The evidence is clear and available to anyone interested in reading the histories, but the suburbs and auto-centric development were a conscious, government-sponsored policy to get people out of the squalor of the cities and into their own suburban, faux-rural shangrai-las. That suburban development was enormously wasteful, lead to social stratification and alienation, and destroyed huge swaths of the rural hinterlands around are cities is just one part of the ugly history of suburbanization.
Steven Conn, a historian at the Ohio State University, presents another part of the story in his book, Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century, an interesting look into the surprisingly pan-political history of anti-urbanism and the effects this view had on growth in America. In an interview with Boston Globe, the author said:
On the one hand, it’s the deep, deep fear of the messiness of urban life, and particularly the social messiness….In the 20th century as American society became more and more socially mixed, [anti-urbanism acquired] a flavor of xenophobia. It’s a sense of “I want to be closer to my kind, I’m either scared of or angry at these people who are different than I am.” Henry James, when he came back from his [European] exile to take a little tour of the United States, he was horrified when he came back to New York, at all the Jews who are walking around. That’s this really ugly kind of anti-Semitism that’s part of this xenophobic response….And the other piece…is this deep suspicion of the role of government, and the idea that city life, especially starting at the turn of the 20th century, depends on government action and government intervention.
That’s Mr. Conn giving a 30-second pitch on what he feels was at the heart of anti-urbanism. That racism and xenophobia helped fuel the desire to leave the cities is not even remotely surprising, given the well-understood history of red-lining, blockbusting, and “white flight.” What I find interesting about this history, though, is how incredibly uninformed it is. Much of the reason the wealthy wanted to leave the cities in the first half of the 20th century was squalor, pollution, crime, etc. The suburbs appeared to offer the antidote in spades, but these suburban activists did not foresee the long-term consequences of separating every function of daily life and requiring citizens to spend hours everyday by themselves in a car. In the beginning, the alienation of suburban living was partially masked by the fact that everyone who moved to these new developments were almost exactly alike in socio-economic status and background. They were white, they were middle class, and the men had all fought in World War II or the Korean War. Their kids were the same age and the lingering “village” attitude of city life hung over everything, which must have made early suburbs a fairly pleasant place to grow up.
But as the 1950’s fantasy turned into the nightmare of the 1970’s, and suburbs became more ethnically and socially diverse, the alienation crept in, and those who could fled even further outward to new suburbs to avoid the increasing urbanization of the inner suburbs. This pattern was repeated over and over until the farthest outreaches of suburban development now stretch sometimes 100 miles from the urban core. But the alienation followed, and the irony is that today’s wealthy suburbs are increasingly resembling small towns in the old urbanism mold of walkability and mixed use. As a society, we’re trying to get back home, but the path we took has been so winding that many of us don’t even understand how we got here. The increased interest in walkability and traditional urbanism is a strong indicator of the direction Americans would like to go if there were more affordable options. But to move forward we have to understand our past. Suburbanization was not us following the whims of market demand. It was a conscious effort by corporate and governmental interests to create a new American, free of the urban slums of Europe, with roads paved of gold, and a car in every driveway.