Notes from a Suburban Flâneur

by Nicola Sayers

I recently spent a couple of years living in Chicago, a city that I loved so much it still looms in my daydreams as my ‘one that got away’. During that time, in addition to exploring the many and varied neighbourhoods that make up the city itself, I also found myself regularly drawn further afield, where I developed something of an unusual pastime. I would take the train from the city, where I lived, to one of Chicago’s many suburbs — Winnetka (of Home Alone fame), Oak Park (of architect Frank Lloyd Wright fame), Glen Ellyn (of absolutely no fame) — and spend the day wandering aimlessly, dawdling, observing. Flâneur-ing, if you will.

The flâneur is an unlikely figure in the American suburbs. Implausible, even. The term is best known from the writing of Walter Benjamin, in whose reflections on Baudelaire’s Paris the flâneur is seen as an essentially modern — and urban — figure. The flâneur, as (s)he walks, encounters the city as a place of surprising turns, forgotten histories, discordant presents, and unfulfilled pasts.

In explicit contrast to such a Baudelairean scene, theorist Marc Augé describes what he calls ‘non-places’: motorways, hotels, airports; the stripmalls and largely purpose-built neighbourhoods that make up suburbia. If the Baudelairean city is one in which layers of history sit atop and astride one another, are built into its very fabric, it is exactly this presence of the past which is missing in Augé’s non-places. The aimless wanderer is implausible precisely because these spaces — these non-places — have typically been planned from scratch with very specific purposes in mind (transport, commerce, leisure, etc), and it is true, in this vein, that many people move through the suburbs in the way the planners intended: they drive from their houses to the malls when they want to eat, to the gyms at the stripmalls when they want to work out, and so on. 

And yet there I was: a born-and-bred Londoner, actively drawn to the American suburbs as my stomping ground, losing days on end meandering aimlessly past those white porches and neatly mowed lawns. And I found, strangely, contrarily, that I saw more — or saw differently — in my forays into the suburbs than I typically have done in the several major cities in which I have lived, and through which I have so regularly hurried. I noticed the teenager in her oversized sweatshirt, lost to her headphones and her dreams. I noticed the elderly lady drawing back her curtains to catch a glimpse of whatever minor action might be going on outside. I noticed how the colour of the ice cream parlour mirrored the colour of the sky. I grant that if I saw more, this was in large part a function of the eyes I was looking with. I am not from the suburbs, or from America. And aren’t outsiders often charmed by what they don’t have to live with? 

Countless young Americans flee the suburbs to the cities as soon as they are able. Indeed, a longing to get away is almost the cornerstone of suburban fictions, from April Wheeler, the bored housewife in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961), daydreaming of a move to Paris, to the teenage sisters in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), reading glossy travel magazines as they dream of escape. My story is in some ways the opposite. I grew up in West London and spent my teenage weekends taking the Piccadilly Line into Leicester Square to try to get into god-awful nightclubs using homemade fake IDs, all the while longing for the night to be over so I could go home to my pyjamas and books (years later, Swedish singer Lykke Li would perfectly capture my teenage experience with her lyrics: Though my jeans are too tight, Don’t feel like dancing, And all this light is too bright, Don’t feel like shining… Everybody’s dancing, I don’t want to). My teenage longings were chiefly informed by the American film and TV that I thirstily consumed. To me, it seemed that Winnie from The Wonder Years and Joey Potter from Dawson’s Creek had it all: boy-next-door romances, the freedom to bicycle those wide suburban roads, jetties on which to dangle their legs and think. I grant, then, that an additional part of the charm of the American suburbs for me is no doubt a function of my teenage televisual forays: I walk not only in the landscape around me but also in the dreamscape of my youth. 

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I understand the attraction of cities (beyond job market imperatives and the like), and the power of urban flâneurie. I know the joy of discovering a new little bookshop, of daily encounters with people very different to you, of stumbling unexpectedly, as I once did, upon Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. A few years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I spent fourteen hours walking along its route, guided by thousands of light orbs installed by an artist to celebrate the occasion. It was everything I wanted it to be. 

But what I also know to be true — and perhaps growing up in a city hammers this home — is that big cities can be places of deadening conformity too. Many Londoners are more concerned with school catchment areas, and the dinners they invite one another to a month in advance, than what they might notice if their busy schedules allowed for time to walk home instead of standing, boxed in like sardines, on the tube. New Yorkers often have a sense of themselves as less mired in conventional middle-class trappings, but they still all read the same New Yorker articles, and post near-identical Instagram posts in support of whatever political cause is ‘du jour’ (regardless of whether they’d given it any thought even a week before). It is not that the suburbs aren’t conformist; of course they are (as Jason Diamond points out in his recent book The Sprawl, the suburbs in the Postwar era were literally designed with homogeneity in mind (p. 54) — a chilling thought). But a city can engender the worst kind of conformity: conformity which doesn’t know itself as such. 

The global capitals are the centres of global capitalism. They are moneyed, and increasingly so. And with that comes all kinds of pressures: from waiting an hour and a half for so-so eggs at the latest hip brunch spot, to doing a job you don’t want to do in order to pay for the mortgage you can’t afford, to swiping right just one more time — there might be a better product on offer in the love shop, after all.  

Walter Benjamin understood this. If his writings are fodder for urban psycho-geographers who remember him as the thinker who best captured the capacity of cities to shock and awaken, then what is sometimes forgotten is that he was also the thinker who pointedly captured the ways in which cities can numb and routinize. He viewed the city as a kind of dreamscape in which going through the motions is too often substituted for real, alert living. As Benjamin scholar Graeme Gilloch puts it, Benjamin decried ‘the haughty, insular bourgeois subject, who, maintaining distance and shunning contact, hurries joylessly past to seek refuge in exclusive cultural spaces or private interiors’ (Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations, p. 96) — an image which is as incriminating today as it was then. To cite Gilloch again (whose book is one of the best on Benjamin that I know), ‘the city is home to an amnesia born of over-stimulation and fatigue, a forgetfulness which leads to a misrecognition of the always-the-same as the ever-new.’ (p. 216)

It is precisely that the suburbs are not ‘places’ that allures me. The suburbs are marginal: neither cities nor the countryside. They are where people move when they’re done chasing, and where their kids stay only until they are old enough to themselves begin chasing. They are not, by and large, places to visit, or places to be, or places to be seen. And to this lifelong urbanite, that is strangely liberating.

But if I see a kind of ‘strange magic’ as I walk through the Midwestern suburbs, I am not alone. I borrow the term from then-teenager and blogging impresario Tavi Gevinson, whose entire Rookiemag project (and the community that it fostered) were a kind of homage to growing up in suburbia, fuelled by a nostalgic aesthetic that sought out magic in the suburban mundane. Tavi’s world complicates a longstanding binary in depictions of the suburbs as either utopian (as in its 1950s ideal) or dystopian (as in the many subsequent representations that attempted to expose the original’s falsity). Similarly, Jason Diamond’s excellent book, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (2020) explores the ways in which the suburban experience, whether despite or because of the alienation inherent in it, has fostered a great deal of creativity: the music, film and fiction dreamed up in the suburbs is a mainstay of American artistic output. Indeed, in many ways it is hard to distinguish the cinematic from the actual where suburbia is concerned. As Robert Beuka argues in SuburbiaNation, suburbia was ‘always as much an idea as a reality’ (p.4).

If the urban flâneur walks between past and present and future(s), the suburban flâneur walks between the cinematic and the real. The language of the suburbs — which permeates suburbia and the popular representations of it — is a language of longing: a function, perhaps, of its marginality to the city. If my legs took me, almost unconsciously, towards the Chicagoan suburbs, I think this had something to do with feeling more at home among daydreamers than among those who feel that they have arrived; with feeling closer in spirit to the teenage dreamer muddling movies and memories in the Chicago suburbs than to the cool New Yorker whose fashions and politics are all predictably on point. Am I guilty of a romanticisation of the suburbs? No doubt. But, as compared with the lived experiences that actually define many city-dwellers’ days and months, the popular idea of the city as a place of diverse encounters and excitement is often a romanticisation too.