Argument: suburbs are about difference, not sameness

At the end of the volume Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, a professor of architecture Margaret Crawford argues we need to see American suburbs in a different way:

Charting the complexity, contradictions, and even paradoxes contained within suburbs, these accounts suggest that difference may actually be the defining characteristic of suburbia, rather than the sameness consistently attributed to it. In fact, currently, in an inversion of conventional wisdom, cities are becoming more homogeneous while suburbs grow more diverse. In widely varying circumstances, suburban people of different races, classes, religions, genders, and sexual orientations, acting according to a broad range of politics and values, live highly divergent lives. (382)

I like this argument that scholars should approach suburbs from a different angle. Yet, two issues come to mind:

  1. Crawford goes on to suggest researchers need to collect more stories, oral histories, and ethnographies. We need more granular detail about suburban life. This would indeed likely show more difference across suburbs. And it would also help give voice to more varied experiences across suburban settings. But, I wonder how much this would help us better understand suburbs as a whole. We need in-depth data on the suburbs but we also need to be able to piece these details together to understand patterns.
  2. She ends the chapter suggesting more of this kind of work would help studies of suburbia “move out of the shadow of the city.” (387) This is an open question: can we understand the suburbs separate from the big city? Does the study of suburbs always have to include comparisons to cities? It does not have to but it often does. Is this more due to the fundamental importance of large cities for today’s world or is it tied to how researchers often prefer the city and/or see the suburbs as a sub form of urbanism? I suspect these two reasons are hard to separate and even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs – and roughly 20% more live in suburbs than cities – urban fields will continue to strongly focus on cities.

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