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Jewish World Review August 9, 2002 / 1 Elul, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

A funny take on a new kind of suburb | You won't find a catchier title than "Patio Man and the Sprawl People."

That's not the name of a new horror movie. Patio Man and the Sprawl People are some of the latest discoveries of the Weekly Standard's David Brooks, a clever conservative who sees new and scary beings living among us long before the rest of us do.

This time, Brooks has discovered the Sprawl People - where the nuclear family is not Ozzie and Harriet et al. but Patio Man, Realtor Mom, Travel Team Girl and Buzz Cut Boy.

As Brooks describes in great and funny detail in his Weekly Standard cover piece, Sprawl People are high-achieving, optimistic, mostly Republican-voting Americans who have moved from old, mature suburbs to our newest suburbs - what he dubs "Sprinkler Cities."

Don't look for these new middle-class communities near Detroit or Pittsburgh. They mostly have popped up in the past 10 years in the South and West near cities such as Denver and Las Vegas. But one exists in Virginia in Loudoun County, near D.C., and Brooks says it is fairly typical:

A 12.6-percent population growth rate from April 2000 to July 2001. Acres of new, affordable Mini-McMansions. Archipelagos of Power Malls, theme restaurants and various Depots - Home, Office, Furniture, Patio, Pet.

In these Sprinkler Cities, Brooks says, only half-joking, mothers are "effortlessly slender," Dads have cool high-tech jobs, and everyone gets along socially and politically.

No one watches crappy daytime TV, the streets are tidy, and every "unnaturally bright" child is well-nurtured, well-tested and attends soccer academy.

Unlike most intellectuals, Brooks doesn't detest suburbia - old or new - or the 50 percent of Americans who now call it home. Nor does he hate suburbia's sometimes pathetic and/or embarrassing lifestyles - which he says is not "a retreat from American life" but "is American life."

The 'burbs, to dispel a lingering stereotype, are no longer so Wonder Bread. Brooks says today they are home to most Asian Americans, half of Latinos and 40 percent of blacks. And the majority of houses are occupied by young singles and elderly couples.

Brooks explains why so many suburbanites have fled to these Sprinkler Cities - to get away from the snooty rich and the discomforting poor people who have infiltrated and upset the middle-class equality/conformity of their old neighborhoods.

It's the rich - overeducated, overcultured doctors, lawyers and journalists who never liked suburbanites - who've really wrecked things with their Volvos, latte shops and environmentally sensitive bakeries, Brooks reports.

This "extremely conservative ideal" - this relaxed, neighborly, morally upstanding and socially uniform Mayberry milieu that forms the foundation of Sprinkler Cities - sounds horrible, and Brooks hints that it is.

But it won't last. Once Sprawl People establish their Sprinkler City, he says, they begin to ruin it. Things get crowded and stratified. The snobs arrive. The poor show up. The founding citizens want to preserve their peaceful hominess, so they lobby to control further growth.

And then, Brooks predicts, as the Sprinkler Cities age, it'll happen again in typical American fashion. Brave new waves of middle-class Patio Men will "again strike out as the avant-garde toward new places, with new sorts of stores and a new vision of the innocent hometown."

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald