‘Suburbia’ hits the Twin Cities

The Minnesota History Center opens its new exhibit that celebrates the history of the Twin Cities suburbs.

Onlookers walk around the

Sam Harper

Onlookers walk around the “Suburbia” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center on Tuesday. The exhibit will open to the public on Saturday.

Grace Kramer

To many, the word suburbia produces ideas of a generic, “Stepford Wives” way of living. Suburbs are often associated with simplicity and accessibility not offered in the city.  
 
“One time, the line was too long at Chipotle,” junior supply chain and finance major and Woodbury native, Devan Roman said. “It took me two minutes to drive to the other Chipotle. Living in the suburbs, I was able to do stuff like that.” 
 
The Minnesota History Center wants to challenge traditional ideas of simplicity with its new exhibit, “Suburbia.” The exhibit transports its audiences back to different time periods, surrounding them with the changing culture of the suburbs.
 
“We want people to understand how complex the suburbs are,” said Jessica Cohen, the MHC’s media relations manager. “There’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction that people have that tends to be very simple, sometimes even generic.”
 
The exhibit looks at the complexities of the suburbs, the effect they had in the past and how they still impact people today. 
 
“Much of the same issues that drove the suburbs — such as affordability, diversity, transportation, sustainability and desirability — are still relevant today,” Cohen said.
 
Divided into three parts, the exhibit looks at different aspects of suburban life. “Suburbia” explores the building of housing, living in the suburbs and the rise of shopping centers.
 
The first part of the exhibit focuses on the Twin Cities area in the 1950s, when GIs were returning home from the war and suburbs were just beginning to grow.
 
Frederick Johnson is an expert on Twin Cities suburban life and author of books such as “Suburban Dawn: the Emergence of Richfield, Edina and Bloomington.” 
 
“I saw, essentially, an answer to the baby boom that occurred after the Second World War,” Johnson said. “We needed housing and modern building techniques.”
Johnson and his wife experienced the rise of the suburbs firsthand.
 
“Originally, there was no sense of community,” Johnson said. “We were from small towns where you knew everyone and everyone knew you. By the end of the ’70s, things were settled down and developed.”
 
Today, strong community connections are an integral part of suburban living.
 
“It was a small community,” Roman said. “You’d run into people, and they would ask you all about your life. I definitely feel like I had more support.”
 
The second part of the exhibit focuses on the growing sense of community and the idea of the nuclear family.  Advertisers promoted the idea of the perfect homemaker housewife, the leisure of the male breadwinner and the dependent children. 
 
“With the housing boom, there’s an exploration of ideas about diversity and homogeneity,” Cohen said. 
 
The Southdale shopping center inspired the third part of the exhibit. It emphasizes the role that consumerism and shopping had on suburban growth. 
 
“Shopping centers were invented to help suburbanites avoid having to go all the way downtown to do their shopping. It changed the way people shopped,” Johnson said.
 
Today the effect of the accessibility created by shopping centers is visible in suburban day-to-day life.
 
“Everything is easily accessible,” Roman said. “I have definitely grown accustomed to having everything close together.”
 
MHC connects the history of the suburbs with where they are now in the exhibit. 
 
Understanding where they came from is essential to understanding where the cities are today.
 
“A lot of children that grew up in the beginning of the suburbs are in their 60s now,” Johnson said. “Maybe their grandchildren drive all over the suburbs and don’t realize how they got to where they are and why they’re here. I think understanding always helps.”
 
“Suburbia” opening
 
Where Minnesota History Center 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
When Saturday
Cost Adults $12,
Seniors and college students with ID $10,
Children ages 5-17 $6