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Why are America's suburbs failing?

Author: Masters, Brooke

Masters, Brooke. Why Are America’s Suburbs Failing? Financial Times, 1 Feb. 2024,

Why are America’s suburbs failing?

In ‘Disillusioned’, Benjamin Herold follows five families coping with the wreckage created by outer city development

The US is fundamentally a country of suburbs. More than 55 percent of Americans live in the communities that surround the nation’s major cities in ever-widening concentric rings.
Starting in the 1940s with Long Island’s Levittown, new developments offered GIs returning from the second world war and their families the promise of a fresh start with thousands of cookie-cutter homes and state-of-the-art parks, recreation centres and above all schools — all at affordable prices. While some larger cities built rail networks, most relied on the burgeoning highway system to open up new land for development and get people to and from work.
The rituals of American suburban life, from country club tennis tournaments to carpools and high school proms, went on to permeate global culture for decades through movies and television shows from Sixteen Candles to Desperate Housewives. And US presidential elections have often been won or lost in the suburbs, as independent voters once stereotyped as “soccer moms” shifted between the Republican and Democratic parties depending on the issues of the day. This year’s likely rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is no different: the winner’s path to the White House lies through swing state suburbs outside Pittsburgh and Atlanta, rather than the already deeply blue cities of New York or the bright-red rural counties in Iowa.
But all is not well with this slice of Americana, as Benjamin Herold reports in a deeply researched new book, Disillusioned. He argues that decades of short-sighted planning decisions, which produced “slash and burn” development, have left many communities struggling to fulfil their promise, even as a wider range of Americans moved in.
“In every corner of the country, the ensuing disillusionment was forcing families to reckon with an unsettling new question: what if the American dreams suburbia was built on weren’t enough to lead us out of the enormous problems that nearly a century of mass suburbanisation had created,” writes Herold.
Outside dozens of US cities, a pattern set in the late 1940s has repeated itself, with devastating results: newly built infrastructure and government levies on new construction helped many suburban communities offer residents both a panoply of services and low taxes. But by the time the bills for maintaining and updating this infrastructure came due, the original beneficiaries had raised their children and moved on. Most communities had also largely run out of open land for new development, providing a double hit to tax returns.
The politically popular decisions to rely on developer levies rather then setting higher education taxes, and to invest more in highways to far-flung new suburbs than in mass transit in older ones, “encouraged us to cycle through a series of disposable communities with shelf lives just long enough to extract a little more opportunity before we moved out [and] stuck someone else with the bill,” Herold writes.
Disillusioned follows five very different families as they cope with the wreckage created by this outward spiral of development. Each one chases the American dream to new communities, but the parents then find themselves having to fight to get their children the opportunities and support they were seeking.
Because this is America, there is also a toxic racial angle to this tale. Discriminatory covenants and biased lending practices initially kept many suburbs exclusively white, so the benefits of new construction went to them. Herold describes how black and brown families — he interviews the Adesinas outside Chicago and the Smiths outside Pittsburgh — were then empowered to move in by the civil rights movement and rising incomes. But many whites, like the Becker family outside Dallas, are moving out to the next ring of suburbs in search of newer homes.
These days all American racial groups are more likely to live in the suburbs than in city centres, and 45 per cent of suburbanites are nonwhite, a larger proportion than the 41 per cent share in the country as a whole.
Herold’s stories zigzag across the country. He visits older “inner ring” communities near Pittsburgh and Los Angeles now saddled with a shrinking tax base. In Evanston, a Chicago suburb, he explores a liberal, largely middle-class community as it seeks to defy the odds and create a truly integrated schools system.
The author delves into challenges facing farther flung suburbs outside Atlanta and Dallas, which have been siphoning off those who can afford to dream of new homes — yet whose inhabitants fear the growing numbers of less affluent black and brown families replacing white retirees in older communities. More than 15mn American suburbanites now live below the poverty line, a larger number than in all its big cities combined.
"The illusion that suburbia remains somehow separate from America’s problems is no longer viable"
The book’s structure is in some ways reminiscent of Common Ground, J Anthony Lukas’ groundbreaking tale of the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s. Individual stories are woven together with demographic and historical research to build a compelling portrait of just what is going wrong. The rapid switches from place to place can be disorienting, but the individual struggles Herold describes help bring to life what could otherwise be bloodless discussions of planning and education policy.
Each family is taken on its own terms without judgment, although Herold clearly recognises that the burdens are not being spread evenly. He describes the aspirations and fears that prompt the white, Trump-supporting Becker family to flee their diversifying Dallas neighbourhood for a snazzy new school district that is deliberately zoned to prevent the construction of apartments. Meanwhile, outside Atlanta, the black Robinson family also moves further out in search of better schools, only to find themselves battling the education system over racial stereotyping and harsh discipline of non-white children.
Herold’s personal anguish about the troubles he spotlights gives the book extra power. He grew up and thrived in an inner-ring Pittsburgh neighbourhood, but his peers have moved on, leaving black newcomers like the Smith family to shoulder the gigantic bills coming due for decades of delayed maintenance to schools and the water system.
He does find some room for hope in Compton, a Los Angeles suburb that was home to a young George HW Bush in the 1940s but became an impoverished ghetto. A feature in rap songs as a signifier of both black pride and rage at persistent racism and the site of notorious riots in the 1990s, by the time Herold visits, Compton’s black families are starting to move out and it is increasingly home to first-generation immigrants seeking new lives, like the Hernandez family. As the community tries to rebuild, Herold finds much to admire in its dedicated educators and innovative efforts to boost test scores. “It’s kind of like when you have a burnt forest and you start to see the flowers poke through,” he quotes one teacher saying.
The book’s final section traces the ravages of Covid, which end up crystallising many of suburbia’s issues for the families who suffered through it. In Compton, the Hernandez family become so disheartened that we leave them considering a return to Mexico. The Dallas-based Becker family pull their children out of public schools in favour of Christian home-schooling, and the families outside Chicago and Atlanta also share their disappointment with Herold. “The illusion that suburbia remains somehow separate from America’s problems is no longer viable,” he writes.
Disillusioned also benefits from an unusual epilogue that helps it rise above a standard journalistic tale. One of the parents Herold followed, Bethany Smith, a black mother from his old Pittsburgh neighbourhood, grew uncomfortable with letting a white man tell her story and bend it to his narrative arc of how the suburbs failed. After she confronted him about this, he agreed to give her the last word by writing a chapter of her own. In it, she refuses to give up on the dreams that continue to drive millions of Americans to the suburbs, while remaining clear-eyed about the challenges ahead: “We want to build good lives for ourselves . . . to raise our children in safe environments . . . the same deal that the suburbs gave white families like Ben’s,” she writes. “This time, though, we want it to last.”

DMU Timestamp: February 13, 2024 08:59

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