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Culture and Politics in Suburban New York

Culture and Politics in Suburban New York

'Landscapes of Privilege' book

This project is based upon collaborative research with Nancy Duncan over a period of three decades. We have focused our research on the affluent New York City suburb of Bedford, New York.

We explore the ways people produce their identities in and through places, especially homeplaces: houses, gardens and home communities. We are interested in investigating some of the more conservative, defensive attempts at using one's surroundings to establish individual, familial and community identities. These identities are defined in large part against and in contrast to an outside world, what some have termed "a constitutive outside." Homeplaces are the subjects of conscious design effort, even struggle, on the part of those who can afford to shape them aesthetically. But they are equally the materialization of inherent antagonisms, exclusions, unarticulated racism and reactions to global complexity as a threat to "the local."

We explore the idea that place-centered identities can be insecure, even among those with the resources (time, money and skills) to create ideal settings in which to substantiate desired social identities. We argue that such a high degree of attention on the part of suburban residents to the visual, material and sensual aspects of place and place-based identity leads to an aestheticization of exclusion. A seemingly innocent pleasure in the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes and desire to protect local history and nature can act as subtle but highly effective mechanisms of exclusion and reaffirmation of class identity.

Our project attempts to supplement existing studies of the constitution of places through exclusionary zoning and environmental legislation with a more social psychological understanding of the politics of place making and attachment to homeplaces. We hope to achieve a fuller understanding of the cultural practices of producing places and place-based identity. The structural and institutional bases of reinvigorated localism in a globalizing world have too often been studied without more than a cursory reference to the sentiments and emotions behind place-making practices. Similarly studies of sense of place, place attachment and belonging are too often studied in isolation from the political-economic flows and processes that are central to place production. Although the former more than the latter is the focus of our attention, we believe both need to be considered in their mutual constitution.

We are attempting to discover something of the hopes and fears, longing to belong, sense of community and insecurities of the residents of a town that is both inwardly focused and defensive of its imagined uniqueness and - at the same time -highly enmeshed in a regional, national, transnational as well as a global production of socio-spatial relations.

Publications

Publications arising from the project include:

  • Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb. New York: Routledge. (2004) (with N. Duncan) 256 pp.
  • "Can't live with them. Can't landscape without them": Racism and the pastoral aesthetic in suburban New York" in Landscape Journal: Design, Planning and Management of the Land, Volume 22, (2003) pp.88-98. (with N. Duncan).
  • "Landscape, Aesthetics and Power" in J. Agnew and J. Smith, eds. American Space/American Place:Geographies of the United States on the Threshold of a New Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2002), pp. 264-91. (with D. Lambert).
  • "The Aestheticization of the Politics of Landscape Preservation" Annals, Association of American Geographers. 91: (2001) 387-409 (with N.G. Duncan)
  • "Sense of Place as a Positional Good: Locating Bedford in Time and Space." In P. Adams, S. Hoelscher, K. Till (eds) Textures of Place, Geographies of Imagination, Experience, and Paradox. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (2001) (with N.G. Duncan)
  • "Aesthetics, Abjection and White Privilege in Suburban New York" in R Schein, ed. Landscapes of Race in the United State. Routledge. (with N. Duncan) (forthcoming)