Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Radiant City" looks at suburban lifestyles and values


Radiant City (Koch Lorber, 2006, 86 min), directed by Jim Brown and Gary Burns, is a documentary examining the dead-ending of north American suburbia. I say North American because the film comes from Canada, and most of the communities seem to be in Alberta.

A key concept is “disaggregation”. (Also, “cartoonification”). When people live in cities, the activities and facilities are logistically “aggregated” in individual neighborhoods – the prime endpoint being something like a block association, common in New York City. In suburbs, houses or even condos are in one area; shops are in another, and office parks are still in another, and people drive between them. That is how the film presents it. Actually, there are suburban communities that are well-planned, such as Reston, VA (near Dulles Airport) and Columbia, MD (near Baltimore), that were planned and built in the early 70s.

The movie, however, makes a lot of fun of the suburban ethic. It traces the average square-footage of suburban homes from 1950 to now, and points out that suburban dwellers on average weigh six pounds more that city dwellers.

The suburbanization of America exploded after World War II. Suburban living was thought to be more “family friendly” and “safer” and perhaps it was, but there was a downside to this kind of thinking: a desire for a long time to retain some kind of de facto segregation.

I lived in New York, in the Village, from 1974-1978, and moved to Dallas at the beginning of 1979. For much of the time in Dallas, I lived in Oak Lawn, which was essentially urban living. Some newer developments in the 80s in North Dallas, especially around LBJ, became somewhat village-like. There was a desire to move “north” to get into the Richardson School District (part of which was in Dallas city limits) which, shall one say, had children from “higher income” families – de facto, again. My last 3+ years in Dallas I owned a condo in Pleasant Grove, and had a much more “suburban” lifestyle. Still, Mineyards was across the street. Slightly farther east there was a row of “countrified” businesses with quaint names like “Paps.”

Before World War II (during the Depression), it was often impractical for unmarried adults to have their own homes or even complete apartments; they often lived in rooming houses or Y’s. After World War II, as the housing boom started, there was still the idea that families should scatter into separate homestead-like single-family dwellings. Gradually, however, the idea of the urban condo, first often popular with single people, would come into being.

The film takes the position that energy and environmental issues may force “re-urbanization” with the bringing back of the urban neighborhood or mini-village, with all its services, for families, even extended families.

The film has real suburban dwellers, including kids, playing characters as “actors.” There is a paintball scene, and toward the end there is a musical making fun of suburban life. One housewife doesn’t want to go to a show “that makes fun of my home.”

The film was obviously made before the current subprime crisis took hold.

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