Intellectual treatises on suburbia?
January 27, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some intelligent sources of commentary on contemporary and historical suburbia to absorb myself in.

I'm open to any media in terms of text or visual culture - essays, articles, opinion columns, movies, documentaries, short films, photo essays. Anything to be found on the interweb, in a library, or at a video store. Things with a teenage/young adult slant get extra points (I'm looking at some Larry Clark stuff to start). All ideas are welcome!
posted by jennyhead to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I thought The End of Suburbia was pretty good.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:19 AM on January 27, 2010

Jim Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere

Also check out The Kunstlercast
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:25 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed On Paradise Drive.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2010

I thought the film Crime and Punishment in Suburbia was interesting-- that was a decade ago, though-- not sure how it's held up.

Also-- see anything written by A.M. Homes-- especially The Safety of Objects and Music for Torching.
posted by mireille at 11:38 AM on January 27, 2010

There's been a lot of new historical work on the suburbs in the last decade or so. I don't know if you're looking for academic histories on suburbanization, but I've read most of these, and can tell you that they're largely pretty readable and do a good job of relating their subject to present-day problems and concerns about life on the edges of the American metropolis.

The one history that everyone cites is Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier, one of the first, and, in some ways, one of the best general histories of American suburbanization, since it covers a very wide range of time (from the mid-1800s to the present, which, in Jackson's time was the 1980s.) Another good general history of suburbanization is Dolores Hayden's Building Suburbia, which is a largely political and architectural history of America's suburbs -- she looks at how suburban America was built in stages, and how different forms of suburban architecture was developed to fill specific needs and niches. (I like Hayden's book much better than Jackson's.)

Some books that look at the links between suburbanization and changes in American politics (specifically, the rise of the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s) are Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors and Kevin Kruse's White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Another (dense, but very good) book that critiques the political, economic and cultural foundation of modern America is David Freund's Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America - Freund is interested in how suburban zoning, planning, and the real estate industry perpetuate racial inequality.

Other books that are also good:

Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, about working-class suburbs in Los Angeles
Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own, on African-American suburbanization
Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall, on the automobile and the development of suburban retail in Los Angeles

An anthology that contains excerpts on a lot of the recent historical work on suburbanization would probably be the best place to start -- I would strongly recommend The New Suburban History.

I've read a lot of other stuff on suburbs -- MeMail me if you want other recommendations...
posted by heurtebise at 11:47 AM on January 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

William H. Whyte's The Organization Man was a very big deal in its time (1956).

Part VII is entitled "The New Suburbia".
posted by philip-random at 11:51 AM on January 27, 2010

White Noise, by Don DeLillo, is a novel I really enjoyed that takes place in American suburbia and contains lots of themes and commentary related to that setting.
posted by sashapearl at 12:07 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Suburban Warriors as highly awesome.
posted by The Straightener at 12:15 PM on January 27, 2010

Over the Edge and Suburbia might be good additions if you're trying to cover a wide range of sources (and kids breaking stuff would be a good break from Kunstler and Longstreth!)
posted by vespabelle at 12:35 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

An interesting review of three books about race and exclusion in suburbs.
posted by stinker at 12:45 PM on January 27, 2010

For the teen angle: Virgin Suicides mixes the gothic with the suburban mundane. The girls commit suicide partly because (we can infer) they're trying to escape their parents' prosaic middle-class, Catholic values. Coppola translated this theme really well in her adaptation, like when the youngest sister jumps from her second-floor balcony and gets impaled on the iron fence around the garden. Eugenides continues his indictment in Middlesex, which has less appeal to the younger crowd, but it's a great profile of white-flight Detroit suburbanites coping with race relations, religion, sexuality, etc.

I became personally interested in suburban architecture, myself. Take a look at sociologically-angled essays on the cultural reception of tenement homes. Tenement housing, which featured multi-family groups living in the cramped nooks of baroque New York buildings, translated into both bad hygiene and bad citizenry. Suburban architecture of the post-WWII era was in part meant to combat this notion of filthy, non-American lifestyles. Hence the single-family saltbox houses, uniform aesthetics, and big, open rooms.

I personally loathe White Noise for using cheap set-ups, but to each his own.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:52 PM on January 27, 2010

Suburban Nation.
posted by Chris4d at 1:59 PM on January 27, 2010

For some visual culture, see Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, an exhibition at the Walker Art Center.
posted by brother at 2:05 PM on January 27, 2010

I just started my city planning reading and came across.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This was written around when the decline of the city center began as monied interests began to develop the countryside.
posted by emptyinside at 2:28 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

heurtebise grabbed all the great grad school classics (Crabgrass Frontier and Building Suburbia are great places to start), so I'll just add Dolores Hayden's A Field Guide to Sprawl -- a great picture book.

Is it suburbia exactly you want, or anything that links alienation and geography? Have you read Generation X?
posted by salvia at 4:04 PM on January 27, 2010

seconding the Hayden book and suggesting her other book, called A Field Guide to Sprawl. It covers this list of material (on the right) and has some crazy lovely aerial photographs. One example here.
posted by acidic at 4:11 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

City of Quartz by Mike Davis.
posted by pompomtom at 4:52 PM on January 27, 2010

from the semidocumentary Radiant City:

geographer James Howard Kunstler and urban planner Andres Duany on the suburban landscape

Kunstler again on bike paths and chain link

philosopher Joseph Heath on why people choose to live in suburbia

philosopher Mark Kingwell on the suburban flight into isolation and the degradation of real community
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:12 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Friend of mine recommended a recent (anonymous) article in the Harvard Law Review recently [Vol. 117, No. 6 (Apr., 2004), pp. 2003-2022] entitled 'Locating the suburb'--said it was the best thing she'd read while researching a paper on American suburbia since WWII. Haven't got round to reading it myself yet, though. If you can't get access to it from where you are, let me know (MeMail) and I'll send you a copy.

Book review of Paul Barker's recent The Freedoms of Suburbia from The Economist.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:24 PM on January 27, 2010

Also, for an artistic vision of new-build suburbia as a place of miraculous escape, the film Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay. Set in mid-1970s Glasgow, mostly on a council estate that would date from earlier in the 20th century. The new house being built in the fields that the family is about to move into (and does move into at the end of the film) is a kind of paradise to him. There's an unforced irony there, because by the time the film was made those 1970s estates at the edge of the city (at the far end of the bus route, as the film shows) had become as bad as, or worse than, the older estates that were 'emptied' into them--which at least had the advantage of being in town.

Sorry, bit of a ramble.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:35 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the following:

- Suburban Nation
- My Blue Heaven by Nicolaides
- Anything and everything by Jacobs, no matter what anyone says. Even if she's wrong on points, she's awesome.
-Suburban Warriors

I would add:

- Holy Land by DJ Waldie
- Sunnyvale by Jeff Goodall
- You might check out Lewis Mumford

Los Angeles (not actually a suburb) is, in itself, a topic. Also Los Angeles is the best city ever:
- Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, by Reyner Banham
- The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Century, Soja and Scott
- My Blue Heaven and Suburban Warriors also deal with LA

Kunstler is troublesome. If you think Portland is a utopia, read Kunstler as candy. If you think Los Angeles is a neat city, or Vallejo is dynamic in some way, or Denver has a good restaurant to eat breakfast, or Phoenix has a neato bike culture, ABSOLUTELY READ KUNSTLER, BUT WITH A CRITICAL EYE. Kunstler is a signpost, but he is a grumpy old white man whose opinions are myopic and deal not at all with the politics of race, migration, and power in cities and suburbs. Nevertheless, read him because he is an important framer of the debate. But acknowledge that he is a dick and you would never want to talk to him in real life.
posted by kensington314 at 12:48 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Revolutionary Road. It's a book, not a movie.
posted by clockwork at 5:26 AM on January 28, 2010

The Soul of the New Exurb
posted by lalochezia at 7:52 AM on January 28, 2010

Teenage Wasteland by Donna Gaines. And the John Betjeman film Metroland.
posted by mippy at 3:04 AM on January 29, 2010

How the hell did I miss this?...I'm in the midst of WRITING something about suburbia.

This was good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:07 AM on January 29, 2010

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