Friday, August 09, 2002

I don't normally link to articles just (or even mostly) to rave about them. But David Brooks' gently satirical sketch of America's "sprinkler cities" and their inhabitants, the species known as "Patio Man", is worth singling out. Its deft prose and dead-on social perspicacity make it the equal of any Tom Wolfe piece, but without any of the potent venom that can make Wolfe so discomfiting to read.

Brooks' subjects are the brand new, carefully planned "exurbs" that have sprung up well beyond the perimeters of the suburbs surrounding America's big cities. Populated predominantly by middle-class families, retirees and post-industrial high-tech and service industries, these communities represent a new and distinct demographic that has yet to be courted and analyzed by political operatives and pundits. In fact, they may well be the main host population for the blogging phenomenon--a neglected political cohort with the means to express itself on its own initiative, using modern technology.

What are Patio Man's politics? Brooks characterizes them as solidly Republican, culturally traditional, focused on entrepreneurial and educational achievement and fanatical about social and community harmony. But they are not the economically subordinate "red state" working-class right I have been claiming represents one half of the bipolar modern American polity. Rather, they seem to be a third, "middle" tier, politically allied with their economic inferiors, but (according to Brooks) fleeing the gradual penetration and downscaling of the suburbs by unruly immigrants and blue-collar workers as much as they're fleeing the snobbery of the new suburban liberal overclass. Patio Man is thus clearly a pure product of the nineties boom, achieving his intermediately successful economic status as a result of that decade's explosive spawning of mobile modern high-tech and service-industry start-ups.

It thus remains to be seen whether Patio Man can survive the current economic downturn. Mortgaged to the hilt and employed in a "new economy" enterprise of dubious durability, he can little afford higher interest rates, falling home prices or weakening consumer and corporate spending--let alone the impending combined onset of all three. It may be, then, that sprinkler cities will become the ghost towns of the early twenty-first century, as their residents abandon their forclosed or negative-equity homes and shuttered employers in favor of lower-paying jobs with greater stability, leaving the mega-malls to die of customer neglect, the perfectly-kempt lawns to wither unsprinkled, and the dreams of a prosperous white-collar conservatism shattered.

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