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Essay

Backstory: First Ring

"Plywood has a lifespan of 40 years. Over time, the glue that holds plywood together dries up. Then, walls buckle, split and peel. Panels pop loose. Rooms, doors and windows morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves." –Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times, October 19, 1997

Famed architecture critic Herbert Muschamp declared a state of emergency in the "first-ring" suburbs of the US, the subdivisions of single-family homes built around metropolitan cores in the period between the end of WWII and the mid-1970s. Lisa D'Amour sets her play Detroit in one of these suburbs, and the above quote serves as an epigraph on the play's first page. Muschamp asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, the health of the first ring is vital to the health of the city it encircles, and that these communities, in a state of physical and social entropy for the last two to three decades, must be reimagined and reinvigorated to ensure the vitality of the urban core.

The "suburb" is not a new concept; American elites began retreating from noxious industrial centers to nearby picturesque country enclaves in the mid-nineteenth century. But the TV-sitcom suburbia etched in the American psyche is the product of a single massive development push beginning with the end of WWII. Large numbers of skilled, educated GIs returned from the front to unprecedented prosperity, while technological advances brought the logic of the assembly line to the construction of houses and neighborhoods. Corporations eager to make a buck gathered up and developed the tracts of land at the very ends of public transit lines, and, for the first time, were able to offer the working classes a real taste of the American dream (house + land + community) that they could afford.

Of course, discriminatory practices (like redlining) meant a demographically imbalanced departure from the urban core (white flight), which led to instability in the inner city. What's more, as the epigraph suggests, the homes—built as they were by large corporations seeking to profit quickly and handily—weren't exactly built to last. Finally, the unprecedented middle-class and working class prosperity, in combination with time-saving technological advances, meant that these communities were built around the assumption that wives and mothers, based in the home, would be free to travel far and wide throughout the day, chauffeuring the kids to and from school and activities, shopping and the like.

As the decades passed, the houses deteriorated. The women's movement and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy meant that the two-income family became the norm, while the first ring's proximity to the decaying inner city diminished its perceived safety. The flight continued to the exurbs, newer developments further out, served mostly by the highway system, which had their own malls, big box stores and office parks to supply jobs and the necessities of life. Now that many American inner cities have also begun to be gentrified by the white collar workers of the information economy, the first ring—with its obsolete infrastructure—now poses a unique challenge to developers and urban planners. It begs two questions: How, in a new age, do we find a way to make that three part American dream an accessible reality again? And, in a smaller, faster, world, is that even the dream anymore?

–Alec Strum, Associate Literary Manager
July 2012

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