Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Suburb Wooing Millennials With Avocados, Kombucha, and Cheap Houses

The Suburb Wooing Millennials With Avocados, Kombucha, and Cheap Houses


In a new comic-strip ad campaign, Homewood, Illinois, bills itself as a hip, diverse, urban neighborhood that Millennials can afford. The only catch: It’s in the suburbs.

Four friends in early middle age are chatting on a small-town sidewalk. “So, what are you doing this weekend?” asks one of them, a man in a button-down shirt. “The usual,” replies his friend, a black woman wearing a t-shirt with a rainbow-striped heart. “A guitar lesson, checking out the artisan street fair with the littles, and then some Aurelio’s—“

Her partner, a blond woman, cuts in. “From the old oven, of course!”

The man and the third woman look pleasantly surprised. “And here we thought you’d miss living in Chicago,” he says.(

Welcome to Homewood, Illinois, a suburb of 20,000 that is marketing itself to urbanites as a hidden hipster gem.

The town, which is about 25 miles south of downtown Chicago, just launched a new advertising campaign called “Think Homewood.” Ads posted inside trains on the L’s Blue Line and elsewhere in Chicago contrast the laid-back vibe of Homewood to the stress of city living. The ads are comic strips drawn by illustrator and Homewood resident Marc Alan Fishman.

In one strip, a Homewood mom with a purple streak in her hair and a tattoo praises the school system. “Zen gets to be with the same kids all the way through high school,” she says. Meanwhile, “Somewhere in Wicker-Humboldt-Pilsen”—Chicago neighborhoods that have experienced dramatic gentrification and zooming housing prices in recent years—two anxious moms in a city park talk about school options for their kids. “Have you started figuring out the schools yet?” a Janeane Garofalo lookalike asks her companion.

“No … I’m so overwhelmed with all the options,” the other mom says. “I’m just pretending like it’s not happening.”(

The ads, which will run through the end of May, were the idea of Mary Jane Maharry, a public relations consultant to the town. Maharry enlisted Fishman, the local artist, and presented the concept to the village board, whose members embraced it, according to Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld.

Hofeld said the town wants more young families to move there, and as urban Millennials start to think about homeownership and child-rearing, it’s the right time to recruit them. “We found the Millennials [in Chicago] are prone to looking to the north suburbs and the west suburbs, and rarely look to the south,” Hofeld said. “We have all the amenities that a family could ask for. And on top of it, as far as the housing stock goes, it’s affordable. We feel those are good sells.”This proves a fact that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago: Suburbs now have to work to attract the cohort they were built for.

The ads evoke a bougie paradise with as much tongue-in-cheek detail as an episode of Portlandia: avocados, kombucha, farm-to-table brunch, street fairs. In the one with the tattooed mom, she’s joined by a guy (her partner?) who’s looking at his iPhone and wearing a t-shirt that says LOCAL FOOD. But there’s a twist: Here, the people living out this progressive urban cliché are suburbanites.

In Homewood, we’re told, people walk to the farmer’s market, keep chickens in their yards, and hang out with friends of different races and sexual orientations. By contrast, their urban peers come across as either a bit square (see the first ad above), or just stressed out from having to deal with school bureaucracy and oversubscribed city services, like rec classes that fill up immediately.

Who’s the sucker for moving to the suburbs now, eh?, the ads seem to ask. But the characters are more or less interchangeable; the implication is that if they move to Homewood, those tightly wound Chicagoans will chill out and name their kids “Zen,” too.

While they might seem suspiciously like they were generated by an algorithm fed with marketing data and New York Times trend pieces, the comic-strip Homewood denizens are based on real residents and real events, according to Maharry (who lives in Homewood herself).

In fact, “Think Homewood” reveals just how much the old dichotomy of city vs. suburb is blurring. It proves a fact that would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago: Suburbs now have to work to attract the cohort they were built for. As certain cities become more sought-after and lively, suburbs can no longer just sit back and wait for the inevitable stampede of first-time homebuyers and new parents. They have to convince skeptical young folk of their essential urbanity first. (Another Chicago suburb, Berwyn, is running ads on city billboards proclaiming that it’s “nothing like a suburb.”)

They also have to offer a competitive advantage vis-a-vis the city. In Homewood, that advantage is affordable real estate and good public schools. The median home value in Homewood is a reasonable $149,800, according to Zillow. The area high school, Homewood-Flossmoor, is well regarded. And the K-8 schools have a streamlinedstructure, which the ads dangle in front of Chicago parents as sweet relief. Even as school choice brings more educational options to Chicago and other U.S. cities, it can be a gamble, and a fragmented school landscape can be difficult and exhausting for parents to navigate.

In the view of sociologist John Joe Schlichtman, Homewood is basically promising gentrification without the guilt. Ditto for guilt-free driving: The ads promise easy car trips on traffic-free streets along with (limited) walkability and Metra rail service into Chicago. This “car-light” lifestyle is portrayed as the best of both worlds.

One comic panel shows Chicago Dad stuck in traffic on the way back from the store. He realizes he forgot to get avocados. Frak! That’s taco night ruined. But when Homewood Dad remembers the avocados, he can hop in the car and be back at the store in minutes. Taco night is saved.(

The multiracial cast of these ads is not a sleight of hand. Homewood is legitimately diverse: 53 percent white, 37 percent black, 2 percent Asian, and 8 percent Hispanic. Its schools are majority nonwhite. These figures reflect larger demographic shifts as people of color move out (or are pushed out) of expensive cities, and as immigrants bypass central cities and head straight to the ’burbs. But Homewood-Flossmoor also has a history of proactive integration efforts: The South Suburban Housing Center, a regional fair-housing organization, was founded in Homewood in 1975.

Mayor Hofeld told me that in Homewood, “the glue that really binds [the] community together” is a series of annual festivals, including a chili cook-off and a rail fest. He hopes people who are interested in the town will attend one. Millennials, he said, “have enjoyed living in the city, and the features the city might afford. But they’re getting a little bit older, thinking of raising families, and looking around for a stable community that has a lot of amenities. And that’s what we are.”

I asked the mayor, who is 80 and has been in office for two decades, if “Think Homewood” reflects the town as it is today. “Very much so,” he said. “This cartoonist and MJ [Maharry], they really nailed it down. There are choices here. And that’s what’s nice.”

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