Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cities Have Always Been Popular on TV

It is somewhat popular now for self-described urbanists to use clever references to pop culture to explain how cities became popular again. For instance, Jeff Speck writes in The Walkable City (p. 20):
"Born as the baby boom ended, I grew up watching three television shows almost daily: Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch,  and The Partridge Family. While Gilligan's Island may have had little to say about urbanism, the other two were extremely instructive. They idealized the mid-twentieth-century suburban standard of low-slung houses on leafy lots, surrounded by more of the same...[note: Speck does mention that the shows that were urban all dealt with crime. Then he continues.]...Now, contrast my experience growing up in the seventies with that of a child growing up in or around the nineties, watching Seinfeld, Friends, and, eventually Sex and the City..."
Speck is not alone using TV shows as a touchstone of particular eras. Nearly all of the "back to the city" proponents use some variant of these shows, especially Friends for some reason. These pop culture analogies are compelling, and in this case oddly wrong.

I'm not sure why young people moving to cities is now treated as a new thing*, but so some people say. Speck alludes to two different types of TV shows, though. One is focused on families and the other is focused on young, single adults. Now, as it has always been, family shows tend to be single family suburban and young, singles tend to be in dense urban areas. These general observations may be even more accurate now than they were decades ago.

Here is a link to 1980s popular shows, many of which started in the 1970s. Three's Company, for instance, was about young, single people. Set in Santa Monica, the three shared an apartment, walked to the Reagle Beagle and did not own a car (they tried to buy one to share in season 2 in 1977/78). This sounds urban! One Day at Time was a rare family show set in an apartment that was not New York. The Cosby Show was also as urban as you can get. Taxi romanticized New York at a time when it was very hard to do. Even Joanie and Chachi moved from relatively suburban Milwaukee to the big city of Chicago as soon as they could. There just wasn't an obvious shift in locations or depictions of cities that mirrors any actual changes in attitudes toward cities, and this is especially true for young, single adults.

I certainly don't know about all of the TV shows out there in the world, but I don't know of any that featured young, single people rocking the suburbs. It would be a really boring show! So enough with the Friends and Sex in the City analogy. It doesn't logically or factually work. (Now is when I would go yell at the kids to get off my lawn if I had one.)



*More on this some other day, but young people have always moved to more urban areas. There has never been a mass migration of new, single college grads moving to the suburbs to live by themselves.Young families have, of course, but not singles to any large degree. Young, single people have always favored urban living because young people want to be where the action is.

Post a Comment