Searching for the Sunbelt: Historical Perspectives on a Region.
Edited by Raymond A. Mohl. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990. Index. 249 pages. $32.40.
Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University, author of San Diego: A Pictorial History (1986) and a forthcoming history of San Diego State University.
In the 1960s journalists coined the term “sunbelt” to refer to the growth areas of the time, the South and West. Academicians picked up the term and began to publish on “sunbelt cities.” One of the early books was Sunbelt Cities: Politics and Growth Since World War II (1983) edited by Richard Bernard and Bradley Rice. Their definition of a “sunbelt city” fit San Diego to perfection–a sunbelt city was shaped by the impact of World War II and by federal funds for military, defense, and other programs. A sunbelt city also featured a “good business climate,” a political structure dominated by the downtown business interests and devoted to a “growth ethic,” and a high “quality of life.” The use of the concept made it possible to elevate study of the city out of a parochial setting and into a national one. Roger Lotchin’s article “The City and the Sword” in another book on the subject (Essays on Sunbelt Cities and Recent Urban America , edited by R. B. Fairbanks and K. Underwood) provided the best account of the role of the military in San Diego’s postwar history. Thus, when the University of Tennessee Press announced Searching for the Sunbelt: Historical Perspectives on a Region, edited by Raymond A. Mohl, this reviewer could hardly wait to see what it contributed to understanding San Diego’s postwar history. Unfortunately, it contributed very little.
The problem is not a lack of quality on the part of the selections, but rather the focus of the book. Perhaps because it grew out of lectures delivered at the University of Texas at Arlington, most of the material focuses on the south. There are few mentions of San Diego (and they are all in passing) and there is little discussion of the west in general.
Searching for the Sunbelt does contain some good general essays on the sunbelt–Carl Abbott’s article discussing the origins and definitions of the terms, Bradley Rice’s “Searching for the Sunbelt,” examining the elusiveness of the definition of the concept, and David Goldfield and Howard Rabinowitz’s epilogue arguing that the sunbelt had a short life and is already disappearing. Between these general appraisals of the sunbelt idea the editor has included a number of papers on specific topics, such as defense spending, politics, ethnic and racial politics, immigration, and air conditioning. The article on defense spending and city building provides a good background against which to study San Diego’s recent past. The other articles are mostly well done, but provide little for San Diego historians except a basis for comparison for or an example of a methodology which might be applied to San Diego. By their diversity, they also show the diffuseness of the concept, which is the main theme of the book.