Friday, March 26, 2010

Out For a Drive (Part 3) - Professional Zones

As we drive farther, we begin to notice that the houses are getting bigger, the lawns look professionally manicured, and the driveways tend to be filled with Audis, Volvos, and Saabs. In these upscale neighborhoods, it is apparently socially acceptable to buy a luxury car so long as it comes from a country that is hostile to U.S. foreign policy. Soon you begin to see discount but morally elevated supermarkets such as Trader Joes. Here you can get your Spinoza Bagels (for people whose lives peaked in graduate school), fennel-flavored myrrh toothpaste from Toms of Maine, free-range chicken broth, gluten-free challah, spelt-based throat lozenges, and bread from farms with no-tillage soil. (What, does the dirt turn itself over?)

Trader Joes is for people who wouldnt dream of buying an avocado salad that didnt take a position on offshore drilling or a whey-based protein bar that wasnt fully committed to campaign finance reform. Someday, somebody should build a right-wing Trader Joes, with faith-based chewing tobacco, rice pilaf grown by school-voucher-funded Mormon agricultural academies, and a meat section thats a bowl of cartridges and a sign reading Go ahead, kill it yourself. But in the meantime, we will have to make do with the ethos of social concern that prevails at places like Trader Joes and Whole Foods.

You get the impression that everybody associated with Trader Joes is excessively goodthat every cashier is on temporary furlough from Amnesty International, that the chipotle-pepper hummus was mixed by pluralistic Muslims committed to equal rights for women, that the Irish soda bread was baked by indigenous U2 groupies marching in Belfast for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation, and that the olive spread was prepared by idealistic Athenians who are reaching out to the Turks on the whole matter of Cyprus.

The folks at Trader Joes also confront higher moral problems, such as snacks. Everyone knows that snack food is morally suspect, since it contributes to the obesity of the American public, but the clientele still seems to want it. So the folks behind this enterprise have managed to come up with globally concerned stomach filler that tastes virtuously like sawdust ground from unendangered wood. For kids who come home from school screaming, Mom, I want a snack that will prevent colo-rectal cancer, theres Veggie Booty with kale, baked pea-pod chips, roasted plantains, wasabi peas, and flavor-free rice clusters. If you smuggled a bag of Doritos into Trader Joes, some preservative alarm would go off, and the whole place would have to be fumigated and resanctified.

You usually dont have to wander far from a Trader Joes before you find yourself in bistroville. These are inner-ring restaurant-packed suburban town centers that have performed the neat trick of being clearly suburban while still making it nearly impossible to park. In these new urbanist zones, highly affluent professionals emerge from their recently renovated lawyer foyers on Friday and Saturday nights, hoping to show off their discerning taste in olive oils. They want sidewalks, stores with overpriced French childrens clothes to browse in after dinner, six-dollar-a-cone ice-cream vendors, and plenty of restaurants. They dont want suburban formula restaurants. They want places where they can offer disquisitions on the reliability of the risotto, where the predinner complimentary bread slices look like they were baked by Burgundian monks, and where they can top off their dinner with a self-righteous carrot smoothie.

The rule in these pedestrian-friendly town centers is Fight a war, gain a restaurant. Youll find Afghan eateries, Vietnamese restaurants, Lebanese diners, Japanese sushi bars alongside dining options from Haiti, Cambodia, India, Mongolia, and Moscow. And this is not to even mention the J Cosi-style casual dining spots offering shiitake mushroom panini sandwiches or the gourmet pizzerias serving artichoke, prosciutto, and brie pizzas (which can also come with a black-bean topping). When you stumble across Teriyaki Fajita Salad du Jardin, you realize it is possible to cram so many authentic indigenous cultures together that theyve created something totally bogus and artificial.

Ozzie and Harriet would find it odd that their old suburban town center now has a vegan restaurant for feminist reproductive-rights activists and their support circles, but these inner-ring suburbs are sophisticated places. They are the home of the upscale urban exilesaffluent sophisticated types who disapprove of the suburbs in principle but find themselves living in one in practice. Like the crunchy suburbanites, they disapprove of the sterility of suburban life, the split-level subdivisions, the billiard rooms, and the blueberry bagels. But unlike the crunchy suburbanites, these inner-ring people just happen to have landed jobs that earn them a quarter million dollars a year, darn it, and they somehow moved into recently renovated Arts and Crafts mansions with an Olympic-sized Jacuzzi in the master-bathroom spa, the emblem of their great sellout.

The people who live in the inner-ring suburbs are hardcore meritocrats and the chief beneficiaries of the information age. This economy showers money down upon education, so the fine young achievers who went to graduate school and got jobs as litigators and mortgage-company executives can now live in towns that are close to downtown theaters and concert halls but also filled with houses big enough to support a kitchen the size of Arkansas. About 15 percent of American households now earn over $100,000 a year. There are over seven million households with a net worth over $1 million. This nation, in other words, now possesses a mass upper class, and many of these folks are congregating in the upscale archipelago of such places as Bethesda, Maryland; Greenwich, Connecticut; Tarrytown, New York; Villanova, Pennsylvania; Winnetka, Illinois; San Mateo and Santa Monica, California; Austin, Texas; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. In the mornings, there are so many blue New York Times delivery bags in the driveways of these towns, they are visible from space.

Back when the old WASP elite dominated these places, they were rock-ribbed Republican. But the new educated elite has brought new values and new voting patterns. In 1998 National Journal studied the voting patterns of the richest 261 towns in America and discovered that the Democratic share of the vote had risen in each of the previous five elections. In 2000 the Democrats went over the top. A Democratic presidential candidate carried the area around the Main Line, outside of Philadelphia, for the first time in history. And the first Democrat ever won the area around New Trier High School, north of Chicago. Once Republican strongholds, the inner-ring suburbs have become Democratic zones, thanks to the influx of the educated and affluent cultural elite, with their graduate degrees, high incomes, and liberal social values.

These places have their good and bad features. On the downside, they are strangely insular. Though the people here are in most ways well informed, and often can name the foreign minister of France, they tend to live in neighborhoods where everybody has a college degree (only about a quarter of adult Americans do), and they often dont know much about the rest of the country. They might not know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are, even though these men are among the nations best-selling authors, with over fifty million books sold. They often dont know what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal, even though Pentecostalism is the most successful social movement of the twentieth century, starting in Los Angeles with no members a hundred years ago and growing so fast there are now roughly four hundred million Pentecostals worldwide. They cant name five NASCAR drivers, though stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country. They cant tell a military officers rank by looking at his insignia. They may not know what soy beans look like growing in the field. Sometimes they cant even tell you what happens in Branson, Missouri, though, as sort of the country music Vegas, it is one of the top tourist destinations in the country. On the other hand, they are really good at building attractive and interesting places to live. This is, after all, the red-hot center of the achievement ethos, and while few people in these neighborhoods have fought in wars, many have endured extensive home renovations.

So if you are in an inner-ring suburb, you are likely to be amid people who have developed views on beveled granite, and no inner-ring dinner party has gone all the way to dessert without a serious conversational phase on the merits and demerits of Conan countertops. People here talk about their relationships with architects the way they used to talk about their priests, rabbis, and ministers. Bathroom tile is their cocaine; instead of blowing their life savings on narcotic white powder they blow it on the handcrafted Italian wall covering they saw at Waterworks.

The sumptuary codes in these neighborhoods are always shifting. Highly educated folk dont want to look materialistic and vulgar, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have an in-house theater with a fourteen-foot high-definition projection screen to better appreciate the interviews on Charlie Rose. Eventually these advanced-degree moguls cave in and buy the toys they really want: the heated bathroom floors to protect their bare feet, the power showers with nozzles every six inches, the mudrooms the size of your first apartment, the sixteen-foot refrigerators with the through-the-door goat cheese and guacamole delivery systems, the cathedral ceilings in the master bedroom that seem to be compensation for not quite getting to church. Later, when they show off to you, they do so in an apologetic manner, as if some other family member forced them to make the purchase.

Inner-ring people work so arduously at perfecting their homes because they dream of building a haven where they can relax, lay aside all that striving, and just cocoon. They have deep simplicity longings, visions of having enough money and space so they can finally rest. Yet you know they are wired for hard work, because they feel compelled to put offices in every room in the house. Mom has an office in the kitchen, Dad has an office off the bedroom, the kids have computer centers near the family room, and its only a matter of time before builders start installing high-speed Internet access in bathrooms. That dream of perfect serenity and domestic bliss will just have to be transferred to the vacation home.

Inner-ring people tend to have omnivorous musical tastes. Theyre interested in zydeco and that Louisiana dance music they heard on Fresh Air, even if they do tend to drift back to Melissa Etheridge and Lyle Lovett. They prefer independent bookstores, and they bend down and read the recommendations in the staff-picks section. Thats how they stumbled across Anita Diamant, Paul Auster, and Wally Lamb before they got really popular.

If they are not perpetually renovating their properties, inner-ring people are off on allegedly educational vacations improving their minds. When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he didnt go to Queen Isabella and say, Well, I didnt find a trade route to India, but I did find myself. That, however is exactly what highly educated inner-ring people are looking for in a vacation. They go on personal-growth Greek cruises sponsored by alumni associations, during which university classics professors lecture on the Peloponnesian wars while the former econ majors try to commit adultery with the lifeguards.

As you sit with them intimately in their reading alcove (not the one in the master bedroom suite; rather, the one beside the office, near the nanny suite) they tell you about the weeklong painting seminar they took with Comtesse Anne de Liedekerke in Belgium, the cooking seminar in Siena, the tiger-watching adventure in India, or the vineyard touring week in Bordeaux. When they put all this hard-won knowledge to work by using the word geometric in reference to a cabernet, you want to applaud their commitment to lifelong learning, but you are distracted because your butt is shaking as a result of the eighteen-inch woofer their architect cleverly embedded in the built-in divan you are resting upon.

When people in their twenties are surveyed on where they want to live, more of them answer inner-ring suburbs than any other place. Its easy to see why. These places combine the sophistication of the city with the child-friendly greenery of the suburb. The people here are well educated, lively, and tolerant (unless you want to, say, build a school in their neighborhood, in which case they turn into NIMBY-fired savages ripping the flesh from your bones with their bare hands).

- David Brooks

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