November 9, 2004
David Brooks and Wasteland America+
Today's Op-Ed by David Brooks, our favorite moderate conservative, offers an interesting study of one of America's fastest-growing demographic and geographic classifications: the exurbs. Exurbs are not really suburbs, because they don't rely on a nearby city, they're not traditional small towns, and they're certainly not urban either. People who live in exurbs live, work, shop, and especially drive in an endless array of strip malls and office parks, with nary a tall building or subway station to be seen. They have no contact with urban life. As Brooks says, they are "huge, sprawling communities with no center."
In other words, the most repellent form of civilization. I am not personally familiar with the I-4 corridor in central Florida, Mesa, AZ, or Henderson, NV--some of the exurb examples that Brooks offers--but I bet these places have lots of SUVs that never conquer any rocky terrain, no sidewalks or bicycles, and basically zero locally-owned businesses. Brooks seems to have chosen to write this Op-Ed as an extended and impressive rationalization for why his book about exurbia, On Paradise Drive, which came out six months ago, hasn't sold very well. He posits that the very people who might have been interested to read about the cultural phenomena that they constitute had no way of learning that the book existed. He says that his book tour took him to places like New York, Berkeley, and Seattle, so he was unable to promote in a central place where exurbians congregate. My guess is that these exurban shopping centers are probably not overflowing with quality bookstores. I would also guess that the residents of exurbia are too busy idling in traffic and affixing plastic siding to their houses to buy books about the changing cultural and geographic landscape of America.
However, these exurbs probably do have decent public schools, and a thriving community of non-denominational churches. Brooks notes that the Republican party got inside the "conservative but also utopian" sprawl of the exurbs, and convinced the people there to vote for them. I find it interesting that as the physical landscape of America becomes more and more foreign to small town and city dwellers like me, the political landscape changes right along with it, in similar ways. If you can see the appeal of living in a place like Polk County, FL, then voting Republican could certainly make sense too. Hopefully the Democrats will realize that these days, lots of Americans truly do not care about community issues and poverty and people who are less fortunate than they are; they just want low taxes and a yard and Outback Steakhouses. As Brooks says, "Get out into the sprawl, into that other conversation. It's a new world out there." -Amy
I can think of two other reasons Brooks' book isn't selling well: 1) It received mediocre reviews, even from his own employers, and 2) why would people in the "exurbs" want to read a New York Times writer's often insulting generalizations about their lives and choices?
In this Philadelphia magazine article one writer takes on Brooks' sweeping claims(including the mysterious statement that it's impossible to spend more than $20 at Red Lobster) by travelling to Franklin County PA. As it turns out, Brooks is often willing to dismiss facts to make his (often distorted) point.
Are there cultural divides in the US? Of course, and it's increasingly important that we understand them. But Brooks' "moderate conservative" label isn't even the issue in this instance as much as his elite urban attitude. In trying to sell his book to those "exurbites", he ultimately makes the same mistake the Democratic party did: talking down to the people you want on your side.
And David - nice try on the tour excuse, but even Mesa, Arizona has readings at the Barnes & Noble. - Emily
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