Two years ago I was sitting in Three Crow Bar on the steamy summer day of East Nashville’s Tomato Festival. I looked out the open window and saw my boss and his family crossing the street. It by no means shocked me to see my suburban boss leading his pretty wife and two teen sons across the street to the Tomato Festival because many families come to enjoy the festivities of that event. What did shock me was what he said the next workday when I told him I’d seen him there. “Yeah, they’ve got a good thing going with that Tomato Festival,” he said. “But what they need to do is get some big corporate sponsors; you know, make it really big!”
Nothing would be more revolting to me than seeing East Nashville’s beloved Tomato Festival turn into the mediocre corporate-sponsored monstrosity my boss envisions. I shudder to think, as would anyone who loves East Nashville as much as I do – and there are plenty of those people – how boring and failing my boss’s Tomato Festival would be. I wondered what makes him want to make everything so mediocre and boring. (It is important you should know if you have not read my previous two blogs in this series on the suburbs, that my boss is suburban to his core. His sons go to private schools, he has two cars plus his wife’s, and is proud to have just moved into a large new house on a golf course. Incidentally, he still hasn’t sold his former residence – a house two miles from the one he just moved in to.)
I think his brand of entrepreneurial vision says something about suburban living. In the suburbs it’s not about reaching up, it’s about pulling everything and everyone else down into mediocrity. And the reason so many people are so comfortable with the mediocre is that it’s so graspable, so like them. Two paragons of mediocrity are Jason Mraz and Taylor Swift; their songs are so easy to listen to, get stuck in your head, and for suburbanites to relate to because there is nothing challenging about their lyrics, nothing original about their songs’ hooks and formulas. There’s nothing on the suburbanite’s radio dial that would do anything to keep mediocre suburbanites from being anything but mediocre suburbanites. All their preferred music and entertainment is just themselves reflected back to them. The suburbanite entrepreneur follows the same principle as these other areas of its culture. Uncomfortable with true innovation, the mediocre suburbanite entrepreneur is likely to depend on some existing formula to either start or grow a business. He is uncomfortable with ingenuity and vision because it’s not his own.
By contrast, the vision East Nashville entrepreneurs have comes from their true desires, their passions, their artistry; not from jumping on someone else’s bandwagon, but from jumping totally off the bandwagon – or never jumping on in the first place.
Do you know what the most important thing that culturally thriving towns and cities have that mediocre suburbs don’t? Guts.
The people who live in a place like East Nashville have guts. They are brimming over with gumption. For many of them, it’s the only way they know how to live. They don’t do things they’re supposed to do; they do things they want to do. They don’t do things because other people are doing them; they do things that are right for them personally.
They don’t choose their clothes and music based on whatever is available; they choose their clothes and music based on a trueness to themselves. They like to get out and have new experiences that challenge them, change them, and make them better people.
Hence, the ‘suburbs versus cities and towns conflict’ is a geographical one that reflects a cultural battle. It’s a battle that no one talks about, but people feel it. The evidence lies in suburban envy and dissatisfaction.
Recently, Target Stores (the hallmark of all things suburbanite) has caught on to the envy its patrons often feel toward communities of original entrepreneurs. Like my co-worker who claimed to be jealous when I told her there is a charming gourmet ice cream shop around the corner from my house in Nashville, and, more recently, that the Nashville Farmers’ Market is just five minutes from my house, many suburbanites are feeling a little shafted. They just have the same boring places to shop all the time while we have boutiques and cottage industries, art festivals and artisans, gourmet ice cream shops and bold food trucks. So, Target has come to their rescue. They have launched a new line of products that can be found in their “The Shops” department.
The very existence of Target’s “The Shops” is an out-and-out admission that suburban life is boring and that they can hardly be depended upon to come up with and actually support an artisan community. They’ll only support an artisan community if it’s bundled up inside a big box retail store where they know exactly what to expect when they walk in.
There are two reasons why suburbanites love their big box retail stores and support them without question or fail.
1) Suburbanites want a spacious area in which to shop. They like things big. They like big cars that can support their sometimes big families and big children. But they also like spaciousness because it allows them to keep distance from others. By extension of where they’ve chosen to live (in the suburbs), they grow to prefer a distance from the hubbub of the rest of the world. They like seclusion and the sensation of exclusivity it brings, even though they’d be loath to admit it. They’ve already taken great lengths to place themselves in a bubble that is far removed from “otherness”. One way “otherness” is expressed is through originality. To the suburbanite, “otherness” is originality, and that’s why they’re so put off by the idea of entering a place of business and interacting with its actual originators. They’d rather go into Target, chase the experience of shopping boutique items – an experience Target is more than happy to help them superficially create -, and not have to confront the uniqueness suburbia so desperately abhors. This unoriginal, mediocre person I call “the suburbanite” does not like to be faced with bold, creative people because it reminds them how desperately deficient they are. (In essence, it’s the same reason popular kids in high school rarely want anything to do with members of the marching band or the art club.)
2) Suburbanites want the best of all worlds in one convenient location. Simply put, they want the world to come to them; they don’t want to have to go to it. Just as my boss made evident when he wanted to make the Tomato Festival lame by bringing in rich, suburban-focused sponsors, he – my sponsor suburbanite – would rather dilute any originality he finds than actually express admiration and awe for it.
One more word about Target: Target’s worst nightmare is to have a lower suburban population. A lower suburban population would mean that people are becoming more progressive, living more in cities that can support small businesses or communities that have ordinances against large corporate businesses. It would mean Target would experience less power over its consumers because it would mean they Target and large stores like Target were competing with originality, with small businesses in which consumers would be in direct contact with the business owners. And Target knows that would be bad news. Target could never compete with that level of personality if consumers would wise up and truly shop local.
My boss’s idea of “shopping locally” is to go across the street to Sam’s Club instead of ordering office supplies from Staples’s website. Well, I appreciate the movement toward reducing green-house gas emissions by decreasing the traveling that is necessitated by the purveyance of our office supplies by delivery, but what does it say about a community whose choices are Sam’s Club or Staples? This suburban Tennessee community needs more choices, more small businesses, and more consumer power. Patronizing Sam’s Club, Target, and Staples ain’t gonna get it there.