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.

Suburbanites in wealthier areas are not all wealthy and can be Democrats and identify as working-class

The recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th House District has led some to question her background:

Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989 to parents Sergio Ocasio-Roman, who was born in New York City, and mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, a native of Puerto Rico.

Her father, who tragically died from lung cancer in 2008, was an architect and the CEO of Kirschenbaum & Ocasio-Roman Architects, PC, which focused on remodeling and renovations…

Initially, the young family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of 171 mid-rise brick buildings in the Bronx.

When she was about five, Ocasio-Cortez’s family moved to the house in Westchester County, a detail that the bio omits.

The timing of the move is confirmed in a New York Times interview with mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, but the report does not address the discrepancy.

The home, a single-story with a finished basement, most recently sold for $355,000 in 2016. The median annual income in the area is $116,741, compared to the median annual income of $48,315 in Parkchester’s zip code, according to the latest Census data…

Her father’s death came amid the financial crisis and he left no will, putting their home on the brink of foreclosure, she has said.

The house was sold and Ocasio-Cortez now lives in the same Bronx apartment where she lived until age five.

I do not know all the details of Ocasio-Cortez’s background. The goal of the article above seems to be to suggest she is not quite the person she presents herself as and instead grew up in relatively privileged settings. Yet, her own descriptions are not necessarily out of character with what actually is taking place in suburbs today:

  1. Not everyone who lives in the suburbs is wealthy or even middle-class. Westchester County is historically a wealthy county outside of New York City. Yet, like many suburban counties that have experienced increased populations of poorer residents and non-white residents, there is more variety in social class and race and ethnicity in Westchester County than people might think. According to the Census, the county is only 53.4% white alone, 24.9% Latino, and 16.5% black. The median household income is over $86,000 but 10.0% of residents live in poverty. In other words, not everyone in Westchester County is a wealthy white person and some residents are more working-class (by certain measures or by self-identification).
  2. A common argument in the postwar suburban boom was that residents of cities would move to the suburbs and become staunch Republicans. This may have been true in some locations, particularly wealthier suburbs. However, the suburbs are now more diverse politically with numerous political battles depending on suburban voters. Suburbs closer to cities now lean toward Democrats while suburbs further out lean toward Republicans. Good numbers of American suburbanites are Democrats.

In other words, suburbs are now often diverse. Long-standing understandings of wealthier and whiter counties, whether Westchester County or DuPage County, might take time to change.

Now that the dandelions are almost gone, how lawn owners of different social classes can set themselves apart

I argued nearly two months ago that how different households treat dandelions in their yard could be a sign of their social class. Now that dandelion season is mostly over in our area, how might homeowners continue to exhibit their social class through their lawns?

  1. Green grass. Significant patches or brown spots are not good signs of a higher social class. This reminds me of celebrities and leaders in California caught with very green lawns even during a severe drought.
  2. The lawn should be cut to a good height regularly and meticulously trimmed. And this should probably done by someone else to indicate a higher social class.
  3. Sprinkler systems, soaker hoses, and elaborate ways to water the grass and plants indicate both caring more about the lawn as well as additional money to pull it off.
  4. Attractive plants, bushes, and trees. Many a real estate listing says yards are “professionally landscaped” but the implication is that more professionalism in this area – presumably related to expertise, thought, and effort – improves the quality of the property. A nice house with a sizable yard that is only the greenest lawn is likely not going to be as desirable as the greenest lawn complemented by other natural features.

Now that I have listed these options, I wonder at what point these different measures must be done in certain neighborhoods and communities. Imagine having a brown lawn in a less desirable neighborhood versus a ritzy one or being the one with a million dollar home who still cuts the lawn and trims the edges on their own. Perhaps there is a baseline of lawn care expected in most American locations and then extra features accrue depending on local practices and social class.

Suburban residential segregation and ongoing effects on voting and prejudice

A long New York TImes op-ed summarizes the findings of the 2017 book The Space Between Us by political scientist Ryan Enos:

Enos then looked at results from 124,034 precincts, almost every precinct in the United States. Again:

“A white voter in the least-segregated metropolitan area was 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than a white voter in the most-segregated area.”…

These voting patterns, according to Enos, reflect what might be called a self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice.

“Prejudice may have helped cause segregation, but then the segregation helped cause even more prejudice.”

In other words, it is not just problematic that people of different racial/ethnic groups and social classes choose to (possible more often for whites and those with more financial resources) or are pushed to live in different places from each other. The residential segregation then has a feedback loop where those differences reinforced by spatial arrangements are perpetuated and perhaps even amplified.

As more of the op-ed explains, simply putting people together (such as suggested by Allport’s contact hypothesis or in the train experiment described in the essay) is not a silver bullet for forging relationships, networks, and reduced prejudices. Even as attitudes toward other groups have improved over time, what would push wealthier whites to sacrifice or put themselves into uncomfortable positions when they do not have to?

Not needing “for sale” signs in wealthy suburbs

The Connecticut suburb of New Canaan is testing banning “for sale” signs:

The “trial ban” on real estate signs will run from July 1 to Jan. 1, according to Janis Hennessy, president of the New Canaan Board of Realtors.

The decision was made by members of the Board as well as the New Canaan Multiple Listing Service, “to further improve our already beautiful town,” Hennessy said in a release…

“Millennials and other potential buyers shop for real estate online and we believe they will be able to find New Canaan homes without these signs. We have seen how eliminating the signs has improved the look of other towns in Fairfield County without impacting the real estate markets. New Canaan Realtors believe it is worth a try here in the ‘Next Station to Heaven’ as well.”

The question of whether to implement a ban, such as a longstanding one in Greenwich, has been battered around New Canaan for some time. Saying the sheer number of ‘For Sale’ signs undermines the town’s attractiveness and ability of some property owners to sell, advocates for the change are cheering the decision.

There are four explanations provided or hinted for why “for sale” signs will not be allowed for six months:

  1. Younger homebuyers do not go driving around looking at homes; they look online.
  2. Other suburbs nearby already have a ban in place. New Canaan needs to keep up.
  3. Not having the signs makes the properties more attractive.
  4. There are too many “for sale” signs.

There may be a single underlying reason behind these explanations: the higher social class of residents in New Canaan. “For sale” signs may be gauche in a community that is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States (with Greenwich also as one of the wealthiest zip codes). Selling and buying property in a wealthy community does not have to be such a public event. The crass exchange of money for property is essential to American life but may be too prosaic to acknowledge in a place where residents could live in a myriad of places. Not making the sale as public (no signs plus pocket listings and listing only in certain places) may just add to the cachet of the community.

In a place where there are no “for sale” signs and where there may be limited community interaction (one of the findings of The Moral Order of a Suburb), there may be few indications that a property has changed hands. The cars in the driveway may change a bit and home repairs may happen here and there but the single-family homes may be more permanent than residents.

Seeing the real America at the ER Saturday at 10 PM and Walmart Sunday at 8 PM

I visited both of these locations in recent weeks and was intrigued to see the mix of people at each. I’ll make a quick case for why these locations could provide as good cross-section of America as any other location:

  1. Limited options. For the emergency room on a Saturday night, there are few other medical options available at that time. If anyone has a medical issue, they will end up here. As for Walmart on Sunday evening, there are limited brick and mortar shopping options and the work week is about to start.
  2. People need medical care and grocery/home items. Both locations have people trying to meet basic human needs. Even as online shopping may allow people to avoid other shoppers and online medical consultations are now available, there are inevitably moments where running out to a store or medical professional is necessary. It is hard to imagine either of these facilities disappearing completely (even if the number of retailers is severely reduced).
  3. Connected to #1 and #2 above, people of differences races, ethnicities, and social classes are at both locations. In many other locations, whether due to residential location, the location of jobs, ill will toward others, or access to resources, not all groups are represented. Sociologist Elijah Anderson wrote a book about such rare urban locations.

While these may not be the best locations in which to conduct research, they could offer insights into typical American life.

Wealthy Americans: “Zip code is who we are”

I would argue this is not just true of “the new American aristocracy“; where people live has a significant impact on their lives.

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children.

On an everyday basis, living in a certain location could affect these aspects of life:

  • social networks and local relationships with different groups of people (race/ethnicity, social class, similar interests)
  • schools
  • access to jobs
  • other local amenities such as community services, recreation, shopping
  • health

Now, the upper class may use their zip code in unique ways. The full paragraph that includes the excerpt at the beginning of the post suggests the zip code becomes a way to keep others out:

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children. It’s also slowly strangling our economy and killing our democracy. It is the brick-and-mortar version of the Gatsby Curve. The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more. The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.

This has been happening for decades in the United States as residents of particular races and ethnicities (primarily whites) and social class (primarily the middle and upper classes) had various mechanisms, now some illegal and others more nebulous (such as exclusionary zoning), to keep those they did not like away from their residences. And this will likely continue for decades more, perhaps particularly for the top 10%.