Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Argus Observes: Suburbs on the rise can have their own provincialism

(Editor’s note: In 1954 the rise of suburbs and the urbanization of America was already a phenomenon worth noting. Not everyone thought it a good thing. Nor would it, my father suggested, do away with the development of provincial attitudes. Come to think of it, provincialism is alive and well in 2008 America. It’s one way of thinking about the red state, blue state divide.)

From The Argus Observer for July 22, 1954

My brother-in-law, visiting here from Detroit, made the same observation about “suburbia” as that made by Frederick Lewis Allen in a series of two articles in the most recent issues of Harper’s Magazine.

He is Bruce McBane, an executive in charge of research in auto paints for Pittsburgh Paint in its Ditsler plant in Detroit. He and my sister live in a new post-war housing project for middle income families in Detroit.

It is the “for middle income families” that is the revealing factor.

Bruce said, “Our children don’t see enough of all kinds of people. For instance, they don’t get any contact with people of other aces or other income brackets or other economic interests.”…
It is so much a young family type of community that there are 74 children in their rather large residential block.

This is just one little phase of the change that has come about in living because of the great American movement to suburban living. Marriage prospects, social customs, hobbies and buying habits of this generation are being radically upset by America’s headlong rush into suburban living. In many areas the quiet rural neighborhood is vanishing, gobbled up by the fast spreading metropolis and the space-eating automobile.

Each one of these new communities develops its own provincial characteristics just like one of the country provinces from which the term provincial originate.

A peaceful, well settled family life results in certain provincial characteristics wherever it occurs.

As a boy raised in rural Idaho, I accepted the idea that we were provincial in the original sense because we had as Webster defines, “the ways or manners of a rural district.”

But there is a further definition of “provincial” in the dictionary, “confined to a definite locality . . . restricted . . . limited.”

As a young man selling advertising in the Mission district of San Francisco (during the late 1930s), I learned that some of the world’s most provincial people live in the cities.

The mission district had its own shopping area three miles from the city center. I met many people who hadn’t been downtown for two or three years and one prominent business man once told me in glowing terms of his trip east as a youth. He had been to Reno to see the famous Johnson and Willard prize fight in 1914.

Those people read less and knew less about what was going on in the world by a good deal than the farm people I had known in Idaho. So San Francisco’s working people looked shockingly provincial to me.

On the other hand I have noticed that we look provincial to people who move here from the cities. We have a different kind of community life, lacking many of the things the city dweller is used to, so we seem provincial.

I think that most families would find some restrictive tendencies in the educational training of their children no matter where they lived. No place is completely cosmopolitan and maybe it is just as good for us if we do have our roots in some definite community situation.

Almost everyone gets some emotional satisfaction out of his provincial roots.
O. Henry wrote a clever short story about the human trait of prejudice in behalf of one’s childhood surroundings.

Entitled “Cosmopolite in a Café,” it tells of a boisterous fellow who brags about being a citizen of the world and works up considerable enthusiasm among his associates until it reaches the point where someone makes a disparaging remark about “the bum sidewalks and the water supply” of Mattawankeg, Maine.

Thereupon the cosmopolite promptly punched the offender, “Originally from Mattawankeag,” the explanation goes, “he wouldn’t stand for no knockin’ the place.” – By Don Lynch

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