Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring may have emphasized nature but according to Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in the Twentieth Century, the suburbs played an important role:

As global a vision as one might concoct, Silent Spring nevertheless had its firmest roots in suburban locales. The letter sparking Carsons’s commitment to write the book came from a woman in suburban Boston who had watched a DDT spraying decimate the birds in her own and her neighbors’ yards. Carson also drew heavily on the 1957 anti-DDT lawsuit on Long Island. Her research began with the trial transcript, and Marjorie Spock, leader of the lawsuit, then became Carson’s “chief clipping service.” The web of experts Spock had brought in to testify at the trial served as Carson’s own. They and others on whom Carson most relied lived and worked in suburbs, including Dr. Morton Biskind of Westport, Connecticut, and Wilhelm Hueper, at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Even Carson herself was, arguable, a suburbanite: though she loved her spot on the Maine coast, she spent most of the year in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the edge of Washington, D.C.

Silent Spring reached out to suburban readers in a host of ways, both subtle and overt. Ignoring cities, limiting her invocations of the urban to “a small town in the heart of America,” Carson flattered the conceit of the suburban better-off that their homes were not in any “suburbia,” that they led essentially nonurban lives. Factories also feel into the shadowy backdrop: quick-striking maladies and death among workers appeared only briefly and in passing. Dwelling at much great length on cancer and other chronic ailments, more likely to trouble a suburban readership, she studiously avoided mention of infectious diseases, whose absence suburb dwellers of this period, at least in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles tended to take for granted. On shifting from dangers to human health to threats to wildlife, Carson explicitly summoned the self-interest of the “suburbanite.” For the “suburbanite who derives pleasure from birds in his garden,” she wrote, “anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of a pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.” (256-257)

These two paragraphs remind me of several aspects of American suburbs:

  1. Given that more Americans lived in suburbs than cities by the early 1960s, does this simply reflect the movement of Americans in large numbers to suburbs?
  2. Could the wealth of suburbia – the ability to own a home, have a middle-class or higher lifestyle – provide more resources to pursue causes like environmentalism compared to being concerned with subsistence in other settings?
  3. From the beginning of American suburbs, they were touted as spaces close to nature. This argument was primarily made in comparison to cities which by the late 1800s were viewed as dirty and overcrowded. (Of course, the nature of suburbia has always been carefully shaped by humans rather than being untamed nature.)

More broadly, nature and the environment likely looks different from the suburbs than from urban or rural settings. If Sellers is correct in his argument about Silent Spring‘s suburban roots, perhaps it should be more widely read with the suburban context in mind.

From suburban to downtown growth in Aurora, Illinois

The suburb of Aurora grew tremendously in recent decades but now has little new land. Thus, to grow it must build up or become denser:

Today, the city’s once-booming growth has slowed to a crawl, census estimates show. Officials say there is room for growth, but that growth will look different.

There’s little room for more subdivisions to sprout across the community as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the focus will be on downtown and the city’s train line, building up, not out, said Stephane Phifer, a longtime Aurora city planner who now works with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning…

As growth slows, the city has an opportunity to focus on redevelopment of downtown and working with the city’s neighborhoods, Nelson said. Downtown is the “new frontier” for development, he said.

Interest is building in downtown Aurora, Nelson said. The area is developing its own identity, largely centered around the arts.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. A shift from such explosive growth – the population doubling in two decades – to less growth can be quite drastic. A community gets used to the new subdivisions, the new city employees needed to provide local services, the changes to local school districts, and other social impacts.
  2. The assumption in this article is that growth is good. This is a common sentiment across American communities. What if Aurora stayed at roughly the same population – would it automatically be a failure?
  3. Aurora is not the only Chicago area suburb facing this issue. For example, neighboring Naperville has been considering this shift in growth for at least a few years. Numerous suburbs closer to the city have had this issue for decades. Few Chicago suburbs have the potential to truly become huge suburbs – imagine Aurora at 300,000 residents with a really dense and interesting downtown along the Fox River. But, to do so will mean competing with other suburbs for residents, entertainment options, and amenities.

All together, this could be a significant turning point in the history of Aurora as a community. Will it pursue downtown and denser development in the same way it pursued suburban growth in the last few decades? Will it focus on quality rather than quantity?

Bill O’Reilly, growing up in Levittown, and experiences with race

While doing some research on suburbs and race, I ran into a 2014 exchange between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly about the latter growing up in Levittown, New York:

Of Levittown, Stewart riffed, “It gave you a nice stable, a cheap home — there was no down payments. It was this incredible opportunity … Those houses were subsidized … It wasn’t lavish,” said Stewart.

The back-and-forth that followed is essential to understanding the Fox News celebrity:

O’Reilly: No, they weren’t subsidized. They were sold to GIs, and the GIs got a mortgage they could afford.

Stewart: Did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?

O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on people.

Stewart: Could black people live in Levittown?

O’Reilly: Not in that time — they could not.

Stewart: So that, my friend, is what we call in the business “white privilege.”

O’Reilly: That was in 1950, all right.

Stewart: Were there black people living there in 1960?

O’Reilly: In Levittown? I don’t know.

Stewart: There weren’t.

O’Reilly: How do you know?

Stewart: Because I read up on it.

O’Reilly: Oh, you read up! You don’t know that. I can find somebody…Why would you want to live there? It’s a nice place, but it’s not a place like … Bel Air, come on!

The paradigmatic suburb of the post-World War II era did not allow blacks in the community for years. This influenced thousands of residents in Levittown, thousands of black residents who instead had to move to other suburbs, and many more who lived in similar suburbs across the country that had similar exclusions.

While the conversation above is about Bill O’Reilly, it hints at a broader connection that many would like to make: growing up in a more diverse community in terms of race and ethnicity (less is made here of social class) will lead to more tolerance and acceptance of difference for those same adults. Because O’Reilly lived in a white community at a critical age, he had fewer opportunities to engage people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and develop relationships and understanding.

Even if the stereotype of the white and wealthy suburb continues (and for some good reasons), suburbs today are less homogeneous and this can lead to a variety of experiences.

Lakewood, CA caught between suburban housing or job choices

A profile of Lakewood, California, a paradigmatic postwar suburb, suggests the community is no longer home to numerous suburban dreams:

So they settled in Lakewood, among the rows of modest little ranch-style houses, repeated in one of 20 or so iterations, interspersed with shopping centers, parks and schools. It’s a landscape that today appears completely unremarkable, but half a century ago embodied a powerful vision of the good life in California…

“The promise of Lakewood was enough of the good things of an everyday life — a simple house, a yard, infrastructure of schools and churches and shopping centers,” said D.J. Waldie, an author and former city historian who wrote the book, “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in Lakewood from the 1950s, when the subdivision exploded out of lima bean fields into a suburb of 70,000…

Those solid middle-class jobs nearby have shipped out. To afford to buy a home here, a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov — spending more of their day in ever-worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching Little League or exploring the wonders of California.

The promise of places like Lakewood has been carved down into little pieces with Californians forced to pick between them: choose the house or choose the nearby job, but seldom both.

The issue discussed in the article is a common one: the locations of jobs and affordable or even somewhat affordable housing are not necessarily close. Many metropolitan regions do not have the infrastructure to provide options besides driving for the important suburb to suburb trips that make up the largest segment of trips. And to some degree, these locations can change. When Lakewood was developed, how many people predicted the true multinucleated nature of the Los Angeles region?

Certainly, more affordable housing is needed. At the same time, is there hope of spreading out good jobs or introducing new jobs in more residential communities? The typical bedroom suburb does not have to remain as such.

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.

Living the suburban teenage life through local Twitter

In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans said the suburban community was “endsville” for teenagers. But, suburban teenagers today can take to Twitter:

A decade ago, if you were a bored teen looking to post about suburban life, relationship problems, Starbucks, or fleeting thoughts like, “The holidays are approaching and being single sucksssss lol,” you might turn to Facebook. But of course, today’s teens don’t use Facebook. Instead, they take their most #relatable thoughts to Twitter, often racking up hundreds of thousands of retweets and faves in the process.

Twitter is full of tribes: gay Twitter, stan Twitter, politics Twitter, media Twitter, weird Twitter. The mostly white, well-adjusted suburban teens who share stale platitudes of the kind that some internet users might call “basic” are part of a tribe known as local Twitter.

Though most users do mainly follow people from their hometowns, local Twitter has more to do with what you tweet than where you live. The typical local Twitter user is a teen who is “in their own bubble of simple life pleasures and desires,” doesn’t live their entire life online, “and uses Twitter to connect to their real-life friends like they used to do on Facebook,” explains Raeequaza, a 22-year-old in New York…

Local Twitter teens are townie-like in the sense that their world mostly revolves around life in their hometown, though most will probably grow up and eventually leave for college. Some older local Twitter users might actually be townies, but the majority of local Twitter—particularly the part that has the power to make local tweets go viral—is made up of teens.

The ongoing plight of American teenagers in suburbia continues: they feel cut off from the exciting outside world, the suburbs are dull and do not feature spaces for teenagers, the suburbs represent conformity and middle-of-the-road values, and daily life revolves around school and family. Compared to Gans’ time where being able to drive represented freedom for teenagers, now teenagers can escape the suburbs (or live the ironic suburban life) through Internet and social media connections that theoretically can connect them to any person or place in the world.

Two additional quick thoughts:

  1. How many of these local Twitter users will end up living in suburbs as adults?
  2. Are the local Twitter users more perceptive about their local surroundings or are they just willing to tweet about their observations?

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.