Thursday, March 25, 2010

Out for a Drive (Part 2) - Crunchy Suburbs

From the cool zone, we drive out of town, just across the city line, to the crunchy zone. Here one finds starter suburbs populated by people who regard themselves as countercultural urbanites, but now they have kids, so the energy that once went into sex and raving now goes into salads. They need suburban space so their kids have a place to play, but they still want enough panhandlers and check- cashing places nearby so they can feel urban and gritty.

Dotted around most citiesespecially in the northern rim of the country, through Vermont, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washingtonthere are one or two crunchy suburbs that declared themselves nuclear-free zones during the cold war although some would argue that the military-industrial complex was not overly inconvenienced by being unable to base ICBM launch sites in Takoma Park, Maryland. You can tell you are in a crunchy suburb by the sudden profusion of meat-free food co-ops, boys with names like Mandela and Milo running around the all-wood playgrounds, the herbal-soapmaking cooperatives, pottery galleries, dance collectives, and middle-aged sandal wearers (people with progressive politics have this strange penchant for toe exhibitionism).

You have to remember that crunchy suburbs are the stoner versions of regular suburbs. All the status codes are reversed. So in a crunchy suburb, all the sports teams are really bad, except those involving Frisbees. The parking spaces are occupied by automobiles in need of psychotherapy because they are filled with self-hatred and wish they were Danish wood-burning stoves. The locals sit around on the weekends listening to Click and Clack, the self-amused NPR car-repair gurus who tell other crunchy-suburb people how to repair a crank shaft on their 1982 Honda Civicthe one with 285,000 miles and a Darwin fish on the bumper, next to the sticker attesting to the drivers tendency to practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.

The true sign that you are in a crunchy suburb is when you come across an anti-lawn. Crunchy-suburb people subtly compete to prove that they have the worst lawn in the neighborhood, just to show how fervently they reject the soul-destroying standards of conventional success. An anti-lawn looks like a regular lawn with an eating disorder. Some are bare patches of compacted brown dirt with sickly stray pieces of green matter poking out, the vegetation version of Yasser Arafats face. Other anti-lawns burst forth with great symphonies of onion grass, vast spreads of dandelions and crabgrass, expanding waves of depressed ivies and melancholy fernssuch an impressive array of weed life uninterrupted by any trace of actual grass that you can only conclude some progressive agribusiness makes a soy-based weed enhancer/grass suppressant, with special discounts for Nader voters.

When you are in these neighborhoodsmaybe youve been invited over for a backyard stir-fryyou might want to ask for terrible lawn-care secrets, but you get distracted by the housepaint issue, which is another moral dilemma for crunchy-suburb residents. Painting your house exterior colonial white or production-home beige would, in these areas, be the moral equivalent of putting a National Rifle Association sign in the front yard. So crunchy-suburb residents again fall into two categories, starting with those who choose to paint their house every decade or so, but do so in such bright New Age colorslavender, cobalt blue, fuchsia, or purple hazethat no one can possibly doubt the Buddhist bona fides of the people who live inside.

The other camp regards exterior housepaint in the same way they regard makeup, as something that was probably developed using animal testing. Centuries go by without any fresh coats, and the run-down drabness of the exteriors is highlighted only by the peace signs made out of Christmas lights that pop up around holiday time. The roofs in these homes tend to undulate in great waves and warps, because the residents either cannot afford roof repair or reject the rigid uniformity of straight lines, unchipped shingles, and the whole symmetry thing. The front porches are rusted and cracked, buried under sedimentary deposits of former lawn furniture picked up from neighborhood thrift shops (crunchy-suburb residents are not really into material things, but strangely, they still cant manage to throw anything away). The settlement in these homes is such that if you put a marble in the middle of a living room here, it would pick up so much speed as it rolled downhill that it would bore into the philosophically named housecat if she happened to be standing in its path.

The nice thing about these crunchy suburbsaside from the fact that 96 percent of all childrens book illustrators live in themis that their residents are so relaxed. The ethos is almost excessively casual. While these folks might regard it as unusual to show up for a dinner party in anything other than black jeans and Birkenstocks, a suit and tie not made from hemp wont bend them out of shape. In other words, you may not really be part of their culture, but if you come to one of their towns, they will still welcome you. They may have little direct knowledge of anything that happens outside the nonprofit sector, but they tend to be genuinely warm toward new people. Tolerance is practically their profession. The cool zone is built on exclusion and one-upmanship, but the crunchy zone is built on inclusion and open-mindedness.

To their credit, the crunchy zones represent the last bastions of anticommercialism. The world used to be dotted with cultures that rejected the marketplace mentality. There were agrarians, old-family aristocrats, artsy bohemians, southern cavaliers, Marxists, Maoists, monks, and hoboes. But now the marketplace has co-opted or overrun each of those subcultures. Now, if you want to live an anticommercial lifestyle, or even a pseudo-anticommercial lifestyle, crunchiness is just about your only mode.

Amid the organic cauliflower stands and Moosewood Cookbookinspired dinner parties, youll find people suspicious of technological progress, efficiency, mass culture, and ever-rising affluence. The crunchies dont let their kids watch much TV they disdain shopping malls, they prefer the small and the local and the particular and the old to the powerful and the modern. In any normal political taxonomy, they would be called conservative; though they are progressive on civil rights and social issues, they shelter the idiosyncratic, ethnic, and traditional institutions from the onrush of technology, homogenization, efficiency, and progress. But in the U.S., political orientations are defined by ones attitude to the free market, and the word conservative ha been assigned to those who defend the free market, which of course is not a conservative institution. So crunchy towns tend to be associated with the left (though Rod Dreher of National Review has emerged as the champion of the Crunchy Consthe pro-life vegetarian high-church Catholics who can their own preserves, care too much about zucchini, home-school their kids, and read Edmund Burke while wearing Swedish clogs).

Crunchy people also tend not to have a lot of money, and some of them actually dont care about itthey arent merely pretending they dont care. Maybe you wouldnt want to spend your life in towns where half the men look like Allen Ginsberg, where the chief dilemma is whether to send the kids to Antioch or Hampshire College, or where Celtic folk/bluegrass songs intersperse with Phish anthems on the teahouse sound systems, but it is kind of interesting to be in a place in which the holy dollar has lost its divinity.

- David Brooks

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