Matthew Heins, Ph.D. in Architecture



The traditional American city, which flourished from about 1870 to 1950, is often perceived as an ideal site of vibrant public space and democratic interactions, in sharp contrast to contemporary suburbia which is seen as emblematic of both exclusionary practices and excessive consumption. This paper seeks to undercut this mythical view, and argues that while the traditional metropolis did (and still does) have many virtues, it was long marked by exclusion on the basis of both race and class, and furthermore by the 1920s had become a setting of prolific mass consumption. Such problems took on a new form in the postwar suburbs, which introduced a less public way of living and more privatized public spaces, yet they did not originate in suburbia but rather in the traditional city.



American suburban sprawl has become emblematic of the ills of excessive consumption, race- and class-based exclusion, and the general diminishment of the public realm. With its giant big-box stores and shopping malls, subdivisions littered with McMansions, and SUVs plying its oversized roads, suburbia is a setting whose qualities both encourage and reflect over-consumption. The costs associated with single-family housing, along with exclusionary zoning codes and other tactics, have furthermore made many suburbs deeply segregated places. In addition, the suburbs are a landscape whose public sphere is severely limited, as social life is experienced either in private places or commercial settings. Clearly American suburbs deserve much—though not all—of the condemnation they receive. But in the process of harshly criticizing suburbia, many scholars, historians and other writers have tended to idealize what came before: the dense urban form of American cities from the late 19th century until the postwar era, which is perceived as a space of highly public and democratic character in which its inhabitants could interact as equal citizens rather than people of a particular class, race, or ethnicity, or mere consumers. This traditional city, in spite of its acknowledged drawbacks of density, pollution, noise and lack of privacy, is now sometimes romanticized as a place of public interaction and culture, and democratic freedoms. It is a powerful vision of the nobility of a certain sort of urban life, one that goes back to the ancient Greek agora, and to the medieval German saying “city air makes you free.” To a large extent this vision was renewed by Jane Jacobs with her celebration of the “sidewalk ballet” of her street in Greenwich Village. This is not entirely a false vision, for the city does merit much of this praise, yet nostalgia for the older American metropolis obscures its problematic qualities.

From the late 1800s if not earlier, cities in the United States were riven by divides of class, ethnicity and race, and did not feature abundant public spaces open to public interaction or democratic expression. The urban experience was frequently one of exclusion. In addition, from approximately the turn of the century onward the city was very much a setting of mass consumption, as material goods grew cheaper and more varied and a plethora of options for entertainment emerged. In many ways the character of American suburbia is merely a continuation of certain qualities that had already taken a powerful hold in the American city. But the suburbs also represent a transformation in how those qualities apply. This essay argues that this has transpired in two ways. First, the means of exclusion changed from obvious and entirely acknowledged practices to less direct methods whose basis was largely in terms of money, transportation access, or certain subtle devices. Second, the nature of mass consumption changed from being a very public affair to a more private one, leading to a diminished public sphere. In short, the suburbs do represent a new and unique condition—but one with its roots in earlier American urbanism.



In the traditional American city exclusion on the basis of class and especially race was accomplished largely through the explicit tactics of both government and business, as minorities and others were discriminated against and excluded in numerous ways. This exclusion and segregation, whether carried out by the private sector or the government, was entirely legal, and was practiced energetically in the densest and most prestigious parts of the city. More subtle and implicit practices served as a means to similar ends. In her history of American downtowns, Alison Isenberg comments that:

…democratic inclusion was often an important theme in the formulations of downtown development, but so too was exclusion—a duality revealed in the competing efforts of downtown interests (including property owners, businesspeople, civic leaders, design professionals, and consumers) to control and manage downtown commercial life. Economic investment decisions have been firmly underpinned by evolving cultural preferences about who should be downtown and why. Improvement strategies of beautification, modernization, or renewal have gone hand in hand with policies designed to attract certain types of people downtown while ignoring or explicitly rejecting others. Race played an important role in Main Street plans, as did gender, class, and age (Isenberg 2004, 6).

The American city also was a place of turmoil, and at times violence, for the American “melting pot” was not always harmonious. In New York, the Astor Place Riot of 1849 revealed explosive class tensions, while the draft riots were indicative of burgeoning racism in Northern cities, even in the midst of the Civil War (Fairfield 2010, 85-88, 103-107). The presence of large immigrant populations was a factor in these and other troubling events. Such disturbances stoked upper-class fears and governmental concern, and their reaction, broadly speaking, was two-fold. At the most immediate level, those in power sought to control the city more tightly, through police force when necessary. Threatening classes and ethnicities were kept in check, and often restricted from living in certain areas by various means. The pioneering New York zoning code of 1916 had a variety of purposes, but one of the motives underlying it was this desire to keep the poor and working class out of upscale neighborhoods. Then as now, restrictions on apartment buildings helped accomplish this goal.

In the long run, under pressure from the democratic process, elites also chose a more positive approach, that of making the city more inclusive through various reforms and new public spaces. At times reformers could be intrusive, as they desired to alter working-class and immigrant cultures, but their accomplishments were notable, and in the Progressive Era American cities undeniably become more humane places. The City Beautiful movement, though overly focused on building grandiose structures, reflected these aspirations to make urban life more fulfilling for all citizens—to give everyone a stake in the city. Yet a new dynamic was already beginning to undermine this progress, for in response to rising numbers of African-Americans moving to cities in the early decades of the 20th century, a new race-based segregation swiftly arose, one restrictive to an unprecedented degree. The inner-city racial ghetto was enforced through a combination of real-estate machinations and government policy, all underpinned by the racism of American society.

But even before the racial tensions that arose with this new African-American urban population, suburbia had already begun to emerge. The earliest American suburbs were driven primarily by the railroads, as new rail corridors opened up countryside on the urban periphery to development. With quick and easy access to the city now available, a fortunate few could escape the drawbacks of urban life while retaining the connection to the city so necessary for work and commerce. Since commuting by rail was expensive, only elites (and some members of the upper-middle class) could afford to live in these new suburbs, which sprang up in the late 1800s. This hardly constituted a large-scale migration, but it was an important forerunner of things to come. It was of particular significance because it was exclusionary in nature; suburban growth was already fueled by fear and a desire for separation, often elided by a glorification of the natural landscape. The old-guard Anglo-Saxon elite strove to distance itself from an urban melting pot increasingly populated by new immigrant ethnicities such as Jews, Irish, Germans, Eastern Europeans, Italians, etc. As Robert Fishman elaborates:

…the late nineteenth century railroad suburb was a kind of Anglo-Saxon preserve, a protected place where the true American family could prosper and reproduce itself and thus hold off the alien invasion. Prejudice along with aesthetics helped to form its leafy streets and comfortable homes. It was not a utopia for everyone, still less a democratic vision. If the railroad suburb was the classic embodiment of the bourgeois dream of property, family life, and union with nature, it was built on a foundation of fear as well as hope (Fishman 1987, 142).

By the turn of the century streetcars made transportation accessible to far more people, leading to “streetcar suburbs” on the edge of American cities. Then in the 1920s the automobile began to exert its revolutionary impact, triggering a new wave of suburban growth. Exclusion on the basis of class and/or ethnicity was a fundamental component of these suburbs, though some ethnic groups were able to form their own suburban neighborhoods also. But it was in the postwar era that suburban expansion truly exploded. This occurred for a variety of reasons, including government policies that subsidized home mortgages, the construction of the Interstate highways, and the particular American fondness for living in a single-family house on a spacious plot of land. But exclusion continued to be a key driver of the process, and grew more significant since it was now primarily racial in nature. In the 1950s and ‘60s the Civil Rights movement wrought its revolutionary impact on the nation, and explicit, outright segregation and discrimination were for the most part eliminated, albeit only gradually. White Americans reacted to these changed circumstances through “white flight”—as well as innumerable other tactics—and the suburbs were the beneficiary of this shift. It was difficult to keep minorities out of the city, which was an inherently important location, used by all and well served by public transit, but the suburban landscape could be rendered more exclusive through various barriers. Hence the suburbs acquired their identity as racially exclusionary. But this happened, to a large degree, because the more urban neighborhoods of the traditional city could no longer maintain the racial segregation they had previously possessed.

White flight, along with many other means of creating de facto segregation once the de jure variety could no longer be maintained, has been extensively studied, described and debated by many scholars; suburbia’s exclusionary and conformist nature has received no lack of scrutiny. But the ways the traditional American city previously served to exclude (along with its great divisions between wealth and poverty) have been somewhat overlooked. The extent of American segregation before the 1960s is well known, yet the role of the city in it goes largely unseen. Earlier periods of separation in the urban context, dating back to the 1800s, are also overlooked. Exclusion may have reached its peak in suburbia, but the traditional city carried it out quite effectively also, and would seem to have laid the groundwork, to some extent, for what arose in the suburbs.



Likewise the mass consumption that emerged in the traditional American city is often overlooked. The suburbs are often perceived as the epitome of a wasteful consumer lifestyle, but this view can obscure what came earlier, for the first wave of consumption in the U.S. was centered primarily around bustling downtowns and the palatial department stores they supported, and it gathered force at the dawn of the 20th century. Where previously such luxuries had been limited to the truly wealthy, now a growing middle-class began to partake, in the first hint of mass consumption. The grand department stores that arose at this time were the nation’s most spectacular sites of consumption, at least in terms of retail commerce, and swiftly became iconic presences in the urban landscape. Their precursor was the giant dry-goods store of Alexander Stewart, the largest building in New York City during the 1860s; Stewart’s business was a tremendous success and made him a celebrity as well. The first true American department stores, probably inspired partly by Stewart and partly by the department stores already existing in Paris and London, took form in the 1890s. In the next decade the trend accelerated, as Marshall Field’s was founded in 1902 in Chicago, Carson, Pirie, Scott in 1903 also in Chicago, Macy’s in 1902 in New York, Filene’s in 1912 in Boston, and Famous-Barr in 1913 in St. Louis (Leach 1993, 15-38). The department stores were typically majestic in appearance on the outside, and to some degree could be said to enliven the city’s public sphere through their mere presence. This was furthered by their ornate window displays, which anyone on the sidewalk could look at. But the department store, for all its grandiose interior spaces, was very much a privatized site on the inside, one where the working-class, poor and immigrants were often made to feel unwelcome.

In any event the bulk of urban dwellers were unable to afford the goods offered in department stores, and certainly could not yet be regarded as consumers. But this began to change in the early decades of the century as more options emerged, and by the 1920s matters were very different:

The major cheap standardized retail chains, mostly redundant in character, doubled in size between 1923 and 1927: W.T. Grant’s from 45 to 109, Penney’s from 371 to more than 1,000, and Kresge’s from 212 to 435. Woolworth’s towered over them all in 1927 with 1,581 stores… There was a big Butler Furniture chain, a Walden Book Shop chain, a World Radio Corporation chain, and chain stores for Liggett’s, Rexall’s and Walgreen’s “drugs”… The drug chains numbered 3,000 stores by 1927 (there were only 25 such stores in 1900)… (Leach 1993, 274).

While the department stores generally remained in the central cities (until they became anchors of suburban shopping malls from the 1950s on), these smaller chain retailers had more flexibility in their location. As cities were expanding and streetcar suburbs were now also flourishing, the chain stores spread across the urban landscape. Their presence was especially important in the downtowns of many small cities and towns, whose residents could not support a department store but desired to buy the newly available manufactured goods and to participate in the culture of mass consumption (Isenberg 2004, 78-123).

In the meantime the city was also becoming a place where entertainment and amusement were consumed. Increasingly the American metropolis was populated by such sites: vaudeville theaters, movie palaces, dance halls, amusement parks, penny arcades, fairs, circuses, carnivals, race tracks and baseball stadiums. It was to such places that more and more of the working class—and often the middle class too—went in their free time. The somewhat idealized vision of public space in this period is often one of Central Park, or another classic big-city park, that aspired to bring social groups together in a pristine natural setting. One might also imagine squares and plazas being used as vibrant public spaces or even for mass meetings and protests, as with the Tompkins Square demonstrations of 1874 in New York, and envision the bustling grand train stations of the age, such as Grand Central and Penn Station in New York and Union Station in Chicago. All these perceptions are valid, but in the early decades of the 20th century the public realm also increasingly became one not of democratic or civic-minded values, or even of social unity, but simply of consumption.

Given how important mass consumption had become by the postwar years, not only as a status symbol but as part of the fabric of daily life (shopping, entertainment, etc.), it is not surprising that the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s was in part over access to such places of consumption. Probably the best-known example is the successful lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, which began in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spread across the South. Also important were boycotts of retailers, restaurants and other establishments that refused to serve African-Americans. (In response to these, white supremacists sometimes organized boycotts of establishments that chose to serve African-Americans.) For racial minorities, it was necessary not simply to gain equality under the law, or to end government discrimination, but also to gain access—and truly equal access, not the inferior treatment of “separate but equal”—to the sites of consumption. Furthermore African-Americans found, through boycotts, sit-ins and other means, that they could use their status as consumers, or potential consumers, as a weapon in this struggle (Cohen 2003, 166-191).

The rising suburbanization of the U.S., especially once the automobile accelerated suburban growth in the 1920s and then even more so in the postwar era, went hand in hand with a key shift in consumption, which became more and more private in nature. Consumption in the public sphere, in the crowded spaces of the city (such as Times Square, Coney Island, the department stores, etc.), gradually gave way to private consumption in the home, the automobile, and the generally more insular suburban landscape. There were many reasons for this change, but technology seems to have been the most powerful enabler; products such as automobiles, televisions, radios and telephones, in addition to the single-family house and expanding infrastructure that made suburban sprawl possible, had a transformative impact on cultural practices. The impact of the car was particularly revolutionary, for it freed people from urban densities and opened up many new consumer experiences. As historian Gary Cross describes it:

The individualized mobility of the car transformed the space of pleasure—privatizing while extending and homogenizing it… The automobile was supposed to isolate and unify the family, empower its owner, and free its occupants from the crush of urban life. Beginning in the 1920s, Coney Island, tied as it was to the streetcar, began to give way to suburban venues like Playland at Rye Beach, reached mostly by auto. The car culture produced a plethora of new privatized pleasures, enjoyed by millions. The drive-in restaurant appeared in Dallas in 1921 with Royce Hailey’s Pig Stand, and the suburban shopping center was introduced in 1923 with Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza… The forced mixing with other people during train travel that led to still more crowds at railroad-owned terminal hotels and resorts gave way to a new kind of tourism. The car freed the family from the peering eyes of strangers, and at the end of the day, a motel room facing the parking lot was as private as the car (Cross 2000, 60).

This trend toward a more private, or privatized, realm of consumption only deepened as the automobile became even more popular after the war. It was also furthered by the widespread use of radio starting in the 1920s and ‘30s and television beginning in the 1950s—people could now consume entertainment inside their own homes. The single family house with its front yard and backyard on the outside, and numerous rooms on the inside, created additional space for private amusement. More recently the internet and video games have opened new realms of private consumption.

Perhaps the profound antipathy so many intellectuals and progressives have felt for suburbia is not only due to its celebration of consumption, but the way it transformed consumption (along with many other aspects of life) into something that happens in a less public setting. The consumption of the early decades of the 20th century was a very public phenomenon, with its giant downtown department stores, splendid movie palaces, fairgrounds and amusement parks, stadiums and racetracks, dance halls and so forth. Such places often had a garish quality, but also could possess a frenetic and vibrant energy brought on by their massed crowds, and might embody a sense of community as well. The more banal sites of suburban consumption can hardly equal them in this regard, even if their amenities are superior. Maybe this shift, as much as consumption per se, is an unacknowledged source of much of the criticism of suburban consumption.



When American central cities finally began their comeback in the 1980s and ‘90s, it was soon noticed that in some ways their character was being altered by a more privatized approach. A new wave of public spaces, such as Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston (actually opened in the late 1970s), Harborplace in Baltimore, and South Street Seaport in New York, were known as “festival marketplaces,” and though vibrant in their own right they seemed like extensions of suburbia planted in the city (in spite of their preserved historic architecture), with many of the same chain stores and restaurants. Soon the ultimate suburban typology, the shopping mall, arrived in urban centers; examples include Water Tower Place in Chicago, Copley Place in Boston, and the San Francisco Shopping Centre. Increasingly, successful urban developments were public-private partnerships in which the final result might be pleasant—and commercially viable—but it hardly replicated traditional urban vitality (Frieden and Sagalyn 1989). Large atrium hotels, especially prevalent in Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles, also brought a privatized form of public space into the city, in the process impoverishing the street life outside. Giant complexes like the Renaissance Center in Detroit were promoted as saviors of the city, but instead functioned as fortresses that turned their back on it. (In other contexts however such projects can be more urbanistically successful, especially when reasonably well designed; Battery Park City in New York is a modestly positive example.) The problem is not limited to specific sites and projects, but sometimes extends to the general urban setting. Over the past few decades more and more of Manhattan, for instance, has become a vast space of consumption for its increasingly upscale residents and visitors.

There are many who criticize such changes (Sorkin 1992, Zukin 2010), and their condemnations are often valid. Yet they seem unaware—or have forgotten—that the traditional American city even before the development of suburbia had already become a place of consumption, and also a site marked by exclusion and boundaries. The writer-activist Mike Davis is rarely guilty of sentimentalizing the past, but in the course of critiquing the lack of viable public space in Los Angeles (and what he terms its “militarization”) he provides, by way of contrast, a somewhat naive view of the traditional American city. Davis laments that the rise of privatized public space marks “the end of what might be called the Olmstedian vision of public space in America. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of Central Park, conceived public landscapes and parks as social safety-valves, mixing classes and ethnicities in common (bourgeois) recreations and pleasures…” He goes on to state that: “As for the mixing of classes, contemporary urban America is more like Victorian England than the New York of Walt Whitman or Fiorello La Guardi” (Davis 1992, 156). Just as Davis’ view of the present is gloomier than the facts would warrant, his vision of the past is too rosy.

The traditional American city, one of density, energy and urban vitality that flourished from about the 1870s to the 1950s, did have much to recommend it. (And traditional urban settings today retain much of this remarkable quality, in spite of the privatization of public space and other issues that plague them.) Yet we should not romanticize it, for it was marked by an earlier version of the troublesome mass consumption that is so problematic now, in addition to great divides of class and race that also resonate today. While the older metropolis at least put people together in greater densities and consequently had a certain openness about it, its problems were nonetheless severe, and they played out in the public realm of the city’s urban fabric. We should understand the traditional American city well, and learn from its strengths and weaknesses—especially in an era when some traditional cities are mounting a comeback. But we should not idealize the traditional city, for some of our contemporary urban and suburban problems have their roots in it.



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