Suburbanization of Leisure

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Nineteenth-century suburbs generated leisure activities that complemented the natural lushness and domestic-oriented residential districts in which they were practiced. Even after 200 years of suburban development, the activities that originally drew city dwellers to the urban edge remain central to suburbia's mass appeal.

Some of the first suburbs, pioneered in the first half of the nineteenth century, emerged directly from leisure activities, as the wealthy traveled to the urban periphery to escape the heat and disease of the increasingly unsanitary industrial city. Hotels, offering access to a cooler and less-polluted climate, enticed urbanites with numerous activities, including socializing, lawn games, and horse racing. In a few cases, religious interests brought urbanites out of the city for camp meetings. Around some of these resort or revival districts sprouted cottage and mansion districts. Railroads, seeing a potential financial opportunity, created local service to make possible daily commuting and shopping in bustling downtowns.

The first waves of wealthy nineteenth-century suburbanites lived on large, often multiacre lots relatively isolated from their neighbors. The creation of social and religious organizations by both residents and developers helped to overcome physical distance while still preserving, and sometimes even enhancing, social exclusivity. Although many of the first country clubs developed informally, developers by the late nineteenth century consciously shaped many new suburbs around country clubs they started. In planned suburbs such as Roland Park (Baltimore, 1891) and Country Club District (Kansas City, 1906), for instance, country clubs, and the variety of diversions they offered, became essential parts of the exclusive suburban lifestyle marketed to wealthy homebuyers. Golf, demanding large areas of landscaped open space, emerged as one of the most prestigious forms of suburban leisure, but just as important at these clubs were social events, balls, boating, cricket, and tennis. By 1901, there were 1,000 country clubs in the United States, and by 1939, that number had grown to 4,700. In both elite and more modest communities, churches provided the other important outlet for the organization of leisure time in early suburbs and offered their members a wide range of social and philanthropic activities.

Suburban landscapes shifted and diverged as access to their environs widened. For the very wealthy during the pre–Civil War period of suburban growth, scientific agriculture on gentlemen farms had been popular and included serious experiments in animal husbandry and horticulture. For those with purely aesthetic interests, professional designers, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century, designed elaborately landscaped grounds often in a picturesque, British country-house manner. Greenhouses, plant rooms, and professional garden staffs provided significant diversions for wealthy families. Some developers of elite planned suburbs such as Llewellyn Park, New Jersey (1852), and Riverside, Illinois (1868), hired professional designers who preserved and enhanced natural features with extensive plantings, walking paths, and carriage drives.

In more modest suburban districts, ornamental plants, flowers, and lawns tended to displace experimental horticulture and extensive public spaces. The expanded, yet still private outdoor spaces of almost all suburbs (compared to city lots) nevertheless created opportunities for informal activities; screened back porches and fenced yards made possible the close family interaction prized by those seeking a strong suburban domestic sphere, under female guidance, that would mitigate the competitive and aggressive male world of business and civic affairs. In general, the interiors of suburban homes in more modest suburbs tended to become less formal than urban town houses and featured common family rooms and hearths. Suburban leisure activities close to home revolved closely around seasonal opportunities: Summer was the time for lawn games such as croquet, biking, ball playing, and porch sitting; winter an ideal time for skating, sledding, and inside activities such as reading, word games, musical performance, and sewing. Prosperous suburbanites maintained a strong connection to central city cultural "seasons" in theater, opera, and club life.

Suburban women of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are normally portrayed as quiescent victims of the "cult of domesticity," but the truth of the matter is more complicated. Many women and men in both elite and middle-class suburban communities participated in village or suburban "improvement" societies. These societies tended to be most important in less comprehensively although still elite suburbs such as Chestnut Hill (Philadelphia) and Brookline (Boston). These suburbs included successful efforts to beautify small, ramshackle commercial districts near train stops, lobbying for the burying of electrical and telephone wires, tree preservation and planting, and preservation of local historic homes and landscapes. Many suburban associations focused upon philanthropic efforts in health and welfare for the poor residents of lower-income sections either within or adjoining elite suburban districts. Women's clubs in suburbs even became leading forces in the women's suffrage movement. Even suburban leisure activities might generate civic action; the cycling mania of the turn of the century generated improvements in street paving in both suburbs and cities. By the 1920s, most of these improvement organizations shifted from Progressive politics and serious reform to more conventional social and cultural activities.

Elite and more moderate suburbs during the nineteenth century did not share an extensive interest in shopping as leisure within the suburbs. Both women and men traveled by streetcar or rail to department or dry goods stores downtown. Trains and wagons delivered packages to the suburbs based upon urban orders, and only a few businesses clustered around the rail and streetcar stops. The limited, albeit affluent, market for merchants slowed the growth and development of suburban shopping districts. Above all, middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites aimed to preserve the wholesome and natural atmosphere of their neighborhoods by limiting commercial development of all types.

Suburbs of the late nineteenth century were not, however, all elitist. By the end of the nineteenth century, suburbs attracted a much wider constituency that favored new kinds of leisure. The ends of streetcar lines became public picnic points, and promoters built attractions, often in partnership with traction companies and real estate developers, to attract city dwellers to the urban fringe. Beer gardens, amusement parks, and stadiums brought city residents to the edge for more formal leisure opportunities. Once in the suburbs, day-trippers often found themselves buying property or homes in heavily promoted new subdivisions. Many of these streetcar suburbs created around leisure, such as Venice (Los Angeles) and Brighton Beach (New York), have since been annexed to nearby cities and are now considered parts of traditional urban centers.

Streetcar suburbs, unlike their more elite relatives, by the 1890s featured a wider range of more traditional urban amusements including numerous shops, bars, pool halls, dance halls, and theaters. Commercial districts tended to line streetcar routes and could be quite extensive because higher density development allowed for a much more lucrative trade. Few of these working-class suburbs featured preserved open spaces and even fewer boasted preplanned social or religious organizations (although they developed in time). Houses in streetcar suburbs boasted less outdoor space than their elite counterparts and "two flat" or "doubles" made for a more urbanized suburban landscape, but residents still grew flowers and pursued other garden activities. Early twentieth-century working-class suburbs were also notable for a strong tradition of subsistence gardening and small-scale animal husbandry (rabbits, chickens).

Toward a Suburban Century

Although commercial development had been largely ignored in elite communities, during the early twentieth century developers in communities such as Lake Forest (Illinois) and Country Club District (Kansas) began creating purpose-designed shopping and civic centers for elite communities. Tudor and Colonial styles minimized the commercial symbolism and blended smoothly into districts of similar appearance. New shopping districts offered a genuine civic focus to many suburbs, but also grew in step with the increasing popularity of the automobile. Developers at these centers made provisions for the automobile, including lots and garages. Movie theaters, the first supermarkets, and retail shops began to allow a more independent and diverting suburban shopping experience.

With the automobile's growing popularity during the 1920s, suburban leisure began to change on a wider scale. Opportunities for distant journeys made suburban residents regional adventurers and drew some to private campgrounds and new state and national parks. The infilling of formerly natural areas between streetcar and railroad lines removed some of the open natural spaces that suburbanites had used for informal leisure and led to a more crowded suburban landscape, but cars made up for the densification of suburbs by opening new areas to development and allowing access to formerly unvisited natural zones. Picnicking and camping on the side of the road became increasingly popular on these journeys, much to the chagrin of agriculturalists. Racing cars became popular among suburban youth as well, and the adolescent access to the automobile allowed for expanded license in dating. More serious and often illicit leisure, particularly during Prohibition, still concentrated in urban districts with large theater and shopping districts that catered to regional populations.

The creation of national radio programs also proved important in the family-centered suburbs of the 1920s and was an important precursor to television mass culture of the 1950s. In this era before air conditioning, however, sitting on porches remained a major summer activity in many suburbs, a visible legacy that is legible in the great number and ample size of porches (screened and otherwise) from the 1910s and 1920s that created animated street life, strong social networks, and safer outdoor zones of play for children.

Suburban Leisure for the Suburban Majority

After World War II, even more rapid development of the new suburbs subsidized by the government brought everlarger numbers of suburbanites and increased profit potential for suburban merchants. By 1980, nearly a majority of Americans lived in a defined suburban district; many more lived in areas that were older suburbs annexed to cities or in rural districts not yet redefined as suburban rings. Whereas earlier suburbanites tended to maintain a strong connection to the cultural and social circles of the center city, increasingly suburbanites of all classes found a wider range of activities that eliminated almost any reason to travel downtown.

New strip malls and particularly regional-scale malls with ample parking and protected and enclosed pedestrian areas complemented suburban preferences for well-regulated, family-oriented spaces. These shopping malls, pioneered by designers such as Victor Gruen and developers such as James Rouse, offered "public spaces," programmed cultural activities, social gatherings, and a wide variety of shopping opportunities. By the 1980s, these malls played a central role in suburban social affairs and accounted for nearly two-thirds of all retail sales nationally.

Around the most successful of these regional shopping malls have grown other shopping and leisure opportunities to create what journalist Joel Garreau calls "edge cities," suburban communities offering nearly a full range of urban amenities and activities. His description of the Houston Galleria is particularly famous, a complex that includes not only stores and offices but an ice rink, nightclubs, and fine restaurants. Some older, usually working-class suburbs even have districts devoted to short-term motels and red-light activities. The expansion of chains such as Starbucks and Barnes and Noble has added a further touch of urban sophistication to many suburbs.

Developing suburban areas of the postwar era, both planned and informal, primarily used school fields as alternative park spaces, but increasingly spent large sums on building pools, public golf courses, and new parks with a focus on active leisure such as playgrounds and ball fields. In general, suburban districts felt less need for parks than dense urban places because every house had its own yard. League football, softball and baseball, golf, and swimming nevertheless proved particularly popular in suburbs as facilities expanded. In recent years, many suburbs and state governments have bought undeveloped lands as nature reserves. Some large-scale planned suburbs such as Columbia, Maryland, made extensive provisions for land preservation and include grade separated pathway systems stretching over many miles.

Although city centers maintain strong cultural and educational institutions, many suburbs were also investing in new cultural facilities including concert halls and art and craft centers, often in partnership with a new wave of university and college expansion. The growing inter-state highway system allowed suburbanites to gain much faster access to the state and national park systems in their regions, and entrepreneurs built amusement parks such as Disneyland that offered sanitized and updated versions of older urban amusement parks. Many suburbanites still occasionally travel to downtowns for cultural activities, and new highways have shortened their trips. Downtown cultural and sporting institutions have tailored their expansions to suburban audiences with plentiful parking and regulated sports and cultural "districts" that shield suburbanites from urban dangers.

The myth of suburban uniformity in leisure popularized by urban critics is largely a canard. Sociologists, for instance, have noticed important differences in leisure activity between working-class, middle-class, and wealthy suburbs during the postwar era. Middle-class suburbs tend to be abuzz with great numbers of associations and fraternal organizations. Nuclear-family-centered activities remain important, but middle-class families have reduced contact with their extended family members even though their friendships and other interests are distributed widely over vast regions. Many of these suburbs near large cities support art colonies, reading and writing groups, lecture series, concerts, and other highbrow activities. In general, too, suburban libraries in middle-class areas possess strong collections.

Working-class suburbs also feature American Legion and Kiwanis groups, but they tend to place a greater value on taverns, stoop sitting, church activities, informal social interaction, and regular extended family gatherings. Working-class suburbanites also look to gardening for not just pleasure but sustenance. Nearly one-half of American households had vegetable gardens by 1970. In both working- and middle-class suburbs there tends to be a gender division of outside labor with men handling yard work and women gardening. In addition, working-class inhabitants often use their outdoor spaces and garages for more extensive automotive work that is often frowned upon in wealthier communities. Drag racing and cruising became the expression of the disaffected, particularly working-class, suburban adolescent.

Individual homeowners in both working- and middle-class suburbs have continued to devote attention to their yards and do-it-yourself activities. Improvement of homes became a major issue in the hastily built tract developments of the 1950s and 1960s, and most homes have been extensively rebuilt and improved over the decades.

The backyard, freed from almost all of its functional uses, has taken on some of the symbolic value that once adhered to front yards only. The ranch and split-level style houses of the postwar era minimized the distinction between indoor and outdoor spaces with large plate-glass windows and sliding doors on the back of the house. Introduction of many more household appliances, particularly washers and dryers, minimized the functional role of backyards. Parents enjoyed enlarged patio spaces with chairs, umbrellas, Jacuzzis, and extensive plantings (sometimes professionally maintained). Depending upon a homeowner's means, a family might have an inflatable, above-ground, or in-ground pool. Sandboxes, playhouses, and tree houses in backyards also become important zones for unsupervised children, particularly in middle-class suburbs. Many of the newest suburban districts, particularly gated communities, offer extensive recreational opportunities to residents of an individual community. Community associations that tax residents for a separate fee organize most of this recreation in gated communities and often organize summer camps and day care.

The wealthy in their "noble suburbs" in the postwar era continue to enjoy pools, expansive lawns, tennis courts, and elaborate gardens. Country clubs maintain their cachet in wealthy suburbs, as do garden clubs, cultural activities, and philanthropic organizations. Many wealthy homeowners of the postwar period continued to hire landscape designers, but suburbanites also discovered a new fondness for local environmental activities dedicated to preserving natural spaces in their immediate vicinity. Do-it-yourself activities tend to be less important in elite suburbs and socializing tends to be more formal.

Television is the great leveler in contemporary suburban culture. Television provides access to a democratic, sanitized national mass culture and has generated a growing independence of suburban areas from local cultural producers and further amplified the importance of interior domestic spaces. Television, in combination with air conditioning and the Internet, has diminished some of the seasonal shifts in leisure that characterized prewar suburbs and in many cases has dramatically reduced the number of hours both children and adults engage in active leisure, gardening, and associational life.

After 200 years of development, American suburbs preserve many of the leisure elements pioneered in the nineteenth century. Older elite suburbs have preserved to a remarkable extent the attractive environments that first drew suburban pioneers in the nineteenth century. Even suburbanites in suburbs of more recent vintage find themselves surrounded by private outdoor spaces for gardening and lawn games, diverting forms of indoor domestic entertainment, accessible natural and park spaces, and convenient "urban style" excitement in edge cities or nearby downtowns.

See also: Automobiles and Leisure, Gardening and Lawn Care, Urbanization of Leisure, Working-Class Leisure Lifestyles


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Nicholas Bloom