January 6, 2012

Suburban archaeology

This Christmas vacation I've spent a lot of time re-connecting with the places no one visits anymore, like the woods, especially the real thing that isn't right alongside a bike path or road, where you have to trample through leaves, sticks, and logs, and where you often have to cross a creek by jumping or very steadily walking across a fallen tree.

I don't hardly recognize most of the stores in my neighborhood shopping center. The bowling alley with arcade games, the mom and pop video rental store that unlike Netflix allowed for browsing, the army-navy surplus store, the deli that catered to normal people instead of the drinkers of kumquat-tinis, the total lack of anything geared to Mexicans -- all of that is ancient history, gone within the past 20 years.

One of the few places you can still go to and feel at home is public spaces that lie off the beaten path. Public spaces that housed a built environment like the mall, the roller rink, or the record store can all be razed and re-built into a "power center" with big box stores, or at best get converted into the organic doggie salons that fill up a "lifestyle center." With all of those buildings already in existence, and whose location is already known to customers, developers would rather screw up that part of your neighborhood than clear out a stretch of woods and try to build it and popularize it from scratch.

Even the uncontested public spaces like the woods don't look exactly like they used to -- like, where the hell is everyone else besides me? The general trend is to cocoon right before the peak of the crime rate, and during the falling-crime period. We saw that in the mid-century and we've seen it again since the early '90s. It's just another example to go out in the woods and not see anyone, except on bike paths. (That shows that it's not due to the winter weather, since some people are out, just not in the off-the-path parts.)

Still, it may have been de-peopled, but at least the woods has preserved the other signs of human life. Because the culture is so different in rising vs. falling-crime times, it is like visiting the ruins of a vanished civilization, almost right in your own back yard.

In two posts to follow I'll look at the changes over time in the writings that people carve into trees, and in the drink containers they leave on the ground. Even something as mundane as these cases tells us a lot about the ranges that people cover -- do they visit the woods at all, and if so, how close to the paths do they stick? -- as well as what they used the spot for -- did they drink alcohol or soda, did they carve their own initials or include someone else's too?

Fortunately, people leave dates carved in trees, and drink cans and bottles can be dated pretty well. It won't be a SPOILER!!! to say now that it looks like the time to be alive was the mid-1970s through the mid-'80s, since that's what all other signs point to. But it is nice to see it with your own eyes, particularly if you weren't there for it or have only hazy memories of it, whether because you were too young or too stoned.


  1. Just a quick observation about some suburban archaeology I'm familiar with in New Orleans. So many areas of 1920-1960 suburban neighborhoods, the kind of places you would kill to live, with gorgeous shotgun doubles, bungalows, and many other unique homes. Walking distance to everything you need.

    Circa 1960-2012 they were gradually taken over by low income african amer. families as whites felt more and more threatened by the rising crime and left for more distant suburbia.

    Now run down, dilapidated, and dangerous. Abandoned. After Katrina, most of the residents left. Gangs stayed. It's the kind of place that if it were in San Francisco, would have become reclaimed and thriving. But now too risky to invest in if it were to flood again.

    Ironic that the classic architecture of the city is preserved by poverty, and repels the SWPL crowd.

  2. This is more appropriate for the previous post, but not sure how many will still be reading that. You mentioned that England's homicide rate kept rising after America's. It occurred to me that "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland are generally thought to have ended only in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. So you might check out bands from there to see if they seem different from others of the time.


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