Among the many paradoxes of Web 2.0 culture is the way the counter-cultural ethos of the 60s, fused with the digital utopianism of the 90s, has triggered not only a “prosumer” revolution but a deep and abiding fear of the end times. Folks like Andrew Keen, for example, warn that the digital free-for-all we’re witnessing has dark implications for more traditional cultural institutions: from the music industry to news to (gasp!) our standards of what makes good literature good. Culture as we know it, he warns, is disintegrating.
So it’s a lovely irony that in an era when traditional newspapers are on the verge of extinction that some of the best writing about the economic crisis helping that extinction along has emerged. Take, for example, NPR and Chicago Public Radio’s “The Giant Pool of Money,” which is also available as a daily podcast called Planet Money (http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1242 ). Or open up the pages of The New Yorker or Harper’s and you are bound to find a stunning piece or two of essayistic journalism on the housing crisis. (See, for example, some of the pieces called out here: http://www.newyorker.com/search/query?keyword=Housing%20Crisis ).
It’s the coverage of the mortgage crisis that’s got my attention. The images of tract housing abandoned mid-development, of suburban homes overgrown and forgotten, sidewalks and driveways cracked and sprouting weeds—these images haunt.
For some the ‘burbs have always held a certain clutching terror—we’re over-exposed and alienated, keeping up, shutting down or acting out. (Consider, for example, the way Desperate Housewives delights in reinforcing these ideas.) That’s part of the draw of cities, where we can run away and reinvent ourselves, more anonymous in the crowd than in the seeming quiet of our home towns. (Now compare Desperate Housewives with Sex and the City).
But if we go a little further back, say to the 70s, New York City was not the shiny fabulous place Carrie &Co. would have you believe. Think, for example, of Fort Apache the Bronx or Escape from New York. The big bad city was burning itself down; its rubble and ruins emblematic of a failed economy, failed administration, failed communities.
In the 21st century, though, we’ve got wounded cities, cities attacked by external forces—be they man-made or natural, the terror was not from within but without. (Though in the case of NOLA it was a toxic mix of both). And people are returning to these wounded cities, seduced rather than repulsed. The city is no longer the sole locus of despair.
The shift in focus from the city to suburbs shows up innocuously in the transformation of Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia. Or as Rebecca Solnit points out in her excellent A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the modern suburban landscape is nearly lunar: no trace of children at play; the tracks of animals more prevalent than those of kids now kept inside for fear of strangers and the draw of computer games. (Now, mind you, that’s a whopping generalization—as I write this I’m thinking of Kathy’s amazing neighborhood, Collingswood, NJ, a community so rich and vibrant and full of kids on big wheels you have to be uber-careful when you drive).
But the shift is getting stronger. The ruin and rubble we’re beginning to see as foreclosures pile up, as people pack up and leave (by choice or by force), this disintegration is reminiscent of the city of the 70s. If Escape from New York represents an old vision of New York’s dystopian future, how will modern films imagine the future of the suburbs?
The sociological forces impinging upon people—the getting and spending, the greed and the getting gotten by adjustable rate mortgages—are having a semiotic effect. Our signs are shifting: the new wasteland is not urban blight, it’s suburban failure.
So when panicked pundits predict riots this summer, do they think they’ll happen in the Bronx? Or will the mayhem unfold at the mall? Or will it matter: we’ll all be inside blogging about it (if we still have a roof over our heads).