Bourgeois Dystopias | The Nation


Bourgeois Dystopias

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The suburbs don't feel suburban anymore. In metropolitan regions from California to Massachusetts, growth proliferates uncontrollably and unsustainably, rural areas are paved for subdivisions and big-box stores, traffic and congestion are endless and no one can find parking at the mall.

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Eric Klinenberg
Eric Klinenberg is associate professor of sociology at New York University. Fighting for Air, his forthcoming book...

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The historian Robert Fishman famously called American suburbia a "bourgeois utopia," because it "founded its hopes for community stability on the shifting sands of land speculation and based its reconciliation of man and nature on the capacity to exclude the urban world of work." Today most new jobs are in the suburbs. The majority of new immigrants, and increasing numbers of African-Americans, gays and the poor, are settling down outside the city lines. Single and elderly suburban residents outnumber married couples with kids. More Americans live in the suburbs than in cities and rural areas combined.

The search for sanctuary, security and class segregation that motivated early suburbanization advances outward. Developers build gated communities. Buyers want homes in the woods. Sprawl expands everywhere but the center, leaving downtowns underutilized, neighborhoods abandoned. One is as likely to find open fields, quiet sidewalks and tall grass on the streets of "inner city" Detroit, Philadelphia or Brooklyn as on the periphery. Cultural trendsetters leave Manhattan for happening towns in New Jersey. Entrepreneurs prefer Silicon Valley to San Francisco. There's more ethnic diversity in the shops of Skokie than on the streets of Chicago. Suburbs are becoming urban, rendering the landscape increasingly incoherent. Critics use terms like "edge city," "technoburb" and "exurban." Our metropolitan vocabulary is breaking down.

So, too, are clichés about suburbia and the city, even though they remain staples of popular culture. Courses on "the problems of cities," are standard features of the sociology, history and political science curriculums offered to elite (and mostly suburban) students, even though the classic urban troubles--crime, corruption, segregation, drug use, school violence--are also suburban problems.

Long scorned by cultural critics and urbane intellectuals who disdained the suburbs as places, and had little interest in studying them, suburbia is now a booming theme for academic research, deeply influenced by two classic histories from the 1980s, Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier and Fishman's Bourgeois Utopias. Both books identified the political and economic engines and racial tensions driving suburban growth machines (made up of builders, bankers, speculators and real estate brokers) and showed how new transportation technologies, cheap energy supplies and government subsidies quickly transformed the United States into the quintessential suburban nation. Crabgrass Frontier dramatically documented how federal housing policies legitimized racially discriminatory lending standards, exclusionary suburban developments and restrictive covenants, thereby subsidizing white flight (and in turn wealth accumulation), relegating African-Americans to declining central cities and deepening segregation. Bourgeois Utopias emphasized how the overlapping interests of the affluent (who were eager to flee filthy downtowns and the working classes), idealistic planners and big builders made suburban expansion possible. But Fishman concluded, presciently, that sprawl and advanced communications would knock "true suburbs" out of existence, creating techno-regions where every home was a working center.

Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture and American studies at Yale and the author of pathbreaking books on the politics of gender, planning and urban design (most notably Redesigning the American Dream and The Power of Place), makes a landmark contribution to this literature with two new books about the historical emergence and recent transformation of the suburbs. The first, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, is an engaging and richly illustrated account of the conflicts among entrepreneurs, residents, planners and bureaucrats who battled to realize competing visions for the suburbs. The second, A Field Guide to Sprawl, focuses on the contemporary landscape.

Hayden does not offer a grand reinterpretation of suburban history. But Building Suburbia makes several major advances. Most fundamentally, it introduces a novel conceptual scheme for distinguishing seven modes of suburban development, each defined by an assemblage of distinctive architectural styles, marketing strategies, building techniques and attitudes about nature. At first glance it's unclear why we need another set of categories to differentiate suburbs. But Hayden's typology--borderlands (beginning around 1820), picturesque enclaves (1850), street-car suburbs (1870) mail-order and self-built suburbs (1900), mass-produced, urban-scale sitcom suburbs (1940), edge nodes (1960) and rural fringes (1980)--facilitates a useful new way of seeing vernacular patterns in the suburban landscape. Previous suburban taxonomies defined periods of suburban growth too narrowly, often with a technological determinism that emphasized transportation or building materials over cultural, political or economic forces. Hayden's categories help us recognize that the suburbs have been as dynamic as cities, that neither their social meaning nor their architectural form can be summed up by the white picket fence.

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