Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

In an interview, historian Thomas Sugrue discusses what the suburbs are today:

exterior of cozy house in evening

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

That said, while in the aggregate, suburbs are more diverse, the distribution of nonwhites isn’t random. Metropolitan America is not a place of free housing choice. It’s still very much shaped by deep patterns of racial inequality and a maldistribution of resources. A lot of the nonwhite newcomers to suburbia live in what I call “secondhand suburbs” — places that have become increasingly unfashionable for whites, often older suburbs closer to central cities, with declining business districts and decaying housing stock.

And just as the distribution of minority groups across suburbia is not random, the distribution of whites across suburbia has really significant political implications. We’re seeing a suburban political divide quite different from the one that played out after World War II, when well-to-do, middle-class and even some working-class whites living in suburbia found common ground by looking through their rearview mirrors with horror at the cities they were fleeing. By the early 2000s, you have growing divisions among white suburbanites. The whitest suburban places are often at the suburban-exurban fringes — places where middle-class whites who are attempting to flee the growing racial diversity of cities and nearby suburbs are moving. By contrast, many of the older suburbs, particularly those with late 19th-, early 20th-century charming housing and excellent schools, have been attracting well-to-do and highly educated whites…

But suburbs didn’t freeze in time circa 1950 or 1960; they continued to evolve and transform. And those transformations were largely overlooked by political commentators, journalists, social scientists, novelists and pop culture. You saw, for example, beginning in the 1960s and expanding in the ’70s and ’80s, the emergence of clusters of multifamily housing — apartments, townhouses and condominiums — in suburban places. And as the housing market opened, a lot of new immigrants chose suburban places as points of settlement because suburbs offered access to jobs. In the post-WWII period up to the present day, most American job growth has been in suburban places — office parks, industrial parks, shopping malls, stores, restaurants, the construction industry, all sorts of service jobs. And those changes are crucial to understanding the remapping of metropolitan America. They capture a more complex reality than the post-WWII image of the suburbs….

One of the consequences of that are the fierce battles over even modest or token efforts to bring diversity to predominantly white suburban school districts, and really significant opposition to the construction of multifamily housing. And it’s not even couched in the rhetoric of class. It’s not, “I don’t want multifamily housing in my neighborhood because I don’t want lower-class people living here.” Instead, it’s, “This is going to change the character of the neighborhood,” or “It’s going to jeopardize my property values,” or “It’s going to bring congestion.”

A few quick thoughts:

  1. For a definitive history of white flight as it played out in Detroit (and contributed to the current landscape), read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
  2. See earlier posts on complex suburbia, the various visions Americans today have of suburbs., and suburban NIMBY arguments.
  3. This reminds me that the image of 1950s suburbia is so pervasive as part of the American Dream and yet it has only some connections to current realities. Why does this image live on? It was incredibly powerful (postwar success, baby boomers, tremendous growth and sprawl), repeated and critiqued endlessly (numerous cultural products on both sides for decades), and some would like to continue or recreate what happened then. History rarely works this way; even if it were possible to recreate similar conditions, people are now different and society has changed.
  4. There is a lot more here for academics and others to explore about desirable and undesirable suburbs. Now that suburbs are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and class, the sorting within suburbs is a powerful force. Do wealthier people primarily select places through personal networks? How do residents of a metropolitan region come to know about and regard other communities (and how do communities try to “subtly” signal what they are)?

One thought on “Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

  1. Pingback: Where will people move to if the suburbs are “abolished”? | Legally Sociable

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