Bourgeois Dystopias

Bourgeois Dystopias

The suburbs don’t feel suburban anymore.


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.

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.

Readers familiar with Hayden’s work will not be surprised that she emphasizes how women and men experienced different modes of suburban development. Early suburban planners made imaginative efforts to satisfy men’s American dream of suburban home-ownership, but they failed to consider how women would react to their deep domestication, and too often the community life they promised failed to work. Hayden breaks with previous scholars in placing the struggle over women, families and the built environment at the heart of the suburban crisis, carefully showing how women’s interests became engines of change in planning and design. She argues that “the single-family suburban house implies isolation, lacking physical and social context. For women, the dream is house plus neighborhood sociability.”

Revisiting themes from Redesigning the American Dream, Hayden illustrates how different suburban forms–from Andrew Jackson Downing’s landscaped estates (where men and their assistants were assigned the heavy gardening, women the ornamentation and weeding) to Catharine Beecher’s working home for wives and contemporary fringe outposts removed from social environments–isolated and domesticated women, generating complaints about “lonelyville” in every generation. Beecher, a bestselling author and influential reformer in the early 1800s, “defined household work and nurturing as ‘woman’s true profession'” and “advised marrying early, giving up worldly activities, [and] having ten children.” Yet she “never practiced the domestic feminism she preached,” choosing instead a public and cosmopolitan life. Hayden credits Beecher with advancing domestic design by decades and making genuine improvements in women’s work space. But like so many other architects and planners, Beecher “failed to understand the intense desire for community on the part of potential suburban residents.”

Drawing heavily on primary sources, Hayden insists that suburban projects were more diverse and democratic than their critics have understood. By the 1850s communitarian movements began to influence landscapers, builders and designers, and an emerging class of reformers believed they could craft a transformative social architecture outside the city. New plans for picturesque enclaves, such as Alexander Jackson Davis’s Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside, Illinois, emphasized collective open space and encouraged shared public life. One communitarian settlement in Mount Vernon, New York, attracted 300 families by offering “protection against the unjust power and influence of capital”; others developed model towns to improve women’s status through shared services and technological support. Building Suburbia‘s illustrations–including architectural plans, advertisements, photographs, maps and drawings–convey advocates’ buoyant confidence that they were improving the infrastructure of everyday life.

Yet Hayden also documents how quickly utopian plans for suburbia went awry once the first generation of reformers disappeared and the speculators arrived. Picturesque enclaves, for example, became templates for two of the more odious suburban forms. First there was the exclusive, sometimes gated community, developed as an enclave for the affluent, often substituting a country club for the picturesque park. Tuxedo Park, New York, with gated estates inside a gated community, and Lake Forest, Illinois, with its spacious polo grounds and golf courses, feature prominently here. Second was the flat subdivision, with increased housing density, straightened roads, insufficient infrastructure and less public space–and usually the word “park” in its name, “whether it had a park or not.” These would become suburbs for the masses, but only once they shed the landscaping, architectural charm and communitarian ethos that inspired reformist planners in the first place.

The two pressures that undermined the picturesque enclave–residents’ drive for class segregation and developers’ hunger for profit in the mass market–return in every stage of Hayden’s account, devastating so many of the virtues embedded in each suburban form. Though she never names it, Building Suburbia reveals an underlying pattern in the history of US suburbanization: the tendency of privately organized and publicly supported growth machines to flatten, homogenize and reduce the most original and utopian suburban plans; and the consistent efforts of elite classes to separate themselves from the rest of the metropolis, even as they benefit disproportionately from mortgage subsidies and other social policies that purportedly promote housing for the middle class.

Building Suburbia vividly illustrates how housing policies directly altered the landscape in different periods of suburbanization. Much of Hayden’s argument covers familiar territory, but her analysis of how federal legislation for accelerated depreciation facilitated the development of cheap commercial buildings, unsightly roadside strips and even unwanted sprawl is revelatory. In 1954 a Republican Congress intent on reversing a recession through speculative construction passed a tax-reform bill “enabling owners to depreciate or write off the value of a building in…a short time.” According to Hayden, the bill “not only encouraged poor construction, it also discouraged adequate maintenance” by failing to provide any support for renovation of existing structures. Social policy made new construction a public good, and left existing buildings to deteriorate. “As the boom accelerated,” Hayden argues, “the federal government encouraged suburban developers to cannibalize their own cities.”

Builders rushed to put up shopping malls, motels and office complexes within open suburban areas. For the first time, they also began constructing complexes in the open fields beyond suburban borders, in the “growth nodes” and “tomorrowlands” that became today’s sprawl. Hayden counts 22,000 suburban shopping centers built between the mid-1950s and late 1970s, 43,000 by the late 1990s. “By 2000,” she writes, “Americans had built almost twice as much retail space per citizen as any other country in the world.” Federal highway funds insured that there would be new roads to connect rural fringe areas to suburbs and cities. Yet the paucity of investment in public transportation meant that trains and buses were inadequate to serve the sprawling suburban nation.

Now most Americans need cars to reach work and the marketplace. On weekdays congested streets replace the town square as a public space. According to a Chicago suburbanite Hayden quotes, “The only way you can see other people from Schaumburg is through their car windows, as they drive home from work.”

Today frustration with sprawl and suburban overdevelopment is widespread, and environmental groups, smart-growth movements and citizens’ campaigns are fighting to protect the landscape. In recent years contemporary architects and planners have produced a new menu of design solutions, including New Urbanist and neotraditional villages such as Seaside, Florida; digital smart houses designed to promote virtual communities in self-contained, private space; and sustainable “green” houses built with recycled materials and powered by renewable energy sources. But Hayden is skeptical. “Better architecture cannot, in itself, change the larger patterns of social and economic exploitation developed by growth machines which profit from round after round of fringe development.”

Instead, Hayden advocates what I would call a deep urban political ecology, based on a public commitment to restore and preserve the nation’s rich supply of residential and commercial buildings, and a federally sponsored project to improve the quality of metropolitan life. She has concrete (if controversial) proposals for curbing sprawl, such as capping mortgage subsidies (which currently cost over $100 billion annually, nearly half of which goes to families with incomes over $100,000), imposing design review for new construction, implementing regional planning for edge nodes and subsidizing renovation of older buildings.

She also has good company, in a generation of innovative scholars and legislators who recognize that solving the suburban crisis means reckoning with the damage caused by politically divisive municipal borders. Former Minnesota State Senator Myron Orfield and Harvard Law Professors Gerald Frug and David Barron are exploring possibilities for regional legislatures and metropolitan governing structures that will change the terms of home rule, enabling municipalities to collectively address problems that transcend the city limits. The city line–shifting boundaries that divided American metropolitan areas into thousands of municipalities, urban and suburban, separate and unequal–has been a powerful but largely unrecognized source of inequality. Today most townships work within a vast political mosaic to administer their own policies and programs, from schooling to social services, housing to policing, and are reluctant to share public goods or plan collectively with neighboring communities. “Home rule” provisions, which protect the autonomy, freedom and choice of local governments, are sacrosanct.

But home rule doesn’t work for cities or suburbs. The trouble is not simply that wealthy suburbs horde resources, leaving poor municipalities and central cities unequipped to protect or educate their constituents. According to Frug and Barron, who have been interviewing mayors and city administrators throughout the Boston metropolitan area, local officials are discovering that they are usually powerless to address issues such as traffic, pollution, transportation and unwanted growth–difficulties that most Americans endure daily and are beginning to regard as political concerns. The fragmentation of metropolitan regions exacerbates these problems, since even successful efforts to block new developments typically push them to neighboring towns, and congestion spills over. The ideal of local autonomy, in which small communities determine the quality of their own environment, is a fantasy that has become a trap, blocking the development of regional governments that could better manage regional problems.

Today there is bipartisan dissatisfaction with the status quo of congestion, pollution, failing school systems and sprawl. We need a bold, imaginative policy agenda to address these issues. But the American political imagination has failed to generate a meaningful response. Dolores Hayden’s new books are a provocation to engage the problem of the city line, lest it become a defining feature of the twenty-first century as well.

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