polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

A Closer Look at Suburbs

by Peter Sigrist

In 1968, Bill Owens took a job as photographer for the Independent in Livermore, CA. He collected pictures of the people he met, which were published along with interesting quotes in a now classic book called Suburbia. While not completely free of stereotypes about suburban living, the pictures reveal the many unique qualities beneath the stereotypes in a fun and intimate way.

There is often a kind of anti-suburban bias in urban studies, which can blind us to the reasons for the popularity of suburbs. Some of these may be troubling, others inspiring, and all have the potential to usefully inform city planning. Owens brings them to life in his pictures and quotes. They are also a reminder of the ways we transform nature in efforts to improve our lives, resulting in houses, pools, streets, lawn turf, cars, hair rollers, gardens, and tv sets.

I've scanned some photos from the book and placed them along with their quotes. There are so many more I would have liked to add. Here is an online gallery of photos from Suburbia. I hope to have a chance to see them live some day.

"The best way to help your city government and have fun is to come out on a Saturday morning and pull weeds in a median strip."

"This isn't what we really want -- the tract house, the super car, etc. ... But as long as we are wound up in this high speed environment, we will probably never get out of it! We don't need the super car to be happy; we really want a small place in the country where you can breathe the air."

"My dad thinks it's a good idea to take all the leaves off the tree and rake up the yard. I think he's crazy."

"I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs ... You assume a mask of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no one knows what you really do."

"I put my hair up once or twice a week. It's the only way I can get curls in it. When it's combed out, I'm willing to be seen in public."

"It's hard to hunt because you're always trespassing all the housing developments which are taking over the open fields. Since there are more people and more houses, the game is moving further out."

"Our house is built with the living room in the back, so in the evenings we sit out front of the garage and watch the traffic go by."

"It's fun to break up the glass. We're doing our thing for ecology and the Boy Scouts will give us a badge for working here."

"I bought the Doughboy pool for David and the kids and now no one wants to take the responsibility for cleaning it."

"By having a garage sale you can get rid of a lot of junk you don't want. One man's junk is another man's treasure. It's really true."

"We have to move. My husband's been transferred to Southern California."

Credits: Photos by Bill Owens, scanned from his book Suburbia.