to be unsuited to the low-density suburb. But town houses are hugely popular in places where there are no towns, so the market clearly is not prejudiced against urban housing styles per se, only the styles that remind people of the place they moved to the suburbs to get away from.

Vernacular housing in other parts of the world reflects how particular people live in a particular place because the houses are built by the people who live in them, who shape them to their everyday needs. Most houses in the U.S. since the Civil War have been built by the people who sell them. (Developers are the architects of postwar America, as well as its de facto land-use planners.)

The end of World War II created a booming new house market consisting of millions of GIs clutching cheap mortgage loans. Overnight the subdivision house became a mass-market product, and developers were quick to tailor it to their particular needs. The floor plan of the popular postwar ranch house, for example, sacrificed a formal dining room for the sake of economy and replaced it with a "dining area" off the kitchen. This was a space-efficient innovation--the dining area doubled as living-room space--that meshed well with the era's more relaxed home life. The attached garage and the "family room"--created from space that in earlier middle-class houses had been devoted to a parlor--attested to lives that were family oriented, informal, and car bound.

For generations before the 1950s subdivision houses had been differentiated mainly by size. The banker's house may have had more rooms, or larger ones, but otherwise it differed little from the house of his clerk. Today's houses are differentiated not just by size (indeed may not differ in size at all) but by life-style. There are houses to be single in, houses to raise children in, houses to entertain in, and houses to be old in.

Hoffman Homes offers no fewer than eight different town homes in its Bloomfield Club project. Versions pitched to young families have bigger kitchens and extra bedrooms, while those pitched to childless yups offer gaudy decor and formal dining facilities for showing off. Models peddled to empty-nesters offer ground-floor master-bedroom suites that violate the public-spaces-downstairs, private-quarters-upstairs conventions of generations in an intelligent accommodation to the limitations imposed by advancing age.

How rooms are arranged within the houses of any era reveals as much about how people thought they ought to live as about how they did live. For example, the most spacious, dramatic, and lavishly furnished spaces of even modest new houses (apart from the master-bedroom suites) are devoted to public reception and entertainment. Formal dining rooms in particular have been restored to the floor plan, in spite of the fact that our everyday eating habits have reverted so far toward grazing that sit-down dining space would seem to be as useful in a subdivision house as a copy of Kant in the White House library. Kitchens are larger too, but these changes do not necessarily mean that the sit-down meal has resumed its place at the center of American home life. The separate dining room provides a venue for the special occasion, which almost invariably is an opportunity for status display by the host. The special occasion emphatically does not include regular family meals, which increasingly are taken in an expanded kitchen, a room that has come to resemble a dormitory vending room in function, equipment, and ambience.

The master suite of the Lucas Company's Millbrook model--with its own fireplace, its own whirlpool, and its own private outdoor deck--measures 850 square feet in all. It's a splendid refuge, even by Lake County standards--big enough to sell as a new house in California, big enough to qualify as a luxury apartment in Manhattan, big enough to subdivide in most of the third world. It's the 1990s version of the bomb shelter, a place to hide while everything around you is poisoned.

The master bedroom of the 1950s has evolved into today's sybaritic master-bedroom suite, which in larger houses functions almost as a separate apartment within the house. It is there that the adult owners seek the creature comforts and privacy that apparently elude them elsewhere in their house.

Today's house, in fact, is designed so its owners may show off downstairs and get on upstairs. Every new house sold today has at least a "luxury" bath. Hoffman Homes goes one better with facilities it describes as "hedonistic." Mercury Properties coyly offers "romantic baths" (nudge, nudge) in some of its models. Most master bathrooms come with whirlpools big enough for two, and some shower stalls come equipped with twin shower heads, which are no doubt being explained to curious visitors as a terrific way to save time on busy mornings.

Ann Durkin Keating, in her 1988 study Building Chicago, notes that as early as the 1870s editorialists and other deep thinkers had concluded that the future of Chicago lay outside Chicago, in the not-quite-towns where (as the Trib put it in 1873) "on one side the prospect is roofs and steeples and on the other side green or snow covered prairie."

Mother Nature has always been a better friend to developers than they have been to nature. Some of Chicago's poshest 19th-century home sites were built next to its new parks and boulevards. Indeed, such green spaces often were built by developers as come-ons for their residential projects. By 1872 the Nation was deriding city parks everywhere as "artificial but destructive stimulants to a gigantic real estate speculation."

The well-to-do still covet such sites. According to the developers of Dearborn Park's new addition, its "lush landscaping provide[s] a peaceful, relaxed setting to slow down the fast pace of the city." Such sylvan settings are available in the city only at a price; some single-family houses in Dearborn Park start at $459,000.

What the rich can afford to provide for themselves in the city, the middle class has had to move to the suburbs to find (and the poor have had to learn to live without). As Rutgers historian Robert Fishman explains in Bourgeois Utopias, the leafy suburbs were the manifestation of "the alienation of the middle class from the urban-industrial world they themselves were creating."

What the first suburbanites hoped to build was not just a cleaner Chicago but a different kind of Chicago, a new place of "godliness and morality," as Fishman puts it. Nature would heal, nature would teach; moving to the suburbs was seen as a return to the Garden of Eden.

In the Trib's 1990 spring new-home supplement, for example, more than a quarter of the advertised projects specifically mentioned nature among their attractions. A more recent sales pitch for building lots along the Du Page River came as close to poetry as anything published in a home section is likely to get. "Build your custom home where Mother Nature is your neighbor, where a sparkling river flows, the trees grow tall and the air is clean." The lots aren't cheap at $49,000 and up, but that's not much for a piece of paradise.

Sadly, people have been moving to the Chicago suburbs to "get away from it all" for more than a century and still haven't realized that they are "it." Keating reports that what we would call "not in my backyard" movements sprang up decades ago in preannexation suburbs like Irving Park and Ravenswood when residents protested multifamily building projects and transit expansions that threatened to fatally urbanize those once-bucolic enclaves.

Innocence does survive in the suburbs, in the form of a historic unknowingness about the inexorability of suburbanization. Many of the region's more appalling suburbs, such as Lisle, were farm towns until surprisingly recently. Thirty years ago, Oak Brook was little more than a cow pasture and a tollway exit. Then as now, unincorporated subdivisions tended to accrete into suburbs, just as suburbs eventually became physically indistinguishable from the city their founders sought to escape.

Ecologically speaking, the subdivision house is to the 20th-century countryside what the factory was to the 19th-century city. Overdesigned but underengineered, today's houses are expensive to heat and cool, whether you count the cost in dollars, fossil fuels, or planet-warming pollutants. The dispersed patterns in which they are arrayed on the landscape mandates the heavy use of automobiles, which consume not only petroleum but also land for streets, parking, and storage. (Smaller suburban house models devote as much as a quarter of their enclosed floor space to housing cars.) All that pavement aggravates flooding and is thought to play a part in ozone formation. Everyone mourns the felling of trees, but pet dogs and cats wreak equivalent if less visible havoc on wild bird populations. The new trees that are planted are ornamentally rather than ecologically significant, being mostly nonnative species that seldom are planted in populations sufficiently dense to shelter any species with needs more complex than a ChemLawn franchisee.

The mayor of Sugar Grove, in Kane County, explains to the Tribune that his hamlet will not lose its small-town atmosphere because Sugar Grove has "enough land" to accommodate all the newcomers who want to settle there, even though he says he realizes that the town is on "the breaking edge of development."

We are accustomed to hearing mayors misquoting cliches, but it is unusual to find one improved upon in the process.

Suburbs have spawned their own suburbs, as people flee built-up areas for still-pristine tracts farther out. But these new developments only repeat the environmental errors of their predecessors. There has been some backlash. (The reform faction of many a suburban village council consists of prairie preservationists.) As yet, the environmental crisis looming in today's suburbs has not spurred a mass exodus of the sort that drove the 18th-century English middle class from the city into the world's first suburbs.

Ecologists may lament the loss of this species or that habitat--and in local terms, what is going on in Du Page County is as devastating as what is happening to the rain forests--but the typical suburban resident apparently desires from nature only that it be green and pretty to look at. Ads pitched to new house buyers, for instance, draw no aesthetic distinction between a forest preserve and a golf course as a desirable backdrop for a house. A few upscale projects, such as Stafford Woods outside Sugar Grove, have made it a priority to preserve century-old hardwood trees on the site--mature trees are valued as an amenity on lots that begin at $125,000. But even though most of the trees in such a woods can be saved, the woods is destroyed.

Fishman concluded that the picturesque landscapes of the typical suburb have been "carefully designed to represent the consumption of the property by the viewer/owner." And, he added, "Passive enjoyment is precisely the relationship of suburbia to its environment." Indeed, in the suburbs people experience nature from behind the glass screens of their house and car windows, as if it were a television program. It is less something to live in than something to look at. A suburban Chicago house that is advertised as being "in harmony with nature" usually turns out to have lots of windows through which its inhabitants can look at it.

The traditional subdivision has changed hardly at all in design since its prototype was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in Riverside in 1871. Today the fifth-generation suburban home buyer seeks out the same curving streets and big front yards that have come to embody the good life. Over the years small innovations in street layout or lot size have been made--grudgingly, especially in the midwest--as developers have adapted to higher land costs or land-use rules. Customer resistance has chilled the ardor for reform; new house buyers have made clear that they will accept houses with smaller yards, for instance, only if the alternative is no house at all.

That is a choice that maybe half the families in this country won't get a chance to make. Advertised prices for new single-family tract houses in the Chicago area range from $90,000 to $500,000, with most selling for between $100,000 and $150,000. The basic monthly carrying cost of a $138,000 house bought with a 30-year mortgage (three points, 10 percent down, interest rate of 10.61 percent) is $1,139.

These are daunting sums to the average wage earner, even if they seem modest enough to upscale Chicagoans inured to the dizzying cost of big-city real estate. They certainly seem reasonable compared to the northeast and most of California. Experts who chart the migrations of corporations report that the relatively low cost of houses in the midwest confers a distinct economic-development advantage on the region.

The National Association of Realtors reported in November that the median resale price for single-family houses in the Chicago area for the third quarter of 1990 was up by 9.5 percent from a year ago--more than five times the national rate of increase for the period. This is described as good news, consistent with two principles of real estate economics: what you pay for a new house doesn't matter, and the American Dream is not to own a house but to sell one.

Like most forms of unfettered private enterprise, this trade in houses exacts stiff public costs. Home owners who play the game usually overborrow, anticipating prices appreciating. Those who don't play it find their property overtaxed by a system that pegs assessments to inflated resale values. New neighborhoods are built expensively from scratch while existing ones crumble for lack of capital. (The ultimate in waste may be the "tear-down" phenomenon that has struck landlocked places like Hinsdale, where developers buy perfectly good $150,000 houses and tear them down so they can build $400,000 houses.) Worst of all, the promise of profits has tempted hundreds of thousands of families to buy more house than they can afford, creating a weight of bad debt that is sinking many a savings and loan.

Notwithstanding the fact that even two-income working-class families have been priced out of today's market, new houses are underpriced. Income-tax deductions reduce the actual cost of home buying substantially, for example, an indirect subsidy that benefits mainly upper-income buyers. Indeed, it has been the effect of Washington's policies since 1945 to depopulate central cities and relocate middle-class populations to the suburbs by making new houses relatively cheap using incentives such as mortgage-interest tax deductions, guaranteed low-cost loans, and grants for new highways that, by vastly expanding the supply of accessible land, have kept the cost of building lots relatively low. Government has in effect been paying the middle class to abandon the city to the rich, who don't want to leave, and the poor, who can't.

There have been failures of private as well as public policy. Houses that are meant to be looked at rather than lived in are built to be more cosmetically appealing than efficient or durable. Very few of the houses being advertised around Chicago, for instance, offer more than the minimal insulation required by code. Since today's residential infrastructure will be in use well into the next century, their costly energy demands will be built into the economy for the next 30 to 50 years. The subdivision house may be a good investment for the family, but for the nation it is proving a disaster.

They're going at it bare knuckles in Geneva. On one page of the home section Sho-Deen, Inc., is offering houses ranging in price up to $254,000 that the company calls "distinctively Geneva!" by which it means "prestigious, charming, stately--like the town herself." On the next page the Fox Development Group announces "affordable new townhomes in Geneva!"--adding, "It's about time."

It is a fact not often remarked, but our big-city suburbs are even more rigorously segregated by class than they are by race. Homogeneity of class is one of the things that makes a suburb a suburb. Ann Durkin Keating points out that the internally homogeneous subdivision, which is the building block of the postwar suburb, is the means by which this class segregation is achieved and maintained. Subdivisions vary not only by price but by the range of services that their developers offer as amenities. Early subdivisions offered prospective buyers little in the way of amenities beyond their distance from Chicago. Later developers were compelled to offer piped-in water or paved sidewalks as inducements. Developers selling more or less the same kinds of houses tried to beat their competitors with amenities packages.

Developer-provided amenities have increased in number and cost over the years. Sidewalks and sewers, even streetlights, became standard. Today, even mid-range houses come with clubhouses, full landscaping, or security systems in various combinations. Securing a happy family life, the ads explain, is mainly a matter of facilities. "Community" as used here suggests a package of services rather than a system of social relationships. Oakhurst, a planned community in Aurora, "offers you everything the day you move in," including "the convenience of an established neighborhood"--without the inconvenience of having to establish it. Family life in a box; just add kids and stir.

A house builder is not selling shelter, he is selling dreams. Real estate, like politics, is one of those enterprises in which lies are essentially part of the product. The lies are told not to deceive the customer but to console him. A child knows that "Chicago's most elegant golf course community" cannot be "also the most affordable." Every naif knows that you cannot find "all the features you want at a price that fits within your family's budget" when you shop for a house. But house buyers believe you if you say such things--indeed will be disappointed, even angry, if you don't say them.

The home sections are a catalog of untruths, each bolder than the last. They are exhilarating to read--gonzo advertising.

"Just minutes away . . ."

"All of Chicagoland is accessible at expressway speed."

"Just steps from . . ."

"Only minutes from . . . Northwestern trains."

"Easy access to the commuter station and I-88."

"Every imaginable necessity and recreation is only a few minutes away."

And the most breathtaking promise of all: "Convenient to everything."

Offering an instant community adds to the purchase price of a new house of course. But the proof of class is not just what you are willing to pay, but what you are willing to pay for. Price is a factor in such purchases, but so is the buyer's notion of what a proper neighborhood ought to offer to its residents. Values matter as much as value, or rather values are considered aspects of value. Thus do customers sort themselves out by class.

Price alone, in other words, only crudely sorts out buyers by class. Taste in recreation is a much more reliable barometer of class than spendable income. No developer ever sold a house in Barrington on the strength of its proximity to a bowling alley. Upscale projects tout the pastimes preferred by the outdoorsy, aerobically minded managerial class--jogging, biking, swimming, tennis. Presumably softball is played in these settlements, but the new house ads disdain to mention it, perhaps because it is regarded as one of the vices peculiar to the city, like voting Democrat.

But class is a mutable concept in a country like the U.S. Residents of the Bloomfield Club in Bloomingdale may while away their leisure years playing boccie, which would have been dismissed in such precincts as a prole game not so many years ago. But Chicago's Italian Americans have worked their way far enough up the status ladder that a savvy developer will want to provide for their particular pleasures. Besides, our older European immigrants have been around long enough by now that they and their ways have acquired a cachet of sorts among younger white-bread types eager to show their sophisticated knowledge of the world. (Soccer, the passion of the despised working class abroad, became the game of the college-educated middle classes in the U.S. in the same way.) Boccie to them is not grandpa slobbering on the lawn with his buddies but fondly remembered street scenes from that special vacation in Genoa.

Arnold Palmer is designing a golf course for Wiseman-Hughes's Stableford Townes project in Du Page County that offers "the Scottish brand of golfing challenge" on a course that includes "foreboding pot bunkers." Why do so many upscale residential developments sound as if they were named after a president of one of Princeton's eating clubs? And what makes bunkers foreboding? Is it a comment on the Presbyterian gloominess of the Scots? Or are these hazards so daunting that the duffer, seeing one, will experience a presentiment of evil about his score?

No game is on a par with golf when it comes to status. Not everyone in the suburbs plays golf, but most suburbanites seem to want to be thought of as golfers. There is scarcely a new house in greater Chicago that is not closer to a golf course than it is to a library. No fewer than 16 of the 92 projects plumped in a Trib home section, for example, featured properties on or adjacent to golf courses.

Private golf courses of course. Golf sends the right kind of class signals, being expensive, wasteful of natural resources, and exclusive. Not enough people actually play the game, however, to keep all of these private courses solvent. So many of them are going belly-up and being donated to local parks-and-recreation departments that the departments are beginning to feel put upon, like softhearted rich uncles whose doorsteps are littered with children abandoned by ne'er-do-well relatives. No matter who pays for the upkeep, the courses provide tasteful backdrops for patio parties. Moreover, the golf-course community is the ultimate in class segregation--a country club you can live in.

You wonder where you've seen these pictures before. The full-color drawings that advertise the Oakhurst planned community in Aurora are naive but not unknowing, and their simplicity seems intended to be part of their message. A series of vignettes floating in a field framed by a tennis racket and a baseball, bat, and glove. Here's Mom, Dad, and little Johnny at play at the club pool. There's Sis riding her bike past the house, dog trotting beside her. The dogwood is in bloom, and there's not a rapist in sight. The nice commuter rail station through which Dad goes to work each day sits gleaming beside the track. A silver-haired school crossing guard smiles at three kids who wave gratefully--"See ya, Pops!"--as they go by. And here's our family--yours, if you want it to be--at the mall, resting after a long slog through the shops. Dad's eating an ice cream cone, Mom has her arm around Dad's shoulders, Sis is playing with her favorite teddy bear. On the floor before them are shopping bags arrayed like trophies from a hunt.

Anyone younger than 45 who was raised in the U.S. will eventually remember these scenes, or scenes very like them, from the Dick and Jane readers of their school days. Dick and Jane have grown up, have their own family, and are living outside Aurora. Sadly, this particular family--the commuting father, the stay-at-home mother, the two kids--today makes up less than 10 percent of all U.S. families.

Wishing for what you don't have is normal. Wishing for what doesn't exist is weird. It is not their unworldli- ness that distinguishes suburbanized Americans, but their otherworldliness.

"Kids, family, community--it's what we're all about," announces the builder of the Seasons Ridge planned community in a recent ad. The word "community" conjures up visions of the small town that still fill our collective imagination as the ideal place to live. Savvy marketers make millions selling "all the values and stability of a hometown neighborhood" to people who have abandoned their hometowns to join the itinerant middle class.

Some suburban house builders sell the suburb as hard as the house. The loyal Chicagoan will read the question posed in one ad--"What could be more perfect than a Mundelein setting?"--as a straight line, but presumably it says something to people living in places like Mount Prospect. Another builder plays cheerleader: "Convenience, Craftsmanship, Affordability, NAPERVILLE!"

Suburbanites' identification with the civil community is necessarily tenuous, however. They sleep in one town, shop in another, work in a third, and send the kids to school in a fourth. City people find it easy to sneer when a Napervillian identifies himself by his subdivision rather than the town, but it may be the only meaningful link he has to a larger civil entity--and in any event it isn't much different from the lifelong Chicagoan's habit of identifying himself by his ward or parish.

"Community" implies a certain stability, which explains its potency as a marketing buzzword to customers who enjoy very little of it. Surveys confirm that during times of economic expansion, it is not unusual for young families to change houses every two or three years; a local builder described one of his $300,000-plus houses to a Trib home-section reporter as a "third or fourth move-up house." This is not mobility but restlessness; in lives so temporarily attached to place, putting down roots means taking out a library card. The preference for standardized house designs thus can be seen to have a psychological aspect, offering as it does the same reassuring sameness to itinerants that a McDonald's or Holiday Inn does.

Paul Fussell in Class analyzed what he called the "comforting fantasy" entertained by the U.S. middle class that warm feelings such as love, comfort, belonging, or togetherness can be bought with cold cash. That fantasy is summed up by the housing industry's favorite four-letter word, home. In the display ads that appeared in the Tribune's 1990 spring house-sale supplement, there were 234 instances where the word "house" (or equivalents such as "condominium" or "residence") could have been plausibly used. The word "home" was preferred in 227 of them. Builders are so skittish about using such a blunt Anglo-Saxonism as "house" that they resort to constructions that are as antic linguistically as their houses are architecturally. Hoffman Homes' promise of a "home without homework" is not a pitch to resentful schoolchildren but to parents who feel about shoveling snow the way their kids feel about algebra.

Which words buzz the loudest in today's real estate come-ons? Location. Life-style. Big (including "huge"). Design. Custom (as in "custom home," "custom-crafted," "custom-built"). Luxury--far and away the favorite word of our poets of the planned community. It means room, privacy, elegance, sophistication, prestige, leisure.

Ah, leisure. The suburbs are a sluggard's idea of heaven, a place where indolence is honored as a virtue and whose temple is the "no-maintenance" house. These simple folk do not rest, however, but are forever at play. The perfect life as reflected in new-house advertising is a perpetual childhood in which people never grow old, where they have no work to do, lots of toys to play with, and lots of playmates to share them with. We may have given up hope for a happier life, but we have not quit hoping for a simpler one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

Add a comment