Suburban Utopia via YouTube

On the Slog a few weeks back, Charles Mudede linked to the article “On Borrowed Time, Urban Decline Moves to the Suburbs” by Michael Gecan in the Boston Review. Gecan questions the sustainability of the upper class suburbs that prospered substantially over the last two decades, citing DuPage County as a premiere example and comparing the possible future crisis to past economic downturns in New York and Cook County, IL.

In discussing the recent DuPage County meeting Gecan attended as a presenter, he writes,

“…with the last of the new McMansions going up across the street, with 60,000 more workers commuting in to DuPage each day than commuting out, with the local football teams on the rise and the SAT and ACT scores still high, I suggested that perhaps the county had hit its own high-water mark and that without clear-eyed re-evaluation, it was poised, as Chicago had been in the mid-1950s, for decline.”

The handful of comments made by DuPage residents in response to this article suggest the “denial” step Gecan predicts occurring in full force. Denial strikes me as the most interesting (and expected) response to have in the face of such decline, because of the level of illusion DuPage suburbia often maintains. Having lived for most of my life in the place one of the article’s commenters describes as “the garden spot of the western suburbs” (Naperville, IL), one of the words most readily coming to mind in describing the city’s transformation over the last 10 years is “disneyfication”, which in turn, signifies the presence of an illusion of false promise.


Epcot Image courtesy of BoingBoing

CNN loved Naperville during its peak. They rated it the #1 place in the United States to raise children in 1997 and 2001. In 2003, 2005, and 2006, Money Magazine rated it as one of the best places to live in the country. In addition to CNN’s standings, the Naperville Public Library was also ranked the best in the US from 1999-2006.

So, many people moved to Naperville. It now boasts a population of over 130,000 and apparently is the cream of the crop of Chicago’s southwest suburbs, at least in the minds of some. From the perspective of a native who has escaped, the illusion of Naperville (and perhaps suburbs in general) is reminiscent of Walt Disney’s original vision for Epcot Center, which Wikipedia describes as,

“…a model community, home to twenty thousand residents, which would be a test bed for city planning and organization. The community was to have been built in the shape of a circle, with businesses and commercial areas at its center, community buildings and schools and recreational complexes around it, and residential neighborhoods along the perimeter…Walt Disney said, “It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won’t let them develop…”

This utopic community image is similar to what families expect from a move to the suburbs: good education systems, a sense of “community”, and an absence of slums (reasons my family moved to Naperville). While seeking an environment ideal for raising a family is to be expected, the homoginization suburbs continue experiencing through the replacement of local businesses with chains and franchise establishments and the decline of local culture and community engagement suggests that such suburban ideals are not feasible without substantial losses. Using Naperville as an example, a downtown that once boasted a family-owned drug pharmacy, a local grocer, and a music shop where schoolchildren could rent almost any instrument at an affordable price now features Ted’s Montana Grill, Barnes & Noble, Restoration Hardware and the title of “THE place for nightlife in the Chicago suburbs.” The pharmacy and the music shop have now been pushed outside of the downtown area, and the Cee Bee grocery was demolished to make way for an Eddie Bauer, Talbots and Sharper Image in the mid-90’s.

If the never-realized Epcot Center is any indication of what we can expect for suburbia, reality might be on its way back into view. Since the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was never fully realized, Epcot became a theme park intended to present an idealized world. Here all “cultures” exist in unison through the eleven representations of countries comprising the “World Pavillion” rides and entertainment section. The prototypic aspect of Disney’s vision became the second section, “Futureworld”, which includes attractions funded by corporate sponsorships whose varying levels of dedication have held ultimate control over those attractions’ availability to visitors.