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Life in the burbs ain’t what it used to be

By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
July 6, 2010

The numbingly similar tract homes, endless strip malls and multiple minivans filled with youth soccer players indelibly mark this former Indian mission territory as a Kansas City suburb.

Look deeper, and a more nuanced portrait of Johnson County, Kansas emerges: an economic powerhouse that has eclipsed its big-city neighbor in political influence. An educated community with a vibrant arts scene. And a cultural melting pot where Brazilian grocers and Vietnamese nail salons blend in with the Walmarts and Burger Kings.

Suburban America has been the butt of jokes and stereotypes for decades. The portrayal persists in Hollywood, which continues to zing the ‘burbs with over-the-top tales of conniving, desperate housewives and wayward soccer moms in bed with Mexican drug lords.

Enough, say the Johnson County civic leaders planning a National Museum of Suburban History. Their contention: With more than 50 percent of the country living in places like Shawnee, it’s past time to take the suburbs seriously.

“That’s a major shift in how we live,” said Johnson County Museum director Mindi Love. “There hasn’t been a recognition of that change. And there hasn’t been a lot of serious study on why that’s happening.”

That’s starting to change. In addition to the national museum, which remains in the planning stage, academia is also slowly embracing suburban studies as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry.

In southern California, the Center for Sustainable Suburban Development at UC-Riverside was formed in 2003 to promote economic research and examine regional planning as well as the political, cultural and environmental impact of suburbia.

In Long Island, New York — home to Levittown, the epicenter of the mid-20th Century suburban boom — Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies also aims to advance the public conversation about modern American life beyond cheap laughs, or pulp fiction melodrama.

“It takes a lot of time for perceptions to change,” said Lawrence Levy, executive director of the New York center. “For a long time, the suburbs were either a place of semi-serious people living fat and happy while the cities went to hell, or they were places of great despair.

“Even the people living in suburbia bought into that.”

Despite the shrinking populations of cities and their waning influence, urban studies remains a fixture on many college campuses.

Suburban scholars say that many of the more entrenched academic discipline’s main concerns — from race relations to poverty — are now more relevant in the once-homogenous communities.

“Change your mind about what the suburbs are,” said Robert Puentes, a suburban scholar at the Brookings Institution. “They’re not just bedroom communities for center-city workers. They’re not just rich enclaves. They’re not all economically stable. They’re not all exclusively white.”

“These are not your father’s suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Larry Meeker, Johnson County museum board president, exemplifies the depth of suburban dwellers visible once you peel back the layers.

A retired executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the 64-year-old Meeker lives in the gated golf community of Lake Quivira, where he is in his second term as mayor.

He ambles through the neighborhood on a motorized golf cart, and like most residents keeps a sailboat on the private lake. But Meeker’s yard is filled with scrap metal sculptures by an eccentric folk artist, and the self-described conservative boasts about how county residents aren’t hesitant to support tax increases when it comes to investing in schools, parks and other public services that promote quality of life.

“There’s a fundamental sense of conservatism,” he said. “But there’s a willingness to spend money on the right things.”

Meeker and Love call the eastern Kansas heartland the ideal location for a national suburban museum.

They describe metropolitan Kansas City as “basically a very large suburb,” where one of the city’s most well-known landmarks is Country Club Plaza, considered one of the first outdoor shopping centers when built in 1922.

They hope to align with a higher education partner, perhaps the University of Kansas or Johnson County Community College, and establish a landlocked suburban policy institute to complement the two coastal suburban think tanks. Project leaders are using a pair of grants totaling almost $170,000 to hone their vision.

Robert Lang, a University Nevada-Las Vegas sociology professor who studies suburban life, blames excessive familiarity for the suburbs’ second-class status. Since suburbs constitute “the background noise of our lives,” they’re easier to ignore or dismiss, he said.

Doing so is nothing less than rejecting inquiry into the American psyche, he suggested.

“The United States is the first suburban nation,” he said. “In the end, these are the places … where we are going to live, no matter what.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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