PERSON OF THE WEEK: Making a documentary about real estate may not seem like a very encouraging proposition. However, three-time Emmy Award winner Ron Rudaitis has helmed a remarkable non-fiction production on the influence of the suburbs on U.S. culture, politics and economics. ‘Suburban America: Problems & Promise,’ which recently debuted on DVD, traces how the land between the cities and rural communities became cultivated and, over time, realigned the face of the nation. MortgageOrb spoke with Rudaitis about his production.
Q: What was the inspiration behind ‘Suburban America: Problems & Promise’? And how long did it take for the film to be made?
Rudaitis: A few years, back I produced a documentary called ‘Farming the Future: Farm Life on Long Island,’ which was essentially an exploration of the challenges of farming amidst suburban development. Coming off of that, along with my own family's experience of moving from an urban area (Brooklyn and Queens) to settle in the Long Island suburbs, I became fascinated with the phenomenon of suburbia and felt there was a really good story to be told.
The end result was an exploration of the changes and evolution of American suburbs from a few perspectives – looking at them politically, demographically and structurally. The majority of the production was shot in the 2008 presidential election year, but overall it's been a work in progress for several years, with the earliest footage from around 2004 and additional footage shot in 2005, 2007, late 2010 and early 2011, the year the documentary was completed and released.
Q: When did suburbia begin to take root in the American landscape? Was this a distinctively American happening, or did it mirror housing trends in other countries?
Rudaitis: Well, when most people think about suburban America, they think of the post-World War II suburban explosion. However, there are even older suburban communities – the so-called ‘trolley-car’ suburbs that date back to the earlier part of the 20th century. We talk about and visit a couple of those suburbs – like Cleveland Heights, Ohio – in the film. And there are certainly suburbs in other parts of the world, so it is not an exclusively American phenomenon, of course.
Still, there's something so definitive about the image of the post-World War II suburb – embodied by communities like Levittown in the 1950s and the ‘Leave It To Beaver’ stereotype – that these are the images that have come to embody suburban America for many people.
Q: What were the factors that caused the post-World War II suburban boom?
Rudaitis: One of the major factors was the creation of the highway system and the increasing importance of the car, which enabled access to greater distances and settlement patters further away from the central cities – so-called ‘bedroom communities’ – while still allowing access to the city for work.
And, certainly, the G.I. Bill was critical, providing returning veterans subsidies so they could have their piece of the American Dream – namely, homeownership. Yet, as we see in the film, the development of suburbia also created an interesting pattern of segregation in many areas, asÂ these subsidies were, for a time, made available only to white Americans, and any non-Caucasian was excluded and indeed not able to purchase homes in these newly constructed communities. More than that, there were covenants put in the deeds of some of these developments that said you couldn't sell the property to non-whites in the future. In the film, we explore that and also how the makeup of suburbia has changed over time.
Today, you have many immigrants moving directly to suburbs and bypassing cities, changing the face and racial makeup of what were once primarily white, upper-middle-class areas.
Q: In your view, is it fair to say that the suburbs contributed to the decline of the major U.S. cities?
Rudaitis: One of the things that I've learned in making this particular film is that it may be most helpful to not think of the dynamic of ‘cities vs. suburbs.’ Instead, as a number of experts from the film suggest, we should think of cities and suburbs, and even rural areas, as different parts of the same whole, the same regional economic system. As a filmmaker, that resonates for me in that it seemed the suburbs were always about being separate – the move away from the city. Even the iconic and somewhat stereotypical mage of the white picket fence can be seen as a symbol of separation.
So, moving forward, it might be helpful for both suburbs and cities to see what they have in common, their synergies, and how they can learn from each other and work together to address common problems.
Q: How did suburban America become a political force on the national level?
Rudaitis: Well, the U.S. Census data really can speak to that. More people live in suburban areas now, so you have a large number of voters from suburban districts. Still, another thing about the film that was eye-opening for me is not just suburbia as a political force, but the idea of suburbia as a very potent and changing swing vote. I filmed a good portion of this film in the 2008 presidential election year. We saw the suburbs swing heavily toward the Democrats, which was not the historical trend – suburbs were historically Republican and started seriously trending Democratic only in the last 10 or so years.
However, as we see in the film with the 2010 mid-term elections, the pendulum swings back the other way to the Republicans. So the suburban battleground seems to be fair game for the party or candidate who can speak to suburban voters and what their priorities are in any given election year.
Q: On the whole, how have the suburbs fared since the 2008 economic crash?
Rudaitis: One of the things in the film that may surprise people is the discussion of the enormous number of foreclosures in suburban America. As one of the experts puts it in the film, when people think about the foreclosure problem, they don't think about suburbs.
Suburbs are thought of, by and large, as wealthy areas, probably because of the historical development and stereotypical images I mentioned earlier. But the reality today is that suburbs – particularly older suburbs that developed first and are usually located near central cities – are facing almost all of the challenges usually attributed to inner cities:Â crime, homelessness, foreclosures, etc. Many make the case that because of this misconception, suburbs don't get their fair share of federal or state funding because it is assumed that all suburbs are rich and they don't need any assistance. That is not the case.
Q: What has been the distribution pattern for ‘Suburban America’? And what kind of reaction has it received?
Rudaitis: The documentary has been picked up for national public television distribution through American Public Television. I'm happy to say that since its release on Sept. 4, 2011, the film has been aired over 1,200 times on public television stations across the country, including almost 80% of the TV market. Beyond that, the film has just been released on DVD though Films Media Group's Films for the Humanities & Sciences.