Wednesday, February 02, 2005

City, Suburbs, and Dolls

Via Gapersblock and Chicagoist, toy maker Mattel, has introduced a new doll to its American Girl product line. For those unfamiliar with American Girl, it represents product synergy at its best. Mattel produces dolls, matching clothes for girls, books, and other products that develop a "personality" for the doll.

The story of the new doll, Marisol, is causing a bit of controversy. She is from Chicago's Mexican-American community of Pilsen who is having to move to the suburban community of Des Plaines. According to accounts of the book, Pilsen is referred to as "no place to grow up," rife with violence, and a place from where reasonable people want to flee.

While the caricature of Mexican-Americans exploits discredited stereotypes ("Marisol was born to dance") and Pilsen's cultural and economic diversity seems to be downplayed, the story of Marisol does tap into an often-ignored aspect of metropolitan development: a complex reversal of the "white flight" dynamic that fueled post-war suburbanization.

Many accounts of the 2000 census figures show the increasing ethnic and cultural diversification of the suburbs. Much of this is due to gentrification schemes that price low income people out of their communities. Higher income--often white--residents are displacing low income renters. Pilsen is one of the areas in Chicago where gentrification is quickly coming. With the redevelopment of University Village, Chicago's southwest side is ripe for significant transformation. The story of Marisol, in turn, may be the template for forced displacement.