Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000

Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000

by Dolores Hayden
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Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 by Dolores Hayden

A lively and provocative history of the contested landscapes where the majority of Americans now live.

From rustic cottages reached by steamboat to big box stores at the exit ramps of eight-lane highways, Dolores Hayden defines seven eras of suburban development since 1820. An urban historian and architect, she portrays housewives and politicians as well as designers and builders making the decisions that have generated America’s diverse suburbs. Residents have sought home, nature, and community in suburbia. Developers have cherished different dreams, seeking profit from economies of scale and increased suburban densities, while lobbying local and federal government to reduce the risk of real estate speculation. Encompassing environmental controversies as well as the complexities of race, gender, and class, Hayden’s fascinating account will forever alter how we think about the communities we build and inhabit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307515261
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/04/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Dolores Hayden, urban historian and poet, is professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale. She is the author of several books on the American landscape, including The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, Building Suburbia, and A Field Guide to Sprawl. A former president of the Urban History Association, Hayden is the recipient of a Radcliffe Graduate Medal, an American Library Association Notable Book Award, two awards for Excellence in Design Research from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. She is also the author of two poetry collections, American Yard and Nymph, Dun, and Spinner.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


We're in the American Dream business.

-advertisement for Fannie Mae

Flying across the United States, airline passengers look down on dazzling, varied topography, yet from Connecticut to California, monotonous tracts of single-family houses stretch for miles outside the downtowns of major cities. Subdivisions interrupt farms and forests. They crowd up against the granite coast of Maine and push into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Next to residential areas lie highways, shopping malls, and office parks. They overwhelm small town centers. More Americans reside in suburban landscapes than in inner cities and rural areas combined, yet few can decode the shapes of these landscapes or define where they begin and end.

Demographers still describe suburbs as "the non-central city parts of metropolitan areas," a negative definition, but suburbia has become the dominant American cultural landscape, the place where most households live and vote. Describing suburbia as a residential landscape would be wrong, however, because suburbs also contain millions of square feet of commercial and industrial space, and their economic growth outstrips that of older downtowns. Most confusing of all, suburbia is the site of promises, dreams, and fantasies. It is a landscape of the imagination where Americans situate ambitions for upward mobility and economic security, ideals about freedom and private property, and longings for social harmony and spiritual uplift.

For almost two hundred years, Americans of all classes have idealized life in single-family houses with generous yards, while deploring the sprawling metropolitan regions that result from unregulated residential and commercial growth. With no national land use policy in the United States, single-family housing has often driven suburban planning by default. Between 1994 and 2002, real estate developers completed about 1.5 million new units of housing every year, most of them suburban single-family houses. The production of millions of houses-involving massive mortgage subsidies by the federal government, huge expense to individual families, and extraordinary profits for private real estate developers-has largely configured Americans' material wealth and indebtedness, as well as shaped American landscapes. The metropolitan building process holds the key to many aspects of American culture, yet few know its social and spatial history.

This book is an account of suburbanization since 1820, exploring how entrepreneurs and residents have transformed fields, meadows, and woods into habitable space. The speed and spatial scale of land development have increased with each decade. In the earliest years of mercantile capitalism, a few suburban entrepreneurs launched isolated experiments in subdividing property and building new communities with the help of family and friends. Some real estate developers and boosters began to work together, forming political alliances called "growth machines." Between 1870 and 1920, at the height of industrial capitalism, developers extended their reach and promoted urban peripheries systematically, often working in partnership with transit owners, utilities, and local government. After the rise of a powerful real estate and construction lobby in the 1920s, the federal government took a major role-largely through tax, banking, and insurance systems-in subsidizing private development of residential and commercial property on a national basis. By the mid-1950s, federal tax supports for commercial developers and direct federal support for highways provided incentives for unchecked growth on a scale that earlier entrepreneurs could never have imagined. By the 1980s, state and local governments also frequently supported private commercial development with direct subsidies.

The history of suburban construction can be understood as the evolution of seven vernacular patterns. Building in borderlands began about 1820. Picturesque enclaves started around 1850 and streetcar buildouts around 1870. Mail-order and self-built suburbs arrived in 1900. Mass-produced, urban-scale "sitcom" suburbs appeared around 1940. Edge nodes coalesced around 1960. Rural fringes intensified around 1980. All of these patterns survive in the metropolitan areas of 2003. Many continue to be constructed.

Each pattern is defined by characteristic development practices, building technologies, marketing strategies, architectural preferences, and environmental attitudes. Despite some mid-twentieth-century claims that suburbia is a classless place, in each era of suburban life, economic class has affected residents' employment options, commuting choices, lot sizes, and house sizes, as well as favored shapes for houses, porches, and yards. There are working-class, middle-class, and upper-class configurations intertwined with the seven suburban patterns.

Most previous accounts of suburban history have been organized around improvements in transportation technology, and explicitly or implicitly the authors suggest that transportation technology made residential growth inevitable. Categorizing places by commuters' choices-railroad suburb, streetcar suburb, automobile suburb-also leads to a focus on middle-class and upper-class male breadwinners and their housing. In contrast, this book highlights the complex relationships between real estate entrepreneurs and a wide range of suburban residents and workers. It explores the interplay of natural and built environments, considers women's and children's lives as well as men's, discusses working-class houses and yards as well as affluent ones, and explains why suburbia has been of great interest to political lobbyists.

Many different kinds of visual source materials reveal the precise shapes of suburbs, including maps, plans for towns, designs for houses, and photographs of households. The built places themselves provide material evidence used throughout the book, documented in both architectural and aerial photography. Low-level, oblique-angle aerial photography is especially useful for capturing the scale of recent developments in relation to older patterns.

The Triple Dream and The Growth Machines

The "American Dream" is embedded in these seven evolving patterns of suburban development. Unlike every other affluent civilization, Americans have idealized the house and yard rather than the model neighborhood or the ideal town. From the beginning, the dream conflated piety and gender-stereotyped "family values." The ideology of female domesticity, developed in the United States during the same era when suburban borderlands were first attracting settlers, elevated the religious significance of woman's work, defined as bearing and rearing children in the strong moral atmosphere of a Protestant home set in a natural landscape. The single-family house was invested with churchlike symbols as a sacred space where women's work would win a reward in heaven. Catholic and Jewish immigrants also tied domesticity to religion.

The ideology of female domesticity, popular since the 1840s, was wedded to a cult of male home ownership, extended to include working-class men around the 1870s. Over the years, developers embellished the religious imagery. In 1921 an editorial writer for the National Real Estate Journal told readers that the Garden of Eden was the first subdivision. While Eden also took the fancy of the editors of American Architect and Building News who claimed that Adam and Eve built their home in Short Hills, New Jersey, a perfect town, many more developers have sited their new houses in heaven. An angel with a sword of justice delivered developer Samuel Gross's "home at $10 a month" to a Chicago workman. A New Yorker cover showed a new house floating on pink clouds, above a husband, wife, and child ascending into the sky in 1946, holding their blueprints. (The artist, Constantin Alajálov, included one sharp detail: outside the back door of this upper-middle-class house, an African-American cook chats with a Fuller Brush salesman.) More recently, heavenly notes were sung by architects Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk when they announced "The Second Coming of the American Small Town" at Seaside, Florida. A memoir by D. J. Waldie evoked Lakewood, California, as Holy Land.

Occasionally, developers have relocated the sales pitch for heaven in the secular landscape of happiness. William F. Chatlos built one thousand "Happiness Homes" in Williston Park, Nassau County, Long Island, in the 1920s. His three-bedroom Tudor and Dutch Colonial houses occupied an alphabetical grid of streets named for prominent colleges and universities, including Amherst, Brown, and Cornell. In the 1940s, advertising copywriters for General Electric promoted purchasing a home as "an adventure in happiness." Listing many electrical appliances, GE told veterans, "It's a promise!" Most Americans want to believe in a "Happiness Home." In the 1990s many flocked to buy houses in "Celebration," a real estate development by The Walt Disney Company, previously known for building theme parks advertised as "the happiest place on earth."

But for women, especially, the single-family suburban house implies isolation, lacking physical and social context. For women, the dream is house plus neighborhood sociability. Others have proposed a different double dream, a house set in unspoiled nature. The result is a triple dream, house plus land plus community, the kind of neighborhood space represented in Phyllis McGinley's charming poem about Larchmont, New York, "I Know a Village," "where all the streets are named for trees / and people visit on their porches." This triple dream encompasses both the private and public pleasures of peaceful, small-scale residential neighborhoods.

For the most part, the physical realization of this dream has been in the hands of developers trying to turn a profit through suburban growth. Conflict has characterized every era of development, as green fields have attracted residents to the peaceful outskirts of cities but also drawn promoters. In addition to those directly involved in the building process, the boosters of growth have included lawyers, owners of suburban transportation companies (including ferries, railroads, and streetcars), owners of utilities, and owners of local newspapers, supermarkets, and big-box stores. They have handled house purchases, punched commutation tickets, generated electricity, increased total circulation, marketed cornflakes, and sold screwdrivers. Once a suburban area is established, growth promoters usually seek greater and greater levels of density. The residents' hope of unspoiled nature fails because open land vanishes with increased development. Their hope of community is betrayed when tracts of houses, hyped as ideal "communities," lack social and economic centers, parks, schools and necessary infrastructure. Contestation-between residents who wish to enjoy suburbia and developers who seek to profit from it-lies at the heart of suburban history.

Chapter Two


It is the city trying to escape the consequences of

being a city while still remaining a city. It is urban

society trying to eat its cake and keep it, too.

-harlan douglas, The Suburban Trend, 1925

When kenneth t. jackson published his prize-winning history of suburbs, Crabgrass Frontier, in 1985, he concluded, optimistically, that the United States was turning away from suburbia. He suggested that "the long process of suburbanization . . . will slow over the next two decades." He predicted that rising energy and land costs would lead people back to urban centers. Instead, in the last two decades, Americans have settled on the distant fringes of metropolitan regions faster than ever before, while older downtowns have lost population, jobs, and economic vitality. Downtowns with offices, stores, museums, and entertainment drew Americans from the 1870s to the 1950s, but a suburban trend in the mid-1920s became a suburban tide in the 1950s. By 1970, more Americans lived in suburbs than in either central cities or rural areas. By 2000, more Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined. The United States had become a predominantly suburban nation. Although inner cities still housed certain institutions important to metropolitan regions, many key economic and cultural centers such as corporate headquarters and regional theaters had relocated to suburbs.

After almost two centuries of steady growth, suburbs have overwhelmed the centers of cities, creating metropolitan regions largely formed of suburban parts. In the suburban city of 2003, all seven historic suburban landscape patterns continue to exist. Most political entities include the fragments, overlays, collisions, and erasures of more than one pattern, because suburban growth has been constant across the political boundaries of states, counties, cities, towns, and villages. Metropolitan regions reveal what critics call suburban sprawl, the lack of land use controls or environmental planning. They also reflect a culture of easy obsolescence, where yesterday's picturesque enclave may be sliced by today's new highway leading to tomorrow's edge node.

There have been many efforts to rename the spread-out suburban city. "Galactic metropolis" taps a word from outer space. "Regional city" combines spread and center. So does "sprawl city." "When Suburbs Are the City," the title of a paper by historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr., captures the problem in words that everyone understands.

In the spaces of the suburban city lie metropolitan complexities. American suburbia has always been physically and socially diverse. The outskirts of mid-nineteenth-century cities housed noxious industries like slaughterhouses and glue factories, social reform establishments such as poorhouses, orphanages, contagious disease hospitals, and prisons, plus temporary sites for camp meetings and traveling circuses. There were suburban temperance communities, as well as squatters on marginal land. Although the history of the suburbs includes countless examples of exclusion implemented through developers' deed restrictions, bankers' red-lining, realtors' steering, government lending policies, and other discriminatory practices not all nineteenth-century suburban residential areas were white, Protestant, and elite. From about 1870 on, many working-class and lower-middle-class families were attracted to the periphery of the city, where land was cheap and houses might be constructed with sweat equity. While nineteenth-century immigrants often spent time in inner-city tenements before moving out to streetcar suburbs, today some new immigrants to the United States head straight to the suburbs to live where jobs are easier to find.

Some affluent suburban communities remain almost entirely white and Protestant, but there are also Irish-American suburbs, African-American suburbs, Polish-American suburbs, and Chinese-American suburbs, as well as older streetcar suburbs like Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, a place that has welcomed successive waves of new immigrants from Mexico, Russia, and Japan.

Sometimes the impact of ethnic diversity can be seen and heard in the suburban landscape. New Haven's Italian-American neighborhoods reveal gardens of basil, tomatoes, and oregano, as well as yard shrines honoring the Virgin. Latino families in East Los Angeles decorate their front yards with traditional nacimientos. Sikhs have renamed a street in Fremont, California, for their Gurdwara Temple. Polish-Americans have established talk radio in Polish from suburban Pomona, New York; Chinese-Americans offer news and entertainment in Chinese out of Freeport, Long Island; and Indian immigrants broadcast from a radio station in Metuchen, New Jersey.

The diversity of suburbia is evidence of assimilation and a source of conflict. Suburban residents from different ethnic backgrounds have purchased older single-family houses and yards only to use them in new ways. In Silver Spring, Maryland, planners are reexamining the term "household" to deal with perceived overcrowding by extended families from Latino backgrounds. In Fairfax County, Virginia, Vietnamese, Indians, Arabs, Pakistanis, West Africans, and East Africans have joined Latin Americans looking for affordable shelter near their suburban jobs. Many households are large, multigenerational groups, with aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and grandparents helping to pay the rent or make the mortgage. Their cars crowd small driveways. Dozens of these immigrant families have paved over their front lawns to make it easier to park, offending their neighbors. In June 2002, Fairfax County passed a controversial regulation forbidding homeowners to pave their front yards.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsxi
Part 1The American Metropolitan Landscape
1The Shapes of Suburbia3
2The Suburban City10
Part 2Historic Patterns in the Landscape
4Picturesque Enclaves45
5Streetcar Buildouts71
6Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs97
7Sitcom Suburbs128
8Edge Nodes154
9Rural Fringes181
Part 3The Next Suburbs
10Nostalgia and Futurism201
11The Importance of Older Suburbs230
Selected Bibliography287

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