Friday, October 12

Book: Crabgrass Frontier

Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier, written in 1984, is still considered the definitive treatment of the history of American suburbanization. (It looks like it is being re-printed at the end of October).

Summary: American infrastructure is uniquely suburban. We generally live in low density residences, prefer to own our homes, divide sharply along socio-economic lines, and commute long distances. How did we arrive here?

Suburbs have always existed, but the dynamic growth of suburbanization is a modern phenomenon. Pre-modern cities were walkable, distinct from the countryside, functionally mixed, and economically concentrated. The earliest suburbs were undesirable, the results of poor housing and unsavory industries being pushed to the periphery. However, the extremely rich began building country estates further outside of town.

The earliest suburbs proper were borne out of growth in the technology of transportation. Convenient ferries began the population growth of Brooklyn. Railroads, although designed for long-distances, created suburban communities clustered around the stops. The horse-drawn street car enhanced inter-urban commuting. Only the higher classes could afford to commute.

Cultural values also played a role. An emphasis on the nuclear family and domestic life was used to counter-act the morally degrading and crowded aspects of the industrial city. The single-family home in the country was considered a refuge from the problems of modern life. Concurrently, the "cult of nature" associated with intellectuals such as Emerson and Ruskin lauded the benefits of living closer to the natural world.

Entrepreneurs began developing planned communities and marketing them to the wealthy as status symbols. A small number of railroad suburbs, highlighted by country clubs, attracted those who could afford a fare. Poorer immigrants also moved there to provided services to the wealthy. Although few in number, these suburbs served as models and help solidify the ideal of suburban life.

The trolley replaced the horsecar and opened up the peripheries of the city to middle-income residents. Leisure riding was common, and shopping and entertainment were set up as destinations. This could triple the reach of the older walking city. Housing costs were cut by "balloon-frame" construction procedures, and the growing economy allowed many to be able to purchase the cheaper land outside of town. By the late 19th century, middle-class families could afford a detached home in the suburbs.

In the 19th century, municipal governments would grow by annexation, but in the 20th century suburban communities sought to disassociate themselves from the urban core and fought annexation. Major cities stopped growing in size, and suburbs did not have to deal politically with the problems of the city.

The automobile, mass produced by Henry Ford, revolutionized privatized transportation. Interest groups were able to persuade the federal government that a national system of roads was a public good. Public transportation declined as automobiles gained acceptance. More than country or city, suburbs were the beneficiary of the new auto-centric transportation system. Suburbanization boomed in the 1920's, and even continued into the great depression.

Several other government policies contributed to the decentralization and racial segregation of cities. The federal housing authority disproportionately subsidized loans for suburban development. The presence of blacks and other minorities led to an immediate downgrading of property value. They turned preexisting prejudices into public policy. Blacks began concentrating in the inner-cities, and whites moved out to the suburbs. Government efforts at "urban renewal" only exacerbated the divide, because most of the ill-conceived housing projects were located in inner-city neighborhoods.

The Post-WWII baby boom spurred the highest growth of mass-produced suburban houses, initiated by the Levittown development on Long Island. They were located on the periphery, low-density, homogeneous, affordable, and stratified by class. Zoning laws were created to maintain the status quo. This created an attractive option for returning soldiers and their families.

The car became a center of culture during this period, from drive-in theaters to motels. The garage became a household fixture. A federal interstate system allowed long-range travel. Shopping centers and suburban office parks served the new suburban residents. All functions of the city became decentralized. Entertainment, which was originally tied together with pubic life, was brought inside the private residence. Community was degraded as a result.

While some predict the continuation of this trend, certain indicators, such as urban gentrification in some areas, point to a reversal of suburbanization in the future. Energy and land costs are rising, real estate financing may become more difficult, family life is dissolving, and racial divisions are become less pronounced. But the American suburb will never be completely replaced.

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