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“Babbitt- land,” this is a place where I once lived and grew up in. It's a blissful, quite suburban neighbourhood within a major North American city. A place endowed with shining banking and corporate towers stretching upwards into the sky. A place with an affluent middle class, made up of professionals (dentists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc) and of course entrepreneurs. I spent most of my “formative years” here, in a suburban setting much like “Floral Heights” described in the book ‘Babbitt’ by Sinclair Lewis, in a townhouse that perhaps resembled one of those, “cheerful modern houses for medium incomes". In fact this place could be in “Zenith” itself. The book was written back in 1922, before the great crash of 1929, and the onset of the great depression, followed by the “new deal” and then ultimately the Second World War which ironically restored America’s prosperity.
The People in my old neighbourhood
There in the maple and oak lined streets, lies a suburban setting which resembles “Floral Heights”. Where annual municipal competitions for the best flower bed take place each year stands the old family house, amid the fading fast middle class splendour. Here in the 1970s, 80 and 90s, I enjoyed decades of non stop economic growth and prosperity. But now looking back on those years, they seem like distant or ancient history to me. Last year, when the stock markets tumbled and the banking system flirted with total collapse, and many here lost 20 to 30 percent of their savings, an era came to an abrupt end for me, my family, our relatives, our neighbours and friends. There is a realization these days that perhaps things are no longer the same and have changed perhaps forever. There's a sense the good times are gone and won’t back for a long time to come.
In my neighbourhood, you have middle aged family men, competitive but not too outstanding in anything they do nor noteworthy, except when paying their taxes on time and produced “nothing in particular...” aside from heaps of plastic trash for the recycling bins. They are for the most part, unremarkable men, much like Lewis’s protagonist ‘George Babbitt’, and except for or like him also , their ambition and drive and zeal as real estate salesmen, making dodgy deals to gullible clients longing for that once in a lifetime “dream house”. And also like George Babbitt, they engage in occasional dalliances to spice up their usually drab marriages.
Many of the people I see, meet or talk here seem to resemble those characters in Lewis’s fictional world. These men and women in my neighbourhood, are “Babbitts” or skilled and “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay” for them. They live in a community completely insulated from what is going on around them. They’re ignorant and insensitive except when it touches their own personal material well being or social status in relation to their neighbours’ ranking in the pecking order of wealth and privilege. I am a product of these surroundings, with its flaws and merits.
These chaps and ladies prospered during the good times and lived a life splendidly detached from reality; ensconced in a speculative bubble which burst as we all know today. Many of them were obsessed with maintaining a living way beyond their means yet within a well defined a “comfort zone”. But these parameters have shrunk and drastically so, with the “credit crunch”. The zeal to appeal to others has waned with the budgetary restrictions imposed by sudden downturn in the economy.
Signs of prosperity like the new deck in the back yard, or a new porch for the cottage on the lake or redoing the kitchens (which resemble an operation room in ER or an autopsy area in CSI) are put off, postponed sine die.
Walking along the street of my youth lined with SUVs, in the frigid weather, I notice “For Sale” signs decorate the snow laden lawns of mid winter. Perhaps these are foreclosures or “fire sales” of property unloaded by middle class families drowning in debt?
Where once an open field and meadows existed which I played in as child, today there are condo developments, interspersed with huge single unit homes. But the sub prime debacle has put an abrupt end to the property boom and the “brisk selling of badly built houses” as Lewis wrote back then. The local shopping mall, where once fancy trendy boutiques sold a cornucopia of expensive items, have been replaced by “dollar stores” or emporiums of cheap kitsch junk made in China.
The empty commercial spaces are filled with second hand shops now. Aside from the retired locals shuffling along the walkways and the frantic “working moms” running about, it has all the lively hood of a funeral parlour or an abandoned cemetery. Times are hard, here in “Babbitt-land”. At least that’s what it looks like to me on the surface. Sure, there are residents who have hoarded their savings just for days such as these. And many families still hang on to the symbols of success: big cars in the driveway, immaculate lawns with brigades of gardeners attending to them. But this is I suspect is just all for show. The fancy foreign cars are likely leased; “Guido” the gardener looks as if he was replaced by “Pedro” his much cheaper Mexican competition. Tough times have arrived in Babbitt-land.
Wither the Middle Class?
It’s still too early to predict the plight of the middle class as we sink deeper into this recession –depression. There’s a harsh jarring realisation, however, that the dream we once lived maybe over or are coming to an end. ‘The American people are getting bilked out of every dime they make. The American dream has been lost to the greed of the corporate CEOs, who the government is bailing out, and the crisis goes on,” writes a distressed women reader, in a letter to the editor to a typical suburban newspaper outside Chicago. Her lost dream is also our loss and the loss of millions of middle class dreamers like her and maybe you and me. The middle class is being marginalised. Members of it, live an existence of semi bondage, enslaved to car payments, credit card bills and college fees, and property taxes and heath and life insurance payments. Last year, the world’s greatest chronicler of beloved antic and foibles of my middle class passed away: John Updike. The almost lost world he and Sinclair Lewis wrote about may soon exist in fiction only.