The history of 20th-century American suburbs is deservedly complicated and contentious. Of course they represented escape from cities that many had come to view as crowded and failing; flight to intentionally more pastoral landscapes, especially after World War II, coincided with the rise of the open roads promised by the automobile (from the Greek autos, appropriately enough, literally a vehicle to ambulate the self with all the freedom for which the ego screams). Let’s also not forget the urban practice of redlining to keep home ownership (and the equity that comes with it) out of the hands of African Americans as city cores were starved of affluence and tax base.
MODEL HOME ON CORVALLIS AVENUE, CRYSTAL, 1956. COURTESY OF NORTON
We can’t re-litigate history here, though, so in the same breath it’s also worth commemorating the semi-wonders: post-war pink flamingos, cool kitchens, swinging cocktail sets, submerged swimming pools. And “Suburbia” at the Minnesota History Center aims to encapsulate both the serious and the fun: The exhibit includes both the story of the trials a family dealt with in moving from Rondo to Maplewood along with a collection of multimedia images and films of how we marketed the American dream to ourselves.
ALVIN BACH KISSES WIFE BETTY, THE NEW MRS. MINNESOTA, 1958. PHOTO COURTESY OF MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
That’s what the History Center aims to get right here—because in portraying both, it’s worth considering that this dream was embraced by the lion’s share of a country enjoying a meteoric (if uneven) rise of its middle class. Even Southdale’s debut in 1956 was akin to a philosophical statement, turning away from the elements in favor of an always comfortable, always controllable environment ringed by Chevys and stocked with goods and wonders unknown to ancient kings (easy chairs, microwaves, cabinet TVs).
And before you leave, ponder today, with millennials living in a very different society indeed, with no memories of the sunny side of the manicured lawn and the two-car garage, and a future probably unlike those who won the Great War might have envisioned.
Minnesota History Center
Opens October 10