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

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

This week, my son and I pointed our SUV north from Cincinnati on a seven-hour road trip. It was one leg of a Midwestern vacation that will loop us through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and back again.

We motored through Dayton, admiring its modest but handsome skyline flanking one side of the interstate, while a manicured art museum sunned itself on the opposite hillside. We continued north toward Lima, Findlay and Toledo. Tidy suburbs circled the weathered core of each city as we sped through.

With lunchtime approaching, I started a familiar American ritual: scanning the highway signs for the tastiest upcoming fast food. Because of dietary restrictions and preferences too boring to mention here, I have to be picky. Not to Subway. Not to Burger King. Not to McDonald’s.

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

The scene at the top of the interstate off-ramp was a portrait in American conformity, so familiar that it provided both comfort and dread. More than 600 miles from home, we had barely traveled at all. The same sprawling landscape of corporate restaurants and big-box retailers rolled out a suburban asphalt welcome mat for us.

We could feast on quesadilla burgers at Applebee’s Grill and Bar. Or buy genetically modified flowers stuffed into hanging baskets at Lowe’s Home Improvement. Or at Petco we could buy the same brand of the same flavor dog food in the same-sized sack for the same price that we pay back home. And yes, we could get our reliable Chipotle.

What did we get there? The same order from a week before at home.

The truth is, we could get almost everything on our road trip through Troy, Ohio, that we expect each day in “real life” from our suburban Johnson County sprawl-opolis in Kansas. We traveled hours to impose the well-worn grooves of our lives onto another city in another state. If we need a certain meal, it can materialize. If we need a brand of deodorant, they better have the precise scent.

The siren call of our suburbs is different than what calls us downtown to American cities: a thumping R&B beat, backed by streetside vendors and fire escape cigarettes. And it isn’t the rural charm of the wind rustling the tall grasses beside a prairie pond.

The siren call of suburbia is the beep-beep of the UPC scanner at Target or Wal-Mart or Meijer or Costco or Sam’s Club or whatever grocery-hardware-furnishings-electronics-cosmetics behemoth has colonized your suburb. The chirp from the cash register lures us to buy it all because, here in suburbia, everything’s cheaper.

Your cherished brand of ice tea. Your gluten-free Oreos. Your Kim Crawford Sauvignon blanc. You can afford it here — on vacation — just like you can at home.

The corridors that deliver us to these modular temples of commerce are the interstates and landscaped divided parkways. Our national addiction to cars has fed our national addiction to suburban conformity. Cars not only make it so familiar, but also so easy. Everything you need is 10 minutes away, no matter the state.

The corridors that deliver us to these modular temples of commerce are the interstates and landscaped divided parkways. Our national addiction to cars has fed our national addiction to suburban conformity. Cars not only make it so familiar, but also so 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 for that moment in my life: Yoplait harvest peach yogurt. I would buy a dozen at the store to stock up, raising my eyebrow if they only had six. And each 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 package and the same calculated sweetness, regardless of whether peaches were in season.

Too often, life in the suburbs is as predictable as mass-produced fruit yogurt. No alarms and no surprises.

Even in a new town, you know the Walgreens is going to 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 deluxe fountain drink apparatus seemingly engineered for a theme park. And everywhere in suburbia, food will taste the same as it does in Dallas or Indianapolis or Cincinnati. A Blooming Onion is a Blooming Onion, wherever it blooms.

Earlier this spring in St. Louis, I recognized a familiar sign near the nameless suburban hotel where we were staying. The sign was for a “euro bistro” that also has a location about two miles from my house in Kansas.

I naively thought that the location in Kansas — where my wife and I had dated, where my daughter went for her prom date — stood out from the monotone same-ness of the chains surrounding it. This place was different, I thought for years … until suburbia spoiled that too.

Of course, my reflex to search for the nearest Chipotle when I was hungry is the reptilian instinct that rewards the merchants of suburbia. That urgent consumer habit of mine means that local brands lose. The bizarre roadside boutique flounders. Ohio’s unique fast food goes untasted. Sorry, Skyline Chili.

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

I was thinking about all of this Thursday night when I stopped at the grocery store in upstate Michigan. When we are here each summer, we feast on the regional delights: Moomer’s ice cream, Starcut hard cider and Benjamin Twiggs dried cherries (I don’t recommend them all in the same sitting).

Hoping to cleanse the guilt of relying on the predictable national brand, I reached for some cherries. My kids had pointed to the orchards of cherries stretching for acres on the roadside as we drove through the Michigan countryside earlier that day.

And that is when the suburban big-box store — a 150,000 square-foot behemoth — got the last laugh. The cherries weren’t from Grand Traverse County. They weren’t from Michigan at all.

They had been shipped in from Washington state and were probably the same cherries I could buy at home.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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