The World’s Golf Center
In a one-mile stretch of a certain street in my town, there are 19 car dealerships, each with their own car lot. When you think about it, it’s a rather impressive sight -- one solid mile of cars. It’s also quite representative of a town whose water towers boast Orland Park as the “World’s Golf Center.” Yes, I grew up in the suburbs. Having just visited for the holidays, I thought I’d share some observations of my hometown. I’ve left out plenty in the following description, but the salient characteristics have been included, in my opinion.
What I find perhaps most peculiar on trips home to Orland Park, Illinois, is the lack of people actually outside. Driving down my subdivision, I see house after house with an SUV in the driveway, perfectly manicured landscaping and pesticide-laden lawns, but no people. Sure, there are people on the golf courses, people driving and walking from their cars to the stores, but the signs of intelligent life apart from this are few and far between.
There is no poverty in my town; accordingly, there is little crime. On a certain Web site that rates the relative crime level of any town in the nation, Orland Park ranks a very safe zero. This apparent sense of safety, along with the relative opulence that is the white affluent suburb, has ushered into Orland the latest in suburban living -- the gated community. After all, shouldn’t the rich have the freedom to fence themselves into only the safest neighborhoods?
If there were one idea that best exemplifies my town, that idea would be the mall. We have got two of them, in fact. Practically next door to each other, these gargantuan edifices, these bastions of commerce, these hallmarks of civilization were built upon what was previously farmland, which in turn was once occupied by buffalo and Native Americans. The indigenous society may be gone, but the malls and surrounding stores now provide everything today’s middle-class nuclear family could want.
You’ve already heard about the car lots (it’s required that everyone have at least two cars), so there should be little surprise that on nearly every corner is a gas station. Those corners lacking gas stations or automotive centers invariably have a Walgreens (read: CVS). One store near my house was built over the last little section of “undeveloped” wetland in Orland. They cut down all the trees, drained the land, moved the resident animal species into the apartments in back of the store (I’m assuming), and planted exotic saplings around the store’s perimeter. I guess the suburbs really are environmentally friendly.
Indeed, there is every indication that the man-made cancer known as urban sprawl has found a willing host in Orland Park. We’ve got your Wal-Marts, K-Marts, Shop Marts, Stock-Up Stores, and Warehouse Clubs. For the more “alternative” tastes there are World Markets, StarBucks, Borders, etc. We’ve got 50 million McShits serving billions and billions everyday; just under half that number of Murder King’s and Taco Hells. The number of movie theatres has dropped while the number of screens has increased thanks to the multi-megaplex (when’s the new Schwarzenegger coming out?). For the less adventurous, there are five or six video stores in the immediate vicinity to keep people distracted and superficially happy.
Whether intended or not, the suburb has evolved into an innocuous, isolated bubble of humanity. My little town is really a microcosm of the biggest problems in America: rampant consumerism and little understanding of how that consumption affects the rest of the world. The only time the outside world seems to affect the suburbs is when actions in the Middle East affect “prices at the pump.” Then it’s only a matter of complaining enough until leaders take corrective actions to get prices back down to near a dollar per gallon. My town has many of the most egregious and socially reprehensible corporate stores; Wal-Mart having already been mentioned, is the worst sweatshop abuser. Also vying for the title we have Nike, JCPenney, Reebok, GAP Inc. -- pretty much every apparel store uses sweatshop labor today. Home Depot is selling Orland Park lumber from old growth forests.
Of course my town isn’t special in this regard; the ubiquity of these stores in the suburbs and really everywhere in society has become the norm. This is partly because the average citizen doesn’t really care how products are produced. In the suburbs I believe this apathy is much greater. A Trader Joe’s recently opened in Orland, and it will be interesting to see if a socially conscious store can compete with the rock-bottom prices of the superstores.
On a geopolitical level, the suburbs have removed an influential section of American society -- the predominantly white, middle-class -- from the real world -- the world of increasing disparities in wealth, of war, of crime and poverty, of environmental degradation. Sure the suburbanite knows these problems exist (they have TV don’t they?), but they exist somewhere else where they are someone else’s responsibility. So it’s not that the suburbs render people impotent to affect change; the suburbs simply support apathy to a remarkable extent.
More and more, I think we’re seeing that the suburbs are no longer a safe haven from the problems of the rest of the world. I know personally that the suburbs are not immune to the national trend of the downsizing of the middle class. Suburban high schools, including my own, are seeing more of a gang presence. Columbine and other such school shootings remind us of the violence that can pop up anytime, anywhere. And there will inevitably come a point when the suburbs are no longer rich enough, to send their pollution away to poorer towns.
One of the more popular justifications for the white flight phenomenon is to secure a safe environment in which to bring up children. While the suburbs may not be as safe as they once were, as suggested above, this seems a reasonable excuse for those who can afford it. My problem with this though, is that the kids are likely to grow up with messed up values. Do suburban children grow up with a strong sense of community, a sense of responsibility to take care of fellow humyn beings or of sustainable living? Or will they learn how to run up credit card debt and drive everywhere in their monstrous SUVs? Of course, as a product of the suburbs myself, I might be an example of the opposite, someone who came to resent the excess and isolation of suburban life. Well, whatever.