From Kansas to Michigan, the diabolical conformity of our American suburbs

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policies affect the daily lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Study Journalism Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

This week, my son and I drove our SUV north of Cincinnati for a seven-hour road trip. It was a phase of a Midwest vacation that would take us through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and back again.

We drove through Dayton, admiring its modest but beautiful skyline flanking one side of the highway, while a manicured art museum basked in the sun on the opposite hillside. We continued north towards Lima, Findlay and Toledo. Classy suburbia circled the heart of every city as we sped through them.

As lunch time approaches, I begin a familiar American ritual: scanning highway signs for the next tastiest fast food. Because dietary restrictions and preferences are too boring to mention here, I have to be picky. No to Subway. No to Burger King. No to McDonald’s.

“Where’s the nearest Chipotle?” I wonder. My phone’s Maps app said to take the next exit, so I obeyed.

The scene at the top of the highway off the road was a picture in American conformity, so familiar that it offered comfort and awe. Over 600 miles from home, we were hardly traveling at all. The same sprawling landscape of corporate restaurants and big-time retailers has rolled out a welcome mat of suburban asphalt.

We can feast on a quesadilla burger at Applebee’s Grill & Bar. Or buy GMO flowers stuffed in hanging baskets at Lowe’s Home Improvement. Or at Petco, we can buy the same brand of the same flavor of dog food in the same size bag and for the same price we’d pay home. And yes, we can get your hands on your trusted chipotle.

What did we get there? The same application from a week ago at home.

The truth is, we can get nearly everything on our road trip through Troy, Ohio, that we’d expect every day in “real life” from the outskirts of Johnson County’s sprawling Kansas. We traveled hours to impose the worn grooves of our lives on another city in another nation. If we need a certain meal, it can come true. If we need some kind of deodorant, it is better if they have a delicate smell.

The siren’s call in our suburbs is different from what downtown calls us to American cities: the rhythm of R&B powered by street vendors and fire-escaping cigarettes. Nor is the magic of the wind the rustle of the tall grass beside the prairie pond.

A suburban siren call is the beeping sound of a UPC scanner at Target, Wal-Mart, Meijer, Costco, Sam’s Club, or whatever groceries, furnishings, electronics, and cosmetics have colonized your suburb. Peeps from the cash register tempt us to buy them all because everything here in the suburbs is cheaper.

Your cherished brand of iced tea. Your Gluten Free Oreos. Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc. You can afford it here – on vacation – just as you would at home.

The paths that lead us to these modular commercial temples are highways and landscaped divided lanes. Our national addiction to cars has fueled our national addiction to suburban matching. Cars not only make it familiar, but also make it easy. Everything you need is 10 minutes away, no matter the state.

The paths that lead us to these modular commercial temples are highways and landscaped divided lanes. Our national addiction to cars has fueled our national addiction to suburban matching. Cars not only make it familiar, but also make it easy. Everything you need is 10 minutes away, no matter the state.

Suburbia also serves up the predictable. Years ago, I found my favorite breakfast at that moment in my life: Yoplait Harvest Peach Yogurt. I’d buy a dozen from the store to stock up on, and raise my eyebrows if they only had six. And every time the yogurt tasted the same, whether at home in Kansas City, on vacation in Portland or traveling for work in Philadelphia. The same uniform texture, the same plastic packaging, and the same measured sweetness, regardless of whether the peaches are in season.

Often, suburban life is as predictable as mass-produced fruit yoghurts. No alarm, no surprises.

Even in a new city, you know Walgreens will be on the right, at the corner of the next intersection. If you turn right here, you can predict a well-lit gas station with a fancy fountain drink device that looks like it was designed for an amusement park. And everywhere in the suburbs, food will taste the same as in Dallas, Indianapolis, or Cincinnati. A blooming onion is a blooming onion, wherever it blooms.

Earlier this spring in St. Louis, I was introduced to a familiar sign near the nameless suburban hotel where we were staying. The sign was a “Euro Bistro” with a location about two miles from my home in Kansas.

I naively thought that the location in Kansas—where my wife and I dated, and where my daughter went for her wedding—stemmed out of the same monotony of chains surrounding it. This place was different, I thought for years…until the suburbs messed it up too.

Of course, my reaction to searching for the nearest Chipotle when I was hungry is the reptilian instinct that rewards suburban traders. This compelling consumer habit means that local brands are losing out. Strange shops stumble on the side of the road. Ohio’s unique fast food go without tasting. Sorry, Skyline Chili.

This suburban instinct enlivens our experiences and strips us of vacation adventures.

I was thinking about all this on Thursday when I stopped at the grocery store in northern Michigan. When we’re here every summer, we feast on regional delights: Moomer ice cream, Starcut hard apple juice, and dried Benjamin Twigs cherries (I don’t recommend them all in the same session).

Hoping to get rid of guilt by relying on the predictable national brand, I reached for some cherries. My kids pointed out the acre of cherry orchards on the side of the road as we drove through rural Michigan earlier that day.

That’s when the massive suburban superstore — a 150,000-square-foot giant — laughed the last time. Cherry was not from Grand Traverse County. They weren’t from Michigan at all.

They shipped from Washington state and were probably the same cherries I can buy at home.

With its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector amplifies the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your comment, here.

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