The New Suburban History

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Overview

America has become a nation of suburbs. Confronting the popular image of suburbia as simply a refuge for affluent whites, The New Suburban History rejects the stereotypes of a conformist and conflict-free suburbia. The seemingly calm streets of suburbia were, in fact, battlegrounds over race, class, and politics. With this collection, Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue argue that suburbia must be understood as a central factor in the modern American experience. 

Kruse and Sugrue here collect ten essays—augmented by their provocative introduction—that challenge our understanding of suburbia. Drawing from original research on suburbs across the country, the contributors recast important political and social issues in the context of suburbanization. Their essays reveal the role suburbs have played in the transformation of American liberalism and conservatism; the contentious politics of race, class, and ethnicity; and debates about the environment, land use, and taxation. The contributors move the history of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and blue-collar workers from the margins to the mainstream of suburban history.

From this broad perspective, these innovative historians explore the way suburbs affect—and are affected by—central cities, competing suburbs, and entire regions. The results, they show, are far-reaching: the emergence of a suburban America has reshaped national politics, fostered new social movements, and remade the American landscape. The New Suburban History offers nothing less than a new American history—one that claims the nation cannot be fully understood without a history of American suburbs at its very center.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
For those who have not read the larger works of many of the essayists, this collection provides an excellent introduction to the subject. It also reveals how far we have come since the 'new urban history.'

— Bruce M. Stave

Journal of American History
Graduate and undergraduate students specializing in urban history are most likely to benefit from this collection, but any modern American historian seeking cutting-edge, critical perspectives on the postwar decades will find these essays of tremendous value.

— Nicholas Dagen Bloom

American Historical Review - Bruce M. Stave
"For those who have not read the larger works of many of the essayists, this collection provides an excellent introduction to the subject. It also reveals how far we have come since the 'new urban history.'"
Journal of American History - Nicholas Dagen Bloom
"Graduate and undergraduate students specializing in urban history are most likely to benefit from this collection, but any modern American historian seeking cutting-edge, critical perspectives on the postwar decades will find these essays of tremendous value."
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Kevin M. Kruse is assistant professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Thomas J. Sugrue is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

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Read an Excerpt

The New Suburban History
The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-45662-1



Chapter One

Marketing the Free Market

State Intervention and the Politics of Prosperity in Metropolitan America

DAVID M. P. FREUND

The modern American suburb is heavily indebted to the federal government. For decades writers have chronicled this debt, documenting how state policy fueled the rapid suburban growth that has so decisively shaped U.S. politics and culture since World War II. Federal spending priorities, mortgage programs, tax incentives, urban renewal, and a host of other public initiatives fundamentally reshaped the metropolis. Most commentators agree, moreover, that those same interventions helped to secure the suburbs' most valuable resources-better housing and jobs, cheap consumer credit, safe and healthy neighborhoods, good public services and schools-almost exclusively for white people, and thus accentuated the nation's racial and class inequalities. The state's early postwar mortgage initiatives, for example, denied most racial minorities access not only to suburbia but also to the many benefits of homeownership. Meanwhile federal public housing, urban renewal, and highway programs undermined existing-often vibrant-minority communities in cities nationwide. By the 1950s and 1960s, the results were visible to most Americans. The fast-growing suburbanfringe was becoming the center of postwar affluence, it was monopolizing the best public services and fastest-growing employment sectors, and it was populated primarily by whites who owned their homes. Meanwhile the nation's cities, and especially the minority populations concentrated within them, were left behind.

The suburbs owe another important debt to the federal state, one that has received relatively little attention. In addition to creating wealth for some while helping to marginalize others, federal intervention also helped create and popularize a unique postwar political narrative that obscured the origins of race and class inequality in the modern metropolis. Paradoxically, the state helped popularize the myth that its policies did not facilitate suburban growth and did not contribute to new metropolitan patterns of inequality. Instead it insisted that "free market" forces, alone, were responsible for the gulf-economic and, increasingly, spatial-that separated the nation's haves from its have-nots. Not surprisingly this free-market story was embraced by the beneficiaries of federal largesse, most enthusiastically by an expanding, and increasingly suburban, white middle class. And their investment in this story holds special importance for our understanding of politics and culture after World War II, because suburban whites invoked the narrative and constantly elaborated upon it to justify racial exclusion.

Indeed whites' rationale for residential segregation changed quite dramatically during the years that saw more and more people of European descent attain the "suburban dream." Older, pseudo-scientific explanations for racial exclusion and inequality did not disappear. But beginning in the 1940s, with racial science discredited and a new antiracist, civil rights politics forcing whites, especially in the North, to at least acknowledge the principle of racial equality, those older racial narratives were quickly overshadowed by a powerful new defense of the residential color line. In metropolitan areas nationwide, whites increasingly argued that they opposed integration not because of race per se, but because it would disrupt the robust free market for housing that had produced so many thriving suburban communities. Whites began to defend racial exclusion by arguing that they were simply defending the rights and privileges that homeownership had afforded them. Suburban homeownership, in particular, became a powerful symbol of these rights. This subtle but decisive shift in whites' defense of segregation-from a discourse focusing on race and compatibility to one focusing on markets and rights-enabled white people to insist, quite earnestly, that the politics of suburban exclusion was not motivated by racism. As people of European descent mobilized nationwide to maintain the racial homogeneity of their neighborhoods, schools, and even public spaces, a new language of markets and rights helped unite whites that otherwise had few class, ethnic, or geographical ties to bind them.

Of course, this rights discourse-and whites' investment in a vision of purely market-driven metropolitan growth-was not simply the product of government storytelling. Excellent recent studies have helped us understand why so many northern whites came to view maintenance of the residential color line not necessarily as a racial matter but instead as a principled defense of white peoples' "rights"-as homeowners, working people, consumers, or citizens. Quite often, though, scholars portray this rights talk, or even a new "investment" in whiteness itself, as an automatic, almost reflexive defense of postwar privileges in the face of black people's demands for access and political equality. In short this scholarship often portrays the defense of white privilege as a default strategy, rather than fully exploring how the definition of white privilege, itself, was transformed during these years. Moreover there has been very little investigation of the ways that institutional change-specific political and policy interventions-actively shaped whites' understanding of both privilege and inequality in the postwar United States. Institutional change was formative because state interventions taught very specific lessons about the nature of economic growth and patterns of metropolitan change. Most important, the postwar "free market" narrative-and its rationale for maintaining the color line-was popularized by many of the same federal interventions that were fueling economic growth and perpetuating inequality: namely, the banking, monetary, and credit programs that encouraged millions of Americans to finance new levels of consumption by going into debt.

This chapter focuses on one set of federal interventions: the New Deal-era selective credit programs that created the modern mortgage market. It argues that selective credit programs did not merely revolutionize the nation's housing and settlement patterns-a narrative familiar to urban historians-but that they also directly shaped whites' interpretation of postwar affluence, segregation, and inequality. It is well known that in the 1930s new federal credit programs-most famously those operated by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-standardized the long-term, low interest home mortgage and facilitated its use nationwide, thus making homeownership affordable for most white people after World War II. Scholars have shown that by the 1940s, the state had created and begun to sustain an expansive, racially restricted market for the suburban single family home. But the state did much more, because it simultaneously assured the public that its interventions in no way disrupted American capitalism. Mortgage programs, officials insisted, merely "unleashed" existing, but latent, market forces. In short, public officials and policymakers claimed that it was simply the free market for property that produced suburban affluence, metropolitan segregation, and urban poverty. Suburban whites eagerly embraced this story and made it central to their defense of postwar prosperity and privilege.

To understand fully the politics of white flight and white backlash in postwar America, as well as the depth of resistance to redistributive public policies, it is important to examine why so many whites believed that postwar prosperity and racial segregation were simply the products of a free market for housing, one unfettered by government influence. Countless whites came to believe that the state had no right to intervene in the economy or in their local communities because the state helped convince them that it had not intervened in the past. Revisiting the FHA's operations and its political legacy suggests that countless Americans have vehemently rejected federal interventions designed to rectify patterns of class and racial inequality by tapping into a powerful myth about the "free market" for residence, a myth codified and promoted by the state itself.

The FHA, Postwar Suburban Growth, and the Legacy of New Deal Reform

Suburban histories generally pay little attention to banking, monetary, and credit policy because of a common assumption about New Deal reform and its postwar legacy: namely, that the state's most influential interventions were its socially progressive policies, the high-profile and often controversial efforts to create jobs, protect workers' rights, regulate prices, build public infrastructure, and provide social insurance or relief. We know a great deal about programs designed to arrest monopoly control or to distribute market resources more fairly. And scholars have shown that many of these programs were either compromised from the outset-not all deserving citizens could benefit-or undermined in the 1940s and 1950s. Scholars' approach to postwar state policy has often been shaped by a preoccupation with the "failure" of liberal reform, with the abandonment of radical experimentation in favor of policies encouraging unbridled economic growth. This focus, in turn, has led to an emphasis on a seismic shift in federal priorities in the late 1930s, when the Roosevelt administration abandoned efforts to build what Ira Katznelson has called the "developmental state"-one focused on promoting equity and social justice-in favor of a "fiscalist state," characterized by Keynesian, pump-priming interventions designed to promote unregulated growth. Many observers have joined Alan Brinkley in describing this shift in priorities as "the end of reform."

The focus on opportunities lost has generally precluded careful consideration of the New Deal's less progressive reforms, many of which had equally decisive impacts on postwar politics and culture. Perhaps the most notable omission-especially among urban and suburban historians-has been the early monetary, banking, and credit policies that helped make the fantastic economic expansion of the postwar years possible. Historians generally date the emergence of the Keynesian state to the "Roosevelt recession" of 1937-38, when New Dealers, desperate to revive domestic markets, embraced both deficit spending and a compensatory fiscal policy. Yet economists have long told a more complicated story, arguing that earlier federal initiatives, beginning in the Hoover administration and culminating with the Banking Act of 1935, created essential preconditions for postwar growth by revolutionizing the state's ability to manage the money supply and subsidize credit markets. Most important, it was during these years that the state began to regulate and provide capital for private banks and the savings and loan industry, transformed the Federal Reserve from a central bank into a federal regulatory body, and assumed control of discount rates and interest rates. By 1935, it had abolished the gold standard, was insuring a host of private lenders against loss, had expanded its ability to buy and sell Treasury securities as a means to supplement private bank reserves, and had greatly expanded its powers to provide emergency loans to institutional lenders.

The result was that by the mid-1930s, the federal government had set up the mechanisms to promote a new kind of national economic growth by creating and sustaining a very safe and flexible market for consumer credit. Put simply, the state made it easier-in many cases risk-free-for the private sector to lend and borrow, while simultaneously making the national currency more "elastic" so that it could meet producers' and consumers' changing needs. State actors were now poised to promote actively the expansion of credit markets and, by so doing, expand the nation's money supply, effectively creating new wealth. The new system gave the state considerable control over both money creation and credit cycles, so it could strategically target chosen industries and consumer markets for subsidy. And, perhaps most important, the state's credit had now become the linchpin for both stabilizing the economy and fueling a debt-driven economic growth (a process that some economists call the "socialization" of the nation's debt). Taken together, economists argue, these early interventions fundamentally transformed the operations of American banking and credit markets, a transformation necessary to make possible both the fiscalist state and the stunning rates of postwar growth.

Most historians, by contrast, treat monetary, banking, and credit policies not as interventions that transformed the workings of American capitalism, but rather as stopgap measures or concessions to vested interests, designed to "stabilize" existing markets and protect existing market structures. New Deal historians often describe the larger Keynesian revolution as simply reactive-a response "to the transformation of the United States from a producer-oriented to a consumer-oriented society." This analysis, however, threatens to minimize the state's role in facilitating that transformation. The disagreement here is not simply about the timing of the state's most decisive interventions, but rather about the impact of Depression era legislation on the postwar economy. Many economists argue that state policy facilitated a monetary and credit revolution that created radically new kinds of market relationships, which both enabled and actively promoted a new kind of economic growth. Most general histories, by contrast, insist that these early reforms were designed not to alter the mechanics of the market, but rather to "prop ... up the institutional foundations of capitalism."

The selective credit initiatives that have received the most attention are the FHA's mortgage insurance programs established by the National Housing Act (NHA) in 1934 and the Veterans Administration's (VA) mortgage guarantee programs, established in 1944. By insuring private lenders against loss, by standardizing appraisal practices, and by popularizing the use of long-term, amortized mortgages, the FHA and VA revived and dramatically expanded the markets for home-improvement and for privately owned homes, eventually making these markets the "bedrock" of the new consumer economy, as Lizabeth Cohen writes, and "central ... [to] postwar prosperity." It is also well documented that FHA and VA operations systematically discriminated by race. Both agencies endorsed the use of race-restrictive covenants until 1950. And both followed the appraisal guidelines outlined in the FHA's Underwriting Manual, which prohibited realtors (and, by extension, lenders and builders) from introducing "incompatible" racial groups into white residential enclaves. "If a neighborhood is to retain stability," explained the first published edition, "it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes," for a "change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The New Suburban History Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
The New Suburban History  
Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue 
1. Marketing the Free Market: State Intervention and the Politics of Prosperity in Metropolitan America
David M. P. Freund  
2. Less Than Plessy: The Inner City, Suburbs, and State-Sanctioned Residential Segregation in the Age of Brown
Arnold R. Hirsch  
3. Uncovering the City in the Suburb: Cold War Politics, Scientific Elites, and High-Tech Spaces
Margaret Pugh O’Mara  
4. How Hell Moved from the City to the Suburbs: Urban Scholars and Changing Perceptions of Authentic Community
Becky Nicolaides 
5. “The House I Live In”: Race, Class, and African American Suburban Dreams in the Postwar United States
Andrew Wiese
6. “Socioeconomic Integration” in the Suburbs: From Reactionary Populism to Class Fairness in Metropolitan Charlotte
Matthew D. Lassiter  
7. Prelude to the Tax Revolt: The Politics of the “Tax Dollar” in Postwar California
Robert O. Self  
8. Suburban Growth and Its Discontents: The Logic and Limits of Reform on the Postwar Northeast Corridor
Peter Siskind  
9. Reshaping the American Dream: Immigrants, Ethnic Minorities, and the Politics of the New Suburbs
Michael Jones-Correa  
10. The Legal Technology of Exclusion in Metropolitan America
Gerald Frug 
Notes
Contributors 
Index 

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