2020: The Renaissance of the American Subrb

By Lauren Valles

For many, college is a space to manifest. It’s where you develop your own identity independent of the community that raised you. 

For those at UCLA, college offers a metropolitan setting – a city life teeming with diversity, art, design, innovation, cinema, and all of the other prerequisites for a progressive culture. 

For me and countless others, the spatial reality of UCLA was transformative in giving us a completely new lens with which to understand the world and how we interact with it. 

So perhaps that’s why the heartbreak so many students felt upon leaving UCLA this March was so intense; for Bruins, returning home represented the departure from an identity formed exclusively in Los Angeles and the vibrant, diverse culture it provides. Gone are the days of concerts, impromptu art show visits, and philosophical discussion on Janss Steps, replaced by the machine-manufactured white walls of the American suburb. There is no vibrance or diversity here, just uniformity. It’s stifling – but maybe this doesn’t have to be so. Perhaps the monotony of the suburbs can actually be a gateway to ignite UCLA students’ return to their creative pursuits and authentic selves? 

Even so, this optimistic view has long been opposed by architects and scholars alike. Belgian architect Leon Krier once claimed that “the suburb hates itself.” Krier would argue that Bruins, confined to the walls of modern-day Levittowns, have probably spent this time in quarantine wallowing away in despair enclosed by white-picket fences. 

But many UCLA students have capitalized on the ample free time they now find in their suburban fortresses by returning to their creative pursuits. Elizabeth Benke, second year, writes that spending quarantine in her quiet, retiree-dense neighborhood in Ventura County has given her “sudden ideas about a story to write or a personal art project.” She adds that this “rise in creativity” is an adaptation to her new environment outside of UCLA. The white-picket fences of the suburbs are now less of a cage for creativity and more of a blank canvas waiting to be painted.

Second-year Sachi Cooper echoes Benke’s sentiments. Now stationed in her suburban Virginia home, Cooper has combined her creative spirit with her interest in sustainability. She has crafted interactive activities for her family and friends to modify their ways to become more conscious of our Mother Earth. Her DIY Sustainability project has birthed creations like sundresses made from bedsheets! Again, the suburb in the time of COVID-19 is one of rebirth and reuse. 

On a similar note, first-year Summer Brashear has used this time in quarantine to develop her own art-sharing platform; “Homebodies: Art for Wellness,” strives to enable students to express their narratives and dialogue with other Bruins as they grapple with mental health throughout quarantine. Second-year Grace Fang put it best: “art continues to flourish even when it feels like the world has been turned upside down.” She and other members of the Lapu the Coyote that Cares Theatre Company have utilized quarantine to spark several creative pursuits, one of which was a short film exclusively filmed on Zoom entitled “Till Quarantine Do Us Part.”

UCLA students’ return to creativity in the American suburb highlights the ever-changing identity of the suburb in the modern era. These students’ creative pursuits are a testament to the new manifestation of what author Amanda Kolson Hurley calls the “Radical Suburb.” In her book, Hurley brings to light the often overlooked history of marginalized communities in suburban spaces. Such radical examples include Concord Park, Pennsylvania. Built in 1954, just a few miles from the famous Levittown, homebuyers in Concord Park were interracial couples who formed a babysitting co-op as a means of redesigning the blueprint of the suburban oasis.

Though the creativity of UCLA students feels far removed from the foundational “Radical Suburbs,” it remains that these different faces of the suburbs bring to light a key characteristic of the geography of these areas. Suburbs situate themselves outside the dense capitalist-infused urbanism of cities. A UCLA student’s existence in their hometown is a world away from the norms of exhaustion and busyness that plague our campus. Where campus life demands a constant cycle of assignments and social activity, the suburbs are a safe haven where independent identities, creative pursuits, and radical communities have the time and space to thrive. 

In the past decade, suburbs have begun to shift from carbon-copied blocks to burgeoning communities of racial diversity, accessible transit, and farm-to-table food. Hurley writes in a CityLab article that, “a suburbanite is now twice as likely to be represented in Congress by a Democrat as by a Republican,” and the futures of brick and mortar shops once found at the nucleus of suburbs are now uncertain. 

In 2020, the modern suburb is an ethnically diverse enclave of creativity and budding innovation. The ignition of the Bruin creative spirit in these times blurs the lines between the vibrance of dense cities like Los Angeles and the up and coming culture of its outskirts. In these times, the onus is placed on students like us to harness our creativity to redesign the places we call home to become more inclusive, accessible, and empowering. 

The suburbs are not where culture goes to die, but rather where it has been reborn.

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