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Historiographical Questions

As numerous authors have revealed, suburbanization is itself a contested term, having geographic, social, political, racial and economic components. For the current baby boom generation, it is also a term loaded with affective memories and ties. Within twentieth century historiography, suburbia may be argued to represent another phase of quintessential Americanism. If one definition of being American is the ability to remake oneself, then the suburbs and attendant infrastructure provided a very real way for selected members of society to become upwardly mobile. Housing policies such as red lining deepened existing division within society. Farmers, rural residents and women were among the many displaced and the cities saw the creation of more ‘ghettos’ as manufacturing fled to new corporate parks. Popular culture, through television shows in particular, portrayed a vision of the nuclear family that idealized a mythical white middle-class suburban existence, and may have been antithetical and abhorrent to those who did not fit its normative worldview.

Once can study the suburbs from any vantage point. Many historians have seen the growth of the suburbs as an epic or even triumphal moment in our past. With the exception of labor or civil rights historians, how has the historiography encountered this meta narrative of progress and prosperity? What role did the media play in reinforcing the stereotypes and how did the disenfranchised react? What role did the local, state and federal governments play in reinforcing a policy of social and legal discrimination? Has the historiography overemphasized the narrative at the expense of the analysis? How did race, class, and gender impact the experience of suburban life? These last categories of analysis may serve to clarify the construction of "suburbia."

As the following essays reveal, there are numerous ways to encounter this important phenomenon.


Suburbanization across the United States was influenced by both social and technological developments. In most areas, suburban development was directly related to the evolution of transportation routes. Therefore, these suburbs can be characterized as railroad suburbs, streetcar/trolley suburbs, early automobile suburbs, and freeway suburbs. In addition, the location and design of suburbs throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were influenced by such factors as the ethnic heritage and the income of the prospective residents. Philosophies in the nineteenth century that promoted the health benefits of living outside the city and the escape from urban living encouraged settlement in areas outside urban centers. Later in the twentieth century, the philosophy was further perpetuated by urban and regional planning ideals. In both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the phenomenon of pattern-books and mail-order houses influenced and standardized the development of housing across the United States. All of these influences combined to create a nationwide trend away from urban living and toward suburban development.

In the fast paced book Bourgeois Utopias, author Robert Fishman traces the history of suburbia to the British of the Eighteenth-Century. For Fishman, this middle class demographic left its traditional home in the center of the growing English cities in search of social segregation and domestic purity. What they built would, by the second half of the Twentieth-Century, evolve into a process he calls Urban Decentralization, in which urban centers become little more than map references in the face of rising influence of satellite communities.

The cycle which built the classic suburban model and witnessed its maturity and eventual decline, is fraught with surprising twists, turns, and paradoxes. In her book, Building Suburbia, author Dolores Hayden describes how a handful of well-heeled residents of the Nineteenth-Century went from simple weekend cottages to sophisticated residences in planned communities, how commuter towns of varied economic standing matured into the independent and center-less modern suburb.

With Crabgrass Frontier: the suburbanization of the United States, 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.” 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).” 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.

Although many believe that suburbanization is a fairly new phenomenon, Jackson proposes that the movement began in the late 18th Century when the upper class lived in the central city and the poorer working class lived at the edge of the city or the suburbs. Jackson also suggests that the word suburb carried an inferior connotation. Jackson writes: “Even the word suburbs suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, and physical squalor.”

Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen's Picture Windows: how the suburbs happened. is, according to, a fascinating study of the suburbs of Long Island, New York (and by analogy, those across America) arose from the authors' daily commute from Manhattan to SUNY Old Westbury, which is near Levittown, one of the earliest and perhaps the most famous of American suburbs. Initially they had imagined suburbia "as an anaesthetized state of mind, a no place dominated by a culture of conformity and consumption." Their research quickly taught them otherwise. While Picture Windows does document a growing obsession with middle-class consumer goods, like the televisions that came with 1950 houses at Levittown, it disrupts the myth of suburban serenity to reveal "a rich and stormy history" of political and social conflict. The planners and visionaries of suburbia, as the authors attest, tried to create a place "where ordinary people, not just the elite, would have access to affordable, attractive modern housing in communities with parks, gardens, recreation, stores, and cooperative town meeting places." Shunning the "snobbery" of cultural critics who deplored the "neat little toy houses on their neat little patches of lawn," Baxandall and Ewen find much to celebrate in the burgeoning suburbs. Most of those who flocked to the new towns had been crowded into city slums during the depression and war; they never questioned the architectural conformity of the suburbs, but only rejoiced in the chance of owning their own brand-new homes, places empty of anyone else's memories and rich with potential.

Much has been written about the building of Levittown, Long Island. According to, Barbara Kelly's Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown covers familiar territory in her history of the post-World War II conditions that came together so effectively at Levittown– the generous VA and FHA loan programs; the federal standards for minimum single-family housing; the cult of domesticity; the pent-up demand for housing by newly established families of ex-servicemen; the new building materials and processes perfected in wartime production; and the vision of the Levitts (among others) to seize upon these conditions as a golden business opportunity. What sets Kelly’s treatment apart is her focus on the families who lived in Levittown, both its original renters and owners (the “pioneers”) as well as those who became second and third-generation Levittowners. She demonstrates through personal interviews and architectural analysis how residents took the basic Levitt Cape Cod Revivals and Ranches and modified and expanded their houses to better meet family needs over time. The blending of social and architectural history provides more depth and substance to this study than is found in the typical architectural critique or sociological criticism of suburbia.

According to the University of Chicago Press’ website, Kevin Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue’s The New Suburban History confronts the popular image of suburbia as simply a refuge for affluent whites. The authors reject the stereotypes of a conformist and conflict-free suburbia. The seemingly calm streets of suburbia were, in fact, battlegrounds over race, class, and politics. With this collection, Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue argue that suburbia must be understood as a central factor in the modern American experience. Kruse and Sugrue have collected ten essays that challenge our understanding of suburbia. Drawing from original research on suburbs across the country, the contributors recast important political and social issues in the context of suburbanization. Their essays reveal the role suburbs have played in the transformation of American liberalism and conservatism; the contentious politics of race, class, and ethnicity; and debates about the environment, land use, and taxation. The contributors move the history of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and blue-collar workers from the margins to the mainstream of suburban history. From this broad perspective, these historians explore the way suburbs affect—and are affected by—central cities, competing suburbs, and entire regions. The results, they show, are far-reaching: the emergence of a suburban America has reshaped national politics, fostered new social movements, and remade the American landscape. The New Suburban History offers nothing less than a new American history—one that claims the nation cannot be fully understood without a history of American suburbs at its very center.

Malls are the brainchild of a single person, architect Victor Gruen. According to, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, M. Jeffrey Hardwick relates architect Victor Gruen's, successes and failures--his work at the 1939 World's Fair, his makeover of New York's Fifth Avenue boutiques, his rejected plans for reworking entire communities, such as Fort Worth, Texas, and his crowning achievement, the enclosed shopping mall. Throughout Hardwick illuminates the dramatic shifts in American culture during the mid-twentieth century, notably the rise of suburbia and automobiles, the death of downtown, and the effect these changes had on American life. Gruen championed the redesign of suburbs and cities through giant shopping malls, earnestly believing that he was promoting an American ideal, the ability to build a community. Yet, as malls began covering the landscape and downtowns became more depressed, Gruen became painfully aware that his dream of overcoming social problems through architecture and commerce was slipping away. By the tumultuous year of 1968, it had disappeared.

Topics within Suburbanization

The Cities Left Behind

As families left the cities for the suburbs, cities started to experience changes. Downtown businesses started to shift towards the suburbs where the customers were. As businesses left the cities, crime and urban decay became problems. Many towns tried to reinvent themselves as entertainment centers. They demolished large sections in urban renewal projects to build downtown malls to lure people back. In “Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940,” John Findlay looks at four areas: Disneyland, Sun City Retirement Community, the Stanford Industrial Park and the 1962 World Fair at Seattle. These four “magic lands,” sought to attract middle class families, tourists and retirees to help change the surrounding area. In the process Findlay believes they served as a model for other developments throughout the country. However, even the suburbs have witnessed declines. As newer housing and commercial developments were built the older suburban areas began to decline just as cities did earlier.

Isenber's Downtown America disagrees with the idea that cities were on the decline during this time. Instead she holds that as suburbanization was on the rise that cities were constantly reinventing themselves. In this way changes like the demolition of large buildings to make way for smaller buildings or even parking lost were actually tactical decisions made by the appraisal industry which was responding to falling property values by creating spaces that would generate more income.


Deindustrialization swept across much of the country in the late 1970s and 80s, as manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas. Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization uses a unique approach of oral history and photography, combined with historical analysis to examine the local stories behind deindustrialization. Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization takes a different approach, with thirteen essays combining to present the unique historical process of deindustrialization in different places and times.

The African American and Immigrant Experience

Andrew Wiese's Places of Their Own (2004) examines the driving forces behind increasing African Americans movement to the suburbs during the twentieth century and the obstacles they faced while doing so. According to Wiese, this study is of great importance because “by virtue of numbers alone, black suburbanization is one of the most important demographic movements in the twentieth century United States.” It established the suburbs as an “indispensable context for the study of African American life.” In addition, the movement signaled an important historical change in American society. The “suburban boom heralded the emergence of a new black middle class, larger and more economically secure than any black elite in the past.” It also revealed a change in long-standing patterns of racial inequality: “a loosening of the shackle between race and class and a breaching of residential barriers” that had prevented African Americans for generations “from the most economically vibrant localities and confined them to areas where locational disadvantages reinforced racial inequality.” Wiese makes the case that, as it did with the white population, suburbanization played a significant part “in the making of “African American identities in the twentieth century.” Wiese defines the suburb as much by its extra-urban but non-rural location as by its composition; he does this in part to counter the existing literature which had normalized the white, middle-class suburban experience. However, this does mean that some housing forms and areas which do not automatically read as suburban, such as apartment buildings, are included in his work.

The suburbanization trend represented a change from the early part of the 20th Century when there was massive migration of blacks from the South to northern cities. This shift in population played a role in the residential movement of whites to the suburbs. Cities came to be viewed as dangerous and crime ridden. Many middle class families thought they would be safer moving to the edge of the city. This, according to Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, was the opposite of the pattern in many other countries in the world where slums mostly existed outside of the city. In Places of Their Own, Wiese examined the movement to show how blacks equated land ownership to freedom. Transportation systems helped many blacks live in the suburbs and commute to work in the cities. However, the move to the suburbs also meant moving into segregated communities where interaction with other groups was minimal.

Charles Lamb's Housing Segregation in Suburban America since 1960 examines national fair housing policy from 1960 through 2000 in the context of the American presidency and the country's segregated suburban housing market. Arguing that a principal reason for suburban housing segregation lies in Richard Nixon's 1971 fair housing policy, it traces Nixon's housing legacy through each presidential administration from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton and as detected in the decisions of Nixon's Federal Court appointees.

Sorting Out the New South City also dealt with patterns in African American suburbanization through the case study of Charlotte, North Carolina. As ideas about what constituted "a good place to live" changed from the 1870s to the present so too did ideas about ideal land use. In this study Hanchett shows the ways in which individual choice, national trends, economic changes, industrialization, political threats, and racism came together to transform Charlotte several times over. Charlotte changed from a salt and pepper mixed race, income, and industry model; to a patchwork pattern which began the processes of dividing races, classes, and businesses; to a sectors pattern which used local impulses, national trends, and federal funds to create rigidly divided neighborhoods which separated black from white, rich from poor, and residential from industrial. In this narrative Northern ideals about suburbanization and national ideas about zoning are not embraced until Populism, African American assertiveness, and growing numbers of working class factory workers challenge elite white power structures. Hanchett also focuses on the role African Americans played in this movement, showing how they moved to particular areas over others as a strategy of directed opportunity - an idea which fits with Wiese's narrative.

The Changing Roles of Women

In Bourgeois Utopias, author Robert 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.

During the post-World War II era and through the 1950s, American women willingly became housewives and mothers, dedicated to making a home for their husbands, maintaining sparkling houses, and bringing up children—all while perfectly coiffed and wearing dresses and high heels. And they liked it, in theory at least. In Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Joanne Meyerowitz edits a compendium of essays on women and work and activism, on constructions of womanhood, and on women considered sexual and cultural rebels. She classifies the 15 essays in this volume as revisionist history, placing “the domestic stereotype in historical context and questions both its novelty and pervasiveness in the postwar years. …during this era, most American women lived, in one way or more, outside the boundaries of the middle-class suburban home.”

The roles of women changed through the early period of suburbanization when many women began to work outside the home: for extra income during the Great Depression; for patriotism during World War II. However, after the war many women found themselves being told that their place was at home raising children and taking care of the house. This image was reinforced by television shows such as “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” Many women who had college degrees and even those who had just been working women or had career aspirations did not feel fulfilled by the roles of being a housewife. Daniel Horowitz in Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique, suggests that the political climate of McCarthyism in the 1950’s drove many left-wing feminists like Friedan and feminists in general underground. Many of these women would return to lead the feminist movement that reemerged later.

Environmental Backlash

Although we might think that concern over suburban sprawl is a relatively new phenomenon, for decades, environmentalist groups and scientists have expressed reservations about this phenomenon. Written in 2001, Adam Rome’s Bulldozer in the Countryside: suburban sprawl and the rise of American environmentalism examines the protests against the housing construction craze from 1945-1970. It examines how changing technology allowed builders to construct homes in environmentally sensitive areas, resulting in “frequent flooding, costly soil erosion, and drastic changes in wildlife populations.”

Rome discusses how scientists have been concerned over suburban sprawl since the 1940’s. Developers also have put houses closer together to increase the number of houses per tract. As the suburbs grow, more and more productive land is lost. As the federal government backed off enforcement of measures passed in the late 1970s that were designed to help the environment, many local governments have stepped in with measures of their own. The local initiatives have included protecting farm land from developers and limiting the size of housing developments. Some cities have also considered limiting the size of commercial developments as a way to slow growth.

There is little doubt that the early environmentalists were awakened in the late 1960's and by the 1970's government agencies like the EPA were working to regulate automobile emissions and passing the Clean Air Act, among others. In Auto Mani: Cars, Consumers and the Environment, the interaction of the automobile and the environment is explored. This work offers a counter narrative to the prevailing myth that Detroit ignored the environment. As the author shows, consumers were also culpable in the process by choosing form over function. Visit this page: Auto_Mania

The Culture of the Times

America in the 1950s: the world was not so much a stage as a setpiece for TV, the new national phenomenon. It was a time when how things looked--and how we looked--mattered, a decade of design. With As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s, according to, historian Karal Ann Marling takes readers back to those early days of television, when Ike was in the White House and everybody loved Lucy. The author explains TV's tremendous influence: it allowed Mrs. Eisenhower to give the nation the "Mamie Look," and advertised both Disneyland and the big-business "leisure society" created by the 40-hour workweek. Marling also looks into America's love affair with the automobile ("Drive your Chev-ro-lay through the USA," sang Dinah Shore); the importance of Elvis and Betty Crocker; and Cold War politics, featuring Richard Nixon in the kitchen with Nikita Khrushchev. A nostalgic, informative and sometimes funny view of 1950's American culture.

In My Blue Heaven Becky Nicolaides says... In Suburban Warriors Lisa Mcgirr says... In A Consumer's Republic Liz Cohen says...

Urbanization Influencing Suburbanization

With Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 John M. Findlay analyzes four "magic lands": Disneyland; the Stanford Industrial Park; Sun City, a retirement community near Phoenix; and the Seattle's World Fair of 1962. These “thematic” places are magical because they provided “spatial coherence,” which made western cities more legible to the white, middle-class families, tourists, engineers, or retirees they sought to attract, and “thereby helped to transform the surrounding urban landscape as well as the nation’s metropolitan areas.” Each, he argues, “was consciously created as a highly controlled, exhaustively planned enclave whose design and symbolic values brought to focus what was most original and important in the amorphous landscape of the urban West.” These four magic lands not only served as models for other development throughout the West and the entire United States, but they also “became pivotal fixtures on the western scene by serving to bring a sense of order, community, and refinement to a highly fluid society.”

These four “magic lands,” sought to attract middle class families, tourists and retirees to help change the surrounding area. In the process Findlay believes they served as a model for other developments throughout the country. Findlay takes issue with people who viewed western cities with contempt because their urban cores were spread out and didn’t follow the traditional patterns found on the East Coast. Findlay talks about the magic lands to help show how the western part of the U.S. helped redefine what a city or cityscape could or should be. However, even the suburbs have witnessed declines. As newer housing and commercial developments were built the older suburban areas began to decline just as cities did earlier.

Government’s Role

Government policies have played a significant role in the suburbanization process. In the post World War II era the government helped the process along with the building of roads, highways and the interstate highway system. In Magic Lands, Findlay argues that Disneyland and the retirement city of Sun City would not have been successful without the highway system to bring people to them. Society became fluid: One could drive onto a highway and escape to another city very quickly. In the post war boom the housing development of Levittown, New York, was built in response to the huge housing shortage. Levittown represented the first housing development where the suburbs were created in a planned manner. To help returning veterans afford homes in Levittown and other developments, the government offered low-interest loans through the Federal Housing Administration and also through the G.I. Bill. The government in some ways was encouraging the transfer of city dwellers to the suburbs.

The role of new federal programs during the New Deal and in the post WWII era, and the way that they helped to expand suburbanization is a common them throughout scholarship on the topic. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), the rise in public housing, investment in roads and highways, and business investment all encouraged suburban growth. Sorting Out the New South City, My Blue Heaven, and Places of Their Own each deal with the ways that these federal programs were used to encourage specific kinds of suburbanization, while blocking others. Specifically they discuss the way in which these federal programs strengthened, and in the case of Charlotte in Sorting out the New South City, created race based segregation through discriminatory loan practices.

Working Class Suburbs

For a long time the role of working class suburbs was ignored in favor of dealing with the pristine, middle class suburbs of the post-war era. Both My Blue Heaven and Places of Their Own attempt to fill this hole in the scholarship.

Both works which look at working class suburbs see suburbanization beginning long before the post-WWII boom, instead seeing semi-rural ring developments of owner made homes as suburban, despite their lack of a streamlined or traditionally suburban aesthetic.

Looking at the working class Los Angeles suburb of South Gate in "My Blue Heaven," Nicolaides shows the ways that homes became the primary deciding factor between stability and poverty for working class families before the 1940's. After that time the post-war economic boom created more stability, but did nothing to diminish the feeling that ones home was their most important investment and the thing keeping their family from loosing their economic gains. Because of this residents came to vehemently defend their homes against outside threats, particularly the Civil Rights Movement and African American encroachments into their neighborhood. Nicolaides sees this as the roots of working class conservatism and the Silent Majority.

Weise depicts a similar pattern in "Places of Their Own," but from the African American point of view. Weise shows the ways that black families attempted to expand into the suburbs despite economic, social, and legal restrictions which attempted to hold them in particular geographic areas. Despite these restraints Weise shows how it was individual choice, changing tastes, and rising tides of protest which shaped African American suburbanization across the country.

Suggestions for additional reading

David Halberstam. The Fifties ISBN 0679415599 A popular history that provides a useful context and background for this time period.

Alison Isenberg. Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It ISBN 0226385078 This work details the many forces at work responsible for the decline of downtown as well as the impact it had on consumers.

William Julius Wilson. The Truly Disadvantaged The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy ISBN 0226901300 This classic text shows how the urban ghetto was the result of many factors in postwar America.

Gail Radford. Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal ISBN 0226702235 This book outlines the reforms proposed during the New Deal using worker housing as examples.

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