- New Histories of Representing American Suburbs: Race, Place, and Memory
We have entered a Golden Age of suburban studies. Much has already been made of the so-called “new suburban history” of the early twenty-first century. Earlier scholars of American suburbia had sketched out a vision of suburbia demographically, geographically, and functionally too narrow.1 Much of the focus [End Page 29] was on the migration of the affluent from the city to suburbs, which subsequently excluded economically and socially marginal peoples. This view painted suburbs as predominantly white middle-class enclaves functioning as bedroom communities for residents who depended on cities for jobs, shopping, and leisure.2 New suburban historians challenged these earlier depictions for their omissions: industry; retail outlets; local businesses; multifamily housing; blue-collar workers; minorities; and the poor. They documented industrial suburbs, racial and ethnic suburbs, and more, moving beyond the white middle-class residential archetype.3 But, recent works by Greg Dickinson, Vicki Howard, and Lisa Uddin suggest that we may be in thick of a “third wave” of suburban studies.
My first impression of a new wave came when I worked with John Archer and Katherine Solomonson on editing and contributing to Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America (2015). Our driving thrust was to highlight suburban research that looked at suburbanites themselves and how they came to define, understand, and use suburbia as an apparatus for living. We also sought to highlight works on representation, particularly as it helps to influence activity, but also mobilizing, building, and gathering in suburbia. I see much of the same emphasis present in these works by Dickinson, Howard, and Uddin. This is not to say others have not come before us, or that there is an easily definable line demarking one wave of suburban history from another. Progress in the field of suburban studies is often wonderfully, beautifully messy. Some of the elements I see as “third wave” include a more intense focus on the lives of suburbanites themselves and a dissection of representations and cultural landscapes, especially in terms of race.
In Suburban Dreams, Dickinson looks at suburbs as a means for living visions of what he calls the good life. The good life is both a symbolic and material project most often performed in American suburbia. In this way, suburbs structure agency. A connection between the communities people create and the values they have, their sense of self, and their continuous reassembly of both, and vice versa, is central to Dickinson’s thesis and is his most powerful contribution. Pulling from spatial theorists like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, Dickinson shows how suburbs encompass much more than geographical location or material form. Changing conceptions of the family, home, leisure, separateness and togetherness, security and safety, nature, history, public life, and community life—various elements of the so-called good life—all shaped and were shaped by modern American suburbia. Here, the suburban material and symbolic landscapes are instruments of production, or “rhetorical resources,” “enabling and structuring—without determining—action” (2). Suburbia therefore constitutes the physical, social, and cultural resources by which suburbanites engage daily life. Moreover, they are simultaneously the effects afforded to suburbanites in the next round of everyday practice and meaning making.
Over three parts and six chapters, Dickinson chronicles how suburbanites indeed act upon suburbs to (re)assemble and live out multiple versions of the good life. In Part I, “Imagining the Good Life,” Dickinson devotes two chapters [End Page 30] to showing how suburbs came to represent the fulfillment of promises about the so-called good life, and how popular culture helped fashion a spatial imagery of suburbia as the best place for living the good life. The post–World War II boom excited economic prosperity and a rapid growth in detached single-family homes. In the...