WITH SPRING IN THE AIR AND THE BACKYARD BARBECUE CALLING, WE ASKED EIGHT EXPERTS TO RECOMMEND THE BEST RECENT BOOKS ON SUBURBIA.
Robert Fishman, professor of history at Rutgers University at Camden and author of Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (Basic, 1987).
"Just as Chicago was the model city for a school of great urbanists who defined the industrial metropolis, Los Angeles has now emerged as the archetypal anti-city for scholars studying the suburban age. Now back in print, Robert Fogelson's 1967 classic The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930 (California, 1993) explains how an isolated, arid plain surrounded by earthquake-prone mountains became a sprawling, decentralized urban region that today includes fifteen million people. An original and ambitious account of `suburbanization as urbanization' emerges in Greg Hise's Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (Johns Hopkins, 1997). Hise shows that, unlike in Chicago, industry and workers in L.A. never clustered in dense inner-city districts. Instead, industrialists built large factories on cheap land at the city's edge, where even their workers could afford an American dream house and the car that went with it."
Gail Radford, assistant professor of history at SUNY Buffalo and author of Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago, 1996).
"When a Kennedy School scholar recently referred to the 'natural' cycles of decay and regeneration in metropolitan areas, I realized that even professional urbanists could profit from a refresher course on urbanization. Two classics, Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford, 1985) and M. Gottdiener's The Social Production of Urban Space (Texas, 1985), explain how we built our current urban and suburban world through human choices--and how little nature had to do with it. More recently, urban theorists have emphasized that the future of suburbs is inextricably linked to the health of urban cores. In When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Knopf, 1996), William Julius Wilson makes important recommendations for upgrading central cities and improving the welfare of their inhabitants."
James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of faculty and associate professor of religion and culture at Columbia Theological Seminary and author of Looking for God in the Suburbs: The Religion of the American Dream and Its Critics, 19451965 (Rutgers, 1994).
"The suburbs are a petri dish for American culture," says Hudnut-Beumler. "Things quickly develop there whose significance is only later more generally apparent. Consider Robert S. Ellwood's The Fifties' Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict (Rutgers, 1997). Leaving the cities opened a range of new religious options to postwar suburban migrants. Ellwood shows that, though suburbanites made choices that looked neo-traditional, what was most remarkable was that they were choices and not inherited affiliations." Hudnut-Beumler also recommends Virginia Scott Jenkins's The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (Smithsonian, 1994). "If the suburbs mirror contemporary middle-class values, then suburbia's lawns are the leading indicators of the desire to subdue nature and structure it by any available chemical or mechanical means. Jenkins herself dislikes lawns, but she interprets their history and significance exceedingly well."
Philip Langdon, associate editor of The American Enterprise and author of A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb (Massachusetts, 1994).
"Greater Los Angeles, once described as `sixty suburbs in search of a city,' has long been a prime example of the sprawling shape that the automobile-dependent American metropolis takes as it expands. The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, edited by Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja (California, 1996), is a magnificent examination of that region and its growing complexity. Fifteen writers, hailing mostly from architecture, urban planning, geography, and sociology, supply impressively detailed studies of L.A.'s developing character. Especially interesting are Mike Davis's essay on the destruction of L.A.'s agricultural and natural landscape and Martin Wach's skeptical look at attempts to reform the transportation system. This book demonstrates how hard it is to achieve beauty, physical order, and social justice in the contemporary American metropolis."
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley and author of Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia (Rutgers, 1997).
"Even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, much of the writing about suburbia has been deeply disdainful: Suburbia equals conformism in the familiar equation. Herbert Gans opted to try suburban life for himself. In his classic account, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (Pantheon, 1967), drawn from the year he lived in Levittown (now Willingboro), New Jersey, Gans shows how well this ur-suburb matched the dreams of those who lived there. (A recent film, Wonderland, brings Gans's account up to date by examining the `other' Levittown on Long Island.)
Another generation, different preoccupations: The optimists of the 1960s become the worried middle class of the 1990s in Richard Ford's brilliant novel Independence Day (Vintage, 1996) and Katharine S. Newman's thickly described investigation of Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream (Basic, 1993), which draws on extensive interviews to explore the insecurities that shape the lives and politics of the current generation of suburban dwellers."
Andrew Stark, associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto and author of a forthcoming book on conflict of interest in American public life.
"Joel Garreau's Edge City (Anchor, 1991) is still the best book about the porous border between the suburbs and the city. Many have discussed Garreau's attention to how downtown-style developments--plate-glass office towers and hotels--have sprouted in suburban rings over the past three decades. But relatively unnoticed is his equally valuable examination of the various ways in which real downtowns have stolen ideas from suburban malls and urban and suburban residential neighborhoods have borrowed from each other. Gerald Frug's Local Government Law (West, 1988) is an encyclopedic survey of the legal, moral, and political construction of municipalities over the last century. Whereas Garreau, who imagines how edge cities might end up like twenty-first century Venices, makes us wonder what the future might hold, Frug, who imagines how municipalities might have acquired the powers of private corporations, makes us wonder how the past might otherwise have been."
Michael H. Ebner, professor of history at Lake Forest College and author of Creating Chicago's North Shore: A Suburban History (Chicago, 1988).
"Jon C. Teaford's Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities (Johns Hopkins, 1997) surveys booming suburban counties in the outer reaches of metropolitan areas, such as Nassau County, Long Island, and Orange County, California. One of Teaford's many revelations is that such suburban growth traces its origins not to the 1950s but to the 1920s. At that time, politicians modernized county government structures to contend with drastic demographic and economic changes. Teaford appreciates what suburban residents desired from their politics--'small-scale city life'--and what they repudiated--'the by-products of the big city.' Occasionally, a suburban polity cultivated links to the city, but more often, suburbs became cells in which people furtively escaped the vicissitudes of metropolitan life."
Mary Gail Snyder, instructor in the urban studies program at San Francisco State University and co-author of Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States (Brookings Institution Press, 1997).
Snyder recommends Evan McKenzie's Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government (Yale, 1996). "Homeowner associations have quickly become the dominant form of suburban development nearly everywhere in the nation, creating a layer of tiny pseudo-governments that are further fragmenting our metropolitan areas. Proponents speak of community, self-determination, and local democracy, but McKenzie argues that these private governments are actually corporations, created to maximize and protect property values. Thus, they impede the democratic governance of neighborhoods. Privatopia is a comprehensive discussion of the issues surrounding homeowner associations, including their historical roots, the link between the suburban ideal and exclusion, and the consequences of privatization for planning, city-suburb relationships, and local and national politics."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.