The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.

By Kenneth T. Jackson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Appendix. Chapter notes. Illustrations. Index. 396 pages. $21.95.

Reviewed by Jack D. Elenbaas, Professor of American Urban History, California State University, Fullerton.

Utilizing a chronological and thematic format, Professor Kenneth T. Jackson blends the basic American historical chronology with the themes of available land, transportation technology, race relations, middle class affluence and government largess to produce a historical synthesis of the suburbanization process in the United States. Professor Jackson defines the suburb as ” both a planning type and a state of mind based on imagery and symbolism.” The suburb, argues Jackson, is a community of detached dwellings in a rural setting that encompasses the hopes and aspirations of the white middle class seeking refuge from the constantly changing urban-industrial cityscape.

Historically the suburbs were the homes of the poor and the dispossessed. They were in effect the slums. Jackson notes that this was true in colonial society where, ironically, urban blacks were forced to flee to the suburbs to escape white hostility. It was the constant improvement of transportation technology coupled with inexpensive and available land that changed the role of the suburb from being the home of the outcast to becoming the haven of the wealthy. As transportation technology evolved from the omnibus to the steam railroad to the streetcar and finally to the automobile, suburbs developed as residences and later as work places for the middle class. By the 1870s they had adopted their familiar commuter characteristics. First came the very rich with their elaborately styled rural mansions followed by the upper middle class and their expensive custom built homes. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, notes Professor Jackson, the streetcar suburbs emerged with their mass produced homes and cottages for the urban middle class, thus completing the stages of settlement. This pattern is similar in some ways to the method by which, according to Frederick Jackson Turner, the western frontier was settled. Each group came seeking their idea of the perfect environment and finding it among the neatly manicured lawns of the suburb.

The Crabgrass Frontier provides valuable information on the important relationships that exist between planners, landscape architects, developers, realtors, magazine editors, inventors, utility companies, politicians and the middle class’ insatiable appetite for the perfect rural village — far away from the congestion, noise, expensive land, and what the Federal Housing Administration called “inharmonious racial groups” of the inner city. Of particular value in this book is Jackson’s analysis of the impact of the New Deal policies on the city and the suburb. In the hope of providing employment and saving family homes the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLQ and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided money, loan guarantees and a formula to lenders and builders which ensured that the suburbs would be built at the expense of the city. Under the government’s formula, inner city neighborhoods were poor risks and therefore did not qualify for financing. This was especially true for nonwhite neighborhoods which always appeared at the bottom of the government’s approved list. Thus, these neighborhoods were left to deteriorate and die while the money poured into the new mass-produced suburbs. Jackson charges that not only did the federal programs hasten the decay of the inner city but that they also hastened the racial division that now exists between the city and the suburb. In short, it created a virtual urban-suburban policy of apartheid. Public housing projects that were supposed to correct the housing problems of minorities in the inner city were never seriously considered by either the federal government or by the local governments. The federally funded and locally controlled housing projects only exacerbated racial tensions and institutionalized its occupants. The author believes that while public policy has contributed handsomely to the creation of thousands of suburbs, it has failed dismally in preserving communities for all of America’s metropolitan citizens.

In the future Professor Jackson sees a slowing down of the decentralization process of American cities due to the high costs of fuel, land, credit and construction. He also notes that federal subsidies to the suburbs are being cut back and that racial tensions are easing. He concludes that all of this will help to stabilize the balance between the city and the suburb.

This is a well written, tightly organized book that synthesizes the work done by many scholars over the past two decades. It creates a model for understanding urban-suburban growth which emphasizes economic forces, industrial development, technological advances and racial attitudes. The book, however, fails to develop a working definition of community and it tends to create a romanticized version of the pre-industrial cities. The author also gently but firmly chides the white middle class for seeking out a house and a garden where they can raise their children and acquire a sense of success and well being away from the city. The suburb is viewed as a creation of greed and racism while the city is portrayed as the victim of these evils. One can find controversy in this book, but overall this is an excellent survey of the emergence of the ubiquitous American suburb. It is filled with useful examples and comparisons and Southern Californians will discover much about their suburban past, present and future.