Nicholas Hune-Brown has a generally excellent piece in the Toronto Star analyzing the long history of suburban stereotypes in the arts. (Arts & Letters Daily provided the link.) It’s really quite a fine tour d’horizon.
Hune-Brown concludes, after surveying depictions of suburbia in pop music, television, and novels, that suburbia has changed radically… but artists haven’t. This should be obvious to city-dwellers, but it isn’t. It was urbanites, after all, who showered praise on cartoonish nonsense like American Beauty and Pleasantville. And it is virtually impossible to convince anyone I know from Toronto that Oakville, the Toronto suburb where I live, is not populated entirely by wealthy white folks with 2.4 children apiece. Even Hune-Brown (in a nod, perhaps, to the expectations of his Toronto readership) asserts that “although suburbia as a whole is no longer entirely homogenous, individual suburbs remain relatively segregated.”
Not entirely homogenous??? Look, as distasteful as I find Toronto’s embarrassingly juvenile boosterism as the “most multicultural city in the world,” allow me to offer a few personal observations from a writer who actually lives and writes from the suburbs. My middle-class neighbourhood is almost entirely populated by immigrants–this is not unusual for the suburbs, but typical. My immediately abutting neighbours are immigrants from (in alphabetical order) India, Italy, Jamaica, Poland, Portugal, and Slovakia.
My experience of cities is that this kind of ethnic mixing is significantly rarer than in the suburbs. (I have no statistics to prove this, so feel free to shoot me down.) Toronto might have a moderately higher total percentage of immigrants, but ethnic groups in cities tend to self-segregate within specific neighbourhoods. This makes sense if you walk to work and shop, as many in the cities do, and you prefer to maintain a close connection with your ethnic heritage. But in the suburbs, where most people drive, nothing is stopping you from visiting the Chinese supermarket a forty-minute drive away, or the Ukrainian cultural centre halfway across town.
Which is why Hune-Brown’s concluding statement is so bizarre:
Today, a young writer looking to describe a new landscape would do well to stay clear of the subdivision and head for somewhere fresher. New York, London, Casablanca â€” almost anywhere has less literary baggage than the North American suburb.
This entirely misses the point, of course. The subdivision, as a literary landscape, is entirely virgin territory. No one that I know has even touched upon the reality I quickly sketched above.