Why Americans love suburbs #4: middle-class utopia

If race and ethnicity in the suburbs has often served to keep residents out, the more inclusive message of the American suburbs is this: it is a place where the middle-class can live a good life. Of course, there are issues with this, including numerous exclusive wealthy communities as well as a lack of affordable housing or rental units for those who are not quite middle-class. Yet, the suburban life is held up as both attainable and ideal for the American middle-class.

It wasn’t always this way. Early suburbanites had to have the resources to make it back and forth to the city. This changed with the numerous transportation inventions (railroads, streetcars, electric lines) that steadily brought the costs of traveling in and out of the city down as well as led to the development of more land outside the city. With other developments, particularly the quick spread of cars and highways and mortgages with fewer upfront barriers, the suburbs became the space for the middle-class by the 1950s.

The key to the middle-class suburban dream is its affordability. The typical logic is that the farther a family moves from the big city, the cheaper and bigger the home can be. This explanation echoes the Chicago School and the concentric rings model developed by Burgess: land is more expensive in the city center and the progressively cheaper in zones further from the city. While moving further from the city has its costs (owning and maintaining a car is not cheap, the costs of providing city services in a sprawling location can be pricey), the goal is to get a sizable home.

This middle-class paradise has drawn its share of critics due to its mass-produced nature, lack of highbrow taste and sophistication, and façade of pleasantness that supposedly hides all sorts of sordid activity. Particularly in comparison to lively urban neighborhoods, the suburban middle-class life is often portrayed as dull if not outright oppressive. My favorite response to this is in sociologist Bennett Berger’s 1960 study of a working-class California suburb:

The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered. (103)

Almost sixty years later, this rings true: many Americans still believe their suburban home full of stuff makes for a good life.

Protecting this middle-class land can be quite a task. Suburbanites are often opposed to new development near their homes, smaller housing, apartments, or affordable housing that could possibly lower their property values and threaten the middle-class character of the community. Some of the concern with people of difference races and ethnicities involves class. As anthropologist Rachel Heiman suggests, there is plenty of class-based anxiety in the suburbs, even in better-off ones. Open conflict should be avoided even as social control is desirable. The rise of homeowner’s associations to help police the actions of neighbors through a third party is one way to keep nearby residents in line.

For a society where the vast majority of citizens say they are middle-class (recent data here and here), the suburbs are the primary geographic and social space for middle-class lives. Obtaining a suburban single-family home still signals a middle-class life.

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