E.B. White writes of the suburban commuter in Here Is New York, “he has fished in Manhattan’s wallet and dug out coins, but never listened to Manhattan’s breathing, never awakened to its morning, never dropped off to sleep in its night.” If you’ve ever doubtingly nodded while a colleague claimed their commute into New York City was merely 30 minutes, or trudged up five flights of stairs with groceries, White’s description of the suburbanite is easy to love. But the daily migration from Westchester or New Jersey is distinct from other commutes. Broadly characterizing the American suburb (and suburbanite) is problematic because each is geographically and historically unique. Author Amanda Kolson Hurley presents case studies in Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City that range from anarchist communes to bourgeois utopias. Hidden in the achievements and failures of suburbia, Hurley argues, is a roadmap to future sustainable and equitable housing.
Define the American suburb. The idealistic facade of manicured lawns and homogeneity is easily cracked when considering the statistics. Hurley notes that today more than half of all Americans live in suburbs neighboring the country’s 100 largest metropolises. Minorities account for 35 percent of residents, mirroring the US population. With companies abandoning campuses in the suburbs for downtown hubs and young professionals pouring into urban neighborhoods, cities have grown faster than suburbs for the first time in generations. If anything, the book notes, “cities are becoming more homogenous while suburbs grow more diverse.”
While suburbia is marked by location, pinned along urban borderlands, other aspects of suburbs are variable. Housing style, social services, and shared philosophies of community or faith differ across time and place. From the Shaker village founded in 1776 outside Albany, New York, to Chagrin Falls Park, a 20th-century historically Black suburb near Cleveland, to the 900-year-old suburb of Cahokia, the largest Native American city north of Mexico, each one challenges the notions of suburban culture and development.
Do people of similar values opt to live near one another or does a place “inculcate these values in residents?” asks Hurley. The Harmonists, a German religious group, founded Economy, Pennsylvania, in 1824. It was built, and still exists, near Pittsburgh, but no one traveled between the two. With the mantra “in the world, but not of it” Economy’s inaccessibility was intentional. Red brick buildings sat on right-angled roads that hugged the feast house (dining hall), bake house, piggery, gardens, and school, all communal and all demonstrating sensible zoning and resource management. The successes of Economy, Hurley notes, were even cited by Fredrich Engels in an 1844 essay as proof that communism was possible and desirable.
Hurley presents many cases that argue cohabitation in suburban communities improved lives. Homes were smaller and clustered, land use efficient, and transit issues minimized. Social support was an unexpected benefit that occurred in these examples. In Piscataway, New Jersey, the anarchist community of the Stelton colony was established in 1915. The construction of a school free from “fear and dogma” was central to the colony’s foundation. On-site education and the constant presence of adults granted mothers in the community greater mobility not common among women of the time.
If religion or political ideology were the seeds for a community to foster land stewardship and social justice, could the federal government build a suburb around the value of housing as a public responsibility? Greenbelt, Maryland, was one of a dozen “Greenbelt” towns proposed by Roosevelt’s New Deal intended to help Americans struggling through the Great Depression. Suburbs were expensive, but Greenbelt was a rental community with an income ceiling for tenants. The site plans replaced the typical suburban bungalows with rowhouses, and traded individual yards for green plazas shared by many neighbors. Anticipating the public’s rejection of government housing, the program published booklets highlighting the broad benefits demonstrated by similar efforts in Britain, Belgium, and Sweden.
The image of suburbia as a haven for nuclear families that persists today, has origins in Greenbelt towns. As Hurley explains, this is likely due to two major factors: first, women in the town were not allowed to work, presumably so the household would not exceed the income ceiling; second, African Americans were barred from living in Greenbelt, despite the fact that many of the laborers who built the town were Black. This was during the same time that federal maps “redlined” Black neighborhoods from homeownership by denying home loans. Before the fourth Greenbelt town was constructed, the US Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. ruled the funding for such towns was unconstitutional.
After World War II and into the late 1950s, many large assembly line suburbs were built coast to coast. Walter Gropius, chair of architecture at Harvard University, and his Bauhaus colleague Marcel Breuer, created a curriculum that continued the Bauhaus spirit of designing for the masses. Simple materials and efficient utilization of space were emphasized in these extraordinary residential projects. Even Frank Lloyd Wright was attracted to this concept, designing his unpretentious Usonian homes (one of which went on the market recently in New Hampshire). Hurley’s restrained descriptions of these homes is frustrating, given the absence of images. With aesthetics presented as a recurring theme, it is a surprising misstep to exclude visuals.
Throughout the text, Hurley discusses life in the referenced suburbs with people who were raised or currently reside in them. Radical Suburbs falters in the tonal shifts from historical research to narrative anecdotes. These injected interviews sound as though they are intended to broaden the book’s reader “accessibility.” The shift from analysis to conversation is sticky and de-emphasizes the compelling ideas at stake.
How Americans live and how those places came to be is an interesting premise and Hurley’s clear and upbeat writing adds to this unique conversation. Gazing back to see a way forward for communities that desire ecologically responsible city planning and equitable homeownership is a thesis the reader chases, but ultimately never obtains. However, Radical Suburbs is the rare alternative to the numerous books on great cities and the visionaries who shaped them.
Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City by Amanda Kolson Hurley (2019) is published by Belt Publishing and is available from Amazon or your local independent bookseller.