Symptoms of our consumer culture 

David Brooks explains our new frontier

click to enlarge Self-professed Office Depot guy and New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks.
  • Self-professed Office Depot guy and New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks.

Tapped last year as the heir apparent to William Safire's spot as token conservative on the New York Times op ed page, columnist David Brooks has been described as the sort of cuddly conservative liberals can take home to Mommy.

Some on the right, however deride him as a pseudo-con whose views on gay marriage (he supports it), much less his willingness to work for the hegemonic liberal "paper of record," make him a lighty righty.

So it's ironic that a recurring theme of Brooks' work is how America's political culture furthers such polarities -- splits that transcend those between Fox News vs. NPR and manifest in nearly every facet of American life.

In his forthcoming book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, Brooks explores what he calls the "new exurbs," sprawling developer-envisioned communities the likes of which can be seen all over Colorado Springs from south on Powers to the northern reaches of Briargate.

Since the Springs is as growing and as polarized an American city as one might hope to find, the Independent spoke with Brooks, who next week will be visiting our city for a Colorado College lecture about what he sees as a new American frontier.

Independent: In an excerpt from your book that recently ran in the New York Times Magazine, you challenge the notion of suburbia that's often pushed by artists and intellectuals as a soulless conformity factory. Why has that image persisted?

David Brooks: A couple of reasons: One, they look boring and people go by appearances. Two, most writers live in cities and don't know much about the suburbs. Three, it's very hard to write about happy people, and if you look at most novels about the suburbs, even very good novels like the Jonathon Franzen novel The Corrections, it's all about miserable people.

Indy: You mention a few surprising things one can find in the new exurbs: "lesbian dentists, Iranian McMansions, Korean mega churches." Where in the country were you finding this stuff?

DB: [In] some of the older suburbs, especially in the Northeast, the upper Midwest; and actually I don't know if Boulder counts as a suburb, but there's some people that we wouldn't think of as classic suburban types living out in split levels. I find that most places I go to.

Indy: You note that the new exurbs are marred by less-than-flattering manifestations of our consumer culture and that most of it is ugly. How much do you think that matters to the people who live there?

DB: I do think it matters. People tend to move to where they think it's attractive; I think that's one of Colorado's great strengths. On the other hand, they want convenience. Their lives are hectic and they want to just be able to pull into a parking space and get into the restaurant or get into the store.

There tend to be two layers of shopping these days: there's the big-box malls where people do their necessity shopping and then you get these lifestyle centers, these things that look like little small towns stuck out in the middle of nowhere where people are more likely to go to the movies or go to restaurants.

When they're looking to save some money at Wal-Mart, they're willing to tolerate a lot of ugliness.

Indy: You also mention that the new suburbs make it easier for Americans to self-segregate by class and race, yet you also say these places are more diverse than people realize. Which is it?

DB: Well, it's both. People are pretty good at finding people like themselves, as I write over and over again, and sometimes a new development starts out reasonably integrated but then they get personalities and suddenly you get more segregation, self-segregation. Then some place gets a reputation as a place where a certain sort of rich person goes or where Hispanic people go, where African-American people go and I think that people do segregate off the older these places get.

So there's diversity if you drive 30 miles, but sometimes within a 200 yard radius there's not as much diversity as you'd expect.

Indy: Critiques of new exurbs have to do with the fact that their single-use zoning tends to isolate people from public spaces. It's also not very friendly to any form of transportation other than a car. Do you take these critiques seriously?

DB: I actually wouldn't live in an exurb myself for those reasons. I think that a lot of people who've moved out there have come to acknowledge the problems. They wanted a place where they could have their own yard and their own space and now they feel cut off.

I mention in the book, when you asked people in the '90s what they want in their building development they would say a golf course. But when you ask now, they want Kinko's, Starbucks, common parks, walking trails. They sort of want some of the vestiges of community.

Indy: Does the division between suburban and urban parallel larger divisions between red and blue America?

DB: All these different types of places are all driven by a very similar type of mentality and that sometimes the country seems bitterly divided, and in some ways it is, but we're divided in very similar ways. If you compare Americans to people from other countries, Americans have a lot more in common than they do dividing them.

Indy: What is the preferred David Brooks big-box retail chain?

DB: That would be Galyans. I actually have a joke in the book that there's a guy who's an Office Depot guy who secretly wishes he were a Home Depot guy, more manly, but I'm more of an Office Depot guy.

-- John Dicker


David Brooks will speak at Colorado College

Tuesday, April 20, 7:30 p.m.

Gates Common Room, third floor of Palmer Hall, North Cascade Avenue and San Rafael



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