The New Suburban History

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Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue, eds. The New Suburban History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 Cloth ISBN 0226456625 Paper ISBN 0226456633


Tracing the history of suburban studies, Kruse and Sugrue argue that the common myth of suburbia as a white middle calls enclave is too simplistic. Complicating the argument they note that historians have left out important ways in which the suburbs and its corresponding urban influences actually operated. Indeed, the old “suburb as city” model does not account for the fluidity and complexity of interactions. The goal of the essays is to focus on race and class but also on political economy which are the struggles over policy, money and the law. (10) As opposed to seeing suburbia as another phase in urbanity, the “new” suburban history then is an approach that forefronts the suburbs as another lens by which to compare and contrast the American experience. The ten essays each reinforce the argument that the suburbs are more intricate than once imagined.

“Marketing the Free Market: State Interventions and the Politics of Prosperity in Metropolitan America” details the ways in which the Federal government in general and the FHA in particular, “shaped white’s interpretation of postwar affluence, segregation and inequality.” (13) He calls this “myth” of free market being used by home owners as justification for segregation and that as early as the 1903’s, the government reinforced this idea. Simply the program were open to all, however, the amorphous ‘free market’ created low values, and even Shelley did not change the programs. Segregation was reinforced by an economic argument that governments supported as the market at work.

“Less Than Plessy: The Inner City, Suburbs, and State-Sanctioned Residential Segregation in the Age Of Brown” argues that the rise of “second ghettoes” was caused by the suburban boom. (35) It was this urban renewal during the Eisenhower administration that allowed for municipalities to contain Blacks in the suburbs with public housing projects, for example. Damning the programs, author Hirsch sees the failure of Eisenhower as not embracing Plessy, let alone Brown or Shelley and thus he reminds us that Blacks and others are caught in the central cities while whites move to the fringes.

“Uncovering the City in the Suburb: Cold War politics, Scientific Elites, and High Tech Spaces” defines the “techonburbs” as the confluence of, “spatial, social, institutional and economic characteristics that only a few places possessed.” (58) Calling it a city of knowledge O’Mara claims it grew out of Cold War policy, military strategy and partnerships with research universities in creating a new vision of ‘sprawl’. The research park was encouraged by government contracts, and grew in cities with more lax regulatory environments and high tech workers, like Stanford, Rt. 128 and others. We are also reminded that these ‘knowledge workers’ create plans, manufacturing is increasingly done offshore. The high tech parcel is truly the urban in the suburban environment, as universities and industries moved out of the suburbs, the new high-tech corridor replaced them.

“How Hell Moved from the City to the Suburbs: Urban Scholars and the Changing Perceptions of Authentic Community” challenges us to think about how negative perceptions of the city from intellectuals like Lewis Mumford portrayed the suburbs as a, “site of social dysfunction and pathology” (80) Rooted in urbanity, the city held great promise, however, by the 1950’s an ‘urban crisis’ had emerged that challenged this vision. The argument centers on community and the ways in which a right sized community would allow for growth and harmony where the urban-suburban megalopolis inherited the social ills. Critics like William Whyte saw uniformity while Jane Jacobs saw no social vitality. The implication is that despite the ills of urbanity, the city had authentic community and social structures, these were abandoned or greatly changed in the suburbs and its passing also saw part of the American character.

Black home ownership is the subject “The House I Live In: Race, Class and African American Suburban Dreams in the Postwar United States” , it is similar and yet distinct from white suburban ideals. One distinction was an insistence on rearing children in integrated neighborhoods, an explicit Black middle class value. The Black community also maintained ties by shopping in the ‘old’ neighborhood for certain services, while looking to Ebony and other publications for the definition of a new life style. In terms of class, suburban Blacks used the new physical spaces open to affirm their new identities. Regardless of the challenges, Black migration to the suburbs is another window in to the complex issues of race and class.

“Socioeconomic Integration in the Suburbs: From Reactionary Populism to Class Fairness in Metropolitan Charlotte” begins with the story if busing in Charlotte and aligns it with white suburban coalitions, like the Concerned Parents Association. The Nixon White House worked to ensure de facto segregation despite mass boycotts and protests by whites. The story of busing and schooling is a critical aspect of the suburban experience and one which is often cited in civil rights histories. In the suburban context, the need for understanding busing and related issues extends beyond the story of discrimination; instead it helps place local government and zoning in context.

The California Tax Revolt is the subject of “Prelude to the Tax Revolt: The Politics of the “Tax Dollar’ in Postwar California”. The term ‘growth liberalism” (148) serves as an umbrella under which a variety of federal programs and national movements can be housed. California’s cities competed for federal monies and industrial suburbs like San Leandro used low property tax rates to draw residents with business offsetting the deficits. Racial covenants were also used against Blacks an, Chinese and Japanese as well in places like Fremont. Tax rates eventually did rise and a real estate boom saw taxes skyrocketing by the 1970’s and Proposition 13 seemed to be a cure all, limiting the amount of taxes. The net effect was that conservatism became linked to tax reform and Californians led the nation in tying growth to political will.

“Suburban Growth and Its Discontents: The Logic of Reform on the Postwar Northeast Corridor: looks at the want in which liberalism and suburban politics were related. Places like Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA are examples of areas where two different models emerged. In Montgomery County, growth was a difficult but managed event as compared to Fairfax County which saw a much more haphazard approach. The net result was that some growth was planned but it was done under the aegis of courts, legislatures and governors or the ‘political actors’ in the jurisdiction. (174) Public needs, varying by constituency, were so divided that one aspect of suburban history to be considered is the success of these reforms and attempts to have well planned and managed growth.

The extent of the immigrant experience is found in “Reshaping the American Dream,: Immigrants, Ethnic Minorities, and the Politics of the New Suburbs”. Surprisingly, author Jones-Correa claims that this is new ground for study. Posing questions about the role of politics, political actors and then immigrants he uses suburban D.C. as an example, looking at places the entire region as urban core, inner suburbs and outer fringes. Using headlines form newspapers, we learn that minorities make up a third to one half of the citizens, however, the majority of the stores dealing with immigrants address quality of life issues. (193) He calls for a new orientation for suburban research, one that looks for organizational rather than place centered studies through social networks. The immigrant experience appears to be an important part of the new suburbs and the challenge will be to study their influences from all perspectives.

The notion of ownership is addressed in a different way on “The Legal Technology of Exclusion in metropolitan America” which shows how public policy has eroded public spaces. Looking at suburbs and zoning, special land uses, homeowners associations public schools and business improvement districts, among many others, have all conspired to move resources from the urban area to the exurbs. Highway funding, as opposed to mass transit funding, reinforces the notion that the suburbs should be supported. Entertainment destinations and tourism are now marketed as important city services at the expense of inner city residents. Citing legal principles and other examples, the privatization of space and services has slowly eroded the city and its fringes to reclaim public spaces, used by many, and replace them with private space that benefits very few.

All of these essays remind the reader that there is no one suburbia, rather, the suburbs are a definition in flux and a concept that continues to be defined. This work presents project highlights that define the direction of study for the ‘new suburbia’. At its core, the new suburban history is one that interrogates the past from the point of view of different actors and attempts to analyze the agency for each actor at a time and place.


Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

One encounters essay collections with a different mindset than a single volume, essentially I read for provocation and Kruse and Sugrue exceed that very goal. These essays will make historians not so much rethink but rather reconnect to the way the suburbs have traditionally been studied. While many of the essays are political or touch on the political economy, as other critics have noted, they also look back to the New Deal as a starting point. This is helpful, however, at times it confuses the focus of the overall work.

Given that these are limited and short works, I was more drawn to the social histories, such as "Less than Plessy", "How Hell Moved", "Socioeconomic Integration" and "The House I Live In". The political and legal histories spoke to a body of knowledge that may be lacking in many readers. I also struggled at times with the audience of this book, essays that trace intellectual criticism seem distinct from those that draw on magazine analysis to relate ways in which discrimination is practiced. The notions of race, class and gender seem naturally woven and well placed and this clearly reflects the stated intent of the author. These essays do complicate the narrative of the suburbs and help move forward what appears to be a growing debate about the role of the city. The meta narrative in pace is one historical practice might be to define by what something rather than what one considers it to be. In the case of the suburbs, there are both pushes and pulls to and from the city and additional projects should continue to look at these forces.

I am very much a product of the suburban New Jersey and in many ways with two professor parents we were part of that suburban growth model, even though my father taught in New York. Princeton was a typical suburb and it was not and as the child of interracial parents, clearly ours was not a typical household or based on these essays perhaps it was. I now live in suburban Washington, D.C. The dichotomies and dualities that pervade this period seem to have a string affective hold on the current generation of historians and these essays are a springboard for those ideas.

Lastly, in my work on restaurants, I see an independently owned urban phenomenon moving to the suburbs and often being replaced by a chain owned model. All of the factors at work here also apply to food and foodways and while often hinted at, as in eating tv dinners, there appears to be room for new scholarship in this area, how did the suburban experience reshape our food habits?

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