A miniature suburban street at dusk.
Steve Bronstein/Getty

We all know the stereotypes: Suburbia is dull, conformist, and about “keeping up with the Joneses.” But what about the suburbs of utopians and renegades?

The following is an excerpt adapted from the new book Radical Suburbs (Belt Publishing, $16.95).


Back in the early 1960s, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “Little Boxes,” inspired by a drive past rows of lookalike pastel-hued houses in a new suburban housing tract in the Bay Area. (Her friend Pete Seeger had a hit with the song in 1963.) Reynolds saw the cookie-cutter houses as both symbols and shapers of the conformist mindset of the people who lived in them—doctors and lawyers who aspired to nothing more than playing golf and raising children who would one day inhabit “ticky-tacky” boxes of their own.

But Reynolds was wrong about who lived in this suburb, Daly City, just south of San Francisco. It was not originally home to the martini-chuffing doctors and lawyers she imagined, but to working-class and lower-middle-class (white) strivers who were the last group to get in on the postwar housing boom.

Then, only a few years after Reynolds wrote the song, Filipinos and other immigrants from Asia began arriving in Daly City. The “ticky-tacky” architecture that Reynolds scorned proved amenable to them remodeling and expanding homes for extended families, and Daly City became the “Pinoy capital” of the U.S., with the highest concentration of immigrants from the Philippines in America.

Clichés and misconceptions still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity. My suburban experience is riding the bus as people chat around me in Spanish and French Creole. It’s having neighbors who hail from Tibet, Brazil, and Kenya as well as Cincinnati. It’s my son attending a school that reflects the diversity—and stubborn inequality—of America today.

(Belt Publishing)

The basic story of the suburbs that most Americans know goes something like this: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, country retreats for the wealthy and “streetcar suburbs” popped up on the outskirts of cities. Then, after World War II, new roads and cheap government mortgages drew millions of people—white people, that is—from apartments and rowhouses in the city to freshly graded suburban subdivisions. Many of them were fleeing neighborhoods and schools that African Americans had recently moved into, the destructive phenomenon known as white flight.

Suburbia was where these white, middle-class Americans could isolate themselves from perceived urban ills, in a static and regulated environment where private space, property ownership, racial homogeneity, and the nuclear family were the dominant values.

This isn’t untrue—but it’s far from complete. Radical Suburbs is about waves of idealists who established alternative suburbs outside of Eastern U.S. cities, beginning in the 1820s and continuing through the 1960s. These groups had very different backgrounds and motivations, but all of them believed in the power of the local community to shape moral and social values, and in the freedom provided by outskirts land to live and build in new ways.

As opposed to the groups who went far into America’s interior to settle isolated communes, these were, in a paradoxical-sounding phrase, practical utopians. Staying close to the city let them try out new ways of living with a financial lifeline and emergency exit. Now, at a time when—it could reasonably be argued—the future of the country hangs on what suburbs do over the next 20 or 30 years, their history shows that bold social and architectural experimentation is not alien to suburbia. In fact, it’s a suburban tradition.

***

The suburb is not an American or even Western invention. Suburbs have been around as long as cities have. In the third millennium BCE, the suburbs of Ur stretched miles beyond the city. In ancient Rome, the urban outskirts were where the nobility kept “country” retreats. But this zone was also where the Romans pushed what they didn’t want to see, hear, or smell—noxious industries like tanning and brickmaking, for instance.

Even in the Middle Ages, city walls were not the hard boundaries they seemed to be. Suburban zones spilled out beyond them, and people and goods moved back and forth. “[W]alled medieval cities in Europe and elsewhere enlarged their walled areas several times to accommodate their fringe belts and to prepare for future expansion,” writes the urban scholar Shlomo Angel. Prostitutes, gypsies, and lepers were often consigned to live sub urbs, literally “below the city.” The very term implies the height of the protective wall and the uncertain status of those outside its embrace.

The American suburb dates back much further than European colonization. Near St. Louis, archaeologists recently found the remains of a 900-year-old suburb of Cahokia, once the largest Native American city north of Mexico. (The site of the ancient suburb is in the modern town of East St. Louis, Illinois, “halfway between a crumbling meat packing plant and a now-closed strip club,” as NPR reported.)

Boston, New York, and Philadelphia all had suburbs before the Revolutionary War. As was (and still is) the case in Europe, they were mostly for lower socioeconomic groups. The elite stuck to the city center. But the mid-19th century saw the founding of the first suburbs we would easily recognize as such—pastoral upper- and middle-class enclaves including Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside, Illinois, and Llewellyn Park in New Jersey. Not coincidentally, this period also saw the rise of a cult of domesticity that promoted the housewife as “the angel in the house,” and the freestanding suburban villa, located a safe distance from urban grime and vice, as the ideal American family residence.

A Currier & Ives lithograph of idealized upper-middle-class family life. (Library of Congress)

Well-to-do suburbs that blossomed around American cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the leafy realms of Anglo-Saxon families living in elegant Queen Anne and Tudor Revival houses, such as Kansas City’s Country Club District, Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, and Beverly Hills, California. Industrial and most commercial activities were often banished from these suburbs, and blacks and Jews were prohibited from purchasing homes by restrictive covenants.

However, even in their heyday, elite enclaves weren’t the norm on the urban periphery. Agriculture still thrived there, often practiced by foreign-born and non-white farmers, while factories encroached. Shantytowns dotted the city’s rim, as did no-frills developments in which people built houses on raw lots, dug wells, kept chickens and cows, and grew vegetables. In his book Places of Their Own, historian Andrew Wiese recounts the history of Chagrin Falls Park, a self-built black suburb of Cleveland, which grew to have hundreds of residents, four churches, an elementary school, and a community center.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, communes, colonies, and other intentional settlements kept popping up near cities, too. Among many examples from the early and mid-1800s, a celibate, German-speaking religious sect called the Harmonists built a handsome and prosperous town called Economy, in what is now Ambridge, Pennsylvania, in the 1820s. Proximity to the Pittsburgh market was important for their manufactures and the tourist trade (the town had a hotel and even a museum, one of the first in the U.S.).

The Harmonists kept no private property, holding all goods in common, and the town’s architecture reflected this, with infrastructure like shared bread ovens and a community kitchen for preparing holiday feasts. Unrelated adults sometimes lived together, not unlike in a modern group house. Friedrich Engels wrote admiringly of the Harmonist social system—minus the religion. The sect gradually dwindled in number and finally dissolved in 1905.

Ten years later, in 1915, a loose band of anarchists and socialists boarded a train in New York and disembarked in central New Jersey, where they set up a colony and progressive school—and evaded police scrutiny back in the city. When they flew the red flag from the water tower, locals climbed up and tore it down. But they were more or less left alone, and the Stelton colony lasted, through the Great Depression and much political infighting, into the 1950s.

Some of its residents commuted into New York, boarding a 5:45 a.m. train to get to their jobs in the Garment District or to sell eggs from the chickens they raised. Many of them lived in basic two- or three-room cottages. They were tiny-house dwellers long before it was a fad—not out of a yen for minimalism, but because that was all they could afford. Renting out any spare rooms to boarders was a common way to supplement incomes. As anarchism waned as a political movement, some colonists trickled away, and the opening of a large Army base nearby when the U.S. entered World War II hastened Stelton’s demise.

A child plays a violin in front of a cottage at the Stelton colony in New Jersey. Some middle-class visitors to the colony were shocked by the crude buildings and infrastructure, but the residents, mostly working-class anarchists and socialists, were able to purchase lots and build homes here despite having little money. (Special Collections and University Archives, Rutger University Libraries)

After the war, private homebuilders—armed with techniques of mass production and boosted by government policies—stamped their “little boxes” across thousands of square miles of suburbia. But there were alternatives and challenges to the new tract suburbs.

For example, one unusual homebuilder named Morris Milgram contested the white supremacy of Levittown almost in its back yard. A former socialist activist, Milgram opened an integrated subdivision of 140 houses called Concord Park in 1954. It was just northeast of Philadelphia, and a few miles away from Levittown, Pennsylvania. Homebuyers included several interracial couples, a few communists, and many nonconformists. Their children played together, while their parents formed a babysitting co-op and bowling, photography, and sewing clubs—just like the residents of any other new suburb.

“SUBURB BREAKS RACIAL BARRIER,” announced a headline in the New York Times. “New Private Housing Project at Philadelphia Integrates Negroes and Whites – NO INCIDENTS OCCUR – Not a Family Has Moved From Colony That Ideals and Tenacity Built.”

A monthly neighborhood meeting at Concord Park in 1957, as portrayed in Ebony magazine. (Morris Milgram papers [Coll. 2176], Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Concord Park was close enough to Levittown that in 1957, when Daisy and William Myers, Levittown’s first black residents, were being harassed by an angry mob, the neighborhood dispatched an interracial group to walk over and stand guard over their house.

***

Even in its counter-cultural variations, the postwar suburb was planned around stay-at-home Mom, Dad, and little Jack and Sally. America now has more single people, one-parent families, and multigenerational clans than nuclear families with young children. Millennials, with anemic wages and lots of student-loan debt, often can’t afford the suburban split-levels they grew up in. And many of them wouldn’t want to buy them if they could, anyway.

It’s the stuff of countless trend pieces, but Millennials really do have a preference for urban living. Polls show they value being able to walk to shops and restaurants and having short commutes. Young adults also report being happier in cities than previous generations did at the same stage in life.

We could be in the middle of the “Great Inversion,” as the writer Alan Ehrenhalt terms it: a national shift from the postwar pattern of wealthy suburbs and poor city, back to the historic norm of elite city and downmarket suburbs. Even if we aren’t, though, rising social inequality and demographic shifts—and above all climate change—make it imperative to rethink who and what our suburbs are for.

Already, some suburban jurisdictions are adapting to new realities, transforming themselves into “urban ’burbs” with pedestrian downtowns, light-rail lines, and denser forms of housing. This conscious urbanization is savvy in terms of meeting younger people’s preferences. But it’s also the only responsible course. The October 2018 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have only a short window of time—until the year 2030—to bring down emissions enough to avoid catastrophic warming, and doing so will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

Research shows that sprawl-style land use increases greenhouse-gas emissions by decentralizing jobs and services and prompting us to drive more. People who drive everywhere are also less active and therefore more liable to chronic conditions such as diabetes. Suburbs, like cities, need many more neighborhoods where residents can meet daily needs on foot; streets that give priority to walkers, cyclists, and light rail and buses over cars; and high-quality public spaces. Retrofitting suburbia, to quote Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, who wrote a book with that title, is “the big project for this century.”

Children play in a fountain in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. (Jose Luis Magana/Reuters)  

Unfortunately, the suburbs carry a stigma among the very people who could improve them: architects. The design elite has alternately patronized or inveighed against suburbia for years, ever since the International Congress of Modern Architecture called the suburb “a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city” in 1933.

“The suburb hates itself,” claims the Belgian architect Léon Krier, known for his polemical writings and cartoons in praise of traditional urbanism. For Krier, the suburb is by definition a parasite, a malignancy. “It knows that it is neither countryside nor city and wants to conquer the world because it cannot be at peace with itself,” he has written. “The suburb strangles the city by surrounding it and kills the city, tearing out its heart. A suburb can only survive, it cannot live.”

The idea that they lived in zombie-communities would have been laughable to the early residents of experimental suburbs, who believed they were trailblazers and threw themselves with gusto into public life. In Greenbelt, Maryland, a progressive demonstration town built by the federal government as part of the New Deal, some residents thought they offered a pattern for a society redrawn along different, more cooperative lines. One Greenbelter wrote in a letter to a Washington newspaper on the eve of World War II:

We in Greenbelt have learned that, though as individuals we are feeble, as a group we have power. We have learned the significance and potentiality of united social action—and what greater lesson must our people learn if our democracy is to survive?

Jon Thoreau Scott, a retired university professor who grew up in the Stelton colony, told me, “I think it was the best kind of childhood anybody could ever have.“ Laura Thomas, a retired math teacher, remembers going to see the integrated New Town of Reston, Virginia, in the 1960s with extreme skepticism. She was African American; why would she move to Virginia? But she ended up settling there, raising a family and becoming involved with the civic group Reston Black Focus.

“Whatever [Reston’s founder Robert] Simon did, whatever the message was, however he advertised it—I can’t put my finger on it,” Thomas said. “He attracted people who were very different ethnically and socioeconomically. But they had a commonality of point of view about people. And that became the pervasive thing in Reston.”

Behind Krier’s words is a revulsion at the hybrid quality of suburbia—how it confounds the neat binaries of town and country, manmade and natural. I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed in complaints that the suburbs are the “worst of both worlds”—more built-up and trafficked than the countryside yet less exciting than the city.

But what if we chose to embrace suburban in-betweenness instead of condemning it? Over the past 150 years, suburbanites have lived in large communal dwellings and tiny shacks, Modernist apartments and neo-Gothic mansions. They’ve been renters and homeowners, domestic servants and corporate executives. They’ve cultivated both emerald lawns and food crops. They’ve sought escape from social progress, and freedom from convention.

Heavy-handed zoning and land-use regulations might try to make time stand still, but nothing is predestined about the future of suburbia, where most Americans live. Instead of despairing over the suburbs’ problems, we should be inspired by suburban history to try to solve them. As the anarchists at Stelton knew, and the Concord Park residents who stood vigil over the Myers’ house in Levittown: Suburbia is what we make it.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a WeWork office building
    Life

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

  2. a photo of cyclists riding beside a streetcar in the Mid Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California.
    Transportation

    San Francisco’s Busiest Street Is Going Car-Free

    A just-approved plan will redesign Market Street to favor bikes, pedestrians, and public transit vehicles. But the vote to ban private cars didn’t happen overnight.

  3. Uber Eats worker
    Life

    The Millennial Urban Lifestyle Is About to Get More Expensive

    As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.

  4. Life

    Why Do Instagram Playgrounds Keep Calling Themselves Museums?

    The bustling industry of immersive, Instagram-friendly experiences has put a new spin on the word museum.

  5. A man wearing a suit and tie holds an American flag at a naturalization ceremony.
    Life

    The New Geography of American Immigration

    The foreign-born population has declined in U.S. states that voted Democratic in 2016, and increased in states and metros that voted for Trump.

×