Power  /  Book Review

The Shame of the Suburbs

How America gave up on housing equality.

The growth of the suburbs, too, is often seen as natural. In the American catechism, it’s a result of the desire to escape the teeming city, to own your own property, to express your individual style in the design of your house and the upkeep of your yard. The wealthy classes were drawn throughout the 1800s to bucolic settings outside the city, in places like New York’s Westchester, and to “streetcar suburbs” like Brookline, near Boston. The ideal was, as the historian and urban planner Lewis Mumford acidly described it, “to be your own unique self; to build your unique house . . . in short, to withdraw like a monk and live like a prince—this was the purpose of the original creators of the suburb.”

The first half of Crabgrass Frontier tells this story. Jackson expands on the idea that “housing is an outward expression of the inner human nature.” He traces the effects of writers and moralists in the mid-1800s who created a “cult of domesticity” as they touted the virtuous benefits of family life in a detached home, with more privacy and isolation than city life allowed. As one preacher told an audience of young women in 1853, “The foundation of our free institutions is our love, as a people, for our homes.”

But more than culture, it was new technologies and municipal initiatives that made suburbanization happen. After the Civil War, the streetcar trolley and commuter rail lines extended the distances workers could reside away from city centers. As cities took control of street development, the city’s residents were subsidizing those who moved to the edges. Municipal governments would then annex the growing areas—as New York did with Brooklyn and the other boroughs. After that came the automobile, and the expansion of highways. By 1950, General Motors had helped eliminate a hundred streetcar operations around the country, replacing them with GM buses. (A federal grand jury found GM had participated in a criminal conspiracy. The fine was $5,000.) Everywhere, there were more and more cars—and roads that were called freeways. “The city is doomed,” Henry Ford had said. “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city.”

The fact that the United States had become the world’s first predominantly suburban nation would hardly have been shocking to readers of the 1980s—by which time more people lived in suburbs than in cities or on farms. Still, Jackson’s book was important for providing a meticulous history of how it happened. Academic reviewers praised Crabgrass Frontier as “the work of a great mind and a great scholar” and “the definitive work” on the suburb’s long evolution. It was hailed as “essential reading for urban geographers.” But it is of lasting importance for another reason. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2014, “about halfway through the book, the bombshells start dropping.” Jackson works his way to the moment the federal government became a driving influence on where people settled—on who would be able to buy that new house with a yard and a garage, and who would be trapped in an urban ghetto. It wasn’t just that people went to the suburbs to find a better life, it was that white people did, enabled by an array of helpful government policies. African Americans and other minorities were not uninterested in obtaining homes and mortgages; the government actively blocked them from doing so.