In the America of today, suburbia is simply a fact of life. It’s the place where much of the country eats, sleeps, plays and returns to every day after work. But why is it that modern America has not emerged as an entirely city-based culture as had been the natural trend since the Industrial Revolution? The answer is not entirely simple and requires looking back in time at an era familiar to many of us only as a time of drive-in movies, poodle skirts and finned-cars—the 1950s. It was in this span of ten years that the country saw some of the most-dramatic transitions in its history. By the end of the decade, the country was no longer simply divided along the lines of “urban” or “rural”. Suddenly a good portion of the population was able to identify itself under the previously little-used word “suburban”, a term used to denote areas that were close to cities but more pastoral in character. In the 1950s, a wide array of demographic changes, construction projects, changing attitudes and new technologies influenced the rise of suburbia. Since the 1950s, this phenomenon and its lasting legacy has become controversial in our society, in which an increasing number of Americans call the suburbs home. On both sides of the issue, scholars have published their thoughts on the suburbanization of the 1950s and its impact on the country we live in. Some of these academics take up the banner of suburban progress, citing the benefits to family life and the safety offered by living away from the crime and pollution of the city. Most modern day suburbanites would tend to agree with this —and with good reason. Who wouldn’t want to provide the safest and cleanest living space for themselves and their family? Yet from the 1960s to the present, an increasing body of evidence has arisen that has led me to believe that the positive details pertaining to the suburban migration of the era are overshadowed by a wide variety of negative forces. In the present day, we are witnessing how the cultural, economic and environmental impact that resulted from the rapid suburbanization that began in the post-War era threatens to destroy the very same brand of Americanism that the suburbs were idealistically established to perpetuate.
While large-scale suburbanization did not occur until the 1950s, the suburbs actually had their roots in the nineteenth century, when Americans first began traveling out of polluted and crowded metropolitan areas in order to seek health treatments in the cleaner and quieter country surrounding the city.1 Eventually, this fascination with the countryside evolved into small suburban developments that were built along the fringes of cities and provided residents with the quiet comforts of rural life while allowing them to be close to civilization. These early suburbs often followed trolley lines and allowed easy access to the city center. Yet suburbia as we know it did not truly blossom until the years following the Second World War, when the United States experienced a monumental demographic transition. The return of American soldiers from the fighting in Europe and the Pacific led to a rise in pregnancies among the wives and girlfriends who had waited for them patiently on the home front. Between the years 1945 and 1960, over 78.2 million Americans were born in what came to be known as “The Baby Boom”.2 As can be seen above in Figure 1, this sudden rise in birthrates stands in sharp contrast to the relatively low numbers of the 1930s and World War II years.3
While suburbs thus had existed in one form or another since the late nineteenth century, there were not enough of them to meet the demand placed on them by the millions of GIs and their expectant wives. Empowered by Federal Housing Administration loans that made it cheaper to purchase more-desirable residences, they were able to afford a lifestyle that would have been unknown to the majority of the public just a few years earlier.4 Additionally, many of the new couples no longer saw the cities or rural towns of their childhood as being wholly appropriate for raising a family. Country life was out of the question due to recent memories of the difficult economic and environmental conditions endured by farmers as a result of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.5 The other option, cities, were no more attractive to the young. As James E. Vance, Jr. suggests in “California and the Search for the Ideal”, they were deemed dangerous, polluted and confining, thus making them unsuitable places for the rearing of young children.6 Additionally, the cities were also seen as being strongholds for foreign ethnic and non-white racial groups, which prompted the outward migration of many native-born whites to leave city life in a movement known as “white flight”.7 The rapid departure of middle class families from their homes in city neighborhoods quickly lowered property values, leading to a rise in criminal activity as gangs moved in. This had especially bad results for cities like Detroit, Michigan and Oakland, California, where crime rates began to soar.8 With the steady retreat of whites out of the city and into the new developments came the creation of a distinct suburban culture. The values associated with this were often seen as being very “American” and stood in contrast to the foreign and non-white influences of the city. Here, “native” culture was preserved with diners serving traditional American foods, churches catering to traditional Protestant sects, and cars made by American manufacturers. Children had access to the best schools, housewives possessed the most-modern appliances and household accouterments and suburban males continued to run their homes in unchallenged patriarchy. In the decades of the 1950s and 60s, the suburban population of the country skyrocketed to 84 million residents with a growth rate of 144%, which was an unprecedented jump even when compared to the 1940s growth.9 After a century on the fringe of the American consciousness, the suburb emerged as a practical alternative to the two traditional American places of residence and became the epicenter of family life in the 1950s and beyond.
With the land immediately surrounding the cities taken up by existing developments, it became necessary to expand further beyond the city limits. As a result the 1950s saw thousands of farms and small towns across America transformed forever into uniform and idealized pieces of Americana. The Harvard Law Review asserts that one of the most-critical reasons for this expansion of the suburbs into previously undeveloped territory was the increased efficiency of the automobile, the train and improvements to the transportation network.10 In 1956, President Eisenhower pushed through the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which resulted in the creation of the Interstate Highway system.11 As can be seen in Figure 2, this highway system quickly spread across the country, connecting previously remote locales to large metropolitan centers.12 While regarded as a crucial way for the government to move troops and supplies in the event that the Cold War went hot, the new network of thousands of two and four lane highways presented Americans with the opportunity to be upwardly mobile in a way never before dreamed.13 Car companies scrambled to meet demands as the Detroit-based auto industry took off and families began to see car ownership as essential.14 The improvement of travel times allowed American men to commute to work from their homes at distances that would have previously been considered impractical and led to the spread of suburban developments beyond the range of what would have once been considered possible.
Those in favor of the suburban surge of the 1950s often cite the relative peace and safety offered by the suburbs as a justification for their views. Academics like Peter Filene suggest that the rise of the more-secluded and peaceful suburbs fostered a family-centered environment that the crowded and increasingly crime-ridden cities could not provide.15 This view also holds that a stronger sense of community developed among the residents since the layout of the typical suburban development led to new expectations of social behavior that were absent in the more-introverted city.16 To support these claims, Filene cites first hand interviews of the men and women who were on the forefront of the suburban expansion. In one of these, a man who had just moved into a new development stated that “before we came here we used to live pretty much to ourselves. On Sundays, for instance, we used to stay in bed until around maybe two o’clock, reading the paper and listening to the symphony on the radio. Now we stop around and visit with people or they visit with us. I really think the experience has broadened us.”17 The positives of suburban expansion are further displayed by James E. Vance, Jr. whose article “California and the Search for the Ideal” points to how the expansion of the suburbs led to increased opportunity for families to have a piece of the American Dream. For the first time, it became possible for more people to own homes in less-crowded areas while still being within easy access of their workplaces.18
While Filene, Vance and others like them had it right that the strong community and family values of the suburbs can be deemed as positives, more often than not, I have seen that this idealized vision of suburbia has its drawbacks. The cultural, environmental and economic effects of suburban expansion have been especially troubling and have caused huge shifts in the pattern of American life. The Harvard Law Review’s article Locating the Suburb can tell us much about the downside of suburbia, especially concerning its ruinous effects on the nation’s cities. It provides us with a new perspective on the seemingly harmless movement of shopkeepers, skilled laborers and professionals out of the city, revealing its true nature as a drain to “the economic and social lifeblood […]of many of [the suburb’s] host cities.”19 Putting the welfare of the cities aside, the very culture of the supposedly perfect and stable suburbs themselves places their inhabitants at risk. Influenced by the American car culture, suburbs are always at the intersection of “mobility and stability” and are constantly having to expand to avoid the ideological conflicts that inevitably arise in settled communities, which creates a “spatial uncertainty” that one does not find in city life.20 Since suburbs were constructed outside city limits for people with transportation, the initial intent of community and peace is disrupted as constant mobility is a driving force in the suburban experience.21 Additionally, suburbs allowed a place for people ‘to sort themselves into “lifestyle enclaves” segregated by race, class, and education’ in a way not before possible. This can be seen specifically in suburban communities like Levittown, PA, where lease agreements excluded members of the non-white minority (even those who had taken up arms in the recent war), thus confining them to the inner city until anti-discrimination laws could be passed in later decades.22
In addition to the creation of segregated white bastions, the expansion of the suburbs into the rural areas that had been recently overtaken by the sprawl also had consequences. Where clapboard farmhouses and silos once stood, department stores and bowling alleys rose to take their place in a march of “progress” that homogenized all it touched. With respect to the environment, the transformation of large swaths of the countryside rich with farms, forests, grasslands and wildlife into blocks of housing with grass and a few neatly-ordered trees also had negative effects. Looking at the once-rural Chesapeake Bay Region in the thirty year period starting in 1950 as an example, the land used there for commercial or residential purposes increased nearly 180% while the population increased 50%.23 While it is true that suburbs were not anywhere near as polluted as the often-industrialized cities of mid-twentieth century America, the influx of large numbers of people into once-pristine (or nearly-pristine) areas destroyed habitats for birds, fish and other creatures.
Additionally, the negative impact of the reliance on trains and automobiles for transport into oftentimes distant city centers had a variety of negative environmental effects. Not only was more smog produced than in years past, but a destructive love-affair with gasoline emerged as America’s car culture expanded.24 The abundance and subsequent low price of petroleum at mid-century meant that people were more-eager to drive, even when unnecessary.25 The negative effects of this could not be seen until after the 1950s, when American dependency on foreign oil helped spark the gas crises of the 1970s and early 2000s while influencing the country’s foreign policy and increased military involvement in the Middle East.26
During the 1950s, a wide array of demographic changes, construction projects, changing attitudes and new technologies influenced the rise of suburbia, which has been hailed by many as a realization of the American Dream. Yet in light of the the increasing body of evidence that has arisen from the 1960s to the present, it is apparent that the positive details pertaining to the suburban migration of the era are overshadowed by a wide variety of negative forces. In the present day, we are witnessing how the cultural, economic and environmental impact that resulted from the rapid suburbanization that began in the post-War era threatens to destroy the very same brand of Americanism that the suburbs were idealistically established to perpetuate. On the surface, the suburban surge seemed like an expansion of the middle class. Yet by catering only to the majority native-born white population, an underclass city-dwelling population of non-whites and ethnic minorities was created, leading to divisions that haunt society to this day. Additionally, the environmental and cultural impact of the expanding suburbs on the countryside caused much turmoil and further calls into question the value of the suburbanization of the nation. In their haste to experience the freedom of home ownership outside of the city’s confines, 1950s Americans have inadvertently left subsequent generations with the burden of handling the many drawbacks of their aspirations.
1. James E. Vance, Jr., “California and the Search for the Ideal,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1972: 198
6. James E. Vance, Jr., “California and the Search for the Ideal,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1972: 198
9. Baldassare, Mark, “Suburban Communities,” Annual Review of Sociology (1992): 477
10. The Harvard Law Review Association, “Locating the Suburb.” Harvard Law Review. 117 (2004): 2007
12. (2009) Urban Transportation Planning In the United States: An Historical Overview: Fifth Edition
Chapter 3. Beginnings of Urban Transportation Planning. Retrieved March 21, 2009, from Travel Model Improvement Program: link
13. Filene, Suburbia in the 1950s: Family Life in the Age of Anxiety
15. Filene, Peter, Suburbia in the 1950s: Family Life in the Age of Anxiety
18. Vance, California and the Search for the Ideal,
19. Harvard Law Review, Locating the Suburb, 2004
20. Ibid, 2005
21. Ibid, 2007
Sources With Primary Data:
(2006, Jan 3). Oldest Baby Boomers Turn 60. Retrieved February 9, 2009, from US
Census Bureau Web site: link
This source gives a statistic on the baby boomers that is useful in understanding the great demographic changes of the period.
Baldassare, Mark. “Suburban Communities.” Annual Review of Sociology. 18 (1992): 477-494.
A statistic on the dramatic suburban growth rate in the 1950s is used from this article. Additional statistics are included in the article.
(2003, August). Urban Sprawl. Retrieved February 12, 2009, from Policy Almanac Web site: link
Gives a statistic on the Chesapeake Bay region, which was used to illustrate the environmental impact of suburbanization.
Vance, Jr., James E. “California and the Search for the Ideal.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 62 (1972), 185-210.
In this article the author gives an account of the widespread interest in living in more-bucolic settings from the nineteenth century onwards with particular attention to mid-twentieth century. He has a section describing the motivating factors in leaving the city .
Filene, Peter Suburbia in the 1950s: family life in the age of anxiety. Retrieved February 12, 2009, from Distance Education and Extended Learning Programs Web site: link
The author’s description of the racial discrimination found at Levittown was used in the essay.
Schnore, Leo F. “Municipal Annexations and the Growth of Metropolitan Suburbs, 1950-60.” The American Journal of Sociology. 67 (1962): 406-417.
Provides insight on the demographic changes of the period in the form of migrations from city and rural areas to suburbs.
Miller, Laura J. “Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal.” Sociological Forum. 10 (1995), 393-418.
This article gives insight into the kind of attitudes that post-WWII couples had towards raising families.
Bell, Charles. “A New Suburban Politics.” Social Forces. 47 (1969), 280-288.
Gives insight into many of the cultural forces in suburbia, speaking of its initial conservatism.
The Harvard Law Review Association. “Locating the Suburb.” Harvard Law Review. 117 (2004), 2003-2022.
Talks about how the expansion of transportation networks facilitated the outward expansion of suburbia.
Sharpe,William and Wallock, Leonard. “Contextualizing Suburbia.” American Quarterly. 46 (1994), 55-61.
Deals with the many of the negative aspects of suburbia, with particular attention to the decline of urban areas.