Crabgrass Frontier

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Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. By Kenneth T. Jackson. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press,1985. Pp xii, 396. $21.95)ISBN 0195049837

Contents

Summary

With Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson attempts to broadly interpret and synthesize the American suburban experience, which he sees as different from the suburbanization process of other major world cities. In his words, he seeks “to integrate intellectual, architectural, urban, and transportational history with public policy analysis, and…place the American experience within the context of international developments.” (10) His working definition of suburbs has four components: “function (non-farm residential), class (middle and upper status), separation (a daily journey-to-work), and density (low relative to older sections).” (11) Also dominant in the work is the notion that the rich and powerful began the flight from the city first—something that the middle classes eventually emulated as city tax rates skyrocketed and those on the lower end of the economic stratum moved in.

From ancient times, the city was the place to live, close to the arts and seat of government. The upper classes lived within walking distance of work and cultural activities, while the poor laborers lived in the suburbs, or the rough edges of town. “Suburbs, then, were socially and economically inferior to cities when wind, muscle, and water were the prime movers of civilization…Even the word suburb suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, and physical squalor.” (19) Between 1815-1875, however, this situation began to change in the United States. With new transportation alternatives such as the steam ferry, omnibus, the commuter railroad, the horsecar, the elevated railroad, and the cable car came “an exodus that would turn cities “inside out” and inaugurate a new pattern of suburban affluence and center despair.” (20)

Given the stigma that the word suburb connoted through the centuries, American suburbs seemed to have an inferiority complex in the mid-1800s. Residents wanted to pattern them after the big cities. Jackson points out that towns popped up with such names as South Chicago, North Chicago, South Chicago Heights, and Chicago Heights. (46) However, by the turn of the century, a middle class expectation of having residential space had emerged. This development gave new meaning to family, home life, and the yard. “Family came to be a personal bastion against society, a place of refuge, free from outside control,” with “the emerging values of domesticity, privacy, and isolation reach[ing] fullest development in the United States. (47-8) The big, mean city, with its confidence men and squalor, did not promise the same haven as the suburbs. The suburban middle class also did not need the land to grow crops; therefore, “the ideal house came to be viewed as resting in the middle of a manicured lawn or picturesque garden.” (55) The invention of the auto and other transportation advances induced many more folks to leave the cities for the comforts of the suburbs. That said, fewer than 50 percent of families owned their own home well into the twentieth century.

As Rome notes in Bulldozer in the Countryside and as Jackson details in chapters eleven and twelve, the years between the two world wars witnessed the demand for more housing, especially as soldiers returned home. The government attempted to answer this need through policies implemented by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). By grading certain areas based on "desirability" i.e., lack of minorities, the government, through HOLC encouraged middle class white flight from the city. Meanwhile, FHA “helped to turn the building industry against the minority and inner-city housing market, and its policies supported the income and inner-city housing market.” (213) FHA was loath to provide mortgages to those in ethnic or minority neighborhoods, further promoting white flight.

Post-World War II America marked the height of suburbanization in America. Encouraged by the emergence of new cities of wartime production and government assistance for veterans, increasing numbers of Americans could afford to buy homes. Given the massive growth of affordable dwellings accessible by the highway and train, families flocked to planned towns such as Levittown where all the details such as schools and public works were already in place so that builders could erect as many as thirty homes a day to meet demand (235).

In addition to phenomenon like Levittown, Jackson describes how America’s “drive-in” culture grew to accommodate and enhance the culture of post-war suburbs. In addition to highways to transport suburban residents to the cities and garages in the new suburban homes, post-war suburbs also contributed to new forms of commercialism including the motel, drive-in theaters, fast food, and shopping malls. Further and as Jackson argues, most importantly, the decentralization of post-World War II American cities led to “the erosion of the concept of suburb as a place for which wage-earners commuted daily to jobs in the center” (266), but rather as the suburb as both the place of work and home with commutes from one suburb to another.

Jackson’s synthetic work builds on the writings of previous authors. He enhances their arguments with his own. This book is perfect for both graduates and undergraduates, as well as a reader interested in the rise of suburbs.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Crabgrass Frontier is a solid overview and introduction to the causes of what became a unique form of American living: suburbanization. Tracing the emergence of peripheral residential areas in the 1700s, Kenneth Jackson examines how factors from balloon-frame housing, to annexation, transportation technologies, to federal legislation worked together to create explosive growth in America’s urban hinterlands. Further, Jackson compares the American experience in cities, and later, in the areas surrounding to European counterparts to illustrate the singularity of the American experience. Although Jackson draws examples from various sized cities across the nation, much of the focus is on Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. As such, a reader’s first-hand knowledge of one or all of those cities would enhance her understanding of the extent of the growth via ‘the feel’ of the area.

Despite the breadth of coverage, however, Crabgrass Frontier is an overall unsatisfying read. Firstly, the writing style is very dry, making the subject matter tedious and unnecessarily technical. Secondly, Crabgrass Frontier is already showing its age, both in its conclusions and its scholarship. The matter of scholarship is really the third limiting aspect of the book. Jackson provides a synthesis of a variety of topics, but lacks much on the cultural changes of suburbanism. He hints at the privatization of American life and discusses the changing nature of shopping and movie-going, but these sections are very brief and skim the surface without much useful analysis. Further, while race, as linked to class, recurs throughout, gender is barely mentioned, appearing only once in Jackson’s section on the breaking down of extended families and rise in prominence of the nuclear family (243-244). As is evidenced by the case of Betty Friedan, women were clearly much more important in American suburbanism as dissenters and compromisers.

The conclusion holds the most valuable analysis where Jackson summarizes “residential deconcentration—the suburban ideal and population growth—and two fundamental causes—racial prejudice and cheap housing” (287). Together, these factors combined with twentieth century economic features such as federal encouragement of homeownership “produced a spread-out environment of work, residence, and consumption that has thus far been more pronounced in the United States than elsewhere” (296). Finally, despite all of suburbia’s unique social and political characteristics, Jackson argues that ultimately the suburbs are part of an urban growth model rather than a separate phenomenon (303). As such, then, in 1984 Jackson believed the computer revolution would not disrupt work patterns enough to allow further spread away from the cities; that working remotely would continue as an option only for “highly individualistic writers and programmers” (297) while the rest of America’s workforce returned to urban centers. Jackson cannot be faulted for inaccurately predicting twenty years in the future and will likely address these statements in a revised edition, but this case underscores the dated feeling that runs throughout Crabgrass Frontier, especially in an otherwise solid, concise conclusion.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

Kenneth Jackson’s history of suburbia relates the story of its development and presents it as a uniquely American phenomenon. While he does cite some connections to English antecedents, he clearly sees its development in the United States as being a singularly American feature. What is not clear is why he finds it necessary to ignore the English and European antecedents of suburbs. Any suburban development in this country was clearly going to be different with the amount of land that planners had available to exploit and with the number of cars owned which Jackson illustrates with tables. Transportation was the key to the rapid spread of the suburb beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when commuter railroads and horse cars made it possible to travel easily between the city and the outlying area. Jackson also makes the important connection between the suburb and the middle-class emphasis on family. The suburb created family space with each house having its own tiny park that created a buffer of privacy.

Jackson’s discussion of the development of the uber-suburb of Los Angeles is one of the most interesting sections. He illustrates how it developed with no historical precedence of inner city apartment buildings or townhouses that cities on the east coast or even Chicago had experienced. By 1930, 94% of all people in the Los Angeles area were in single-family homes, a number that remains higher than any other metropolitan area. Developers understood that they benefited from an emphasis on highways rather than mass transit and Jackson covers this story convincingly.

Crabgrass Frontier is now twenty-five years old so some of Jackson’s predictions are a bit dated. He does discuss the impact that the computer might have on the dichotomy of city versus suburbia but he, not surprisingly, misses the mark on the impact that the dominance of the internet in current life might have on how people work. It would also be interesting to know what effect the green movement might have on suburbs in the future. Will the amount of driving that is necessary in suburban life be targeted as unsustainable or will the green canopy of the suburb be seen as negating the impact of the carbon footprint.

This history of the suburb is valuable in so many ways, but I found the organization of the book with the many sub-headings made it seem like reading the text for a documentary and I kept hearing the accompanying voice of a narrator in my head. Robert Fishman’s history of the suburb, Bourgeois Utopias, tells a more complete history of the suburb in a flowing narrative that follows a logical trajectory. Jackson’s work explicates the history of the suburb in the United States but the read is nowhere near as smooth or engaging.

Alan S. Brody, Spring 2011

Crabgrass Frontier, with its cleverly titled allusion to Turner, is a classic work and winner of the Bancroft Prize, while it may be au courant to note its outmoded predictions or traditional prose, one must see it in its time and place it within its historiographical context. Jackson is working at a time when social history and American Studies were dueling for the hand of new approaches to the past and I believe that this work is using urban history to read the suburbs. I suggest that Jackson was moving forward an argument that the suburbs were a place first and foremost of American imagination, and it was this that clearly differentiated and evidenced as part of the American experience. Jackson make several points that are well worth reiterating. First, the built environment and abundant land allowed for a uniquely American character and physical and political development. Second, the willingness to embrace new technologies, such as transportation, allowed for rapid change and innovation. Third, suburbia was the factor that increased and amplified the many different America’s, especially urban, rural, exurban and suburban populations.

Read this way, Jackson asks some important questions about why the suburbs developed the way they did and he looks at those factors for some high level cause and effect, this is not to say he ignores the details or that he does not do analysis, instead I found the sub headings to be helpful. While I found myself wanting more, I appreciated the broader context in which to place my desires. Like the suburbs, one has to seed the lawn of history and then allow others to plant the garden with unique items. In other words, one can trace the work of the next generation of historians directly to Crabgrass Frontier. The essential message in this work is that suburbia was the confluence of planning, policy and technology that highlighted and propelled extant trends that had begun in the nineteenth century. This is a highly accessible book that has stood the test of time and will inform by helping to keep in mind the various factors at play when looking at the built environment.

Alan S. Brody, Fall 2011

Looking back almost one year later, I find Crabgrass Frontier to be more inspirational than I originally thought, clearly the definition of suburbs put forth by Jackson rings true and my comments about the imagination and American character also seem most valid. It’s the history of the history of the suburbs, viewed from the urban historians lens. In close reading, what stands out are the meta questions about place, use and geography and perhaps this social geography is the reading that has the most relevance for me. Working towards a definition of social geography, I see it as changes in the environment and its use and quantifying those changes – and here is where Jackson shows his social history muscle, by asking those questions with a qualitative answer.

This leads to my more problematic engagement with Jackson’s suburbs, and urban history in general, how to maintain that evidentiary based engagement with the topic and not be swayed by a view that sees cities as doomed to fail. Historians like Thomas Sugrue also remind us that the suburbs were plagued by racial intolerance, violence and that many of the cities ills were transplanted to the suburbs. The essential questions for anyone interested in the suburban experience are raised in Crabgrass Frontier, however, many historians have dissected and invented new threads to explore while trying to empower those who moved away from cities and in the most modern sense, those who moved back.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Kenneth T. Jackson noted that “[t]he United States has...been unique in four important respects that can be summed up in the following sentence: affluent and middle-class Americans live in suburban areas that are far from their work places, in homes that they own, and in the center of yards that by urban standards elsewhere are enormous” (6). As a result, Jackson sought to explain the differences that characterized American land use and spatial arrangements when compared to the rest of the world. He thus offered a broad synthesis that focused on the importance of land development, inexpensive lots, efficient construction methods, improved transportation, government incentives, and racial homogeneity. In examining the American suburbs, Jackson argued that suburbanization represented a natural process aided by governmental intervention, facilitating the American desire for a lifestyle characterized by home ownership in sparsely populated, racially homogeneous neighborhoods that are significantly separated from work and the urban environment (10, 11).

Jackson presented a strong argument that advanced several important historiographical themes that characterized urban scholarship. As the twentieth century progressed, suburbanization emerged in response to the growing problems that confronted the urban environment. Issues of congestion, decentralization, and black migration facilitated the departure of whites first to the urban periphery and then to the suburbs. To compound matters, efforts to bring people back into the city backfired. The freeways, for instance, sought to take advantage of the automobile by making downtown and, by extension, the city more accessible, but did the reverse as more people continued to leave. White Americans thus used the suburbs as a haven that separated them from the congestion, decentralization, and black migration that helped define the urban crisis.

Yet, because Jackson presented his analysis as a synthesis, he exposed himself to generalizations that sometimes hurt his presentation. Jackson’s suburbs were occupied by middle-class to elite whites. Yet, while Jackson mentioned the presence of service workers in upper class suburbs, he lent the impression that they did not represent true suburbanites. After all, his working definition of suburbs contained a class component identified by the middle-class and upper-class (11). Jackson’s class and race-based generalization hindered his overall portrait of suburbia, a portrait that gained significant nuance in works like My Blue Heaven and Places of Their Own. Despite the setback, Jackson’s work represented a significant piece of history that laid the foundation that enabled future works to stand on their own.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Kenneth Jackson’s ground-breaking work on American surburbanization compares this “embodiment of (American) contemporary culture” to European housing trends (p. 4). In Jackson’s view, suburbanization became identified both as a “planning type” of development and a “state of mind based on imagery and symbolism” (p. 4) of a residential lifestyle through ten distinctive phases (p. 286). In general, Jackson describes suburban movement as a result of two major factors: choice for the wealthy facilitated by transportation technology and federal policy that racially prejudiced suburban value and home ownership over inner city immigrant or minority residential living.

Jackson traces the emergence of this movement to city peripheries as a purposeful choice for elite and middle class in early years of the nineteenth century, nearly a century prior to more recent notions of post-war or white flight housing development strategies. By carefully selecting locations that enhanced resident status; offered sanctuary from urban congestion, disease, and immigrant life; and provided access to emerging transportation routes back to commercial hubs, Jackson asserts that elites forged the way for an American suburb lifestyle that promoted the sanctity of family and healthful benefits of nature away from city centers. This perspective of the suburban movement contrasts with twentieth century versions of the flight from city centers as a racially-motivated shift, so adds valuable context to the reasons for expansion away from city centers.

An integral part of this movement required transportation technology and Jackson describes how the emergence of the omnibus in New York City in 1829, the ferry service in 1830, and the commuter steam railroad in 1832 first helped move people away from the city by opening up options for residential areas away from congested city centers, yet connected to jobs via public transportation systems. Jackson also explains how many suburban developers used ownership in trolley, horse car, or rail systems to promote development in suburban communities by establishing transport routes and offering commuter short rail service and competitive fare rates. As operating costs soared, transit owners hesitated to raise fares and failed to earn enough funds to upgrade systems. Ridership decreased and many companies went out of business. The invention of motor cars only exacerbated the decline of rail trolley transports. As travel by cars grew in popularity, suburban developers influenced city boards to build parkways and commuter highways and created instant value in potential land development projects. From this framework, the suburb was created not by squeezing people out, but by expanding the walking city work-residence pattern as new transportation technology emerged. Jackson’s ability to connect movement to technology helps explain why other cities also used trolley systems to encourage dencentralization like in Thomas Hanchett’s exploration of the Dilworth suburb in Sorting Out the New South City.

Jackson presents a second compelling argument in that the development of suburbs reflected cultural norms about the role of the family and home as places of status and domesticity. As the field of architecture professionalized, home designers guided the public in creating homes that conveyed certain styles or tones. Pre-Civil War designers like Andrew Jackson Downing advocated harmony with nature and landscaping that promoted “truthfulness, beauty, and order” (p. 66). Frank Lloyd Wright returned to this theme in the 1920s with his “servantless domesticity” simplicity as lifestyle and societal changes reduced the number of households with staff (p. 185). These styles created an image of low-density living in neighborhoods with detached homes with yards as the new American ideal rather than row houses.

Jackson then argues that government policies were designed as a form of “social control of ethnic and racial minorities” by limiting the ability of certain groups to obtain the means to move into these suburban areas when federal involvement in the American housing market took root in the 1930s (p. 191). During the Depression, home ownership was seen as an indication of moral character, for men of “sound character and industrious habits” and legislation was created to help support home ownership like the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, and the Home Owners Loan Corporation (p. 193). The outcome of these various attempts failed to live up to expectations, but the HOLC did provide the advantage of uniform loan payments for home purchases with the possibility of loan renewals. The downside to the HOLC was the appraisal and rating system that stigmatized and racialized valuations of neighborhoods based on density, ethnic or racial composition, or age of structures. Jackson points out that the HOLC system “did not initiate the idea of considering race and ethnicity in real-estate appraisal” but it provided a de facto codification of prejudice that prevented certain homeowners from gaining ratings needed to sell or acquire loans for home improvements. This restricted movements out of certain neighborhoods while increasing movements into the “desired” neighborhoods on the periphery or with low density, racially white populations, or newer construction. Jackson’s wealth of knowledge about government interventions, their goals, benefits, and failures all help make sense of the complexity of the role of federal government in codifying national goals for localities that had in some cases experienced nearly a century of creating their own suburban policies.

After the Second World War, the need for housing presented another problem for the federal government and construction industry also responded by building up suburban areas rather than revitalizing urban areas. Cookie-cutter suburbs financed by government-backed VA mortgages again revealed the bias towards new construction in the suburbs for middle class rather than for housing projects to restore declining city centers or support the needs of lower income population. Jackson claims it was “quite simply cheaper to buy new housing in the suburbs than it was to reinvest in central city properties or to rent” and these suburbs maintained an “economic and racial homogeneity” perpetuated by exclusivity through loan policy, but it remains unclear as to how these biases were actually born out in the loan process (p. 241).

Jackson’s analysis of the suburbanization of America provides a provocative look at the internal and external factors that drive individuals and groups into cities, away from the core, and towards the peripheries. He provides statistical analysis for financial reasons to move further from jobs and psychological and social reasons for moving away from city congestion to create residential retreats. Jackson tracks the relationship between emerging transportation technology and the ability it creates for a larger socioeconomic cross-section of the population to move further from urban centers while still being able to travel to work. As financial pressures create needs for cities to increase a tax base, suburban areas were forced to decide whether to remain attached to urban centers to provide moral (and financial support) for declining urban centers. Then as the nation faced financial crisis in the 1930s, Jackson shows how federal support of the suburban ideal as a residential retreat and homeownship as a middle class ideal for white Americans guided policy making that purposefully created barriers between inner city and suburban movement through land valuations, mortgage policies, construction loans, and housing projects. Jackson presents a compelling argument that the American suburb has developed along a trajectory different than other nations due to the availability of land and the idealization of the home as a middle class goal. His talents rest on the long view of suburbanization, not only as a recent phenomenon, but as an evolving process between citizen, city, and federal government.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

While acknowledging that "suburbs" of some kind are as old as civilization, (12) Jackson argues that American suburbanization began in 1815 and is fundamentally unique to the United States for a variety of reasons. In this synthetic history, Jackson seeks to explain both why the American experience was so unique, and how it happened.

Jackson places the beginning of suburbanization in 1815 because prior to that, all cities--dating back to the beginning of civilization--had been relatively small, compact, and crowded places for the very good reason that people needed to be within walking distance of where the worked, when they did not work where they lived. The French innovation of the omnibus--a horse-drawn wagon for passengers which followed a fixed route at standard times for a small fare--was the first step towards creating the public transportation networks which would facilitate the spread of urban development from the center. At the same time, the Anglo-American disdain for cities combined with the desire of wealthier residents of large cities for separation from the crowded and often unhealthy conditions in places like New York City or Philadelphia led to development of the first suburbs, which were isolated, and exclusively for the rich and their lower-class servants.

Later modes of transport would allow for a greater geographic spread, but there were other factors involved as well. The rise of the middle class ideal of the nuclear family with rigidly-defined gender roles helped legitimize the idea of moving families to the suburban fringes of the city, where the wife could maintain the sanctity of the domestic sphere in a ideally pastoral setting while the husband ventured out by steam railroad or electric trolley to the male preserve of the inner city. This was a world view in which the lower class and non-whites had no place. Or, more honestly, they did have a place--in the crowded inner cities that the white middle class began to abandon once trains, trolleys, and the automobile made it possible to do so.

Even as improved transportation made it possible to leave the city, changes in residential planing, home construction, and changes in state laws helped create the suburbs they fled to. In the nineteenth century, it was common and relatively easy for cities to grow by annexing communities and rural areas, but by late in the century this was changing. It became easier for towns to incorporate, and once they did many began to resist being annexed by the cities they were ostensibly tied to. Suburbs began to develop distinct identities, and to assert independence from cities and urban problems they represented.

This process is long, and the book covers a lot of ground--changes in transportation, building methods, state and federal law, larger socioeconomic changes, and the effect of important historic events. The automobile gets a lot of attention later in the book, which is about the point where Jackson drops the pretense of neutrality and begins to wear his own feelings on his sleeve. He does not do so to an overbearing degree, and the book does not turn into a screed or polemic.

Jackson does a good job of getting the reader to the point in the 1980s, right after many older American cities had essentially bottomed out, and some had begun to recover in some ways (gentrification). However, he notes that the infrastructure of American suburbs will not simply vanish if the process of suburbanization comes to a close, and any future developments will need to contend with the physical infrastructure that over a century and a half (nearly two centuries, at this writing) of suburbanization has deeded future generations.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

In his history of suburbanization in the United States, Kenneth Jackson acknowledges that his study cover a “broad geographical and chronological spectrum” which makes it an essay rather than a monograph (10). Each section of the book might be understood as a moment in which Jackson picks up a piece of the puzzle and attempts to find its approximate place on the endless landscape of American history. Subheadings identify the topic of each piece, which Jackson has ordered as they best fit, rather than part of a cohesive perspective of suburbanization. In the course of conducting his research, Jackson has, it seems, formulated an idea of how suburbanization has worked in the United States and reassembled the particular segments to represent his vision. His broad argument is that suburban growth is part of a larger urban growth model that has seen spectacular success in the United States. The model depends on economics, “industrial development, technological achievement, and racial integration” (303). The unique circumstances required to support suburbanization were found only in the United States, according to Jackson, and would likely never be repeated in any other country (304).

Jackson’s chain of arguments relies on the unique nature of Americans and the unique resources found in the United States. He argues that Americans inherited the English “love for the land and antipathy for the city” (53). Unlike Europe, however, North America offered for purchase a vast landscape at cheap prices, meaning that suburban growth was not limited to the wealthy (at least, not for long). That unique combination, argues Jackson, led to the first and last suburban nation (304). As a Canadian, I find it difficult to accept that Americans were exceptional in developing suburban models of growth. Although Jackson’s evidence is compelling, I imagine that a similar result would be found in a study of Canadian cities throughout the twentieth century. As a study of suburbanization, Jackson’s book is thorough, engaging, and stimulating, but his conclusions about the U.S. suffer limited comparison to nations with similar resources and backgrounds.

Jackson’s book is most valuable as a source against which to read works such as Places of Their Own by Andrew Wiese, which augments Jackson’s portrayal of suburbanization by recovering the experiences of African American suburbanites and adding their stories to its history.

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