One of the things I like most about the internet is that it often acts as a randomness generator when you stumble upon something you weren’t looking for which sends you off on a path you weren’t intending to go down. This happened to me recently when I came across a snippet of video from an old TV show here in Australia called the D-Generation. The show itself was a bit before my time, so I never saw it when it was on TV. But I knew its name due to the fact that the members of the show have gone on to become well-known fixtures in the Australian entertainment industry.
To understand the sketch, you have to know that Australia took in many immigrants from Italy and Greece in the decades after WW2. There was a lot of racism in those years due to the fact that Australia still retained, although was fast losing, a strong cultural attachment to Britain. By the 80s, the overt racism was mostly gone, but its memory was not.
The part of the sketch that caught my attention played to this background of racism. Two of the show’s stars, Jane Kennedy and Santo Cilauro, are visiting Santo’s uncle, Alberto. As the names might suggest, Santo was born to Italian immigrants and his uncle was presumably also an immigrant. Jane and Santo are touring Uncle Alberto’s house and Jane notices that Alberto has concreted over the front yard of his suburban house something she says is common for Italians to do. She asks why he did it and Alberto responds that it makes it easier to maintain.
In this very short exchange lies a whole wealth of cultural information. We’ve covered the connotation of racism, which was almost certainly intentional. But the exchange is primarily about the banal subject of front yards. In Australian suburbia in the post-war years, the front yard had to have a lawn. The reason Uncle Alberto’s front yard caught Jane Kennedy’s attention was because he didn’t have one.
The Italian and Greek immigrants in the post-war years didn’t understand the rules about front yards and they broke them in two main ways. One was to concrete over the whole thing. The other was to grow vegetables in it. I have a friend who is the son of Italian immigrant parents and they still grow vegetables in their front yard to this day. The Greeks and Italians retained the old-fashioned idea that, if you had decent soil, you should use it for something productive. They didn’t understand that the whole point of the front lawn was that it was conspicuously non-productive.
Of course, when you have a front garden, including a lawn, you need to mow the lawn and weed the garden to keep in presentable. That work has to be done by someone and it’s very likely that person considers it a chore. That was Uncle Alberto’s point. Why do a chore when you don’t have to?
There’s two personal reasons why all this resonated with me. Firstly, I have lived in inner city apartments most of my adult life but, some years ago, I moved to suburbia here in Melbourne and I did so for the express purpose of growing a garden. I now have backyard chickens, grow a lot of fruit and vegetables and have recently tried to beautify the garden a little with flowering perennials. This was a deliberate lifestyle choice on my part and so I don’t resent the relatively small investment of time and energy it requires.
There are, however, many people who do resent the work of maintaining a suburban garden. One such person is a friend of mine who is always complaining about it. A couple of years ago, sick of his whining, I brusquely suggested that he should just concrete over the front yard so he didn’t have to maintain it anymore. I’d had the same idea as Uncle Alberto.
My friend looked at me like I had two heads. For him, a suburban house had to have a lawn in the front yard. It’s just the way it was. And, of course, all the houses in his area (and mine) do have front lawns.
The question is: why?
We take our surroundings for granted. Seemingly trivial matters like having a front lawn are just part of the world we grow up in and we never question them. But front lawns, and suburbia in general, didn’t just come out of nowhere. They exist for a reason. So, the real question is: what were the reasons for the rise of suburbia?
To answer that we have to go back to the 19th century. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution kicked into gear big time. It brought with it factories. The factories were concentrated in the inner cities alongside high density housing for the workers. They were dirty and dangerous and emitted pollution directly into the local environment.
Meanwhile, the aristocracy was living the good life out in the countryside. They had large estates and a team of gardeners whose job was the grow food for the household.
But the aristocracy also competed with each other to see who could have the most magnificent landscape gardens. This led to various fashions and styles of garden. The best gardeners became celebrities. All this was very similar to the way aristocrats supported the arts back in Renaissance Italy. Vanity through ostentatious display of wealth has been one of the main sources of funding for the arts since time immemorial. In Britain, gardening had become an art form.
One of the ostentatious markers of wealth for the aristocracy of Britain was the extensive use of lawns in their landscape gardens. Small-holding peasants throughout history would never have grown lawns since it would be a waste of fertile soil that could be used to grow crops. Thus, an estate with extensive lawns communicated to the observer “look at me, I’m so rich I can afford to waste all this land on useless grass.”
Thus, in the 19th century you had two different lifestyle paradigms. On the one hand, the inner cities were high-density, heavily-polluted incubators for disease with a side helping of crime, squalor and filth. That’s where the workers lived. On the other hand, the aristocracy were using the proceeds of empire to live lives of ostentatious luxury signified partly by the cultivation of huge gardens with extensive lawns.
A third demographic then arrived on the scene: the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of industrialisation. They were office workers, engineers and small business owners. This nouveau riche demographic wanted to escape the squalor of the inner city but didn’t have access to ancestral land like the aristocracy. What to do?
The answer was: suburbia.
Suburbia was modelled on the estates of the aristocracy and sold to the emerging bourgeoisie as a way to escape the city and “get back to nature”. The ubiquitous “nature strip” in front of suburban houses was placed there for this purpose. In Australia, the quarter acre block eventually became the default size of a suburban allocation. In the early days, this was enough to grow a fairly substantial amount of food on, which many people did. Once again, this was an imitation of the aristocracy who also grew food on their land; albeit with a team of servants to do it for them.
In short, suburbia arose as a miniature form of the lifestyle of the English aristocracy of the 19th century. That’s also why the suburbs invariably had lawns. The aristocrats had extensive lawns on their estates. So, too, would the bourgeoisie. The front lawn became your own little marker of ostentatious wealth. “Look at me, I’m so rich I can waste this perfectly good soil on useless grass”.
Now that we have this cultural background in place, we can better understand what was behind the comedy sketch mentioned at the beginning of the post. The Italian and Greek immigrants arrived in Australia and moved into the suburbs. What they saw was perfectly good soil that could be used to grow food and that’s what many of them did. In doing so, they transgressed the whole point of the front lawn. It was there as a marker of wealth. To grow vegetables on it was the signal that you were poor and thereby to bring down the whole neighbourhood. On the other hand, to do what Santo Cilauro’s uncle did and pour concrete over it was also against the rules.
Of course, by the time the D-Generation was made in the late 80s, nobody remembered what the original point of these rules was. The front lawn was ubiquitous but had lost its meaning. For the people who had grown up in the suburbs, the lawn no longer represented a display of wealth but a tiresome chore. Nobody grew their own food anymore. And nobody saw the old British aristocracy as anything other than an anachronism.
It’s no coincidence that it was exactly at this time that a new aristocracy arrived on the scene (in truth, it had been forming for decades beforehand). The 80s was the age of the Wall St shark. Once again, the common person took their lead from the aristocracy only now the aristocracy was not a landed gentleman with top hat and monocle but a besuited banking bro with a cocaine addiction and penchant for high-price call girls.
(In fairness, many an English “gentleman” had similar tastes although, in accordance with the fashions of the time, it was less coke and hookers and more opium and hookers).
Taking the lead from our banking overlords, what has happened from the 90s onward has been rampant speculation in Australian real estate. One of the ways this has occurred is through subdivision. The middle class found themselves sitting on quarter acre blocks that had lost their purpose. They proceeded to subdivide in order to build units or townhouses which could be sold for a tidy profit. The same mentality extended into investment properties. At time of writing, the MPs that sit in the Australian parliament own 1.34 investment properties on average. For Australians on a similar salary, the number is slightly higher at 1.4. 15% of Australians now own at least one investment property.
There’s a particularly surreal example of the subdivision trend right at the end of the street where I live. The block was the old-fashioned quarter acre and, as was common back in the day, had a number of fruit trees in the backyard including a beautiful big peach tree whose branches reached over the fence and onto the footpath. I used to take the opportunity to pick a peach or two when I walked past and I can testify that they were very tasty.
A few years ago the block was subdivided and a new house built on the 1/8 acre that used to be the backyard. The fruit trees were ripped up and a new weatherboard house put down. All things considered, it’s an attractive house but it takes up pretty much the entire block.
The front yard in particular caught my attention. The block is now very narrow and so the driveway and garage take up about half the width. The other half is perhaps 4 metres wide by 3 metres deep. Technically, this is the front yard, although it’s too small to be called that. What did the designers of the house decide to with this “front yard”? They put down a lawn. But it’s not a real lawn. It’s made of artificial grass.
It struck me that the house is a simulacrum. It’s a simulacrum of suburbia which is itself a simulacrum of the English aristocratic estates of the 19th century. Still, since the grass is artificial, at least the new residents won’t have to do much work to maintain it.
This little story is the microcosm to the macrocosm that has been Western civilisation over the last few decades. The ascent of the bankers has created a simulacrum of a civilisation. Again, it’s seems far too coincidental that the internet should appear at exactly the same time. Social media, in particular, is a simulacrum of reality. Images and videos flick past at such a rapid pace that the human mind cannot make sense of them.
This world created by the bankers looks to be falling apart in real time, although with the simulacrum in place it’s very hard to know what is actually going on. Nevertheless, the raw economics may finally win out. People are waking up to the fact that all we got from the last few decades was asset bubbles; good for bankers; not so good for anybody else. Increasingly, the system looks set to implode from its own momentum.
There’s much that could and has been said about this but one aspect I don’t see talked about much is the one we’ve seen a couple of times in this post. Although it’s impolite to say it these days with our egalitarian ethic, human societies run on mimicry. The masses copy the behaviour they see from the “elites”. That was what led to the creation of suburbia in the first place. It was the mimicry of the English aristocracy. It’s what is currently causing the dismantling of suburbia: the mimicry of bankers.
This leads to another question: when the next GFC hits and, assuming the bankers don’t get bailed out this time, who will emerge as the new leadership class of Western civilisation?