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Backstory: Suburbia 101

Suburbs, long ridiculed and revered, gain as a focus of college study because of their role in the American narrative.

By Christina McCarrollCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 2006



ANN ARBOR, MICH.

Suburbia has as many icons as it does front doors. From Donna Reed and Ward Cleaver to Lester Burnham in "American Beauty" and Neddy Merrill in John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," the landscape has given rise to pinnacles and perversions of the American Dream.

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Suburbia has occupied a peculiar place in the American psyche - a barometer of our best hopes and worst fears, a measure of advancement and a means of segregation. Now, academe has come knocking, too.

"There has been an absolute boom in courses ... that have to do with suburbs," says Robert Bruegmann, chair of the art history department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the new book "Sprawl."

It's evident in new centers for suburban and metropolitan studies, such as those at Hofstra University in New York and the University of California, Riverside; a growing number of conferences on the subject; and course offerings estimated at up to several dozen nationwide.

The rising interest in a land and lifestyle that's given rise to everything from "Leave it to Beaver" to "Desperate Housewives" follows the emergence of urban studies as a field in its own right, in which scholars have come to see the city as a microcosm of contemporary dilemmas.

Now some experts see the roots of other modern issues - sprawl, environmentalism, racism, conservatism, and the rise of the religious right - in the suburbs. And they're questioning some mid-century notions of suburbia as an alienating land of look-alike joiners.

"Scholars of the '60s really hated the suburbs with a passion and saw them as antithetical to what America is all about, but demographic trends have overwhelmed that resistance," says Kevin Kruse, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University who teaches a course called "Suburban Nation." "America is a majority- suburbs country, and I don't think you can understand the country until you understand that."

Modern American suburbs, after all, have expanded well beyond the vision of a great white horde. They're home to 38 percent of the nation's African Americans, 58 percent of its Asian Americans, and more than half of its Latinos. Seventy-five percent of new building takes place in the suburbs, and contemporary immigration is focused there.

For all their purported placidity, suburbs have been a breeding ground for major social movements - from segregation to elements of modern feminism, notably in Betty Friedan's critique of the suburban housewife.

The field's growth is compared not only to the rise of urban studies, but to the emergence of "modern" and "everyday" history as fields in their own right - a process in which an epoch or phenomenon so familiar as to be invisible has slowly been deemed worthy of study. The 1990s helped, too, according to Matt Lassiter, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan here, who taught a course on suburbia this fall: There was the film debut of "American Beauty," the Columbine school shootings in Colorado, and Al Gore's "livability agenda."

"In some ways, academia is catching up to reality," says Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There's so much activity, so much change [in the suburbs], and therefore so much political volatility."

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