Hurley, Amanda Kolson. Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2019.
By Walter Greason
For decades, urban historians have challenged the image of the suburb as a collection of, as Malvina Reynolds put it, “little boxes all the same.” The moment has arrived to introduce to the public to the ongoing scholarly debates about suburbanization and their importance to the development of the global service economy over the last two decades. This third generation of metropolitan histories owes an enormous debt to scholars like Kenneth Jackson, Mary Corbin Sies, Dolores Hayden, David M.P. Freund, Andrew Wiese, Willow Lung-Amam, Becky Nicolaides, Robert Fishman, and Lizabeth Cohen. The breakthroughs in the academy have created opportunities for insightful journalists to challenge the simple portrayal of residential suburbs as sleepy, meaningless dormitories for middle-class families.
Amanda Kolson Hurley substantially advances this revaluation of the suburbs in her new book, Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City. Without burdening the reader with extensive bibliographies, Hurley makes a range of historiographical themes available to people who have wisely avoided enrollment in introductory graduate school classes.
Hurley takes the audience first to the edge of early twentieth century cities to focus on growth at the spatial fringe. Her early suburbs connect to Frederick Jackson Turner’s concept of unregulated spaces that allowed for widespread abuses and profit seeking. Most interestingly, political ideologies and experiments rooted in anarchy defined some early suburbs. Her discussion of Stelton, New Jersey, and the general happiness of life without social expectations, was insightful and profound. Jon Thoreau Scott’s description of a place where “You could learn to read whenever you wanted to, you could play all day if you wanted to” strikes a stark contrast against the consumer suburbs of the post-war era. (55) The absence of state regulation and the presence of radical ideologies amounted to a sense of disorder that suburban developers strive to eliminate to this day.
The second thematic movement covered by Hurley is the romantic assertion of order through the idealism of urbanization. Garden cities and subdivisions, in her construction, grew up together as state and private actors collaborated. Building codes and zoning laws allowed for municipal authority to prevail in ways that dismantled radicalism and disciplined land-use. As these state interventions moved across the landscape, suburban communities steadfastly refused many of the more aggressive reforms to control private development. The resulting chaos at the suburban fringe allowed nineteenth-century forms of rural development to prevail.
Hurley might have done more to emphasize those transitions in the last two chapters of Radical Suburbs, despite their strength. She correctly identifies the ways that suburbs began to both integrate and segregate in ways similar to urban neighborhoods between 1948 and 2008. Hurley’s metropolitan landscape blends rural, suburban, and urban expressions and will help future popular writers to avoid the stereotypes that have informed too much analysis by non-historians. In the final chapter, the discussion of the ‘soul’ as possible future for radical suburbs informs the steep challenge facing both practitioners and scholars in the decades ahead. If suburban institutions can open their doors to the most marginalized populations in terms of both spatial and financial autonomy, then we might approach the conditions necessary to create Hurley’s ‘soulful suburbs.’ She closes her discussion of Greenbelt, Maryland, with Bob Simon’s idea of creating more humane communities. (153) A world based on data will not achieve this vision; a return to our love of music, poetry, and art might reverse the damage metropolitan growth has done.
Walter Greason is among the most prominent historians, educators, and urbanists in the United States. He has spent the past 30 years speaking to audiences in dozens of states, on over 100 college and high school campuses, at dozens of professional and academic conferences, and to community groups across the country. Walter teaches at Monmouth University. His work is available every day on Twitter, @worldprofessor.
Featured image (at top): The songwriter Malvina Reynolds got Daly City wrong when she wrote about those “little boxes on the hillside”: this San Francisco suburb was decidedly working class, photo courtesy of wikimedia.com.
This post contains affiliate links. If you end up making a purchase, we may earn a commission on the sale. Thank you for supporting the hard work of writers and editors.