The development of suburbs—residential communities on the outskirts of cities—was one of the most dominant features of American life in the twentieth century. Far from being merely a way Americans organized their housing and changed their landscape, the suburbs created an entirely new way of ordering American social life and culture. The result was a phenomenon known as "suburbia," a term meaning both a physical place and often a cultural and social mind-set as well.
As a physical place, suburbs first appeared in the nineteenth century as a way for wealthier Americans to move out of crowded, dirty, and often dangerous cities into the calm and quiet of the country. But because most of these Americans still worked in cities, they had to stay somewhat close to the urban center, thus these new areas were called suburbs. As suburbs developed in the early twentieth century, many cities ran railroad lines out to these new areas, and they became what historian Sam Bass Warner (1928–) called "streetcar suburbs." Wherever the train lines went, suburban development intensified. These streetcar suburbs can still be seen in places like Brookline, Massachusetts, a one-time suburb of Boston but now part of the larger metropolitan area in look and feel. This process of suburbanization took place in cities across the country, and in the 1920s, the process intensified as automobiles became more widely used. With the car, people were no longer dependent on railway lines. Now they could live in suburban developments anywhere and drive their cars to work in the cities. Housing developers like J. C. Nichols (1880–1950) in Kansas City, Missouri, took advantage of this trend and built carefully planned housing subdivisions that also included a prototype of what would become shopping malls (see entry under 1950s—Commerce in volume 3).
Nichols's subdivisions were meant for the well-to-do. But after World War II (1939–45), suburban living became more accessible to Americans of more modest incomes. That development was largely the work of Long Island, New York, developer William J. Levitt (1907–1994). Levitt pioneered the idea of making small houses affordable to everyone in order to sell more of them. Using mass-production techniques, Levitt kept his costs down by building largely identical houses close together on an old potato field starting in 1946. He called the housing development Levittown (see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3). Soldiers just back from the war could purchase a house for as little as $0 down and $53 a month. At prices like these, Levittown became a bit hit. Now almost everyone could afford a suburban house, and Levitt set a trend in suburban development that had not slowed down by the end of the twentieth century.
But the reasons for the suburbs' success went far beyond affordability because suburbia represented an idea as much as it did a place. Americans have long had a love/hate relationship with cities, and American culture has long celebrated what is called the "agrarian ideal," an idea that the United States was a nation of farmers known for their simplicity, work ethic, and honesty. The key to keeping up those traits was land. As long as Americans could keep spreading out, the agrarian ideal could be preserved. While few Americans refer to that idea by name, the belief in that idea can be seen throughout the suburbs, where each homeowner does his or her part to care for their lawn, their part of the great mythic garden that is America. The suburban home was also celebrated as an ideal place to raise a family, an idea promoted in many television shows and motion pictures, notably the TV show Leave It to Beaver (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) in the 1950s. As a safe haven for all that was wrong with cities and the world, suburbia became a very powerful idea with immense popularity.
This ideal, however, was not without its problems. As suburbia developed rapidly after 1945, some observers criticized what they viewed as the uniformity and, often, the stifling social conformity of suburbia with its identical homes and rigid social roles that kept women, in particular, in a state of isolation. While that experience was not true for everyone, there was evidence to suggest that the critics were onto something. Another problem involved the racial makeup of suburbs. Through legal and social means, African Americans were largely kept out of suburbs. The dark side of suburbia came in part from the fact that white Americans were fleeing the largely minority-populated inner-city areas in greater and greater numbers, leaving the minority residents in increasingly impoverished urban centers. In addition to these problems, by the 1990s the environmental costs of the suburbs were beginning to be recognized, and these problems were all related to something known as "sprawl." As suburbs sprawled over the landscape, environmental problems followed in their wake: traffic jams, air pollution, waste of water resources as everyone watered their lawns, energy consumption, environmental pollution by lawn chemicals, and the destruction of farm land and other open natural space. Although these problems were beginning to be addressed in small ways, these problems were growing, not shrinking, as the twentieth century closed. By 2000, the suburbs were more popular than ever, an enduring testament to the continued belief in the American agrarian ideal as expressed in suburbia.
For More Information
Gans, Herbert. The Levittowners. New York: Pantheon, 1967.
Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: History of an American Obsession. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Palen, J. John. The Suburbs. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.
Teaford, Jon C. City and Suburb: The Political Fragmentation of Metropolitan America, 1850–1970. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.