Second Thought: Wednesday, July 28 2004
The Politics of Donuts

Who says we want this stuff?


I’ve got a blazin’ hot news flash from the commercial real estate world: Nails and donuts are the hottest thing going — the sum total of our future, the apex of our culture.

I was itchin’ for a fight. From the sign in front of the unfinished cinderblock mini-mall near my house, I wrote down the developer’s name and number. Mr. Name Deleted dutifully informed me that the closest stores to my house in southwest Arlington, a five-minute walk from my front door, would be a nail salon and a donut shop. And then he said something I wasn’t expecting. He said it was what “neighborhoods want.” My eyes goggled. My mind boggled. Did I miss that vote? Was there an initiative, a proposition? When did all my neighbors get together and discuss donuts?

This must be like the six-foot fencing that we suburbanites want, the stuff that falls down every year in the spring storms. Or the faux historic flourishes on all our pretentious houses that we want. Or the god-awful brass-like fixtures that make us feel rich. Or the parklessness and the treelessness and the lack of commercial or retail planning within walking distance that we signed up for. No, these are not things that we want — these are just the things we end up with when we consent to live in the developers’ world. In suburbia, the fact that we can’t walk to get eggs, we can’t stroll the baby to a park, and that we take seven average car trips a day — all that is the result of a profit-driven approach to building human environments. And the result of the profit drive is residual enslavement to a car culture.

The thing that kills me is that we suburban dwellers vote with our dollars for a lie about what make neighborhoods livable. We go into hock for thousands of dollars for a chance to buy a house built to last 25 years, that bakes in the sun of a treeless lot and keeps us two minor traffic jams away from buying milk. We think that having parks and cafes and mature trees surrounding well-built homes, or small groceries that sell fresh produce within walking distance, are for the rich. That they’re upscale and unnecessary and somehow amenities, rather than the architectural fabric of a real, nurturing neighborhood.

The problem is, these things are only the province of wealthy neighborhoods now. And developers build them and sell them as amenities. We all know about the planned communities that are different and better. We know that because, where the developers have built parks and small stores and left the trees next to the creek intact and built the houses to last, it costs half a million dollars to live. While the lower-class suburbanites, deprived of an environment that nurtures them, get in their cars and drive to Grapevine to spend a Saturday walking up and down a Main Street that does not exist in their world, a Main Street that has long since given up its own working character to cater to the goosy, ducky, country-lovin’ aesthetics of suburban wives. We experience this dream for an afternoon, when most of us lived some version of it as real life 50 years ago.

Now I know nail jobs and donuts sell. I’ve seen the storefronts that prove it. And I do not know why I think my neighborhood should be any different. It’s not. It is not different simply because I live in it and I have a few snobby, richy-rich ideas how to make it better. No, my cul-de-sac is the same as thousands of developments before it, next to which, on the nearest commercial strip, nails are shaped and dough is fried.

Yet, someday there really will be an end to it, won’t there? Someday, we will have all the donuts we need, right? We’ll be full. We will have eaten our donuts for breakfast, plucking them out of the bag with French manicures, on our way to buy food in our cars, at the grocery that lies three more miles down the road. But maybe I’m waiting in vain for generational demographics to kick into gear. Am I delusional to think that thirtysomethings can bring change to this baby-booming suburban landscape machine? How can donuts be that wildly popular if I never eat them? At what point do we stop buying the developer’s profit-scape?

Susan Bourland is a thirtysomething writer and new to the North Texas suburbs. She is in culture shock and still idealistic from the years she spent living in small college towns.

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