I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:
- I was drawn to this because even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, there is a lack of in-depth studies of their experiences and social lives. I realize it is not a sexy topic – everyone thinks they know everything about suburbs – but there are plenty of interesting topics to pursue.
- The book is a little unusual in that it seems to be published a good amount of time after the research was done. Heiman undertook the research for her dissertation but the book was not published until 2015. This is not necessarily bad as time can give a researcher an opportunity to truly think about what they have found. At the same time, Heiman interprets some of her findings in light of the housing bubble and economic crisis of the late 2000s even though her research was from an earlier period.
- The best part of the analysis in my opinion was the chapter on a battle in the local school district. The New Jersey residents were part of a district that included a number of communities and when the district had to decide how to spread resources and which schools students should attend, the communities fought each other. In particular, the wealthier parts of the district generally did not want their children to have to attend the other schools which either had populations of lower-class or minority residents. Another chapter looked at how a community negotiated a request from a homeowner to place a gate across his driveway, a move interpreted by his neighbors and local leaders as an exclusionary effort. At other points, Heiman noted how residents reacted when she mentioned that she was living in a more affordable but less well regarded nearby suburb. More broadly, the analysis was better when it pointed out inter-suburban differences and how suburbanites negotiated their various statuses.
- The overall argument was that these suburbanites are trapped in a destabilizing neoliberal system. While this argument makes sense, I’m not sure it is too much different than critiques of suburbia dating back to the mid-1950s. Some of the same themes are present: conformity, squabbles over local class differences rather than looking at the larger social and economic system, anxiety, an emphasis on children, etc. While there are not enough studies of suburbs, we also need new approaches and arguments. And, there is still a basic question for studies of suburbs to consider: if life is so problematic in suburbs, why do many Americans still seek them out? If they are not dupes and have agency, what are viable alternatives to sprawling suburbs that offer what many Americans say they want?
- One topic I would have enjoyed reading more about: experiences inside housing. There is a chapter that takes an unconventional approach to this topic through examining the portions of homes with new carpet that is intended to impress visitors (and that children must not walk on with shoes).
In the end, I’m not sure this text would make my short list of excellent ethnographies of suburban life. At the same time, it has some strong moments and I could imagine using the chapter on school districts in courses.
Here is an overview of the Fair Housing Act which was passed in 1968. An excerpt from my favorite section of the guide:
Did it work?
While the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal in practice, in reality, significant degrees of segregation still exist across much of the country. According to a 2012 study by the American Constitution Society, “fair housing in the United States remains a pressing civil rights issue.”
Despite the passage of the law, a generation of politicians from both parties have failed to fully enforce the law, as documented in a lengthy ProPublica series. There are also significant social and economic costs to continued segregation: A recent study showed that Chicago segregation costs residents $4.4 billion every year in potential earnings.
The Obama administration made a handful of moves in its final years to address this historic inequality. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, introduced in 2015, asks cities to do more to protect the non-discrimination policies enshrined in the Fair Housing Act.
In other words, the move to make illegal housing discrimination has not exactly led to the end of residential segregation. The guide suggests earlier that “the act is meant to create a unitary housing market, where only your financial resources, not your background, can prevent you from renting or purchasing a home.” However, because financial resources are so closely tied to other dimensions of social groups – including race and gender – we wouldn’t exactly have a level playing field even if there was no discrimination at all present.
On one hand, we might think that this 1968 legislation was a big step forward. It is one thing to acknowledge equal rights for a certain group but another to allow the possibility that they might live next door. On the other hand, I’m not sure there has been much advancement beyond this act and there is very little current discussion about seeing housing as a right or even seriously addressing a lack of affordable housing.
An interesting article about intentional communities includes this insight into why they might not be available to everyone:
To truly get away from big government, big society, and capitalism, it really helps to be pretty well off. This is one of the disadvantages of being powerless: you are at the mercy of others rather than having options.
And perhaps these communities are not as immune from worldly flaws as they might like. For example: Many of them struggle to be accessible to people other than middle-class white folks. Sky Blue, a Twin Oaks resident who also serves as the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there are “a lot of racial [problems] and racism that are embedded in intentional communities.” Even despite good intentions, “Liberal white people who have a desire for diversity don’t necessarily understand what it means to be inclusive,” he said. “They’re going to create culture in [their] intentional community that is going to be comfortable for them, which isn’t necessarily comfortable for people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay or trans.” Ethan Tupelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who lived at Twin Oaks before he began studying intentional communities academically, said residents talked about this issue a lot when he was there. “It’s a bunch of white people sitting around wondering where all the people of color are,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re thinking about that, but it’s also frustrating.”
Tupelo sees a structural explanation for the inaccessibility of intentional communities: It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid. “Even when starting a new community, you need the capital to do it in the first place if you want it to be a legally recognized thing, as opposed to squats,” he said. As Nicolas and Rachel Sarah’s experience at the Downstream Project shows, becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.
This reminds me of some of the attention I see given to tiny houses: it seems like many of those interested are not working-class people struggling to get by who need affordable housing but rather educated white people who want to minimize some distractions in life and focus on what they really want to do (pay attention to family, travel, etc.). Or, those interested in minimalism: they appear to be middle and upper-class people who are seeking a new way of living because of unhappiness with the “typical” American/Western consumeristic lifestyle.
How about a foundation starts giving away money and resources to those who don’t have their own means to form intentional communities?
One blogger connects the case of Brock Turner to the suburban house to which he returned:
I googled the address. I don’t know why I did that– morbid curiosity always gets the better of me. I clicked the satellite image and squinted at the blurry photo of a roof. It’s just an ordinary upper-class McMansion, one of many, on a spastic squiggle of a street in the middle of a wealthy suburban development. The kind of place where people can have every luxury they want, unless what they want isn’t kitsch. True luxury that isn’t kitsch is reserved for the richer still, the astonishingly wealthy whose sons would not go to trial at all for rape– not for the Suburban-McMansion Rich whose sons serve three months if the press is bad enough.
A suburban McMansion fits the story a number of people have told regarding Turner’s actions and subsequent treatment by the criminal justice system. McMansion owners are typically white suburban people with money – not really rich, as this post suggests, but rich enough to expect others to be impressed with their standing (and home). In this narrative, the McMansion signals their posture to the world: we aren’t bad people and should be treated with respect.
It is tempting to link a house to a narrative in this way. On the other hand, what if Turner had returned to a more modest 1950s suburban ranch? Would we then see a connection to white conformity? Or, how about a early 20th century suburban bungalow that hints at the fastidious nature of whites who want to preserve some golden era? Or, would a pricey downtown condo conjure up images of high-flying urban nightlife? Since Turner is an unlikable figure to many, I suspect detractors could find all sorts of evidence from the consumer goods in his life – clothes, appearance, vehicle, shopping patterns, and home – to illustrate their dislike. Some of these objects may indeed be connected to white, middle/upper-middle class suburbanites.
This is the not the first time McMansions have been linked to immorality and crime. See, for example, the suggestions in Gone Girl. And such narratives have a much longer history in novels, films, and TV shows that in the postwar era loved to peel back the facade of suburban life to find its truly seemly underbelly. Whether such links and depictions are connected to demonstrable patterns of morality and criminality is another story…
A new study shows widening residential segregation by social class:
More than one-third of families in large metropolitan areas now live in neighborhoods of concentrated affluence or concentrated poverty, and middle-class neighborhoods have become less common, according to new research by a Cornell sociologist and her colleague. The effect on children could be critical, they say.
Kendra Bischoff, Cornell assistant professor of sociology, and Sean Reardon of Stanford University found that the percentage of families living in very rich neighborhoods more than doubled, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent, between 1970 and 2012. At the same time, the percentage of families in traditional middle-income neighborhoods fell from 65 percent to 41 percent…
Moreover, the rate of income segregation has accelerated in recent years, Bischoff said. From 2007 to 2012 – the period that spanned the Great Recession and the early years of recovery – income segregation grew by 3.2 percentage points in just five years, compared to growth of approximately 4.5 percentage points in each decade since 1970.
Creating and sustaining mixed-income neighborhoods is difficult. If neighborhoods are desirable, they can attract more buyers which can drive up prices. Once neighborhoods have a certain level of wealth, they are often reluctant to allow cheaper housing. On the other end, poor neighborhoods don’t tend to attract middle-class or upper-class residents – unless there is major redevelopment and poorer residents are moved out (ranging from urban renewal projects after World War II to gentrification today).
The authors emphasize the impact this can have on children:
These trends may be particularly damaging for children, Bischoff says. When the affluent live in isolation, it concentrates not only income and wealth in a small number of communities. It also concentrates social capital and political power, Bischoff said, such as the amount of time parents have to spend at the neighborhood school, the amount of green space or number of libraries in the neighborhood or the know-how and resources to organize political action.
Since the Coleman Report of the 1960s, we’ve known that having poorer kids in schools with wealthier kids is helpful for their development. However, increasing segregation by social class makes this even more difficult.
Certain people – not everyone – are moving to American cities:
Americans aren’t moving back to the cities. Just 20- and 30-somethings.
But actually, not all 20- and 30-somethings are moving back to the cities. Only those with a four-year college degree and incomes in the top 40 percent are.
And not even all 20- and 30-somethings with a four-year college degree and incomes in the top 40 percent are moving back into cities. Mostly the ones without school-age kids are.
And if you thought that was it, it turns out that not all 20- and 30-somethings with a four-year college degree in the top 40 percent of income without school-age children are moving back into cities. It’s mostly just the ones that are white.
And does this group receive disproportionate attention from (1) city leaders who want a new generation of wealthy city residents and (2) the media who may identify well with these particular demographics? If the people moving to cities did not share these traits (such as immigrants), would they get as much attention?
Thompson also suggests geographic segregation by class: the wealthiest clustering in the densest cities with everyone else setting for suburbia. It has been this way for a while…
Mary Schmich tells the story of Winnetka’s sole Section 8 resident:
In a Chicago suburb where million-dollar homes are common and the median household income exceeds $200,000, Miranda held a rare distinction for a while: He was the only person in town with a Section 8 housing choice voucher.
With his large belly and his mustache, his T-shirt and his jeans, he was a notable presence in the village. He liked to be out and about — staying inside depressed him — and his subsidized one-bedroom apartment on Elm Street put him in the heart of Winnetka’s action, meaning close to the Metra station, a bookstore, a Peet’s, a Starbucks, restaurants and boutiques, most of which he couldn’t afford.
He was often spotted with a big coffee cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other, maybe sitting on a park bench. He liked going to the library and, in the summer, relaxing by the lake…
Having a stable home of his own in a tranquil place offered him some peace that life otherwise denied him.
As much as residential segregation by race and ethnicity is present in the suburbs, this highlights another aspect: segregation by social class. According to the Census, Winnetka has over 12,000 residents, is very white – 94.8%, and also very wealthy – a median household income of over $207,000 and a median value of owner-occupied housing units of $941,800. How much affordable housing is available in places like Winnetka? Previous efforts to introduce the idea have met resistance. Does having any Section 8 residents threaten property values or the community’s image? Suburban residents don’t have to actively oppose such plans to provide space for poorer residents; their zoning and comprehensive plans can make their thoughts pretty clear. Would their opinions change if they met a person like Thomas Miranda? Maybe, but no matter how much they might like him as an individual, too many such residents of a certain status would not be good.