Suburbs – Home of possibilities and horror

There are those kinds of essays that I save for days because I’m so looking forward to reading them that I don’t want to do so rushedly – like, whenever David A. Banks writes a new essay on urbanism and structures of power. His latest is ‘The Authoritarian Surround – The suburbs have incubated authoritarian sympathies as well as revolutionary restlessness” and it is good and it also got my thoughts drifting off a bit into my own – rather post-nazi-german tinted – suburbian memories.
Which is why you get this blog post.
To me the suburbs have always been a place that stood for home of possibilities and horror.

I have never totally got rid of liking the idea of suburbs as working class garden city areas. An idea that tried to establish affordable housing with a little more space than the crammed city centre, and with the possibility of small-scale agriculture, a rural urbanism, if you like. Co-operative housing that was supposed to avoid real estate speculation. It tried and failed and mostly has been turned into a kind of urban ruralism (either status symbol or refuge from the city instead of part of the city) – but the ideal still rings in my head.

When I say “home of possibilities” I mean home for possibilities. Not home but more like a homebase, a place that gives you a bit of peace and space to think, but that also keeps pushing you out. A place in which you can just rest enough to get your thinking, your writing, your struggling going. A cozy place that keeps you restless. Every person has a different level of unrest they need to keep them going. For me, city centres are too busy, they make me passive and boring. They are too natural an environment for how I tick. Suburbs and small town life instead are the kind of challenge that unnerve me just enough, that keep me going.

I think Jelinek wrote it, or was it a Bachmann poem? No, it must have been Jelinek, I think in ‘Lust’. Anyway, there was a passage that perfectly captured the blandness of the horror behind suburbian walls behind well-trimmed lawns. Growing up back in the 1980s suburbs stood for the daily effort of keeping up facades, and for the constant bitter anger boiling underneath because the facades wouldn’t stay up. They needed constant work. The suburbs were not just a place, they were something people performed. Never mind social media publicity these days – any bloody detail of those lives back then also was about well-policed performing for others and for oneself. I could write books about that. I would love to write books about that if only had the time. ><

Part of this performance was the art of ignoring domestic violence. To me, suburbian life in the 80s stood for the sobs of a friend getting beaten up by her father just one wall away. Suburbs stood for old men’s hands shamelessly resting a bit too long on nieces’ and daughters’ burning skin. Suburbs stood for the daily straightening of a pretty bedspread over the scene of marital rape. I’m bitterly aware of being from the first generation in germany in which marital rape is considered a crime. I was 17 when the law was passed and knew even back then that it still would take years for many women to find the courage to actually sue, because of the social stigma and lack of trust. Same with violence of any kind against kids: So much stigma, so much taboo. The things you don’t talk about. The looking away. As a teen in that time it had always felt like the echo of the looking away that so many people had practised in nazi germany. It was not the shocking visit to a concentration camp nor school lessons or books that made me understand how nazi germany was possible. It was this “looking away” – practised by people you knew – that made it relatable.

So, growing up to me suburbs have always stood for people who look away. Not the anonymous looking away of the busy city centre, not anonymity-turned-non-solidarity. Not the urban looking away, like when people move faster if they see a beggar on their way or when a person gets abused a few metres away from them. The suburban “looking away” was a fundamental part of performing the suburb. That your neighbour, your brother, your father was an abusive asshole simply didn’t fit the picture you wanted others to see. And so many of them were, apparently just because they could, just because it was a ‘normal’ thing to do. To criticise it openly, to show that pity, would have destroyed all the work of keeping up “the suburbs”. Anonymous ignorance I was ablet to understand. People knowing the people for years who hurt other people for years and still managing to look away for years – I wish I was religious so I could believe in a special kind of hell for that. Laughing, talking to each other over their hedges while watering their gardens, for years, consciously, actively ignoring, accepting the violence.

It fills me with a happy calmness whenever I realize that this whole generation of suburban family patriarchs and enablers is slowly dying out now. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say domestic violence is dying out but this level of common acceptance has shrunk. Give me suburbs full of young fair-trade-shopping bee-keeping liberal families over that horror any time.

With this background, of course, tales of the (suburbian) blandness of horror have always stuck with me, if it was in literature – I’m currently struggling with T.C. Boyle’s ‘Tortilla Curtain’ – or in real cases like Fritzl/Amstetten or the Kampusch abduction, or in films like Haneke’s work, that always seem to bear traces of that, from Funny Games to The White Ribbon.

Somehow even all the 80s US teen horror films seemed to echoe the suburbs as a place where neighbours do not notice the horror that happens behind closed doors, while also dealing with the alien intruding into a “safe” world: Poltergeist, Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween etc. (which had already had a revival with films like The Hole, that spins the domestic violence thing into the supernatural). But also films like Romero’s (RIP) Dawn of the Dead with it’s working class suburbian mall zombies. Oh, or A l’interieur (Inside), which even put it’s potential for being read as social comment on a tv screen in the film itself: the suburbian riots in Paris 2005. And then of course there is Babadook in which suburban fears of the unknown intruder get overcome.

Anyways, go and read David A. Banks great ‘The Authoritarian Surround instead of hanging around on this blog! 🙂
And when you’re done read his other work on how the urban is political: True-ish Grit and The Edifice Complex.


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