Bourgeois Utopias

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Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: the Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.


For those of a certain age, the image of life in suburban America is one of comfort and familiarity; a time and place where security was easily found in the prosperity and simplicity of one's own subdivision on the outskirts of town. In his book Bourgeois Utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia, author Robert Fishman leads his readers on a fast-paced examination of the orgins of the suburban concept, its rise to maturity, and its eventual status.

Fishman informs his readers that the original concept of suburbia is to be found in Britain in the Eighteenth-Century. For most people of means---during this era---living in a peripheral zone would have been madness; the only institutions to be found in such areas were those who were in virtual exile from the urban centre. But even at this time, there were members of the new middle class who possessed the wherewithal to build summer/weekend villas.

As urban populations and the pace of industrialization increased at the beginning of the Nineteenth-Century, the number of these villas increased, as did the amount of time the middle class was spending at them. By the 1840's non-industrial communities, dedicated to affluent residential life had been established; along with a model in which middle class families lived in the suburb full-time, while the master of the house commuted to the city centre each day for work. This regime was in stark contrast to that of the very rich and very poor. Fishman tells his readers that the very rich could afford to live well in the city centre and desired to do so, as it left them well placed to network with their peers and conduct commercial activity. For the poor, the city centre was a prison since they lacked the means to live elsewhere and their proximal employment provided the necessary means to live.

The development of this model was by no means inevitable. Fishman contrasts the migration of the British middle class to nesting impulse of the French middle class. As part of the Haussmann renovation of Paris, wide boulevards lined by elegant apartment blocks had been constructed; and it was to these apartment blocks that the city's middle class congregated. Thus, according to Fishman, the French brought suburbia to the city centre and eschewed peripheral living for many generations. As the British model of suburbia continued to develop, two major trends developed: Segregation and Domesticity.

Increasingly, during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, British life compartmentalized. Suburban life reflected this segregation. The middle class did not wish to mix with the elite or the poor, so they lived in communities specifically designated for them which literally fenced out other social components. Within these communities the middle class remained aloof from each other, usually fencing in their yards and restricting their social interactions. Within individual households, men and women, adults and children, spent only limited amounts of time with each other; preferring/constrained to interact with socially acceptable company.

Fishman attributes most of this suburban migration to the development of the new Nuclear Family, which he argues featured a more introverted character and sought insulation from the seeming chaos of the burgeoning cities. This lent a domestic character to the process, as the importance of home-life took on new significance. This would particularly impact women; for the domestic sphere was the stock and trade of the feminine gender during the period.

The mere act of relocating to a peripheral community had the effect of removing women from the mainstream of social life, which caused them to take a greater role in home life. As mistress of a suburban household, a woman assumed responsibility for the daily operations of that facility and for general oversight of family affairs; thus liberating her husband from these tasks which were popularly conceived as being beneath his social position. Fishman argues that this role did empower women by giving them authority to supervise staff and conduct household transactions, but that these gains were diminished by the social isolation women endured as suburban housewives. In the final chapters of his work, Fishman discusses the modern institution of suburbia, and its evolution.

According to Fishman, the institution of suburbia has featured one major evolutionary development since the First World War: Urban Decentralization. This concept has meant the migration of significant proportions of society from the city centers to suburbs which over time have grown more geographically distant from the city centre and more independent from the city centre in social and commercial terms. Urban Decentralization has had several effects on communities where it has occurred:

• Real estate development has become big business in which a wide variety of commercial concerns have partnered to form a virtual 'military-industrial complex' to facilitate ever-expanding growth. • New suburbanite-lifestyles have developed which call for movement between suburbs which avoid the city centre. • Rising Transportation concerns, as road networks struggle to support these new lifestyles. • City centers holding a symbolic role of regional identification, rather than material focus of community life.

For Fishman, the suburb began as a peripheral transition from countryside to city, when most were moving from the former to the latter. As cities have declined, and ever greater numbers of the population have moved to more dispersed communities, a new form has arisen: the center-less metroplex. Within this new form, the suburb has become little more significant than the city centre it replaced.


Fishman's work covers a lot of ground, over two hundred years, and it pays the price. While his use of examples and case studies do help the readers understand his arguments, and those arguments are interesting, any number of variations is ignored to keep things moving. Fishman makes no attempt to discuss how the Romantic movement of the early Nineteenth-Century impacted early suburbanites. Similarly, when discussing modern suburbia in America, he ignores the impact of race as it affected housing and how women faired as mistresses of modern households. It is still a good read though, and holds the readers attention nicely.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

Robert Fishman presents an organized and coherent argument that suburbs in America were based on the English eighteenth century movement away from over crowded city-centers. Unlike other European capitals where the wealthy remained in the urban core, most English cities found their middle classes moving to country villas, not just as weekend retreats, but as their primary residences. Cities like Paris and Vienna retained their patrician citizens only through intense governmental involvement. Baron Haussmann’s drastic renovations of Paris included fine apartment buildings as part of the architectural framework for the new wide boulevards of the city and the bourgeoisie happily occupied them.

The Americanization of English villas and picturesque landscapes came through the work of Alexander Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux. Frederick Law Olmsted visited England in the 1850s and observed that middle-class villas had to be built in proximity to one another to protect them from encroachment of undesirable workshops and their accompanying sounds and odors. Like Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, Fishman stresses that suburbia emerged as a family-centered environment. However, he does not place enough focus on the impact this had on segregating society through not only class divisions but race as well.

The subtitle of this work refers to the fall of the suburb and I was prepared to disagree with that concept, but Fishman convincingly relates the development of what he calls the technoburb and the encompassing techno-city such as the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area. These are not just communities where the residents commute to the city for jobs but they have become self-sustaining communities of their own which offer most everything that is needed within easy driving distance. They may surround a city but no longer rely on the city for employment or even culture.

Jackson credits America wherein Fishman makes a strong case for an American adoption of English suburbanization. Fishman never really addresses the immensity of the American landscape and how Americans relate to all of that space. This surely led to some of the differences in English and American suburban development. Fishman lost an opportunity by not integrating a discussion of the many fine illustrations that appear in a central section of the book. He never refers to the illustrations in the text to refer to different points he is making which would have further strengthened his narrative and made this book even more of a pleasure to read.

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