The Return from Exile in Reverse: Re-Creating the Suburban Experience in New York City

Jesse McKinley had a great piece in the New York Times last week about trying to recreate a stereotypical suburban experience within Manhattan. A native suburban, his theory was that the city is slowly becoming “suburbanized“:

 The ’burbs seem to be everywhere, from miniature golf in the Village to batting cages on the Upper West Side. There’s table tennis off Park Avenue South, an Applebee’s in Harlem and highway-style hotels like the Comfort Inn on the Lower East Side. Multiplexes are more common than art houses, and don’t even try to avoid trivia nights. If not for all the big buildings and honking, you could easily mistake Manhattan for Mahwah on some nights.

McKinley thinks that this might be the result of changing demographics, with people from the suburbs moving into the city and providing a target market for their “cultural traditions.”  Sort of like the way that an influx of ethnic immigrants create the need for more Pakistani restaurants, but far less spicy.  I would also add that, to the extent that his thesis is accurate — and I’m not quite convinced that a couple of bars offering ping-pong is a sign of the suburbanizing apocalypse — it might be that more couples deciding to stay in the city after they have kids might create a greater need for more “family-oriented” activities.

Anyway, as part of testing his theory, McKinley wrote a funny travelogue of a weekend he spent sampling these suburban diversions throughout the city:

  • A trip to the Manhattan Mall, which he found disappointing insofar as the “mall” doesn’t have a food court. No food court!  What kind of mall is that?
  • Trivia Night at a bar on the upper west side, which is I guess representative of the average suburban night out.
  • Two nights at a cheap chain hotel.
  • Dinner at Chevys, a classic suburban chain.
  • Mini-Golf at some place down in the Village.
  • Brunch at Applebees, the great “neighborhood grill,” if you live in the worst neighborhood in the world.
  • An Imax movie.
  • A few swings at the batting cages.

Now, as much as I liked this piece, as a self-appointed champion of the suburbs, I’m a wee bit nettled by the reductionist approach to suburban living.  We will not be MOCKED!!!  Or, rather, we can mock ourselves, in the way that only, say, Italian people can properly make Italian jokes.  But it hurts to see someone practically put on “blackface” like this.  Seriously, Applebees?  Ouch!

More to the point, I’ve lived in the suburbs for almost three years now, and I don’t do most of the stuff that McKinley put in his piece.  I get the mall, and the batting cages, and I guess I can understand the trips to stereotypically suburban restaurant chains.  But why stay at an Econo Lodge? Suburbanites don’t stay in cheap hotels — we live in cheap houses!  And what about miniature golf?  I haven’t even seen a miniature golf course here in the Hudson Valley area in years — they were all closed down and turned into McMansion developments.  The only place you get mini-golf is down at the shore.  It’s really more of a vacation activity.

So I don’t know if he quite captured the true modern suburban experience. If you really want that experience, and I don’t know why you would, here’s what I’d add to the agenda:

First, you can’t rent some small little hotel room at the Econo Lodge; rather, you should get some cheap suite hotel, because you need a kitchen that you can cook in.  Here in the suburbs, we don’t go out every night to fancy places like Chevy’s and Applebees — we cook.  So pick up some groceries, cook up a meal, and eat it in front of the TV like the rest of us suburbanites.

Second, when you’re done eating, skip the miniature golf and the batting cages, and get in touch with your true suburban self:

  • Take a trip to Costco, because nothing says suburbs like picking up 400 rolls of toilet paper.
  • Rent a lawnmower and start mowing a section of Central Park.  You’ll probably end up in jail, but you can’t spend a suburban weekend without cutting some grass.
  • Buy a car seat, and try to install it in a cab. That’ll take up a good half a day. The cabbie will be thrilled!
  • Clog up a toilet, and fix it yourself.

Buying stuff, cooking a meal, mowing the lawn — now, THAT would be a suburban weekend.

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