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From American dream to global nightmare | From the shooter to the city | Culture

by News Room
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Modernity was American. Have a house with a garden and, be careful, without a fence. On one side, the house had a garage that was used to park the car or to convert it into a DIY workshop, the hobby of the husband who, beer can in hand, maintained a lawn no more than an inch long.

The woman’s place was inside. The American kitchen, which, as it was not separated from the living room, connected it with the rest of the family. And she allowed him to moonlight: watching the children while she pressed buttons to clean or prepare dinner (opening cans and heating what she had bought at the supermarket in the microwave). The children could play sports—what house didn’t have a basketball hoop in a corner of the façade?—and start earning a little money early by delivering the rolled-up afternoon newspaper on a bicycle. The porch was the territory of the dog, who snoozed, of the women who, with plenty of time thanks to the help of household appliances, could paint their nails or meet with their friends, while their husbands watched the baseball game on the television, the the only one inside the house that had replaced the fireplace. We have grown tired of seeing that landscape in movies and imagining it in novels. What has happened with so much harmony?

Cities have historically grown, both through success and, alas, failure. We people come to them to transform our lives—working, studying or looking for opportunities—and we find that, today, almost more difficult than finding a job is finding where we can afford a flat/room to sleep.

‘New Kids in the Neighborhood’, (1967) del Norman Rockwell Museum Collection.Norman Rockwell

The lack of space in the urban center, or its congestion, its pollution or its sale to the highest bidder, made North American cities grow. But also urban planning that put the business of selling real estate and cars (shelter and transportation for people) above any other priority. Thus, life in the American suburbs was, compared to life in the European suburbs, a conflict-free setting, the space for the ideal family.

The homes were advertised as the American dream to live in contact with nature, it was not said that far from the urban center. Basically prefabricated, they could be erected quickly, expanded over time and even personalized by choosing the color of the wood of the facade.

You could go to work by car, to the station, and from there take a train. In a country without a public health system, nor almost free access to higher education, kids had free transportation—in a school bus yellow that has not altered its aesthetic—until middle school and/or high school. But… as soon as they turned 16 they got their driving license and bought a second-hand car. By then, they had stopped delivering newspapers and by working a few hours at the local McDonald’s they could pay for their gas. That’s how cheap the car’s logic was. So much so that in many neighborhoods cinemas were not even built: you could get to the screen without leaving the car. That was the American model. The State paid—with everyone’s taxes—for the construction and maintenance of the roads. It neglected, in many cases, the less profitable railway network. What happened then if everything seemed perfect?

The CCCB (Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona) exhibition Suburbia. Building the American dream It counts. Until September 8, one can travel back in time and, thanks to the work of its curator Philipp Engel, be infected with so much hope and happiness. Also being disappointed when realizing that happiness is always something temporary.

Several things happened. First of all, these new green and cheerful suburbs were also ghettos. Urban diversity, ethnic or social variety, could rarely share the same type of housing. The houses were all spacious, indirectly encouraging consumption. But also, at a certain point, leaving the door open stopped working. With the arrival of fear, a good part of the population most accustomed to do it yourself who, to trust public institutions, acquired firearms. The bucolic green was filled with rifles and cars.

Life in the suburb was centered around the shopping center, which maintained a constant temperature whether it was 40 or minus ten degrees outside. Today, hundreds of those shopping centers have disappeared. The exhibition exposes that desolate landscape. In the same way that in Europe we see small businesses disappear due to the arrival of Amazon – or we see neighborhood stores converted into collection centers – in the United States mail order shopping has ruined its main place of leisure.

'Untitled #52', from the series 'Traces, 2015-2017' by Weronika Gęsicka.  Courtesy of the artist.  Jednostka Gallery.
‘Untitled #52’, from the series ‘Traces, 2015-2017’ by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy of the artist. Jednostka Gallery.Weronika Gęsicka

There is much more, and Engel—who studied comparative literature—has a look capable of explaining architecture and urbanism beyond buildings and streets. That is the value of this exhibition. The role of women, who were only going to have to press buttons in those mechanized kitchens, changed with their massive incorporation into the labor market. And, with that economic independence, with her ability to make her own decisions. Children began to disappear with the decline in birth rates. Other races, other cultures, other ways of relating to the street also arrived. And with loneliness. Newspapers stopped being printed and read. Cars, which offered so much freedom, began to choke the suburbs. On the train to the city we no longer read the afternoon newspaper, we look at what the algorithm wants to distract us.

In this exhibition, geographer Francesc Muñoz portrays what happened in Catalonia: the era of the townhouse. And its consequences for cities. Today, when we understand that having a car is a luxury and not a right, when we do not see it as the future, but almost as a hindrance to the past, and when we have recovered streets to walk, our lives, our finances and our bodies are changing .

Advertising for the Monteclaro urbanization in the newspaper 'ABC' in 1974.
Advertising for the Monteclaro urbanization in the newspaper ‘ABC’ in 1974.

The only thing that seems to remain in the city, and in the suburbs that surround it, is its inexhaustible capacity for transformation. Also the priority of marketing with dreams. Having become tourists around the world ourselves: we have witnessed the invasion of tourism that has left us with few possibilities of living in the city. And even in the nearest suburbs. Now Amazon boasts of saving lives in the towns thanks to its deliveries. Whatever happens, we have material for new films and novels: reality will continue to surpass fiction.

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