The iconic image of the suburbs — and “Suburbia,” the new Minnesota History Center exhibit opening on Saturday — is the pink flamingo.
But cows really tell the story of the start of suburbanization, at least in the Twin Cities. History Center patrons will be greeted by a giant 1954 photograph of a herd next to newly constructed homes near the corner of 62nd Street and Penn Avenue S. In subsequent years, the same transition that turned rich fields into Richfield rippled across the metro area and the nation, shaping social, educational, economic and political trends for decades.
It also had an immediate media impact. In fact, midcentury modern arrived with modern media, especially television. This nexus is exemplified by an archival video projected into a wheelbarrow, just one of many clever elements in the compelling exhibit.
Formal rooms gave way to family rooms, and to TVs, which gathered families with programs projecting idealized lives. Think “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best” and, later, “The Brady Bunch,” among countless others that normalized postwar predictability after decades of disquiet.
“We all lived in suburbia even if we didn’t live there,” said Brian Horrigan, a Minnesota History Center exhibit developer. “There was kind of a visual and media and popular culture assumption that this was ‘normal.’ … Whether you were living it or not, everyone has this experience of living in suburbia even if we lived it only in an aspirational or vicarious way through advertising.”
And advertising triggered buying. Of goods and services, sure. But also into a lifestyle, including malls, the first of which, Southdale, sprung up a few pastures past the one at 62nd and Penn.
“Television and shopping centers and suburbia all grow up at exactly the same time, and television feeds into suburbia and suburbia becomes what’s depicted on television. There’s kind of this symbiotic relationship,” said Horrigan.
There was a cinematic symbiosis, too, as the exhibit examines in excerpts from suburban-themed films. Some were not only aspirational, but became advertising, including a chance to buy a South St. Paul version of the home in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.”
But in others, the dream turned nightmare, as in “The Stepford Wives” and other dystopian tales that were more about suburban blandness than Mr. Blandings’ home.
“There was a violent reaction by intellectuals and novelists and moviemakers,” Horrigan said. And indeed a whole genre of novels from the likes of John Cheever (the “Chekhov of the suburbs,” to some) and others who wrote of envy, ennui and other destructive emotions spurred by suburban living.
In reality, “People were living it and loving it,” said Horrigan. Yet somehow “suburban” substituted as a catchall catchphrase that “was a metaphor for a broader critique of conformity and draining out the dynamism,” he added.
Dynamism, however, might be the best description of suburbs today. In fact, urban gentrification can mean that some suburbs better reflect America’s mosaic than the center cities they surround.
“Sure, there are still some suburbs that are the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ types, but they are becoming fewer and fewer in between,” said William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Frey, an expert on the suburbs and author of “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America,” added that the 1950s suburban stereotype of a white, middle-class couple with two kids in a single-family home is now “almost reverse.” The suburbs, said Frey, “are a microcosm of America in lots of ways: young and old; rich and poor; full families and people living alone; people of all different racial groups, because more people live in the suburbs than ever before.”
These seismic suburban shifts slowly showed up in pop culture, but the cultural and commercial success of “Modern Family” and many other media manifestations reflecting evolving suburbs suggest that Americans are redefining “suburban” just as they redefined the suburbs themselves.
“Whatever happens in America today is going to happen in the suburbs,” said Frey. “The diversity boom in this century is what the baby boom was in the second part of the last century.”
As for common connotations of “suburban,” Frey concluded by saying, “Eventually that term will wear out, but it’s stuck for so long and maybe it’s because popular culture so embraced it.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.