Quick Review: Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb

I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

“Blue surge in [suburban] Georgia” quote

I talked earlier this week with Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about the primary race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the Atlanta suburbs. Here is part of the story published on Wednesday:

In part seen as a referendum on President Trump, Ossoff’s out-of-the-blue campaign also offers a mirror on how changing suburban values are coming to a head in unexpected ways.

In the past decade especially, Atlanta suburbs like Cobb, Dekalb, and Fulton, parts of which make up the Sixth, have become younger, more diverse, more place-focused, and more urbane than their dad’s suburbs. A values shift toward walkability and sustainability is creating opportunities for moderates like Ossoff who respect suburban traditions while also seeking not to exclude people by race or wealth…

The new suburban appeal resonates not just for younger Americans in search of authentic experiences, but older ones as well, ranging from empty nesters who want a more urban lifestyle without having to move to the city to Gen X divorcees who are trying to juggle jobs, social lives, and two households without being stuck in Atlanta traffic all day.

“The suburbs are not just composed of wealthy conservatives, even though such communities do exist,” says Brian Miller, a Wheaton College, Ill., sociologist who studies the suburbs. The difference is that “there are now a variety of populations with a variety of concerns.” That means “local and national elections may [now] depend on reaching voters in middle suburbs who might go either way depending on the candidates, economic conditions [and] quality of life concerns.”

I’ll add a bit more since this touches on one areas of my research: from the outside, suburbs may look all the same. The physical pieces may be similar (different configurations of subdivisions, roads, big box stores and fast food establishments, etc.) and there are presumed to be similar values (middle-class homeowners who fiercely protect local interests such as property values). Yet, if you spend time in suburban areas, you find that communities can differ quite a bit even if they all fit under the umbrella term “suburb.” Depending on the demographics of particular communities (and suburbs are increasingly non-white as well as have more poor residents) as well as unique histories (which are influenced by the date of founding, distance from the big city, and actions of past and current leaders), suburbs can be quite different and have their own character.

So trying to understand voting patterns in suburbs can be complicated. Suburbs closer to big cities tend to lean Democratic and those at the metropolitan edges lean Republican. In the middle, voters can be swayed and are less predictable – indeed, they may be the real swing states for politicians to fight over. This map of the primary results in the New York Times supports these earlier findings: there are different clusters of support for the various candidates throughout the suburban district.

Naperville as a center for suburban protests

Several hundred people gathered in Naperville Saturday to demand PResident Trump release his tax returns:

The sidewalks of downtown Naperville were filled with hundreds of marchers Saturday, many waving signs and chanting “release your taxes” in a Tax Day rally that gathered at the Riverwalk’s Free Speech Pavilion…

Foster said the Naperville protest was one of 180 Tax Day Marches held across the United States and in four other countries to demand Trump make his returns available to the public…

Both organizers and Foster said they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout, estimated to be between 300 and 600 people. Stava-Murray said the group initially requested a permit to hold the rally at the larger Grand Pavilion and to march along the Riverwalk, but the Naperville Park District rejected the requests, citing a rule prohibiting protests at both locations. She said the American Civil Liberties Union is looking into challenging the district’s rule as unconstitutional.

As a result, they rerouted the march to public sidewalks – east on Jackson Avenue, south on Main Street, west on Aurora Avenue and north on Eagle Street. Police stationed along the route confirmed the marchers were following guidelines worked out with the city for a peaceful protest.

Suburbs, particularly wealthier are more conservative ones like Naperville, are not usually known for their political rallies and marches. Yet, Naperville has had its share of political activity in recent years including an Occupy Naperville group in 2011 and a Trayvon Martin march in 2012. Why is Naperville a place for such activity? Some possible reasons:

  1. The city is the second largest suburb in the Chicago region behind Aurora. This means there are both a lot of residents who could be mobilized and a variety of viewpoints.
  2. Naperville may have a reputation as a business-friendly conservative community but it has more Democratic voters than before.
  3. Naperville has a highly educated population.
  4. It has a vibrant downtown where any sort of political activity could be viewed by a lot of people.
  5. DuPage County lacks other good protest sites. Other communities are smaller and sleepier. Could a march in Oak Brook draw the same amount of attention?

It will be interesting to see if (1) such activity continues and (2) how the city might respond to where activists can march.

Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

Call for Chicago to annex nearby suburbs

Amidst population loss and persistent social issues, could Chicago improve its situation by annexing suburbs?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago expanded aggressively, luring in the formerly independent entities of Lake View, Jefferson Park, Hyde Park and Pullman with the promise of city services such as sewers and electricity. But except for the addition of O’Hare, that movement ended in 1930. By the post-World War II era of suburbanization, Chicago was boxed in by established villages that marketed themselves as escapes from filthy, crowded city living.

By contrast, Houston has used annexation-friendly state laws to inflate itself to three times Chicago’s geographic size over the past 70 years.

“Houston and other Sun Belt cities are really different than Eastern cities, in that many of them have never been surrounded by municipalities,” says Kyle Shelton of Rice University‘s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Annexations were easier for them to pursue because they didn’t have anyone to fight.” As a result, seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities are in the Sun Belt. Toronto used a similar process to leap past Chicago in population, amalgamating with five neighboring suburbs. Miami, Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis have all merged with their surrounding counties…

But just because something makes sense financially doesn’t mean it’s easy to make happen. Politics and civic pride are two obstacles: In Illinois, annexation requires a referendum in both the annexing city and the targeted community. Village residents and trustees are reluctant to give up power and patronage. Consider the story of East Cleveland, a bankrupt Ohio suburb whose mayor was recalled after proposing annexation to Cleveland.

This may not make sense for those calling to contract cities (Detroit as one example) but annexation may make sense at a metropolitan level. David Rusk writes about this in Cities Without Suburbs: cities that are more “elastic” (have expanded through annexations since the early 1900s) have lower levels of inequality as cities have been able to capture many of the benefits of suburban life (wealthier residents, property tax monies, etc.). Cities that have been able to merge governments – whether through annexation or joining city and county governments (such as in Indianapolis) – have experienced benefits.

At the same time, this call for Chicago to annex suburbs doesn’t say much about how this would benefit the suburbs. Even as inner-ring suburbs have experienced many of the same problems facing big cities, would the residents and leaders want to join with the big city next door? I doubt it.

 

Explaining why suburban voters are seeing fewer contested local gov’t races

Compared to previous years, suburban voters going to the polls together will have fewer choices:

Barely 30 percent of the hundreds of races being decided Tuesday are contested, according to a Daily Herald analysis. That’s down from about 45 percent of races that were contested in local elections eight years ago…

Experts believe there are many reasons fewer people are running for local offices, from the cost of campaigns to the incivility of social media. The effect is voters more frequently must settle for someone who is merely willing to serve rather than choosing the best candidates from among a field of contenders…

The exodus from local candidacy in part is a result of growing personal and professional demands for many people, making time to attend board meetings scarce, experts said.

The downside of public service also dissuades some potential candidates, they added.

Given all that we have heard in recent years about dissatisfaction among the electorate, it is interesting that this doesn’t appear to translate into wanting to get into politics to change things. Shouldn’t the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or Trump supports have flooded local elections with an interest in changing government and society?

When you talk to local officials, they often tell of getting into politics to address practical local issues – these are not often ideologues with grand ambitions. (Thus, it is unusual when a local politician gets involved with national politics such as the recent story in the New York Times of the Bolingbrook mayor and Donald Trump.) Is it simply easier to be angry with government and the disavow any need to participate? (And don’t forget that voting in local elections is often quite low.)