The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1991, Volume 37, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Essays on Sunbelt Cities and Recent Urban America.

Edited by Robert B. Fairbanks and Kathleen Underwood. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1990. Notes. 176 pages. $19.95.

Reviewed by Amy Bridges, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, San Diego.

Robert Fairbanks and Kathleen Underwood have rounded up the usual suspects to provide a collection of original essays on sunbelt cities. Each of the contributors to this volume is well known to urban historians, and if this raises readers’ expectations, they will not be disappointed.

Three essays tie the development of sunbelt cities to broader developments. Ray Mohl’s “Me Transformation of Urban America since the Second World War” appropriately sets the stage for what follows by summarizing two generations of urban growth and change. Mohl traces the urban consequences of the developing U.S. economy, among other things, the enormous populations movements-from country to city and later, from north to south and west-and within metropolitan areas, from center to suburb, that were responses to those changes. Mohl sketches as well the “federal connection,” the role of national policy in shaping cities, their social life, and their politics.

While U.S. historians emphasize the distinctiveness of the sunbelt from older cities, Robert Fisher’s portrait of “Houston in Context” focuses on what U.S. cities share in culture, spatial development, and public policy, compared to the cities of Europe. Zane Miller’s “Pluralizing America” argues that the last generation here has sought to liberate themselves from regional cultures which have so dominated Americans, their history, and sociological interpretations of urban communities since the Civil War.

Robert Lotchin offers a case study of San Diego as a martial city in “The City and the Sword…” Lotchin argues that “Just as conflict formerly militarized cities, now cities have civilianized … war, and nowhere more so than in … San Diego.” By this Lotchin means that urban dependency on military spending translates national defense into mortgage payments, playground equipment, professional employment, and local culture as surely as GM provides the means for these in Detroit or Wall Street for Manhattan. Not only the detail of family life but also the grand scale of metropolitan life are shaped by San Diego’s marriage to the Navy, including the harbor, metropolitan planning, and the University of California campus.

Robert Fairbanks makes an impressive historical contribution in “The Good Government Machine, The Citizens Charter Association and Dallas Politics, 1936-1960. This is the best portrait we have of any of the nonpartisan slating groups that dominated southwestern city governments at mid-century. Fairbanks demolishes the stereotype of indifference and political impregnability. The CCA, like Robert Wagner or Richard Daley, was pressured to accommodate neighborhood interests and the civil rights movement, fretted over downtown deterioration, and built a growth coalition based in part on public works projects. Thus, in Dallas, where Good Government was a great success, it was never simply the business-like administration municipal reformers dreamed of.

Carl Abbott explores the ways southwestern cities constitute a distinct urban configuration. Their special form is not a consequence of lower density (a misapprehension Abbott mobilizes overwhelming evidence to discount), but on a different three-dimensional configuration than cities of the rustbelt. Abbott shows how low-rise cities not only exhibit different architectural preferences, but also create distinctive southwestern neighborhoods. The open quality of the natural environments complement the horizontal built form. If these cities don’t look like European or Eastern cities, this does not mean they are unformed, but only unfamiliar.

This group of essays offers important contributions to greater historical understanding and to the conceptualization of the sunbelt metropolis. For students of American cities, it is a good read.