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When America Became Suburban

Robert A. Beauregard

Publication Year: 2006

In the decades after World War II, the United States became the most prosperous nation in the world and a superpower whose dominance was symbolized by the American suburbs. Spurred by the decline of its industrial cities and by mass suburbanization, people imagined a new national identity—one that emphasized consumerism, social mobility, and a suburban lifestyle. The urbanity of the city was lost. In When America Became Suburban, Robert A. Beauregard examines this historic intersection of urban decline, mass suburbanization, domestic prosperity, and U.S. global aspirations as it unfolded from 1945 to the mid-1970s. Suburban expansion and the subsequent emergence of sprawling Sunbelt cities transformed every aspect of American society. Assessing the global implications of America’s suburban way of life as evidence of the superiority of capitalist democracy, Beauregard traces how the suburban ideology enabled America to distinguish itself from both the Communist bloc and Western Europe, thereby deepening its claim of exceptionalism on the world-historical stage.Placing the decline of America’s industrial cities and the rise of vast suburban housing and retail spaces into a cultural, political, and global context, Beauregard illuminates how these phenomena contributed to a changing notion of America’s identity at home and abroad. When America Became Suburban brings to light the profound implications of de-urbanization: from the siphoning of investments from the cities and the effect on the quality of life for those left behind to a profound shift in national identity.Robert A. Beauregard is a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. He is the author of Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of U.S. Cities and editor of Economic Restructuring and Political Response and Atop the Urban Hierarchy.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xvi

In the decades after World War II, America’s identity was radically altered. Spurred by the return of economic prosperity, the extension of the nation’s global dominance, and —most importantly for the story I will tell —the simultaneous decline of the industrial cities and the rise of the suburbs, Americans reimagined their country and what it meant to be an American. The United States...

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1. The Short American Century

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pp. 18-35

From the end of World War II in 1945 to the recession of the early 1970s, the United States was the most affl uent and the most infl uential of nations. During those years, the United States realized the destiny that Henry R. Luce, one of the country’s most outspoken publishers, had famously foreshadowed in 1941. Luce had urged Americans “to ac commodate themselves spiritually...

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2. Urbanization’s Consequences

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pp. 36-56

Just before the midpoint of the twentieth century, the processes of urbanization that had governed the country’s growth for almost 100 years were fundamentally altered. Whereas most cities and towns had benefi ted from steady increases in population and geographical expansion prior to these years, this was no longer the case by the early postwar period. Growth turned from distributive to parasitic. Despite a booming national economy and...

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3. Parasitic Urbanization

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pp. 57-86

The sudden loss of population from the industrial cities coupled with mass suburbanization and Sunbelt -city growth constituted a sharp break in the country’s developmental trajectory. They were the consequences of a profound rupture in the underlying dynamics of urbanization. After 1945, the distributive urbanization that had prevailed from the mid -1800s to the...

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4. Culture and Institutions

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pp. 87-117

The desire to make sense of the world often triggers a search for a previously hidden logic. When the industrial cities grew large and congested, could households have done other than move to the periphery, factories other than to relocate to less crowded sites, and retail activities other than to follow? And, since prosperity seems to be the key to suburbanization, what else would one have expected from the economic expansion of...

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5. Domestic Prosperity

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pp. 118-138

No one factor brought about the parasitic urbanization of the postwar period. Cultural attitudes were biased against big cities, while the institutional tendencies of government and business favored nearly unfettered growth and ceaseless expansion into adjacent farmlands and open spaces. Without the great burst of prosperity that followed World War II and the corresponding expansion of the middle class, however, the forces of...

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6. Ways of Life

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pp. 139-160

The consumption that drove the postwar economy was, in style and content, distinctly suburban. Its novelties included greater individual mobility, increased leisure, higher rates of product obsolescence, and a tighter bond between status and consumption. As the famous housing developer William J. Levitt noted about postwar suburbanization, the suburban homebuyer is “not...

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7. America’s Global Project

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pp. 161-188

Not only was the suburban way of life essential to America’s postwar prosperity, it also contributed to the crafting of America’s global dominance. Suburbia’s consumer -based lifestyle epitomized the freedom and prosperity that fi gured prominently in the ideological construction of the United States as an international power. The urban way of life held much less appeal. Cities were vulnerable to atomic -bomb attack, conjured up images...

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8. Identity and Urbanity

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pp. 189-213

No historical period ever begins or ends abruptly. World War II marked the beginning of the short American Century and the onset of two events —industrial -city decline and mass suburbanization —that left the country’s landscape, its dominant way of life, and what it meant to be an American irreparably changed. Neither event suddenly appeared as truce was declared. The recession of 1973–1975 marked the end. Yet the consequences...

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pp. 214-215

The origins of this book extend back to one of the fi rst courses I took in graduate school at Cornell University. Wonderfully stimulating and informative, the course was co-taught by Bill Goldsmith and Allan Feldt and focused on theories of urban and regional development. For many years, my research addressed other themes, but the knowledge that these two engaging...


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pp. 216-217

Appendix A. Decennial Population Loss for the Fifty Largest U.S. Cities, 1820–2000

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pp. 218-219

Appendix B. Demographic and Economic Comparisons across Periods of Urbanization

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p. 220-220

Appendix C. Measures of Urbanization for Historical Periods

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pp. 221-223


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pp. 224-279


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pp. 280-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780816698813
E-ISBN-10: 0816698813
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816648856

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2006

Edition: First edition