Crabgrass Frontier

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Kenneth T. Jackson’s careful survey of the American suburb, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (winner of both the Parkman and Bancroft prizes), is also a history of the suburb’s ambivalent relationship to its opposite number, the American city. The city gives birth to the suburb by making its existence possible and desirable. The suburb, born in rebellion against the city and its inhabitants, treats its ancestor with contempt and conspires with its favorite uncle, Sam, to deny the city the care and respect it has earned. Although the suburb has had some comeuppance since the 1973 oil embargo, it remains unrepentant. Jackson’s thorough and enlightening synthesis of the evidence in his analysis of the stages of this generational conflict leaves little doubt of his sympathies. The suburbanization of the United States is understandable, given the many incentives manufactured to encourage white flight from the central city. Yet, the process was emphatically not inevitable, as Jackson’s comparison to the European experience suggests, and cannot be recommended to others in the future.

In one sense, the recurring urge to move to new havens on grassy plots outside official urban boundaries is in fact nothing more than the conventional American pattern of “leaving home”—striking out on one’s own to put down new roots. Within metropolitan constraints, suburban pioneers reenact the drama of Daniel Boone moving west when the pressure of population made him feel confined. From another perspective, however, the suburb is the leading product of the American growth machine. Here the frontier is less a psychological safety valve and more the scene of speculative profits being turned by making it easy to escape the problems represented by the city and its inhabitants. In this sense, the creators of the suburb are the real-estate developers, aided by transportation innovations and assisted at every step by government officials.

The role of local and state officials in this process of growth and movement is easy to imagine and generally well-known. Jackson’s most important contribution to our knowledge of this urban-suburban interplay is, however, his research into the federal government’s assistance to suburban sprawl and, particularly, to the way federal policies insured that the American suburb would be a major focus of a drive to protect and extend racial segregation. The dream of living in a detached house with other “people like us” at a reasonable commuting distance from commercial and industrial necessities is embedded in the nation’s culture and psychology. Abundant cheap land and relatively high per-capita wealth helped make that dream possible, but the suburban dynamic was much more than an exercise in popular consumer sovereignty. Jackson concludes that “suburbanization was not an historical inevitability created by geography, technology, and culture, but rather the product of government policies. In effect, the social costs of low-density living have been paid by the general taxpayer rather than only by suburban residents.”

As he reviews United States history, Jackson reminds the reader that the suburb had a history before the automobile and the Father Knows Best sitcom of the 1950’s. Consistent with the term’s etymology, the first American suburbs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were slums, squalid and inferior working-class areas where housing was cheap because it was so far from employment and from the more fashionable city centers. These original cities were organized for a population which moved on foot or by horse and saw no reason to live at some remove from their productive endeavors. Ironically, the first Americans to flee the city for racial reasons were antebellum urban slaves allowed to “live out.” They put as much distance as they dared between themselves and their masters; the outlying New Orleans black districts were called “suburb sheds.”

The reversal of this initial relation between urban core and suburban periphery began before the Civil War. Jackson presents Brooklyn Heights, with Walt Whitman of the Brooklyn Eagle looking on, as the first example of what would be the modern suburb. Whitman found it “highly edifying” to contemplate the early morning “phrenzy exhibited by certain portions of younger gentlemen” rushing for places on the ferry which would take them to work in New York City. There were two key elements in the transformation of Brooklyn. The ferry, an efficient transportation link which brought commuters within range of employment, made former farmland available to be redivided for reconveyance as suburban real estate. Before that, however, the new vision of Brooklyn’s future had taken shape...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)

Crabgrass Frontier Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

American Historical Review. XCI, June, 1986, p. 755.

Best Sellers. XLV, January, 1986, p. 394.

Choice. XXIII, January, 1986, p. 779.

Journal of American History. LXXIII, June, 1986, p. 227.

Library Journal. CX, September 1, 1986, p. 196.

The New Republic. CXCIV, March 10, 1986, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, April 27, 1986, p. 14.

Psychology Today. XX, July, 1986, p. 74.

Wilson Quarterly. C, No. 1, 1986, p. 151.