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Urbanization of America, Move to Suburbia

railroad fares, suburbanization, cheaper housing, new suburbs, wealthiest Americans

Suburbs began to appear in the 18th century when wealthy people built second homes in the country to escape the crowded, sweltering city during the summer. As roads improved in the early part of the 19th century, more people built summer houses. A few began living outside the city full time and commuting by carriage to town. Commuting into the city to work became easier and cheaper in the late 19th century, when commuter railroad lines were built, radiating out from the central city. New suburbs developed that were almost entirely residential and depended on the economic resources of the central city. Because railroad fares were relatively high, most of these suburbs remained the preserve of the wealthiest Americans until after World War II, although a few working-class suburbs sprang up around large manufacturing complexes or ports.

The United States experienced a housing shortage in the late 1940s, as recently married war veterans sought places to live. The GI Bill—which provided unemployment and education allowances and home, farm, and business loans for millions of World War II veterans—enabled a flood of home purchases. Several developers applied the principles of mass production to housing, creating nearly identical houses on moderate-sized lots. These suburban developments were targeted to narrow segments of the broad middle class. Some were home to professionals and executives, some to middle management, some to the lower middle class, some to working-class Americans. Each development was substantially uniform in social status and sometimes in religion and ethnicity.

Suburbanites were similar in other ways. Married couples were generally just starting their families. The baby boom meant that there were large numbers of children in the suburbs. Women were housewives and husbands commuted to jobs in the city. Families valued privacy and were separated from other relatives, who either remained in the city or lived elsewhere. It was both comfortable and isolating. The family was often on its own, knowing few neighbors, watching television in the evening, driving everywhere in private cars to anonymous shopping centers. Some people living in these new suburbs depended on rail lines to get to work, although more took advantage of the automobile as a form of transport. The federal government contributed to suburbanization by subsidizing mortgages for veterans and building highways that made travel between cities and suburbs easier.

As the suburbs grew, more and more of the middle classes abandoned the cities. The suburbs were attractive for many reasons: They were cleaner, newer, had better-funded schools, were socially homogeneous, and provided a sense of security. They provided what city dwellers had long been seeking—bigger yards and more privacy. The perceived problems of the city—crowding, high taxes, crime, and poverty—could be left behind. And because the suburbs were politically independent of the core city, the layers of bureaucracy and corruption could be replaced by smaller, friendlier, and presumably more honest government.

As millions moved to the suburbs, stores followed so that residents did not have to go into the city to shop. By the mid-1950s the shopping mall had appeared. Some large, enclosed malls in the 1980s and 1990s became centers for both consumption and entertainment. Other, smaller strip malls contained shops that sold basic items, such as food and hardware, or provided services, such dry cleaning and film processing.

Suburban housing also underwent changes in the 1980s and 1990s. Townhouses and apartment complexes began to characterize the suburbs as much as houses on lots. Retired couples needed smaller places, high divorce rates created single-adult households, and poorer individuals wanted to share some of the benefits of a suburban lifestyle.

Once the population shifted to the suburbs, employers eventually followed, though more slowly than residents. Because employees might live in any suburb surrounding a city, a central business location in the city had always been convenient. Increased traffic congestion in the city centers, and the promise of lower corporate taxes and less crime in the suburbs, eventually pushed corporations out to the suburbs as well. Office complexes and corporate campuses brought white-collar jobs closer to the suburban areas where many workers lived. Warehouses, light industry, and other businesses were increasingly located in the suburbs. These new locations were poorly served by public transportation. Workers had to commute by car. This trend appeared as early as the 1950s and 1960s in the rapidly growing metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Dallas and later in the older large cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Traffic congestion is an increasing problem in cities and suburbs, and Americans spend more and more of their time commuting to work, school, shopping, and social events, as well as dealing with traffic jams and accidents. By the late 1990s rush-hour traffic patterns no longer flowed simply into the city in the morning and out of the city in the evening. Traffic became heavy in all directions, both to and from cities as well as between suburban locations. Suburban business locations required huge parking lots because employees had to drive; there were few buses, trains, or trolleys to carry scattered workers to their jobs. The hope of reduced congestion in the suburbs had not been realized; long commutes and traffic jams could be found everywhere.

Suburbanization has not affected all aspects of American life. Some functions have largely remained in the central cities, including government bureaus, courts, universities, research hospitals, professional sports teams, theaters, and arts groups. Trendy shopping, fine restaurants, and nightlife, which expanded in the booming economy at the end of the 20th century, have become popular in many cities, revitalizing a few urban neighborhoods.

In the 20 largest cities and urbanized areas of the United States, 41 percent of the local population, on average, lives in the city, and 59 percent lives in the surrounding suburbs, towns, and associated rural areas. Hoping for more privacy, more space, and better housing, people continued to look to the fringes of urban areas. In the 1990s it became apparent that older suburbs were losing population to newer suburbs and to the so-called exurbs, rural areas bordering cities.

With these new suburbs springing up on the fringes of major urban centers, older suburbs face many of the hardships of cities. As the young and the more affluent seek the newest housing developments, tax bases in the cities and in older suburbs erode. The housing stock deteriorates because of age and perhaps neglect, and housing prices stagnate or fall, causing tax revenues to decline. The elderly—many on limited incomes and in poor health—are more likely to stay in the older suburbs, a trend that not only diminishes tax revenues but increases demand for social services. Schools, no longer supported by the same strong property tax base, suffer in quality, causing even more people to move out. Poorer people then move into the cheaper housing of the older suburbs. As poverty increases in the older areas, so does crime. Older suburbs are often in more desperate financial straits than the central city, because their economic base is less diverse.

The peace and security that suburbanites originally sought became more elusive near the end of the 20th century, and the trend toward gated and walled housing developments was the most visible sign of anxiety about external threats. The next major trend may be a movement out of large cities and suburbs and into small towns and the countryside as Americans avoid commuting and seek more leisure time and a stronger sense of community. New information technologies such as e-mail and computer networking will probably contribute to the dispersal of the population out of the cities, although a sharp and sustained rise in gasoline prices could reverse current trends by making the private automobile and extensive commuting too expensive.

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