The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1998, Volume 44, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities. By Jon C. Teaford. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Tables. Notes. Index. 249 pages. $32.50 cloth.

Reviewed by Andrew Wiese, Assistant Professor of History, San Diego State University.

Since the mid 1980s, journalists and scholars have drawn attention to dramatic changes taking place at the edges of U.S. metropolitan areas. Focusing on the proliferation of high tech industrial parks, suburban office towers, expensive shopping and leisure facilities, as well as exclusive residential subdivisions, a number argue that these changes represent a wholly new form of urbanism in the United States. In Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities, Jon C. Teaford adds his voice to this chorus.

Teaford is one of the foremost historians of American urban politics. With a half dozen books on topics ranging from urban renewal and metropolitan political fragmentation, to city government in the late 19th century, Teaford is well known to students of U.S. urban history. In Post-Suburbia, Teaford turns his focus to the politics and institutions that have accompanied the development of emerging “post-suburban” areas from the 1920s through the early 1990s.

As the basis for his analysis, Teaford develops case studies of six leading “post-suburban” counties: Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, New York; DuPage county, Illinois, northwest of Chicago; Oakland county, Michigan, northwest of Detroit; St. Louis county, Missouri, west of St. Louis; and Orange county, California, south of Los Angeles. Each of these counties exemplifies qualities associated with the “post- suburban” phenomenon and blazed a trail that other counties have followed. Each has attracted commercial development formerly characteristic of central cities — corporate headquarters, cutting edge manufacturing, and “executive class” retailing — yet they remain magnets for elite residence. In DuPage county, Teaford writes, developers even “achieved the remarkable feat of attracting corporate headquarters without sacrificing polo” (p. 92). Finally, unlike early residential suburbs, “post-suburban” counties employed the majority of their residents as early as the 1960s, and they served as independent centers of economic activity within the metropolitan area.

In spite of these trends, Teaford argues, “post-suburban” counties developed political ideology and institutions that were strikingly different from central cities. Eschewing centralized, big-city government, “post-suburbanites” clung fiercely to the ideology of municipal “home rule,” delegating wider authority to county, township or special district authorities only when concrete benefits outweighed the purported dangers of centralized government. Based on the imagery of suburbs as residential retreats from “urban madness,” Teaford asserts, early suburbanites crafted “village style” suburban governments designed as much to protect them from unwanted urban encroachment as to provide services. Even as economic and demographic trends engulfed these suburbs after World War Two, suburbanites jealously defended municipal rule against usurpation by county officials, advocates of metropolitan government, and the varied critics of political balkanization. Even so, “post-suburban” officials pioneered new forms of county level government suitable to the economic needs as well as political ideology of these areas. Over time, “post-suburbanites” crafted county governments with a broad range of powers and responsibilities. County officials tirelessly promoted economic development, established county park and library systems, developed airports and sports arenas, as well as providing wider police, sewer, water, and garbage disposal services. The history of post-suburban government, therefore, has been a persistent contest between demands for economic growth and desires for comfortable residential living and small scale government. Like “post- suburban” life itself, Teaford concludes, government and politics in the edge cities represents a balancing act between suburban ideals and “post-suburban” realities.

Thoroughly researched, cogently argued, and well written, Post-Suburbia is a “must read” book for students of contemporary urban and suburban politics. However, a few caveats are in order. First, although the notion that recent commercial decentralization represents a new era in U.S. urban history is hotly debated, Teaford leaves out any reference to that debate. Moreover, he neglects to mention that commercial development in the suburbs is nothing new (especially in the cities he discusses). Just a few miles south of Oakland county, in suburban Detroit, for instance, Henry Ford opened the world’s largest factory complex on the River Rouge in Dearborn in the early 1920s. Nearby were gargantuan steel mills, dry docks, railroad yards, and other industrial facilities that employed tens of thousands of workers before 1945. In the shadow of the mills were the homes and institutions of blue collar immigrants, native whites, and African Americans. This suburban landscape, which was replicated south of Chicago and Los Angeles, east of St. Louis, and west of New York, plays no role in Teaford’s story, nor do trends in these regions since the onset of “post- suburbanization.” The influence of working class suburbanites on post-suburban politics, for example, and its effect on them, remain unexplored. For Teaford, “suburbia” and “post suburbia” are essentially middle class and elite phenomena, as are the political developments this book describes. Post-Suburbia is, therefore, an important contribution to the literature of recent metropolitan politics, but it is not the last word.