Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fake America vs. Slightly More Authentic America UPDATED, TWICE!

Are you sitting down? Because you're about to have your mind blown: it seems that Slate writer Jessica Grose... recently got married. And she has thoughts on What it All Means that she has generously offered to share with us, we the people who don't know her personally.*

If the NYT is less than sensitive to small "flyover" towns, Grose's op-ed today in the paper offers up a crude and clichéd portrait of New York as well as its suburbs. The suburbs are kinda-sorta nature-y! The city is filled with spoiled rich kids! (For the record, I was tormented one summer at camp by spoiled suburban kids, who fixated on the fact that my clothing didn't match, and that I had not brought along a hairdryer - we were eight! The takeaway here is that there will always be richer and brattier kids then yourself at summer camp, and they will find a way to make what is no doubt a well-earned break for your parents a miserable month for you.)

Her main objection to raising kids in the city, let it be known, is that it might mean having to take a stroller on the subway. Given that she had not long ago written about her intense pre-wedding arm workout, it might strike us as odd that she would not be able to take triplets on the JMZ, tossing the stroller down the stairs with her pinky finger.

We're to believe that her parents raised her in the suburbs for the following reason: "They had spent three years as interns and residents in hospitals in the South Bronx, taking care of patients with gunshot wounds and reviving heroin addicts." Hmm. Presumably two doctors might be able to raise a kid in a kind of urban environment at a great remove from the South Bronx? I'm afraid I don't really understand having this conversation without bringing class into it - if you're at a certain threshold where you'd genuinely be safer/more upwardly mobile with what your income could get you school- and real-estate-wise in a suburb, that's a valid concern, but otherwise? How could someone be simultaneously concerned about raising "brats" and schlepping a stroller on the subway? Aren't these the concerns of two different people, leading two utterly different lives?

The piece continues:

"In the suburbs of my childhood, packs of fourth graders walked home from elementary school without adult supervision, playing tag in the park along the way."

I suppose I only started going to and from school unsupervised in fifth grade - city kids have it tough. I guess we didn't play tag on the (MTA) bus, though. I feel like I never had a childhood!

"Adolescence involved training runs with my field hockey team down Main Street, where I often saw someone I knew; largely innocent keg parties in the woods; and, above all, the joy of driving a car down an empty, half-paved road with the windows open on a late June day. You can’t do any of these things in New York City."

The driving, point taken, but my high school track team ran up and down the Hudson River path, and I'm not sure what's so radically different when it comes to high school parties if the beer consumption occurs in apartments when parents are away, and is served in individual bottles rather than kegs. If anything, the whole we-didn't-drive-around bit makes it not only "largely innocent" when city kids get together, but almost entirely non-fatal. And! And! As free and wonderful as it must be to be 16 and driving around on your own, from what I hear it's kind of miserable to live in a must-drive place when you're still too young to do so and thus must get driven, or if your parents won't get/lend you a car. From 14 on, I could pretty much go wherever the MTA would take me, as long as I called home and didn't stay out too late.

Anyway, as someone who grew up right smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, I have had to contend my entire life with people explaining that the city's no place to raise a child, that it's basically child abuse to procreate in an urban environment. When it's like, aside from the rather crucial detail that I never learned how to drive (which, FWIW, many - most? - of my high school classmates did, even if virtually none had cars of their own), I think I turned out OK. And, because I grew up with no particular experience of them, I'm more likely to get excited (field trip!) than to roll my eyes when I get to go to a strip mall or a big-box store.

*I probably write about this writer's writing too much. I should note that I have nothing against the writer herself personally, don't know her personally, and must on some level appreciate/identify with what she writes, or I wouldn't come back to it. As a rule I try to reserve my snark for those who are a) super-established public-figure-type writers, with platforms far greater than my own, as opposed to random bloggers, and b) if possible, although I guess this unlike the former might be unintentional, people of roughly my own demographics, as opposed to people who, if I were to single them out, it might risk offending some greater constituency. See also: my responses over the years Jane Brody's "Personal Health" column.


Holy moly, someone actually makes the "almost borders on child abuse" claim, like for real. It's really not anything like child abuse to grow up without ever coming in contact with a tadpole. (Although we did dissect frogs at my high school.) And, dude (or dudette), if you're creeped out by "10-year-olds who eat sushi," you're not good country folk but a xenophobe.


This I'd just meant to add to the post earlier: If Grose conflates different and seemingly mutually exclusive objections to city-kids - the fact that it's expensive to be comfortable in a city, and the chance that one's kids will be rich and snooty - so too do some city kids themselves, as kids or looking back fondly on their urban upbringings. You did not grow up amidst "diversity" if your only glimpses of the area beyond 57th-to-96th 5th-to-Lexington were on drives to your country house. If you're rich enough, you can raise city kids who basically never see the city.


Withywindle said...

The reason I want to live in the suburbs is because my books are double-stacked on my bookshelves, and I dream of the immense basements, lined with library shelves, of the great Suburbs.

Also, you can get wild gefiltes from the streams.

Incidentally, the NYC of my childhood is already radically different from Shirebourn's. Our childhood memories tell us limited amounts about the present.

Flavia said...

I grew up in the suburbs, and while I didn't HAAAATE it, it was damn dull until I could drive. There were virtually no kids my age who lived within walking distance, and the nearest bus stop was a steep hill away and only went directly into downtown Seattle anyway (which was of no use to me since I had no friends there and didn't get to know the city until I could drive). I have distinct memories of spending almost the entire summer after 9th grade sitting on my parents' front porch, with a view of nothing but our driveway, listening to the radio all day and writing letters.

And the thing is, my folks lived close to everything--but "close to everything" meant at least a few miles (and down or up crazy steep hills, and often via a road not totally safe for young pedestrians). When I visit them now, I marvel at how conveniently they're situated. But it sure never felt that way when I was a kid.

Phoebe said...


On the one hand, I hear that, and am loving that my current living situation actually allows for each book having its own place on a shelf. On the other, it's making me think of this expectation I've known since college, that any good thinking person expects from life only access to books, maybe classical-music concerts and Theatre performances. I mean, I like access to things like good grocery stores and, yes, good and cheap clothing stores. I like people-watching and wandering around. Not everything I like about living in NY (or Chicago, or Paris, etc.) has much to do with the city's 'resources' in terms of cultural offerings. I can do the monastic books-and-dry-pasta thing, but occasional trips somewhere beyond that are always appreciated.


Yes, this is exactly what seems like it would be a huge pain in the suburbs. I seem to know a disproportionate amount of people who grew up in need-a-car places but didn't ever have one of their own. But for sure, the pre-driving-age years would no doubt be like that for everyone.

Meanwhile, the frequent anti-suburb complaints - ick malls, ick homogenization - don't seem as pertinent, because the same stores are in cities, and - more to the point - are the ones kids go to everywhere. We spent so much time in Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, the Gap, etc. We weren't exploring avant-garde art scenes, and if we occasionally went to a museum, we went somewhere for a coffee and a brownie quite a bit more often. Basically 99.99% of what we did could have been done anywhere in the country other than a truly small and remote town. It was just that we could walk there or get there by public transportation.

Dan O. said...

A sure way to draw Phoebe's ire: write a noodling first-person narrative that (honestly) displays irrational changes in psychological impressions with respect to somewhat (but not always) controversial topics. Do you think that you these narratives flout privilege, as they display neither arguments nor much in the way of explanation?

I find the phenomenology of impressions and stereotypes, what it is like when one morphs easily to the other, instructive. Perhaps you think that she's not a good enough writer to intend her piece to be about that. I have a fried who writes pieces like this (no, not AB). And she's usually pretty aware of what she's doing. After so many years of therapy, she had better.

Would it have been better if Grose had noted the privilege that allowed her family to ride along with white flight to the suburbs? Would it have been better if she'd confessed that she hankers for that privilege, after living in a city that can be a remarkable leveler? [What else does the subway example display?] Would that have been enough, if she did not also note the tension that raising a family in Carroll Gardens in 2011 denotes the same level of privilege as raising a family in, say, New Rochelle in 1980?

I dunno. I'm just jealous that she's got the cash to go perusing real estate listings.

One thing I find odd: as a Brooklyn parent (I live in that Windsor Terrace epicenter), I don't worry for a second about what impressions my daughter, now 2 y/o, will have when she's old enough to resent how she was raised. Nothing I can do can control how such a soon-to-be grownup person thinks. But if the worst thing my daughter resents me for is that I deprived her of keggers in the woods, I'll be pretty f'ing stoked.

Phoebe said...


Not "ire" - I just don't get the point of an article that merely restates every cliché on the book re: NYC vs. its suburbs, NYC-in-1979 vs. NYC-now, New Brooklyn, etc. Something can be introspective and original. This, however, was not.

So no, it's not that I would have liked the piece to begin with a straightforward announcement of privilege. What would have been a bit more useful, however, and not from a YPIS standpoint but just from a clarity standpoint, is if Grose had made it clear that city vs. suburbs is an entirely different debate depending on one's financial situation. Is she afraid that her kids will be sheltered snobs (the summer-camp example) or that she won't be able to afford to take her baby places by car (plausible in Brooklyn) or cab (the F-train example)? These are two very different concerns. Both are, in some generic sense, city-vs.-suburb concerns, but unlikely to be the concerns of the same person. (Do we really think the kids who tormented her at summer camp had been schlepped around via F-train? Or fine, this was pre-Brooklyn-super-gentrification, so via 2 train?)

Dan O. said...

"(Do we really think the kids who tormented her at summer camp had been schlepped around via F-train? Or fine, this was pre-Brooklyn-super-gentrification, so via 2 train?)"

I think [i]she[/i] thinks that. I think that she sort of thinks that bizarre notions infiltrate the minds of children who are raised amidst everything. I think she thinks that can have more control over her futurekids' values if they are out in the 'burbs. I think she realizes she thinks this. I think she has an inkling that she's wrong.

Of course, the biggest problem with Brooklyn Parents (tm) is that they (we) think the same sort of thing - that they (we) can control their (our) kids' values better in Brooklyn. They (we) don't want them to become Snotty Suburban Consumers (tm).

I think that control issue is why I'm so uncomfortable with any of the synagogues around. The desperation of parents wanting to be in control of their kids values is so palpable from the rainbow warriors of Kolot to the Conservaform conventionals of Beth Elohim. Growing up in the burbs, it wasn't any different. So religion is probably just not for me. (For the record, I do prefer the rainbow warriors.)

Maybe Grose should just join a congregation.

Britta said...

I don't think I can take anyone seriously who uses the phrase "my high school field hockey team" and complains about privilege in the same article.

Anyways, I grew up in Portland, OR (as I have mentioned ad nauseum), and one great thing about growing up in a city is that there were a relatively large array of options for broke high schoolers to have cheap and wholesome(ish) fun. Public transit was cheap and convenient(ish) (I didn't get a driver's license until age 20, and have never owned a car), and there was tons of cools stuff to do: dollar movie theaters, $5 student symphony tickets, arty coffee shops perfect for intense teens in black turtle necks who wanted to discuss Sartre, first Thursday art gallery openings, block parties, street festivals, book readings, and a giant bookstore which stayed open until 11 pm every night, and was totally free to wander around in. By Republican standards, I suppose my teen years were spent in subversive and perverse activities, but the free art gallery openings and cheap movie fests and coffee shops named after Nietzsche quotes meant I wasn't out drinking or having sex or smoking pot all the time to relieve the boredom of life.

Phoebe said...


I don't think she thinks these are the same people. That's not how I read it at all. I think she's offering up a laundry list of Things About the City, conflating all kinds of lives led within the 5 boroughs under one banner. I mean, yes, there are New Brooklyn Moms of the sort she might become, but most of the time, the women one sees bringing strollers on the subway, even at subway stops in yuppie areas, are poor-looking and of-color. I suppose a NBM is more likely to do so than a Park Avenue one, but not by that much.

I wonder how much the idea that parents control everything is specific to these bits of Brooklyn. It is certainly noticeable there, but is it absent elsewhere? I don't have kids, I don't live in Brooklyn anymore, and I have no idea.

And I'm not sure the synagogue's the answer.

Dan O. said...

The control thing isn't about Brooklyn. It's a thing about neurotic parents who have the wherewithal to scheme and effect their children's outlook no matter where they live.

"the women one sees bringing strollers on the subway, even at subway stops in yuppie areas, are poor-looking and of-color"

You're behind the times. Things have changed dramatically since 2008. Take my word for it.

Also, keep in mind that my normal is Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Ditmas Park, and Sunset Park. But the comparison is good, because that's where someone w/o kids living in Carroll Gardens (e.g. Grose) is likely to relocate to with kids. (As my family moved from W-burg.)

I don't get the synagogue thing. It's not like having a Christmas tree or a non-Jewish husband is an impediment to joining either of the places I have in mind. The Rabbi at one actively counsels interfaith couples. The Rabbi at the other has a non-Jewish wife. Nor would it matter in Brooklyn Heights. That's not really the point, anyway. The point is control-over-values.

Phoebe said...


I lived in NY until less than a month ago, and have taken the subway a good bit even since then. So I'm afraid it would be utterly bizarre if I took your word for it. Yuppie white moms with strollers on the subway? Not pre-2008, not post. Not never, but not often.

I'm not sure what your point is re: Windsor Terrace. I remember it, kind of, from living in Prospect Heights and Park Slope. Maybe they'd move somewhere less posh than Carroll Gardens? Maybe, if they have a lot of money and are doing well in their careers, not? Not sure where you're going with this. Are snooty kids from Windsor Terrace terrorizing rich kids from the suburbs at summer camp?

I was half-kidding re: the synagogue thing, and am aware of interfaith-friendly congregations. It just reminded me of that article.

Phoebe said...


Re: hockey, along with the absurdity of a rich kid from the suburbs calling rich city kids snooty (although not so very absurd, given that tiny differences feel the greatest) I was also reminded of the many, many times on DoubleX podcasts that Grose has mentioned how normal and popular she was in high school. It does make one wonder how summer camp would have gone if it had been Grose and a friend, plus one city kid they didn't already know, in that bunk.

Re: Portland, that sounds kind of amazing. But I wonder if this was the experience also of kids who weren't eventually PhD-bound? NY had options along these lines, if often more expensive (though museums are often free, and there were/are some good used book stores...), but not too many kids took that up. Everything like that in NY is geared to the young creative types who move to the city as adults.

Dan O. said...


Don't know how else to say that you're wrong. The F train between Smith Street and Church Ave. is absolutely full of parents of all colors and socioeconomic classes lugging around strollers. Granted, most of us don't make interesting fashion choices.

And, in Windsor Terrace we love our kids way too much to send them away for summer camp, even if we could afford it.

Phoebe said...

"Don't know how else to say that you're wrong."

I know that's the name of the game in this blog-comment thing, but look, we both have experience of this, and we've seen different things. Maybe the F train is somehow different from the BNQR123456 trains I have more experience with. Or maybe something really radical changed in this regard since three weeks ago.

Not sure why you're mentioning fashion choices - frazzled yuppie parents in sweats do not magically start looking like poor black and Latina women when they swipe their Metrocards.

Finally, to belabor for the sake of belaboring, I seriously doubt that the white yuppie women taking strollers on the subway (setting aside how many such women exist, but we agree that it's not zero) are simultaneously raising children who'd be able to out-snooty a rich kid from the suburbs. To out-street-smart, I suppose, but not to out-snooty.

And, I went to summer camp, but I grew up in Manhattan. Between your (tongue-in-cheek, I'm assuming) remark, and that NYT commenter with the tadpoles, I ought to be really mad at my parents for how they raised me! And yet, no.

Britta said...


Point taken. I was a pretentious nerd. BUT, I guess there was the option for me to actively be a pretentious nerd, while wannabe pretentious nerds in the suburbs have to resort to writing angst in journals and listening to music their parents don't like, or something. It's also true that many of my classmates owned cars and drank at parties (which I wasn't invited to) and had sex, though it was possible to be reasonably popular in high school without doing any of those things, so again, I guess I lucked out compared to some people's HS experiences.

Phoebe said...


Every childhood is so different, I guess! At my high school, everyone was nerdy and being entirely straight-edge through the end of senior year was... unusual. (There was this one clique of really goody-two-shoes girls who all started smoking and dating bad-boys during the second term of senior year, when the OMG-college-process was over.) Because nerdy was the default, and no doubt because there were relatively few, say, Baptists or Mormons, and a whole lot of children of immigrants, it was in no way assumed that nerdiness and underage alcohol (or, when under 18, tobacco) consumption were mutually exclusive. I don't think it even occurred to many of the parents that "21" had any significance, and of course it's not as if many kids were driving. I only know from post-high-school and, well, TV and movies about how, in the rest of the country, there's this split between how "good" and "bad" kids behave. Of course, no one from my high school has ever had sex, ever.