There is no subject so fundamental to modern American life and yet so little studied as the history of U.S. housing after World War II. With $15 trillion in equity, residential real estate represents the most important asset for a majority of U.S. families. The federal, state, and local policies that provided the financial services and physical infrastructure for suburban living have done more to shape American life than any government initiative since the Homestead Act. Environmentalists blame suburbs for promoting a gas-guzzling, energy-wasting culture; antipoverty activists point to the ways that government housing policy, including zoning regulation, traps the poor in inner cities, where jobs are scarce, and creates new forms of racial and class segregation. Since the financial crisis of 2008, which was driven in part by a real estate bubble, fierce debates have raged over whether housing policy should continue to favor suburbanization and the owner-occupied single-family home.
Two recent books will enrich readers understanding of the American suburbs. Lane’s Houses for a New World delivers an engaging and surprisingly positive account of how the suburbs came to be. In Lane’s view, the development of suburbia represented a grass-roots approach to urban planning and housing design. Where the folksinger Pete Seeger saw “little boxes made of ticky-tacky,” Lane sees a new kind of American community where large windows and open lawns allowed parents to keep an eye on their kids and their neighbors’ kids. The postwar suburbs also served as a great driver of integration for immigrant groups who had grown up in homogeneous urban neighborhoods. Lane’s respect for the suburbs runs counter to fashionable opinion but serves as a useful corrective to accounts that see the “great American suburb” in purely dystopian terms.
Jacobs’ Detached America is a less accessible book but an excellent resource for anyone interested in a deep dive into suburban planning. In particular, Jacobs offers a comprehensive overview of the politics that promoted and enabled the great suburban shift. For tens of millions of U.S. households, the rise of the suburbs meant significant increases in personal wealth and well-being. But Jacobs also documents the ways in which African Americans were excluded from the benefits of the greatest system of government-supported middle-class wealth creation in U.S. history.
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