Friday, December 17, 2010

Jackson - Crabgrass Frontier

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Covering a period from the market revolution of the early 19th century to present day (1985), Jackson attempts to explain the unique degree of suburbanization in the U.S. relative to other industrialized nations. Going beyond the obvious explanation of transportation (because not every global industrialized city underwent suburbanization to the degree seen in the U.S.), Jackson argues there are two conditions and two causes of "American residential deconcentration." (summed on 287-)
The Conditions
1. "The Suburban Ideal" - Encouraged by real estate speculators, transportation visionaries and suburban land planners, Americans early on idealized a detached house as a worthy goal for people entering the middle class. Jackson highlights specific individuals who marketed the suburban dream as early as before the Civil War. However, his explanation for why Americans in particular had such a strong desire for suburban living that such businessmen were able to profit from is lacking. But to be fair, that explanation is perhaps as complex as (and related to) the question of American exceptionalism.
2. "Population growth" - America's vast land and abundant resources, plus the high rate of immigration created rapid population growth, leading to overcrowded cities. Indeed, Progressive reformers looked favorably on suburban growth as a remedy to overcrowding problems.
The Causes
1. "Racial Prejudice" - White middle class desire to leave America's uniquely diverse cities was in no small part motivated by racial attitudes and fears. Moreover, while suburbs originally strongly identified with the city they surrounded, suburbs have come to reject that connection in part because of the racial divide.
2. "Cheap housing" - In the period under question, America was the wealthiest country with the most available land. Government programs, most importantly the Federal Housing Administration (created in the New Deal and in charge of the housing aspect of the GI Bill), arranged affordable mortgages. The balloon frame house, more trusted in America and more possible because of vast lumber, was key. Inexpensive transport is another aspect. The Levitt family led the way in producing cheap detached houses, while government housing (blocked by suburban authorities) was located almost exclusively in the city. Even the tax code benefits home owners over renters.

Great Quote
"No agency of the United States government has had a more pervasive and powerful impact on the American people over the past half-century than the Federal Housing Administration." p.203

Though my page-per-minute late was below average, I think the brevity of this entry emphasizes how easy this book was to understand. This is one of my favorite books on the comp odyssey so far. I love the bite-sized chapters. I love the broad chronological scope. I love Jackson's presentation of a wealth of quantitative data in easily digestible prose. I love the discussions about why cities came to look the way they do. Most of all, I love the subject matter and the persuasive conclusions. It's the kind of book that will rattle around in my brain for a long time. The only strike against it: he mentions Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany but not Syracuse!

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