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The Rise and Fall of Suburbia

By pure chance, I came across two films that show the rise and fall of the suburban American Dream. The first of the two, The City (1939), is propaganda-like. It sells the idea of the suburban city, what it calls “a new kind of city”. Around that time, when cities were industrial, dirty, overcrowded, and increasingly dominated by the automobile, the answer was not to adapt, but to flee. The idea of the suburban city was that it was rural, “close to the soil”, with food coming from “local farmers” and life surrounded by nature. The narrative of the film is very clearly biased towards this new ideal, selling the urban cities of the time as if they were embodiments of hell on Earth. Of course they were not such pleasant places, but what they were calling for was a controlled, pure, peaceful place. The idea was that these new “cities” would not be allowed to grow out of control. As we now know, they did just that. This “new kind of city” was the birth of suburbia, which led to the standardised sprawl that cities across the world have experienced.

The other film, Radiant City (2006), looks at life in the modern day suburbs that are still being constructed generations later. Radiant City exposes the lonely lives of the inhabitants of such places, and the inability of these neighbourhoods to provide the sense of community that was promised. It’s surprising that we continue to aspire to living in such places. Cape Town is no stranger to neighbourhoods like this.  The city continues to sprawl wherever it can, dividing us from our fellow citizens, while creating lonely, unhealthy, and inefficient places to live.

Radiant City (85 minutes) can be watched online here, as can The City (43 minutes) (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

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Gareth Pearson

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