The Good Life, Just Beyond
A new book explores the evolution of American suburbia.
Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, by Amanda Kolson Hurley (Belt Publishing, 160 pp., $16.96)
If forced to compare an ice cream flavor with suburbia, many would pick vanilla. Yet, as Amanda Kolson Hurley writes in her new book, Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, this is just one of many “misinformed clichés” about these peripheral communities. City-dwellers internalized these attitudes early on. In the early 1950s, novelist Raymond Chandler spoke for many urbanites when he disdained suburban life for its “eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement.”
“You take it, friend,” he declared. “I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.”
Distaste for suburbia persists, with New Urbanist gurus like Andrés Duany describing suburbanized cities, such as Phoenix, as places “where civic life has almost ceased to exist,” though he offers no real evidence to back up this assertion. Social critic James Howard Kunstler goes even further, suggesting that the “state-of-the-art mega-suburbs of recent decades have produced horrendous levels of alienation, anomie, anxiety, and depression.”
Yet, as Hurley fortunately reminds us, the suburbs actually have a long, and in many cases quirky, history. In her study of six suburban developments, she shows how these communities emerged outside cities not as unglamorous places generating profits, but as oases from urban stress, with utopian goals.
Ambridge, a Pittsburgh suburb dating to the 1820s, for example, was originally settled by the Harmony Society, a German religious sect that practiced celibacy. Though industrious, the Society’s adherents lacked offspring, which delivered the community’s own “death sentence,” as Hurley wryly notes. In later decades, radical forms of communalism thrived beyond Pennsylvania’s Butler County, with numerous early suburbs adopting Communist or anarchist ideologies.
Hurley tells the story of Stelton, a colony established near Piscataway, New Jersey, in 1915 by political radicals and, unlike Ambridge, teeming with children. Stelton’s population typically ranged from 150 residents in the winter to more than 300 by the summer. Its location, not far from New York City, provided easy access to commuter trains; residents would leave their socialist paradise to earn a living in capitalist Manhattan. Ideology aside, Stelton’s residents exemplified a continuing suburban aspiration: mixing “rural peace” with opportunities in the big city.
Hurley also addresses the broader history of suburban living. Many factors drove the desire to escape city life—cost, space, a yearning for privacy, and a widening societal divergence between the urban center and its periphery. By the New Deal era, families flocked to suburban “greenbelt” towns, which drew their inspiration in part from the Garden-City Movement founded by British visionary Ebenezer Howard. The concept, which produced communities like the federally planned and financed Greenbelt, Maryland, outside Washington, focused on rental housing for government workers. But the movement ultimately failed, with private contractors lobbying against the construction of federally built suburbs. Though radical in conception, Greenbelt sadly reflected the cultural mores of the period, for example, by discriminating against African-Americans. Yet today, blacks constitute the majority of Greenbelt’s 24,000 residents.
Hurley’s focus on unusual suburbs like Greenbelt, though fascinating, overlooks more relevant contemporary concerns. Suburbia’s demographic composition, for example, is rapidly changing. During the 2010s, the percentage of suburbanites living in predominantly white suburbs fell from 51 percent to 39 percent. In the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44 percent of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent non-white. Hurley also misses pragmatic reasons for relocating to suburbs—good schools, safety, privacy—which help explain why places like Reston, Virginia, have become more expensive, with many homes costing over $1 million. The combination of smart design, suburban amenities, and a thriving town center are fueling these rising costs.
Americans’ continued attachment to homeownership contributes to suburbia’s growth. In cities, roughly 40 percent of residents own their homes, but in older suburbs, owners constitute three-fifths of residents. In newer suburbs and exurbs, more than seven in ten residents own homes. A 2012 study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found “little evidence to suggest that individuals’ preferences for owning versus renting a home have been fundamentally altered by their exposure to house price declines and loan delinquency rates, or by knowing others in their neighborhood who have defaulted on their mortgages.” In a 2013 University of Connecticut survey, 76 percent of those polled believed that homeownership remained necessary to be considered middle-class.
Radical Suburbs is more interested in the past than the future. Contemporary demographic and economic statistics are missing from Hurley’s analysis. She repeats the conventional wisdom that people still prefer core cities, even as suburbs and exurbs continue to grow faster. Similarly, she celebrates corporations’ urban resurgence, when most new jobs have been growing in the periphery, particularly in the Sunbelt.
Hurley’s interest in unusual suburbs also obscures the legacy of more conventional ones. The Levitts and the builders of southern California’s Lakewood, for example, created suburban homes for millions of middle- and working-class people—neighborhoods that possessed drawbacks, including poor aesthetics and racial discrimination, but that also delivered the promise of upward mobility and financial security to millions.
Intended as a nationwide study, Radical Suburbs skews to the East Coast. Though the eastern seaboard is more historic and has seen innovative development, the residential and corporate-migration patterns of the past 30 years have shifted to the West and the South. Hurley’s book would have benefited from chapters on suburbs more like Houston’s Woodlands, Ford Bend, and Cinco Ranch; Irvine, in California’s Orange County; and Valencia, north of Los Angeles. These newer communities, with a mix of good housing, ethnic diversity, and business infrastructure, are reshaping American life and pointing the way toward a more sustainable future. Their story may not be as interesting as those of colonies of celibates, anarchists, and social-democratic dreamers, but they are more likely bellwethers of how many of us will live tomorrow.
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