Revising The Suburbs

Sprawl. It’s an ugly word. The term often evokes images that are even uglier: Green space lost to an asphalt desert of strip malls and highways. Citizens trapped in cars […]

Sprawl. It’s an ugly word.

The term often evokes images that are even uglier: Green space lost to an asphalt desert of strip malls and highways. Citizens trapped in cars and a fast-food lifestyle that leaves them tired, stressed, and overweight. Pollution and global warming devouring habitat and community. Anonymous commuter suburbs where the people and the architecture all look the same.

That’s a common view among urbanites and scholars. But over the past decade, a revisionist-minded, crossdisciplinary group of researchers has been complicating that view of sprawl and the metropolitan geography of which it is a part. They are rereading the suburban landscape in ways that unsettle much of the received wisdom about its history and its political economy.

As one of those scholars, Andrew Wiese, an associate professor of history at San Diego State University, puts it in his book Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2004), “With a few exceptions, historians have focused on suburbs of elite and middle-class whites, and they have defined suburbs according to the attributes of these communities.” He says that “in addition to recovering black history in the suburbs,” his project “challenges historians to think and write about suburbs in a different way.”

Researchers like Mr. Wiese are not oblivious to the problems that can go hand in hand with suburbanization — some are highly critical of aspects of it — but they share a certain respect for its complexities. As another revisionist, Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says, “There’s nothing simple about the suburbs.”

Take sprawl. The problems that Mr. Bruegmann has with the idea begin with the term itself. “‘Sprawl’ is such an impossibly bad analytical tool,” he says. “You can and should have a policy on species habitat or on global warming or cost of infrastructure or transportation. But sprawl itself is hopeless as a catchall for a whole lot of things people dislike.”

Most attempts to define sprawl begin with a negative. In A Field Guide to Sprawl (Norton, 2004), Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale University, calls it “unregulated growth expressed as careless new use of land and other resources as well as abandonment of older built areas.” In a know-the-enemy gambit designed to help antisprawlers understand what they are up against, she uses aerial photographs to break sprawl into its constituent elements: big-box retail spaces, starter castles, boomburbs, etc. Ms. Hayden is also the author of a recent major study, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (Pantheon, 2003), and several other books on urban history.

Mr. Bruegmann begins with the same tools — close observations made from the air and on the ground — to get a handle on sprawl. But the way that he wields those tools yields wildly different results.

Building History

In Sprawl: A Compact History (Chicago, 2005), Mr. Bruegmann describes the staggering variety of human settlement one sees from an airplane flying over New Jersey en route to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. It’s an exercise in what he describes as “the difficulty of pinning down a common definition or linking it to realities on the ground.”

Does sprawl include exurbia, “the outmost band of development, … the very low-density urban penumbra that lies beyond the regularly built-up suburbs and their urban services?” he writes. “Or is it the newly emerging suburban band of conventional subdivisions, golf courses, schools, and strip malls located closer in toward the city? If the latter is sprawl, is it logical to exclude older suburbs?

Certainly at one time these older communities, even many of the most densely packed inner neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, were themselves relatively low in density and suburban in character compared to what was the core of the city. Why wouldn’t they be considered historic sprawl?”

Attaching the word “historic” to sprawl underscores that the phenomenon has been with us far longer than many of us realize. In his book, Mr. Bruegmann makes the useful point that sprawl — and resistance to it — goes back decades, even centuries. Nor is it a peculiarly American affliction, even if it’s widespread in this country.

Residential and industrial development in ancient Rome spilled past the city walls into suburbium, while the wealthy carved out retreats in the exurbs just as they do now. Centuries later, in 1920s Britain, one antisprawl activist howled that “we are making a screaming mess of England. … A gimcrack civilization crawls like a gigantic slug over the country, leaving a foul trail of slime behind it.”

Humans have left that “foul trail” for almost as long they have been building cities.

Postwar American critiques have focused on the crushing uniformity the suburbs were supposed to represent. In 1961 the urban historian Lewis Mumford indicted suburbia as a leveler of the worst order, infusing his definition with a moral judgment of sorts: “A multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold.”

In a forthcoming collection, The New Suburban History (Chicago), scheduled for publication in July, the historians Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue point out that Mumford’s critique, and others in the same vein, defined the limits of the first 25 years of suburban historiography: “Seeing postwar suburbia through the eyes of postwar critics like Mumford, many observers painted a monochrome picture of the suburban world as white, affluent, and conformist.”

Mr. Kruse, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, and Mr. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, note that “many early suburban historians chose to study only those suburbs that fit that stereotype and, in so doing, reified it.”

Academic and popular attitudes have, on this subject, fed off one another. Since the 1970s and the rise of the environmental movement, a coalition of forces — not just environmentalists but also planners and preservationists and concerned citizens — has taken Mumford’s image of American Beauty uniformity and linked it to the worst kind of sprawl in a powerful negative-spin campaign.

The work of critics such as the urban planners Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, authors of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press, 2000), a manifesto of the antisprawl New Urbanism movement, has provided ammunition for that synergy of scholarship and advocacy. Only a developer could love a landscape the authors describe as “soulless subdivisions, residential ‘communities’ utterly lacking in communal life; strip shopping centers, ‘big box’ chain stores, and artificially festive malls set within barren seas of parking; antiseptic office parks, ghost towns after 6 p.m.; and mile upon mile of clogged collector roads, the only fabric tying our disassociated lives back together.”

Class Acts

Mr. Bruegmann’s interest in sprawl dates to the time he spent in Paris doing research for a dissertation on 19th-century public buildings. On his flights in and out of the city, he observed that “that landscape, when you saw it from the plane taking off from Orly, looked very much like the landscape you saw coming into Philadelphia or Cincinnati or any other place.”

But all that urban historians bothered to study was central Paris, the densely populated, easily walkable sections familiar to any tourist with a Michelin guide. “How can academics be so uninterested in where the vast majority of people live?” he remembers wondering. “What kind of amazing blinkered vision could produce this?”

Mr. Bruegmann believes that a “fundamental class bias” has informed too much of the research on those questions. “Urban history traditionally has been about elites at the very center,” he says. “It’s almost an exclusive focus on that and a few other places — Levittown here or some reform effort over there.” Mr. Bruegmann, who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, now lives in a 1950s high-rise in a historic neighborhood in Chicago.

Those details are, to him, beside the point. “I may like this and dislike that, but what I wanted to avoid at all costs in this book is having that play any part,” he says. “To me, that’s the problem with most writing about cities. People go out and say, ‘Here’s what I like.’ And the corollary to that is usually, ‘This is what cities ought to be.'”

Urban historians, he feels, have tended to share certain tastes common to a Northeastern city-dwelling elite, and so have been too hasty to dismiss vernacular aesthetics and choices. As he puts it, “One of the reasons I started this whole thing was a sense of deep injustice about the way much of the academic world has thought there were really only a few parts of the city that were of any interest. To me, that is so narrow-minded and also counterproductive because it says the actions of most of the citizens most of the time are of no interest whatever.”

Reading the Layers

In his research on sprawl and the built environment, Mr. Bruegmann yokes numbers and graphs — population densities, census figures — to what he sees and photographs through a windshield or out the window of a plane. He likes to get out and drive through (or fly over) a landscape and compare what he observes with what the records and statistics have to say.

“Cities are such complex systems, and we know so little about them,” he says, “that when you take all the census data, you realize it’s a tremendously blunt measure.” It’s not just the population density per square acre that counts, he argues, it’s how those people live. Living in a high-density area does not necessarily mean that you are living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle than those who settle in lower-density areas.

Spend an afternoon exploring Chicago’s built environment with him and you get a sense of why he insists that statistics do not by themselves tell an accurate story of how urban systems evolve and how they function. The tour begins in the Loop, which Mr. Bruegmann calls the original “concrete canyon” of landmark skyscrapers, each of whose histories he can recite in detail.

A little farther out, near the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Mr. Bruegmann teaches, he enters a district of lofts and warehouses that used to house light manufacturing operations; in recent years those have given way to condos, trendy restaurants, and Oprah Winfrey’s television studio. Then he enters Lawndale, a district of 19th-century graystones that used to be a Jewish community — Benny Goodman was born there — and is now home to mostly African-Americans. Like so many old urban neighborhoods, it fell on hard times in the 1960s and 70s. A new community-run program, Lawndale Heritage, which Mr. Bruegmann and the university helped set up, has brought residents together for public conversations about the history of the area as a way to reclaim it before gentrification takes over.

Still farther out, he comes to the so-called Bungalow Belt of small workers’ houses built in the 1920s. “These were the suburbs,” the professor points out from behind the wheel. “Those bungalows were essentially suburban at the time. But then all American urban areas were mostly suburbs at one point.” One generation’s suburb is a subsequent generation’s historic district.

Those workers’ bungalows may not be much to look at now, but they represent a revolutionary moment in which such amenities as indoor plumbing and a bit of yard, once the privilege of the wealthy, became available to people of far more modest means. It is the history of the suburbs in microcosm. Read the various styles and layers of a neighborhood like Lawndale or the Bungalow Belt, he says, and “if you can look at this on a really broad scale, you could write the history of Chicago.”

Mr. Bruegmann’s approach leads him to conclusions that tend to fly in the face of received wisdom: for instance, the belief that European cities function in a very different way than American ones do. He likes to surprise people with the fact that in the Paris metropolitan region, famous for its public transportation systems, 80 percent of the trips are made by car. That statistic isn’t as surprising if you’ve seen the suburban enclaves where the majority of Parisians live.

The Usual Suspects

Many of his conclusions upend the conventional wisdom about sprawl-related cause and effect — for instance, the belief that our reliance on cars creates sprawl. “Clearly, as cities have sprawled, automobile usage has grown,” he agrees. “But to say that automobile usage has caused sprawl, that’s ridiculous. It’s just as plausible to argue that we wouldn’t have had a great automobile industry if it hadn’t been for people needing them and wanting to live at lower densities.”

That kind of contrarian take infuses Sprawl, which does not spend a great deal of time on the environmental impact of suburbanization. (Some recent scholarship on that question is set out in Nature in Fragments: The Legacy of Sprawl, edited by Elizabeth A. Johnson and Michael W. Klemens, and published in 2005 by Columbia University Press.) It also puts Mr. Bruegmann in the company of libertarians and free-market types, although he insists that he is neither.

Critics like Yale’s Ms. Hayden argue that Mr. Bruegmann places too much weight on the market and on individual choice while ignoring the impact of federal subsidies for highways and development and the role of so-called growth machines, lobbies made up of financiers and builders. She emphasizes that “it’s very important to know that there have been many subsidies for green-field development, … which have subsidized one set of consumer choices and constrained others.”

Mr. Bruegmann shrugs off those objections: “I don’t need to find great conspiracies or greedy developers to explain why suburbia happened. It happened in the United States, as it is happening around the globe, because many people, when offered a choice, have chosen to live at low densities, often in single-family houses.” Complaints like Ms. Hayden’s, he says, are “an excellent example of the kind of New Urban history practiced by Kenneth Jackson and others that I am trying to overturn.” Mr. Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, is the author of the influential Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford University Press, 1985).

Although some commentators have read Mr. Bruegmann as a proponent of sprawl, that is not quite fair. As he points out, his book “doesn’t say that sprawl is good or bad. … It’s part of an attitude about looking at things without an a priori notion of what’s right and wrong and seeing where the data takes you.”

In that sense, he says, his book most closely resembles Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge University Press, 2001), which challenged how the environmental movement has presented data to advance its cause.

Rewriting the Suburbs

In her field guide, Ms. Hayden writes that “the visual culture of sprawl should be read as the material representation of a political economy organized around unsustainable growth.” As the essays in The New Suburban History demonstrate, a group of second-generation suburban historians has also been examining the suburbs through the lens of political economy. But they are more interested in the power dynamics that determine who lives in the suburbs and how they got there.

To get inside the political, economic, and social dynamics of the suburbs, the New Suburban historians employ the kind of skeptical re-evaluation that Mr. Bruegmann brings to sprawl.

As a group, they respond to and complicate the work of Kenneth T. Jackson, whose Crabgrass Frontier remains “the field-defining book,” according to Mr. Sugrue. But it has its limitations, particularly in its focus on the suburbs as a mostly white and middle-class phenomenon.

As Mr. Sugrue and his co-editor, Mr. Kruse, note in their introduction to The New Suburban History, Mr. Jackson “in a single sentence … offered a list of core suburban commonalities that echoed [Lewis] Mumford in content, if not in condemnation: ‘Affluent and middle-class Americans live in suburban areas that are far from their workplace, in homes that they own, and in the center of yards that by urban standards are enormous.”

But, says Mr. Sugrue, “we can’t just think of the suburbs as Leave It to Beaverland. There was a lot more heterogeneity to suburbia than [Jackson] and the first generation of suburban historians acknowledged.” Hence the contributors to The New Suburban History focus on the role of African-Americans, other ethnic minorities, and immigrants in the history of suburbanization, as well as on the legal and economic mechanisms that shaped suburban identities and geographies in post-World War II America.

The essays share what the editors call “a broader metropolitan perspective” that examines suburbs not in isolation from the city, as older scholarship did, but “in political and economic relationship with central cities, competing suburbs, and their regions as a whole.”

The contributors make some interesting, unexpected connections among suburbanites of different classes and races. For instance, Matthew D. Lassiter’s essay on “‘Socioeconomic Integration’ in the Suburbs” examines how working-class white and African-American residents banded together in Charlotte, N.C., during the early 1970s to combat a white, middle-class antibusing campaign.

Mr. Lassiter, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, is the author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2005).

San Diego State’s Andrew Wiese is among those featured in the collection. He agrees that Mr. Bruegmann “shares in the spirit of this revisionist thrust” that characterizes The New Suburban History. “A lot of us have been very critical of the canon of suburban historiography,” Mr. Wiese says. “So in that sense we’re kindred spirits in upsetting the apple cart.”

But, says Mr. Wiese, “many of us are critical of what sprawl has produced.” He invokes the “lived experience” of sprawl: “vast metropolitan areas bound together by hundreds of miles of highway, bathed in the sound of automobiles, choked by exhaust, and spreading relentlessly across natural and agricultural landscapes.”

But the revisionists also build off the recognition “that there’s a much bigger, diverse suburbia” out there than traditional scholarship and pop culture have acknowledged. Like Mr. Bruegmann, the New Suburban historians base many of their interpretations on close physical readings of the suburbs. Like him, they pay attention to statistics but handle them with skepticism.

Mr. Wiese cites, for instance, “the ways in which the census helps to hide nonwhite suburban places,” which “kind of disappear in a sea of white suburbia.”

They also owe a debt to the work of geographers who treat “space as a coequal quality with time … something that quite obviously endures and reflects the society,” Mr. Wiese says. In particular he cites the British-born geographer Richard Harris, whose research “made the world safe for younger scholars to work on working-class suburbia.” It opened up “this whole world of blue-collar suburbia that connected British immigrants in Toronto to Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles” to communities in the American South.

As it happens, Mr. Harris, a professor and associate director of the School of Geography and Earth Sciences at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, has just completed a review of Mr. Bruegmann’s book. He likes it and says it performs “a valuable service,” even if he agrees with Ms. Hayden that the author understates certain factors, “maybe because others have overstated them.”

He is most impressed with how the Chicago scholar “thinks like a geographer. I can think of no higher praise than that. You’d think it would be really hard to talk about sprawl without having a really grounded sense of what it looks and feels like, but some people manage it.” Mr. Bruegmann “does have this really strong visual sense of what it looks like and how people experience it.”

For many citizens, both inside and outside academe, sprawl represents the loss of what they used to know. It transforms familiar places into alien spaces. “Sprawl is about change, and it’s fast change,” Mr. Bruegmann says. “And that’s always unsettling, or even threatening, to people.”

Suburbia’s revisionist scholars take a long view, literally and figuratively. Their work may help other researchers, city dwellers, and suburbanites find their bearings as they navigate what Mr. Bruegmann calls the “terra incognita” of sprawling metropolitan environments. In the meantime, their work redefines what we talk about when we talk about the suburbs.

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