October 28, 2019

Where will next year’s presidential election be decided? Florida or Minnesota? North Carolina or Ohio? At this stage, the only honest answer to that question is “who knows?” But what can be predicted with far more confidence is that, in all the states in play, the race will be won or lost in the suburbs.

Suburbia’s significance in American politics was made obvious by last year’s midterms. The blue wave that saw Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives looked more like a tsunami in the suburbs. Republicans went into 2018 holding 69 suburban districts in the House — they ended the year with just 32.

The suburbs matter because, in contemporary American politics, density matters. Travel from a city centre to the country and as the landscape gets sparser, the politics get steadily redder, no matter what part of America you find yourself in. Will Wilkinson, of the Washington think tank the Niskanen Centre, argues persuasively that density is the factor to consider if you want to understand America’s divided politics: “There are really no red states or blue states. There’s compact blue urban density and sprawling red sparseness.”

And according to Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden, population density becomes a stronger predictor of voting behaviour with every election that goes by.

That makes America’s suburbs the country’s decisive ideological battleground, the in-between zones between blue cities and red countryside that will decide the outcome. And if the suburbs matter, then they should be properly understood.

Curtain twitchers, desperate housewives, status anxiety and cul-de-sacs — this is what we think of when we shut our eyes and imagine the suburbs. This picture of stultifying conformity might have started with a grain of truth but has become a gross oversimplification.

A new book — Amanda Kolson Hurley’s Radical Suburbs — argues that the stereotype of American suburbia misses an important part of the story. The post-War history of the suburbs tells of a road and housebuilding boom, cheap government-backed mortgages, and white flight from crowded and dangerous cities. All of that happened, but, as Hurley persuasively argues, there is more to the story of life on the fringes of American cities.

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While the suburbs are where millions have chosen to live out the conventional definition of the good life, they have also been the site of a surprising amount of social experimentation — a laboratory for religious sects, political cliques, urban planners and architects who have sought to radically redefine the American dream.

Consider, for example, the neighbourhood of Economy, outside Pittsburgh. Founded in 1824 by a German religious group called the Harmonists, it was intended to be “a city in which God would dwell among men, a city in which perfection in all things was to be attained”. Led by Johann Georg Rapp, the Harmonists were committed to an esoteric strand of Christianity that mixed Lutheranism with weirder ingredients, like the belief that Jesus was a “dual being, male and female at once” and a commitment to celibacy — not a recipe for long-term demographic success.

In the first half of the 20th century, Stelton, New Jersey, was the unlikely site of an Anarchist commune. The town was “bohemian, unorthodox” – and suburban. According to Hurley, “Steltonites didn’t hide their radicalism, raising the red flag on the water tower” after the November Revolution in Germany at the end of the First World War.

By night, the community’s far-Left factions would row furiously in an exhausting sounding participatory democracy. By day, children were taught in an anarchist school and the men and women of Stelton would head into New York for work, just like their bourgeois neighbours. “Upon a train your anarchist is inconspicuously dressed, unless it be that he is rather below the sartorial average of the suburban traveller,” reported the New York Tribune in 1919.

Concord Park, in Trevose, near Philadelphia, looked exactly like other 1950s suburban housing developments. But behind the orthodoxy of its manicured lawns and identikit “little box” houses was a radical mission: to build one of America’s first integrated housing developments.

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By definition, Hurley’s case studies are exceptions — but they don’t prove any sort of rule. Thankfully most Americans don’t want to join a celibate sect or an Anarchist commune. And yet they add up to a warning not to treat suburbia as a homogenous lump; or to dismiss it as a collection of uninteresting places in between. “Heading for the urban fringes to live by nonconformist values is a long American tradition, and one we can learn a great deal from today,” says Hurley.

Those behind the often eccentric attempts to build utopia on the outskirts understood something many miss: that the suburbs are where the American dream takes shape. Anyone who wants a say in the country’s definition of the good life should take the suburbs seriously. That is true of policymakers, politicians, urban planners and architects.

Hurley accuses many of the latter two groups of turning their nose up at the suburbs: “The design elite has alternately patronised or inveighed against suburbia for years, ever since the International Congress of Modern Architecture called the suburb ‘a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city’ in 1933.”

Belgian architect Leon Krier’s dismissiveness is unimprovably snobbish: “The suburb hates itself: it knows that it is neither countryside nor city and wants to conquer the world because it cannot be at peace with itself… The suburb strangles the city by surrounding it and kills the city, tearing out its heart. A suburb can only survive, it cannot live.”

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“What if we embraced that inbetweenness instead of condemning it,” asks Hurley, who wants to “celebrate the possibilities of standing on that threshold.”

After all, the suburbs are where most Americans have decided to call home, with around 60% of the country living in . That is a broad category, as Hurley puts it, including “semi-rural areas where strip malls nibble at farmland and those where tall towers loom over the city line. It encompasses McMansions and mobile homes, airports and light-industrial estates, landfills and parkland.”

As major cities continue to grow more economically powerful – and unaffordable – their commuter belts will only get more important. Policymakers should think again about restrictive zoning regulations that get in the way of building the suburbs Americans deserve.

And, rather than disparage the type of community that most Americans call home, the country’s planners and architects should delve into the suburbs’s surprisingly rich past as inspiration for a better future. After all, as Hurley puts it, suburbia is what we make it.