Backstory: Suburbia 101

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

Another factor is, of course, college students themselves. They're clamoring for a keener sense of where they grew up and a glimpse of the world behind decades of film depicting suburbs in equal measures of hope and despair.

To Kirsten Flewelling, a senior at San Diego State University, a class on suburbia offered the opportunity to "probe deeper into what makes a person." "My opinion of the suburbs was, I think, close to everyone's - single-family tract homes, middle class, big yards," says Ms. Flewelling. By the end of the fall semester, though, her view had changed. Flewelling's final paper was titled "Not as seen on television," and compared the popular representation of suburbs with their reality in areas such as high school test scores and crime rates.

If student demand has resulted in more course offerings, having faculty who grew up in the booming suburbs of the second half of the 20th century doesn't hurt, either. The "message of a whole generation," says Professor Bruegmann, was an accusatory tale of wealthy white Americans escaping to affluent bedroom communities, turning their backs on urban problems. "What's happened over the last 10 or 20 years is that younger scholars who came of age after those dire predictions failed to come true ... have gone out ... to see if these explanations make sense."

American inequality has long been a focus of suburban studies - looking at the suburbs as a place of white flight, "a white noose around the black city," says Andrew Wiese, associate professor of history at San Diego State University. More recently, though, there's been an effort to put working-class people and people of color back into the narrative, "to try to understand this is not simply a story of what white people did to America, but of suburbs" as a place where people could make better lives, he says.

The history of the suburbs has always seemed to alternate between reverence and ridicule. In post-World War II America, film and television often depicted suburbia as a land of calm and plenty, with gleaming appliances in every corniced kitchen. Representations grew increasingly critical in the 1960s and the decades following, perhaps most famously in films such as "The Graduate" and, more recently, "American Beauty."

Even in the early postwar years, says Robert Beuka, assistant professor of English at the City University of New York, amid "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Donna Reed," books like "The Crack in the Picture Window" and "No Down Payment" probed suburbia's dark side. "There's this binary understanding of suburbs," says Professor Beuka. "Are they the realization of the American dream or the exact opposite - a place of stress and dysfunction and madness and alcohol and despair?"

Most experts think our notion of the suburbs is now edging toward a complicated middle ground. It will be a story that includes white flight and disinvestment along with dreams of safe streets and canopies of trees, and one that addresses sprawl even as it concedes that not all suburbanites are faceless drivers of SUVs.

"There's a widespread belief that for too long we've stigmatized and caricatured the suburbs and the suburbanites who live there," says Professor Lassiter. "This has really been an enormous gap in trying to understand the country that we live in."

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