Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Crabgrass Frontier

Crabgrass Frontier:  The Suburbanization of the United States
© 1985 Kenneth Jackson
432 pages

For thousands of years, people lived in either the country or the city, but with the coming of the industrial revolution that changed, and especially in America.   Seemingly as soon as they were able, the wealthy and later the middle class abandoned the cities in favor of neighborhoods set in the country, first commuting into the city and then commuting to other areas outside it once jobs followed the wealth out of town. Why was the traditional urban form abandoned for the suburbs to the degree that it was in the United States, and not in Europe? In Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson chronicles urban flight and the making of the 'burbs,  establishing that Americans have an historic cultural distaste for cities,  inherited through England,  and have been trying to have the best of both worlds, city and country, at least since the end of the 18th century.  Wealth and technology first allowed a prosperous minority to establish separate country residences, and later government policy made ex-urban living the easiest choice to make, resulting in it becoming the cultural norm. Jackon begins detached and eventually waxes passionate as the suburbs' success prove to be at the expense of the cities, but he's never caustic.

The Revolutionary War was scarcely over before suburbs appeared on the American scene; even before horsecars, trolley lines, and the automobile, wealthy citizens of New York established their residences on the Brooklyn Heights nearby, and commuted by ferry.  While the borders of cities have historically been slums, home to necessary but despised industries like leather tanneries, in the United States cities came to be ringed by affluence.  Reasons for the wealthy leaving were varied, but a desire to get away from the city's "problems" -- the noise of industry and the presence of common working folk -- ranked high. The simplest explanation, however, is that they could. The United States had more land than it knew what to do with. At first, living outside the city and commuting to it to work was the domain of the very wealthy, but the arrival of railroads allowed moderately wealthy persons to join in.  The trolley and the introduction of balloon-frame homebuilding made suburban living affordable for more people, and saw a manifold increase in the number of these communities. This was not the beginning of sprawl, however: even as they multiplied,  suburban communities remained distinct, walkable places.

It was the automobile which allowed suburbia to truly transform the urban landscape, extending the ease of complete mobility to the entire middle class. At the same time, government policies promoted suburban expansion, directly and indirectly, by promoting home ownership through subsidized loans and highways. Having lost the wealthy and middle classes, their tax base, cities deteriorated further, prompting even more flight. At the same time, home loan and insurance policies favored the suburbs heavily, stifling attempts by those in the city to improve or protect their buildings. These policies were at times openly racist, denying coverage or loans to whole blocks if a Jewish or black family were to move in.

Motivated by a cultural preference for country homes over city living, enabled by the widespread availability of open land --and technological innovations like the rail line and automobile which used that land as a broad canvas to draw an entirely new kind of urban landscape - and further encouraged by government support, the Americans thus became suburbanized.  The work, which Jackson introduces as an extended essay, ends with a reflection on where the suburbs are taking the American people. Built on cheap land, connected by cheap transport, and occupied by cheap buildings,  Jackson believes contemporary sprawl to be not worth much in comparison to the city, and points to trends in the 1980s which might signal a turning point.

Thirty years after the fact, we know that sprawl recovered from those hiccoughs, only for its tide to slow and reverse in the later years of the 21st century's opening decade,  influenced by the financial crisis and the new normal of  high gasoline prices.  The Millennial generation has displayed a sharp preference for city living over the burbs, and car ownership is on the decline. As Americans begin to rebuild their cities and the civilization which they foster, this look back at what caused their disintegration will prove most helpful. This comprehensive history of suburbia not only establishes why American suburbs are so different from those from across the world, but delves into the full range of factors that led to their creation: cultural, technological, economic, and political.  Those wanting to understand the development of suburbia will find it a worthy guide,  especially for its less strident tone as compared to an author like Jim Kunstler.

The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
Asphalt Nation,  Jane Holtz Keay

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