- Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America ed. by John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul, and Katherine Solomonson
Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
xxv + 392 pages, 7 line drawings, 85 black-and-white photographs.
ISBN: 978-081-669296-5, $122.50 HB
ISBN: 978–081-669299-6, $35.00 PB
Making Suburbia starts from the premise that the people who have occupied suburbia's little boxes have never been "all the same" (viii). Today's scholarship depicts a heterogeneous suburbia that is "quintessentially local" (ix). Editors John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul, and Katherine Solomonson have assembled a collection that "looks closely at processes of making by examining the actions and circumstances that produce what the actors . . . know as suburbia" (viii). So rather than defining suburbia or suburbanites as they are typically understood—on the basis of municipal boundaries, the built environment, neighborhood demographics, or stereotypical lifestyles—the chapter authors look at the ways suburban designers and dwellers fashion where they live and work through everyday practices: undertaking home improvements, gardening, working, politicking, shopping, listening to music, going to church, or hanging out with friends. Archer, Sandul, and Solomonson reject Frankfurt school theories that posit suburban dwellers conform to hegemonic scripts imposed by powerful authorities.1 Suburban denizens possess the agency in this collection; they define the terms and perform the actions by which suburbia is made and experienced. In other words, the editors eschew generalized definitions to argue that suburbia is as the suburbanite does.
The value of this volume lies in the robust [End Page 104] collection of examples of people making suburbia—fashioning their own scripts in diverse and particular ways. Every chapter is likely to interest scholars of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes because of the focus on making through everyday life. The geographic range covers the continental United States; just over half of the chapters focus on California or midwestern states, with additional case studies from the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the mountain West. The temporal focus is quite selective, however. All but one chapter concentrates on the post–World War II era up to the present; the editors provide no justification for this choice.2 Making Suburbia is organized into four sections of five, six, four, and six chapters, respectively: "Mobilizing" (mobilizing change through community engagement, citizen planning, and political advocacy), "Representing" (constructing discursive and visual narratives for community building, preservation, and designing), "Gathering" (defining communities through identity characteristics and everyday practices), and "Building" (producing and occupying a range of suburban spaces in distinctive ways). Readers may struggle to discern why chapters were assigned to one division rather than another; in such a multi-disciplinary collection of case studies, however, there is bound to be some overlap between section content. The contributors have been trained in a broad array of fields: architectural and art history; historic preservation; literature; social, urban, design, public, and planning history; geography; and cultural, gender, and American studies. With authors applying such a broad range of perspectives to their writing, Making Suburbia lives up to the promise offered by the editors in the introduction. It showcases "the intersections and conversations among multiple narratives . . . that continually produce what suburbia is and what it will become" (xxi).
That said, the chapters are uneven. Too many authors fail to connect their research to relevant bodies of scholarship. Trecia Pottinger examines how African Americans in South Ardmore, Pennsylvania, "mobilized to take control over the planning of the suburb in the 1960s and 1970s" (21), and in this important essay she shows local citizens acting on their own vision of what they needed their community to provide. This kind of "advocacy planning" by communities of color often remains invisible to scholars as well as to a broader public; it would have been helpful if Pottinger cited other relevant studies.3 Other chapters that fail to relate their case studies to the broader suburban scholarship include Ursula Lang's essay on gardening practices in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Holley Wlodarczyk's comparison of suburban Houses of the Future in 1956 and 2012, and...