Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA

By Fishwick, Marshall W. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2005 | Go to article overview

Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA


Fishwick, Marshall W., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA Mark Clapson. Oxford: Berg, 2003.

Over the years, suburbs have got bad press soulless blobs with bad architecture that destroys communities. Clapson sets out to amend these concepts, which may often be myths. The majority of people in both the United Kingdom and the United States now live in suburbs, thanks to the rising affluence of the post-WWII period.

Actually, the suburban picture is complex. We need to look first at the politics of affluence and social class. A professor at the University of Westminster, Mark Clapson believes that the twentieth century should be termed the suburban century. He determines to tell us why.

This well-written and documented book is primarily a social history of suburbanization. In his introduction, Professor Clapson gives us his key themes. They all draw heavily from urban history and sociology.

Chapter 2 explores the relationship of suburbanization to economic and technological change over the course of the century. It is impossible to comprehend social change in towns and cities without a strong general understanding of the expansion of public transport, the rise of the car, and the impact of communications technologies on urban and suburban life.

Chapter 3 deals with the "suburban aspiration." People moving up wanted to move out. People in the country wanted to be in the city. This aspiration was satisfied in the New Deal greenbelt towns of 1930s America, and in some postwar new towns. The same was true for many English garden suburbs and new towns.

The increasingly multicultural diversity of the Anglo-American suburb is a recurring theme throughout this book, but it is directly addressed in Chapters 4 and 5. The experiences of blacks, Jews, and many different Asian groups have not been fully synthesized in a comparative history before, yet millions of people in England and the United States who did not conform to any "Anglo-Saxon" stereotype moved to the suburbs.

Debates about the quality of women's lives in the suburbs and arguments for and against "suburban neurosis" and the "new town blues" in England, and "suburban sadness" and the "newtown blues" in the United States, form the subject matter of Chapter 6.

Chapter 7 discusses the local and the wider series of relationships m which women were actively involved. These relationships were part of a wider pattern of sociability and contact, a pattern that varied from local and informal friendships and neighborliness to more formal interactions embracing sports and leisure, and civic, religious, philanthropic, and other interestbased groups, clubs, and associations. It will be seen that cars and communications technologies, so often viewed in terms of their destructive potential for human interaction, were often the glue that held suburban life together for both women and men.

Chapter 8 discusses party line readings of suburban voting behaviors since the 1940s. This approach allows us to have our cake and eat it. There is no reason to agree with the contemporary views of some political analysts that the suburbs were essentially conservative. Nonetheless, it was certainly the case that the Democratic party in the United States and the Labour party in England were fearful lest the suburbs become natural conservative territory. This was because the Republican and Conservative victories in national elections during the 1950s and the 1980s were seen, by key figures m the Democratic and Labour parties, to be largely consequential of their appeal to suburban voters.

In American cinema, the 1940s classic It's a Wonderful Life (United States, 1946) was an early postwar example of many movies -happy, sad, or indifferent - about suburbanites in the postwar period. The golden age movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) are broadly sympathetic to the struggles of male suburbanites to maintain their families and their suburban dreams. …

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