Blame it all on Beaver Cleaver.
The iconic fifties situation comedy was all about life in suburban America, and the American Dream that centered on a nuclear family, with a male breadwinner, two kids, and a smiling housewife who, if she was desperate, was hiding it behind a well pearled smile. It’s nice to think that June Cleaver actually hid bodies in the cellar, (or had any hobbies at all) but that is a show for a more recent world.
What did this idealized picture actually create? The idea of the suburbs came with post war economic and baby boomer expansion. Having a car allowed that people could leave city centers behind and live a quiet life in tree lined neighborhoods. It was based on the idea that a middle class could thrive, fossil fuels would stay abundant and non-polluting forever, and the way we never were, actually was real, at least for a time.
It could be called the way we never were because, (Shocker!) Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best, and even Ozzie and Harriet, were fiction. It actually turns out that even in the golden years of the booming mid 20th century, there was racism, sexism, incest, work disparity, and other evils of society.
The suburbs changed how the world lived because they offered a lovely dream. The dream was offered on a bake-lite tray with a Martini, after a hard day at the office, by a smiling June in heels, standing in a spotless house. Everyone was white, either affluent or aspiring to be, the kids came home to a full time mother with the freedom to not have to be a wage earner, and dad, although a bit of a doofus at times, always had the kind hearted wisdom and discipline to keep the suburban dream alive. Ward was strong, smart, and didn’t drink, gamble, cheat or beat his wife and kids.
It was not until the sixties began to emerge with ideas that everything the suburban dream was in denial about could not stay in denial much longer.
The suburbs gave us car culture, which gave us fast food, which gave us an obesity epidemic. They gave us strip malls, supermarkets, the end of bustling downtown, suburban sprawl, housing developments with ever super-sized McMansions, easy credit, enviable lawns, and education opportunities for returning veterans and the GI Bill. Suburbia also helped create the civil rights movement as more minority people began leaving the south, and building their own versions of the American Dream. It wasn’t all bad, or all good, just like most things in life.
The greatest change to culture in general, was what has been termed Affluenza. So long as energy costs were low, consumerism and a lust for bigger and better, drove the economy toward computer technology, more gadgets, and the slow close of movie theatres since everyone could now afford a television to see what mischief that darn little Beaver was up to this week.
All of it changed when the baby boomers reached a certain age and discovered natural rebellion against the establishment. Rock and roll burst out with Elvis, and then the British invasion. Young people discovered sex, drugs, and rock and roll. An unpopular war in Vietnam further fueled the passions to find flaws with establishment suburbia. Free love, (pre-AIDS and STD’s,) seemed like a good, and groovy, idea at the time. Feminism was born from coffee clatches, pre-coffee houses. The earth movement was born when people realized clean air, water, food and soil might be worth protecting. The suburbs helped create the sixties, and the sixties helped create a backlash against June and Ward Cleaver, who had to move to nostalgia T.V.
Some may even go so far as to say that suburbia helped launch the very divisive political climate we now have. As soon as affluent suburbanites began to find loopholes and corporate subsidies, the middle class began to suffer from its own success, and excess.
History moves in cycles, and with innovation, green jobs, and a new economy to come, a new Suburbia will likely emerge. We all hope it is inhabited with Emos, vampires, desperate housewives, emotionally available dads, same sex marriages, and recycled everything in great abundance available by efficient mass transit along tree lined streets overlooking community gardens.
We may not have the Beaver anymore, but we will always have the fond reminiscence of the way we never were and what we learned from that time.