One of the nation's wealthiest suburbs, Bloomfield Hills—home to famous entertainers and athletes, board chairpersons, automobile company presidents, and other high-level corporate executives, as well as attorneys, physicians, judges, and political leaders—lies fifteen miles due north of downtown Detroit.
By act of the legislative council in 1827, a 36-square mile plot of land was designated “Bloomfield,” composed of Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham (Smith 6). Today, “Bloomfield Hills” encompasses 30 square miles, including 25 miles of the township and 5 miles of the city proper (“Bloomfield”), the latter totally residential and highly exclusive. Birmingham is now a separate municipality.
“Bloomfield” is clearly a prosperous and desirable living area, with tree-lined streets, beautiful and stylishly decorated homes, spacious yards and nicely landscaped gardens. Small lakes dot this moderately hilly area in which homes designed by Albert Kahn, Eliel Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Minoru Yamasaki feature tennis courts and indoor swimming pools. The expansive terrain, abundant foliage, and sizeable properties afford residents a sense of privacy and security.
One of the first to write about Bloomfield was the French statesman and writer Alexis de Tocqueville who detailed his travels to America in a series of notebooks. In his notations dated July, 1831, de Tocqueville describes, in poetic fashion, the dense forests of what was to become Bloomfield (133). More recent writers highlight the contrasts between Bloomfield and nearby cities, particularly Detroit. While geographically close to the city and various suburbs, Bloomfield is frequently portrayed as secluded, separate, and even isolated from its neighbors and from much of the world outside itself. Because of the area’s prosperity, “Bloomfield Hills” is also used in fiction to depict a way of life in which excessive concern with material possessions can lead to a misplaced sense of values.
Elmore Leonard, a resident of Bloomfield Hills, mentions the suburb in Mr. Paradise (8,187, 277, 288) and uses it as the setting for a robbery in his novel, Out of Sight. In the latter work, three ex-cons--White Boy, Glenn and Maurice--drive up from Detroit to survey Mr. Ripley’s home, which they plan to rob. As they approach the affluent suburb, the dialogue points to sharp contrasts between the downtown motel where one of the characters is staying and the huge, secluded, Tudor-style house in Bloomfield. Leonard sets up a further contrast between the tree-filled suburb and the trees that once stood near their Florida prison, with one of the ex-cons reminiscing over the view they once had. The dialogue gives the reader a glimpse into the vastly different lives of the wealthy Mr. Ripley and the would-be robbers.
“…Okay, we come about fifteen miles from that whorehouse motel you staying at downtown. Now we in Bloomfield Hills. We go left a ways and then right. They no hills to speak of, huh, but lots of trees. Remember Lompoc, we had that nice view of trees and the warden had ‘em all cut down?”….
Maurice said , “Watch the road, Boy. Slow down, I think it’s the next street…Yeah, Vaughan Road, nothing but money. Here come Mr. Ripley’s house up on the left. Yeah, the brick wall…There’s his drive, right there.”
Glenn turned his head to look out the back window and caught sight of a slate roof, glimpses of a Tudor-style country house through the trees, a huge place…. (167-168)
They have second thoughts about robbing Mr. Ripley’s mansion when they learn that it is not only large but a veritable fortress. Ripley has gone to great lengths to protect his possessions. He has enclosed himself voluntarily nearly as much as the bank robbers were enclosed within the Florida prison. While the thieves’ incarceration was obviously not by choice, Ripley has elected a self-imposed prison to protect his large cache of diamonds:
Maurice told White Boy to turn around, in that drive there and go slow so Glenn could see the house. “Okay, now creep. Big place, huh? We come by and see people trimming, cutting the lawn, so I send White Boy to go find the boss of the crew, ask was there any work for him. …White Boy ask him they any trouble with prowlers around here, car thieves and such. The houseman say they got a system, the man’s sleeping and hears a sound he don’t like? He press a button and every light inside and outside the house comes on. He wants to, he can press the button again, all the lights outside the house start flashing, a siren goes off and the police get a call, like a signal. The man has everything but U.S. Marines run out the garage at you.” (168)
The theme of separation and isolation is also apparent in native Detroiter Judith Guest’s 1982 novel, Second Heaven. Michael Atwood, an attorney, describes the stark contrast in scenery as he drives from nearby Pontiac—with its faded billboards, dilapidated buildings, vacant lots, “chicken shacks, and Donut shops, everything jazzy and hyphenated” (2-3)— and crosses over to his law office in Bloomfield Hills: “The highway widened as he crossed Orchard Lake Road, smoothing out to accommodate the businesses of Bloomfield Hills—realty companies, furniture showrooms, and decorator shops; groups of low modern buildings housing architects, photographers, doctors, lawyers…” (3).
Following her divorce, Cat Holzman, one of Michael’s clients, sits in her extravagant home in Bloomfield contemplating life. She has isolated herself, closing herself up in her mansion and drowning out her personal sorrows and conflicts, as well as the concerns of the world, with alcohol and drugs. She has an awakening and struggles with her own seclusion from global issues and castigates herself for not engaging more with society’s troubles:
After the divorce the world had suddenly been filled with people she couldn’t believe in. Like characters in some pointless play, they performed; each morning she had to read about them in the paper: STREET GANG MURDERS NEWSBOY FOR COLLECTIONS. MAN RAPES TEN-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER. SNIPER KILLS THREE ON DETROIT FREEWAY. Fanatics, murderers, initiators of crisis; their actions bizarre, stemming from motivations so obscure that you had to doubt their reality; yet they existed. In fact, their numbers were increasing daily, and not just here in the city but all over the world. Everywhere she looked all was hatred, violence, evil.
And what was she, Catherine Elizabeth Holzman, doing about it? Nothing. Nothing at all. Sitting day after day in her ten-room English Tudor in Bloomfield Hills. Drifting, blotting everything out with Valium and liquor; that was her style. (66)
Eventually, Cat resolves her inner conflicts, pursues her artistic passions, sells her house in Bloomfield Hills and moves to Royal Oak, a more modest nearby suburb, where she had lived as a child. Cat finds renewed meaning in her life, has a budding relationship with Michael Atwood, and is now at peace and content in her new surroundings.
Lisa Lenzo, another Detroit born writer, mentions Bloomfield Hills in one of her short stories entitled “The Angel Thomas.” Here Thomas, an angel who has been “assigned” a depressed client in Palmer Park, an area of Detroit six miles due north of downtown, recalls an earlier life in which he was “Eva” growing up in Bloomfield Hills. In this clearly affluent setting, Eva lounges by the family’s backyard pool, depressed about the “plans” her mother has made for her, and desiring release from the structured existence of her suburban upbringing.
Floating over Palmer Park, he swoops down low, slips through the pond’s surface, and swims down into the hazy green water. From the bottom he stares up at the water’s skin. He had used to do this two lives ago, when he was Eva, a girl growing up in Bloomfield Hills. Eva would dive to the bottom of her parents’ pool and turn over onto her back to escape her mother’s plans for her: debate club, voice lessons, social dancing with midgets. (12)
Joyce Carol Oates also writes of a character who desires escape from the structured life of Bloomfield. In her short story entitled “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” Oates writes about a young girl who has everything she needs in her Bloomfield Hills home, but feels emotionally empty. Her parents are successful socialites who are apparently too busy to pay attention to their daughter. The girl satirically describes her mother as one who is weighed down by materialism and involvement in social activities, leaving her little time for her teenage daughter:
The mother. A Midwestern woman of Detroit and suburbs. Belongs to the Detroit Athletic Club. Also the Detroit Golf Club. Also the Bloomfield Hills Country Club. The Village Women’s Club…The Bloomfield Art Association. Also the Founders Society of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Also…Oh, she is in perpetual motion, this lady, hair like blown-up gold and finer than gold, hair and fingers and body of inestimable grace. Heavy weighs the gold on the back of her hairbrush and hand mirror. Heavy heavy the candlesticks in the dining room. Very heavy is the big car, a Lincoln, long and black, that on one cool autumn day split a squirrel’s body in two unequal parts (181-2).
In describing the toney suburban store from which she shoplifts in an attempt to gain attention, the girl, referring to herself in the third person, mocks her mother, her father, and the excess surrounding her: “In her close-fitted coat with its black fur collar she contemplates its many mild pale lights, easy on the eye and the soul, its elaborate tinkly decorations, its women shoppers with their excellent shoes and coats and hairdos, all dawdling gracefully, in no hurry” (179-80).
Eventually the girl, feeling forced to escape her oppressive suburban existence, ventures out from her comfortable suburban home to downtown Detroit. We immediately grasp the contrast between the luxurious atmosphere of the store in Bloomfield and the boarded up buildings and pawnshops of Detroit. Furthermore, both outer and inner weather change as “the girl” travels by bus from Bloomfield Hills to Detroit: “The girl stepping down from a bus. Afternoon, weather changing to colder. Detroit. Pavement and closed-up stores; grillwork over the windows of a pawnshop. What is a pawnshop, exactly?” (180-181)
In Detroit, “the girl” gets involved with drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps and eventually lands herself in the Detroit House of Corrections, betrayed by her drug-dealer boyfriend. She lies awake pondering her fate and the differences between the wealthy suburb and the inner city: “The girl lies sleepless, wondering. Why here, why not there? Why Bloomfield Hills and not jail? Why jail and not her pink room? Why downtown Detroit and not Sioux Drive? What is the difference? …never never will she reconcile four o’clock in the morning in Detroit with eight o’clock breakfasts in Bloomfield Hills…” (191). She doesn’t want to return to her life in the suburbs until that night when she is beaten up by a group of women in the House of Corrections. “Princess vents all the hatred of a thousand silent Detroit winters on her body…revenge for the oppressed minorities of America! Revenge for the slaughtered Indians: revenge for the female sex, for the male sex, revenge for Bloomfield Hills, revenge, revenge…" (192). Afraid, disoriented and disillusioned, the girl has an abrupt turn around and returns to her home proclaiming that she loves her extravagant surroundings and never wants to leave her suburban home again.
Weeping in the living room. The ceiling is two stories high and two chandeliers hang from it. Weeping, weeping, though Billie the maid is probably listening. I will never leave home again. Never. Never leave home. Never leave this home again, never. Sugar doughnuts for breakfast. The toaster is very shiny and my face is distorted in it. Is that my face?…I weep for all the money here, for God in gold and beige carpeting, for the beauty of chandeliers and the miracle of a clean polished gleaming toaster and faucets that run both hot and cold water, and I tell them I will never leave home, this is my home, I love everything here, I am in love with everything here…
I am home. (194-5)
This story is a satire on upper-middle class suburban values as well as a tale about a girl growing up and coming to terms with the highlights and faults of her upbringing. As Greg Johnson observes, the girl learns about her own "victimization" and about the ways in which "Bloomfield Hills has distorted her identity." The story, Johnson feels, is therefore less a "satiric social commentary" based on its contrasting settings than about a young girl's desire for love (Understanding 113).
When living in Detroit in the 1960’s, Oates socialized with friends from Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills (Invisible Writer136-13). She satirizes the affluent suburbs and their inhabitants in Expensive People,part of her “trilogy” on various facets of American life” (Understanding 48). The novel highlights the damage which can be done to individuals and families in an environment that prizes material riches above all else. This preoccupation with possessions is brought home in Oates’s description of the suburb of “Fernwood” where “mixed in with the odor of lawns being sprinkled automatically on warm spring mornings is the odor of money, cash” (38).
Although Oates intended that the wealthy suburbs mentioned in Expensive People be nearly carbon copies of one another, her familiarity with the Detroit area suburbs certainly influenced the places she chose to mention in her novel. Bloomfield Hills is never actually named, but a number of the locales in the wealthy suburb of "Fernwood,” where most of the story takes place, coincidentally have names one encounters in Bloomfield: Burning Bush Way (37), the Hunt Club (19 ) and the Village Women’s Club ( 58). Furthermore, Oates dedicated this particular novel to her friend, Kate Smith, who lived in Bloomfield and wrote Bloomfield Blossoms, a history of the area. Oates herself says that “behind many of the proper names …as behind a scrim, there exist authentic names, and authentic entities; the descriptive scenes bear witness to a greedily appropriated authentic landscape, that of Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills, Michigan…” (Where I’ve Been 364)
In them, Oates’s work spanning thirty years of Detroit history, she situates many of her characters in Grosse Pointe, another wealthy suburban area, considered by many as “old money,” in contrast to the “new money” of Bloomfield. Jules Wendall had recently encountered Nadine, an old flame, at the London Chop House, a posh downtown restaurant, now long closed. Eager to rekindle the relationship, Jules makes the “long drive out Woodward Avenue” to Bloomfield where Nadine now lives. He thinks of Bloomfield Hills as “no city at all” since it lacks a commercial district and even seems “to have no homes, all of them set far back in the countryside on quiet lanes.” As he approaches her house, he contrasts the scene with that of her previous dwelling in the Pointes, finding her clearly high-priced Bloomfield home rather pristine and “impersonal”: “He found her house. It startled him to see how much it resembled the other house built by her father. Set back on a larger lawn—land being more plentiful here than in Grosse Pointe—it had a raw, expensive look, a look of newness totally impersonal” (374-5).
These novels and stories depict Bloomfield Hills as a sumptuous suburban area, fraught with all the dangers that a life of wealth and luxury can bring, particularly if possessions become ends in themselves. The characters in these stories and novels are of two types: those obsessed with their riches and those who have suffered because of the excess. The latter are frequently portrayed as experiencing isolation and separation from the outside world. Overall, the stories illustrate that while wealth generates its own distinct challenges residents of Bloomfield and similar neighborhoods ultimately deal with the same fundamental life conflicts as do those in less affluent surroundings. In these works, “Bloomfield Hills” actually becomes an archetype of suburban materialism, with an often exaggerated portrayal of the excesses of both the surroundings and the inhabitants.
Judith A. Heinen, Ph.D., Dean of Academic Programs at Marygrove College, is a long-time Bloomfield resident.
"Bloomfield Township Timeline of Events." Bloomfield Historical Society 1 Nov. 2007.
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Last update: June 2014