Chronicling the American suburb

White picket fences, single-family dwellings, and the daily commute are such an everyday part of American life and lore that few have ever thought to chronicle them. A history of the suburb, that blandest of communities? Suburbs may be a lot of things -- including havens from urban turmoil and gridwork blights on the landscape -- but they're not bland, according to Columbia University's Prof. Kenneth T. Jackson. Their history, a variegated fabric of utopian ideals, technological breakthroughs, and sharp business dealing, is stitched together in Dr. Jackson's recent book, ``Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States'' (Oxford University Press, New York; 396 pp; $21.95).

What drew him to writing a history of the American suburb? Jackson, a man of informal manners and Southern upbringing who still retains a touch of drawl, points out that the project grew naturally out of his interest in the history of cities -- just as suburbs themselves sprang from the cities. ``I like to study the past for what it can tell us about the present,'' he says, and few things so characterize the present as the billowing residences and retail districts that skirt our major metropolises.

There have been some excellent books on individual suburbs, he continues, but no one had really asked the question ``How did we come to live like this?'' He ventured to ask that and soon ran into a problem: The subject ``cuts across so many disciplines, it's so discursive, that it's difficult to say anything with great confidence.'' But he plowed forward, breaking that overall question into sub-queries, such as ``Why do cities, generally, no longer expand their boundaries?''

In the course of answering that particular question, Jackson noted that in the 1860s Brookline, Mass., was the first significant bordering town to rebuff the advances of a larger neighbor (in this case, Boston). Before that, he explains, annexation was usually welcomed, since cities were considered the better places to live, with ``greater snob appeal,'' superior schools -- very nearly the reverse of today's preferences.

The word ``suburb'' gradually took on a new and more positive meaning through the 19th and 20th centuries, affirming a community's identity instead of implying subordination to a city.

The pattern of suburbanization in the United States is uniquely American, Jackson maintains. Things didn't happen this way in Europe, Japan, or anywhere else, for reasons that are right at hand: spacious, affordable land through most of the nation's history; the whirlwind invasion of the automobile; the predominance of the nuclear family; and the sharp boundary traditionally drawn in the US between work and home. Americans had the means and the space to invest in houses and yards, he says, and they did so.

Maybe it has been an ``overinvestment,'' he suggests, at the expense of industrial growth. The Japanese, after all, followed a diametrically opposite path.

But it wasn't just space and cheap land that stimulated growth on our city's fringes. Uncle Sam, through the federal housing and mortgage insurance programs, was the one who put the foot to the floorboard in the drive toward suburban sprawl, Jackson contends. True, countless Americans from the late 19th century forward chose the suburbs, but from the mid-1930s onward ``it was not a fair choice,'' he says. Everything was tilted in the suburbs' favor. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), by setting up uniform standards for new housing (standards that effectively excluded inner cities) and guaranteeing loans (thus driving down interest rates), opened up floodgates of financing for home builders. Housing starts doubled between 1937 and 1941, and they skyrocketed after World War II.

Those were the days of the first Levittowns -- developments that become prototypes of the sprawl to come.

But the standards set by the FHA -- while stimulating less expensive, higher-quality housing -- had a dark side. In establishing a grading system by which appraisers could assess the creditworthiness of a community, prejudice was built into the residential patterns. Any mixed neighborhood, and certainly any black neighborhood, automatically got a low rating. ``Redlining,'' the practice of denying credit to residents -- frequently black -- of ``decaying'' communities, was born.

As Jackson points out in his book, the highest grade was reserved for ``homogeneous'' neighborhoods. `` `Homogeneous' meant `American business and professional men,' '' he writes. That excluded blacks, Jews -- anyone outside the WASP mainstream.

The legacy of those housing policies, while mitigated by legislation in recent years, is still very much with us. So is its flip side -- the concentration of public housing in the inner cities. Given the option by law, no other communities would accept the projects.

Looking ahead, the historian sees a reversal in the process of suburbanization. Like many others, he is carefully noting the ``gentrifying'' trends in major cities, as well as changing family patterns that may make the large, detached house in the suburbs less ideal for Americans. The likelihood of a future oil crunch, reminding us that that resource is finite and that the automobile has its limitations, also has to be factored in.

``By the year 2000,'' says this chronicler of America's suburbs, ``I think we'll see a major shift back to the city.''

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