Book | The American Suburb by Jon C. Teaford

american-suburb-basics-jon-teaford-paperback-cover-artTeaford, Jon C. The American Suburb: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2008. 

The Author

Jon C. Teaford is Professor Emeritus of Urban History at Purdue University. I was not able to find much biographical information about him. However, his students rated him extremely high on ratemyprofessors.com. One student said, “Dr. Teaford was the BEST teacher I ever had in my entire educational career and I am a teacher now because of HIM! He made history come to life and is one that I will always remember.” [1]

My Thoughts

Teaford offers a balanced and detail-rich introduction to the history, complexity, and essential dynamics of the suburban context in the United States. This book offers a refreshing counterpoint to the dominant negatives stereotypes often used to represent the suburbs. “Acknowledging but never yielding to the long history of negative associations and countless derogatory critiques of suburbia, Jon C. Teaford discusses a great number of suburbs located throughout the nation and emphatically refutes their common myths and stereotypes. Broad in scope yet brimming with detail, here is an eye-opening account of this dominant way of life in America today.”[2]

One topic of particular interest to me is Teaford’s conversation with the Regionalists, and particularly with Myron Orfield. This is interesting to me because Orfield was one of the first authors I read as I began studying suburban issues. Orfield calls for a regional, metropolitan political structure that unifies the metropolitan area and safeguards against social injustice. I resonate with Orfield’s perspective since I believe this philosophy also resonates with Jesus’ teaching and the general vision of God’s preferred and promised future for the world. Teaford, however, offers a realistic counterbalance to Orfield’s idealistic vision. Teaford basically says that metropolitics just won’t work. The suburban vision is so centralized on the idea of autonomous governance that the idea of a centralized metropolitan government is far too socialist for the American Suburban palette.

Teaford did offer up Minnesota as an example of a compromise between the current radical political fragmentation that is the current suburban reality and the idealistic metropolitan centralism of Orfield’s proposal. The Minnesota Legislature created the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council in 1967 to create a regional sharing of certain essential resources. This council brings together 188 separate cities and townships in sharing such things as regional parks, regional wastewater and treatment systems, regional transit networks, affordable housing efforts, and tax-base sharing.[3] “Despite all the laurels heaped upon them, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council…[has] not spawned imitators throughout the nation…They have attracted much attention because they are unusual, not because they are emulated.”[4]

Teaford’s book is important for my research because it provides a realistic ballast to the idealism that so attracts me. One thing that I am not sure of, because it did not come through clearly in either direction, is if Teaford passes any sort of moral or ethical judgment on the status of suburbia in America. His presentation is essentially as fact-based as possible. However, he is intentionally trying to debunk the myth of the generic, homogenous, unimaginative, bourgeoisie of fast-food consuming, obese, isolated drones that inhabit all suburbia. If anything, I think Teaford applauds the rugged individualism and self-governance that dominates the suburban imagination. Here I pause. Is it not these very things that run contrary to the mission of God that the church is trying to reconcile? Herein lies the suburban dilemma.

The Basics

Teaford summaries his argument by identifying three basics of suburbia. Below I have listed his basics and provided my own commentary on them.

First—American Suburbs Are Diverse

This is an important corrective. In fact, most Americans live in the suburbs and the most diverse municipalities in the country are, in fact, suburban. It is very dangerous to speak of the suburbs in broad generalizations. Each suburb is unique, has its own history, and its unique sets of issues. In this way, it is dangerous to condemn suburban culture as a Babylonian Captivity.[5] Every location is a unique blend of human frailties and God’s grace.

Second—Suburbs Are An Expression of the American Desire for Freedom and the Right to Pursue One’s Own Destiny

This was the most interesting part of the book for me. Teaford takes careful effort to point out two important aspects of suburban reality. First, the suburbs have been around since the beginning of the American story. They are not the invention of the post-WWII automobile boom. This boom helped the urban sprawl expand exponentially, to be sure, but it was not the genesis of the suburban nation. Secondly, individual autonomous municipalities were started just outside of the “central city” for various, and often diametrically opposed, reasons. Some suburbs started in order to pursue the bucolic vision of Victorian purity and serenity. Others were started to explore prostitution and moonshine. Still others were started to protect factory pollution and free-enterprise. What unifies them all is the desire to self-govern and resist the annexation of the central city. This fragmentation of the suburban landscape has become so dominant that today the central cities no longer hold any centripetal pull on the suburbs. Rather, “edge cities”[6] have come to replace the central cities, thus creating a polycentric reality in the metropolitan landscapes across the country.

Third—The Greatest Threat to Suburban Life Is from the No-Growth, Low-Density Prejudices of Incumbent Suburbanites

There is an irony endemic to the suburban dweller. Those who live in suburbia love their own space. The only way to preserve this space is to protect it by not letting new people move in. This forces new people to find new spaces and extend the urban sprawl. Again, it comes down to selfishness and greed. The perennial human problem is how to put the needs of the other higher than one’s own without becoming completely lost in the process.

Notes


[1] http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=11656 (accessed July 29, 2013)

[2] Jon C. Teaford, The American Suburb: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2008), back cover.

[3] Ibid.,  150-151.

[4] Ibid.,  152.

[5] Gibson Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches: An Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in the Expanding Metropolis, 1st ed. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961).

[6] Teaford, 88ff.

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