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Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000

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A lively history of the contested landscapes where the majority of Americans now live, Building Suburbia chronicles two centuries in the birth and development of America’s metropolitan regions. From rustic cottages reached by steamboat to big box stores at the exit ramps of eight-lane highways, Dolores Hayden defines seven eras of suburban development since 1820. An urban h A lively history of the contested landscapes where the majority of Americans now live, Building Suburbia chronicles two centuries in the birth and development of America’s metropolitan regions. From rustic cottages reached by steamboat to big box stores at the exit ramps of eight-lane highways, Dolores Hayden defines seven eras of suburban development since 1820. An urban historian and architect, she portrays housewives and politicians as well as designers and builders making the decisions that have generated America’s diverse suburbs. Residents have sought home, nature, and community in suburbia. Developers have cherished different dreams, seeking profit from economies of scale and increased suburban densities, while lobbying local and federal government to reduce the risk of real estate speculation. Encompassing environmental controversies as well as the complexities of race, gender, and class, Hayden’s fascinating account will forever alter how we think about the communities we build and inhabit.


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A lively history of the contested landscapes where the majority of Americans now live, Building Suburbia chronicles two centuries in the birth and development of America’s metropolitan regions. From rustic cottages reached by steamboat to big box stores at the exit ramps of eight-lane highways, Dolores Hayden defines seven eras of suburban development since 1820. An urban h A lively history of the contested landscapes where the majority of Americans now live, Building Suburbia chronicles two centuries in the birth and development of America’s metropolitan regions. From rustic cottages reached by steamboat to big box stores at the exit ramps of eight-lane highways, Dolores Hayden defines seven eras of suburban development since 1820. An urban historian and architect, she portrays housewives and politicians as well as designers and builders making the decisions that have generated America’s diverse suburbs. Residents have sought home, nature, and community in suburbia. Developers have cherished different dreams, seeking profit from economies of scale and increased suburban densities, while lobbying local and federal government to reduce the risk of real estate speculation. Encompassing environmental controversies as well as the complexities of race, gender, and class, Hayden’s fascinating account will forever alter how we think about the communities we build and inhabit.

30 review for Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    Really interesting study of how our current suburban landscapes came to be. Main takeaway: real estate developers are crooks and con artists (no surprise there). I agree with her conclusions about how to foster sustainable development in the future, and I think she'd be glad to see that they have been increasingly implemented over the decade or so since the book came out. Really interesting study of how our current suburban landscapes came to be. Main takeaway: real estate developers are crooks and con artists (no surprise there). I agree with her conclusions about how to foster sustainable development in the future, and I think she'd be glad to see that they have been increasingly implemented over the decade or so since the book came out.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    This book was intensely frustrating to read.  Indeed, this volume, which has about 250 pages of the author bloviating on topics related to the long history of suburban development in the United States, is all the evidence one would need to demonstrate how a misguided political worldview hinders one from obvious insights and basic knowledge about what the writer is writing about.  The author seems to think that "conservative" is a pejorative expression, and it is one she uses often in an ad homin This book was intensely frustrating to read.  Indeed, this volume, which has about 250 pages of the author bloviating on topics related to the long history of suburban development in the United States, is all the evidence one would need to demonstrate how a misguided political worldview hinders one from obvious insights and basic knowledge about what the writer is writing about.  The author seems to think that "conservative" is a pejorative expression, and it is one she uses often in an ad hominem fashion, as if to be right-of-center politically is to mean that one's behavior is automatically bad for the ordinary people that the author claims to support.  After reading this book, I was convinced that the world would likely be a better place if the author were flattened and macadamized to make a road to some greenfield suburb so that she could stop writing terrible books like this one.  And as is so often the case in books that deal with property and development [1], the worldview error of the author is the central problem from which the book's failure flows.  Given the author's strident tone and call for activism among readers, it is unlikely that this error is soon to be improved. This volume's contents are divided into three parts and eleven chapters.  The author begins with a preface and acknowledgements and then proceeds to write about the American metropolitan landscape (I) with a discussion about the shapes of suburbia (1) and the suburban city (2).  After that several chapters examine in a more or less chronological fashion some historic patterns of suburbs in the landscape (II), moving from borderlands (3) to picturesque enclaves (4), to streetcar buildouts (5), to mail-order and self-built suburbs (6) to sitcom suburbs (7), to edge nodes (8) and finally to rural fringes (9).  After this comes a couple of chapters where the author pontificates on the future of suburbs (III) with a look at nostalgia and futurism (10) and attempts to encourage the smart development of older suburbs (11) in order to increase density and provide housing for all kinds of illegal immigrants.  Throughout the volume the author makes note of various thinkers who are like her, as if that is a good thing. Over and over again, the author makes snarky comments about conservative people, and posits a false dilemma between the desire of Americans to escape living in the city and avoid the high-density sort of housing that the author endorses and the businesses that provide for that through property speculation and development.  Far from being the villains of the American story, as the author appears to believe, property speculators have always been among the heroes of the efforts to provide a wide base of Americans with property to develop for their own economic and political independence, efforts which the author denigrates at every possible opportunity.  The author appears to think that the United States should be like Europe, the sign of moral and political bankruptcy as far as someone's worldview is concerned.  Unable to appreciate and enjoy the United States and its development as it is, and comment that the gigantism in terms of politics and business is a serious problem that leads to a great deal of the sprawl that we find, the author consistently urges a desire for high-density construction (even having nice words to say about massive socialistic housing projects) and intrusive neighbors, and disregards the consistent American preference for low-density construction that provides a sense of distance between personal life and the problems of the city that we wish so strenuously to avoid.  The author's political worldview makes her tone deaf to the fact that people genuinely like living in suburb and exurbs and do not want to live in the city unless they are corrupt Eurotrash hipsters like she is. [1] See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018... https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018... https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017... https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Alice Lemon

    This book was a really interesting summary of a number of periods and movements in the history of American suburbanization, and I learned quite a lot from it, as well as being encouraged to think about implications I hadn't previously considered. In particular, as someone who loves Boston's and many of DC's streetcar suburbs, it was helpful to read about some of the problems with streetcar-suburb development, and it was very interesting to learn more about the mail-order house movement: I hadn't This book was a really interesting summary of a number of periods and movements in the history of American suburbanization, and I learned quite a lot from it, as well as being encouraged to think about implications I hadn't previously considered. In particular, as someone who loves Boston's and many of DC's streetcar suburbs, it was helpful to read about some of the problems with streetcar-suburb development, and it was very interesting to learn more about the mail-order house movement: I hadn't realized nearly how dominant it had been during its heyday. While I was more familiar with much of the post-War history discussed, I still learned a bit about some of the shady techniques used by the developers of tract housing, such as building relatively dense suburban communities with septic tanks to avoid spending money on proper sewer systems. I'll probably be buying a copy of this for my personal urban and transportation history library.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Brendan Dawe

    An overall good and informative read, particularly moving past the first chapter on 19th century rich people's houses. Did you know that Levittown was built without septic tanks or sewers, but rather outdoor cess pits? Levittown's infrastructural defects required, according to the author, a substantial bailout from the state of New York An overall good and informative read, particularly moving past the first chapter on 19th century rich people's houses. Did you know that Levittown was built without septic tanks or sewers, but rather outdoor cess pits? Levittown's infrastructural defects required, according to the author, a substantial bailout from the state of New York

  5. 5 out of 5

    Karl

    Exceptional history of American suburban development—couldn't be more straightforward. Exceptional history of American suburban development—couldn't be more straightforward.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Samuel

    Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Greenfields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 chronicles “180 years of metropolitan development in the United States” that addresses “the general reader…from the perspective of an urban landscape historian” (xi). Although the book is well documented with endnotes—many of which cite secondary sources such as Warner, Longstreth, Stilgoe, etc.—the overall synthetic presentation is lucid enough to appeal to more than just the scholar of suburban landscapes. Hayden succe Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Greenfields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 chronicles “180 years of metropolitan development in the United States” that addresses “the general reader…from the perspective of an urban landscape historian” (xi). Although the book is well documented with endnotes—many of which cite secondary sources such as Warner, Longstreth, Stilgoe, etc.—the overall synthetic presentation is lucid enough to appeal to more than just the scholar of suburban landscapes. Hayden successfully demonstrates how such a commonly used word like “suburb” can be categorized over different periods of history to reveal the nuanced changes in its use and development. In organizing her book primarily around explaining the seven different eras and types of suburban development, Hayden continually refers back to the common suburban theme of conflict between residents seeking “the triple dream of home, nature, and community” and entrepreneurs seeking “profits through the development of greenfield sites” (xi). In many ways, this conflict parallels the theme of negotiation between company town managers and employees that Alison K. Hoagland explored in Mine Towns, but Hayden’s Building Suburbia does so at a larger scale and a broader scope. Throughout the explanation of suburban developments in different eras of American history, Hayden consistently points out “inequalities of gender, class, and race…embedded in material form” (245). Whether it be socioeconomic exclusion in 19th century streetcar suburbs; redlining, racial covenants, or physical walls used to exclude African-Americans from the mid-century sitcom suburbs, or imbalance tax codes that leave single women out of home ownership in the edge node developments of the 1980s, Hayden does not shy away from exposing inequalities espoused by both corporations and government agencies throughout American history. On the other hand, Hayden also demonstrates environments of negotiation: where the economic bottom line of companies and lifestyle preferences of employees seek a balance. As in Hoagland’s Mine Towns, those in power sought to maximize the use of their residential buildings as evidenced by the practice of “hot-bedding:” where the day shift and night shift workers shared a bed—that was thus never “cold”—at alternating times. Similarly, Hayden points out that during the 1990s, employers saved on operating costs by “hot-desking:” constructing “telecenters” where employees share desks on alternating days when they are not telecommuting (187). Hayden’s seven suburban types—Borderlands, Picturesque Enclaves, Streetcar Buildouts, Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs, Sitcom Suburbs, Edge Nodes, and Rural Fringes—are not only well organized and explained, but she also provides evidences for how they may still be read and potentially preserved in the landscape. After a chapter devoted to “Nostalgia and Futurism,” which explore a range of 1980s and 1990s variations on new urbanism, Hayden concludes with a preservationist appeal and a call to political consensus to change the thrust of further expansion of suburban sprawl. But unlike other academic and journalistic works, she suggests that the past suburbs are themselves the alternative solution to the problem of sprawl. She argues that to “preserve, renovate, and infill the suburban neighborhoods of the past can make the suburban city more egalitarian and sustainable” (245). Although this idea is not fully flushed out here in the conclusion of the book, it does demonstrate a more constructive view of addressing the American paradox of largely condemning but also preferring suburban housing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    NOLaBookish aka blue-collared mind

    I could give you some excellent examples of my suburban cred-I'll give you two: I would ride my bike to y tiny side or back yard, and just leave it laying there til i wanted to ride it again. I had no idea how to take a bus until I was a teenager and then still got confused. Lucky for me, my urban mother moved me to the city when I was a teenager and I escaped its grown-up clutches. Maybe because of that, I go back to that suburb and find sweet things to muse about almost every time. Suburbia has i I could give you some excellent examples of my suburban cred-I'll give you two: I would ride my bike to y tiny side or back yard, and just leave it laying there til i wanted to ride it again. I had no idea how to take a bus until I was a teenager and then still got confused. Lucky for me, my urban mother moved me to the city when I was a teenager and I escaped its grown-up clutches. Maybe because of that, I go back to that suburb and find sweet things to muse about almost every time. Suburbia has its many detractors. It has few supporters. I won't say this author is in either camp entirely. She does seem to understand them, which of course is the first step to changing them. 7 vernacular patterns of suburbia? I had no idea. But now I do. I can roam the old cities I see and find the patterns from "borderlands" (Ohio City in Cleveland to the Garden District in New Orleans), "picturesque enclaves" (oh my Lakewood for sure) to "streetcar suburbs" (my current neighborhood of MidCity New Orleans) and so on. Builders (not necessarily developers in every case) were the main actors, we all know that but not always for the reasons you would think, is her argument. The communitarian movement, women needing to find paid work and so on. Another round of applause for how she incorporates what has been written before. How can you write about suburbs and not mention the brilliant "Crabgrass Frontier"? Don't worry-She does. Well worth it. Useful. Well designed. Just like some suburbs.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    Building Suburbia is a capable synthesis of historical and recent scholarship on the development of the suburbs in America. Hayden, a professor of architecture and urbanism and professor of American Studies at Yale, knows what she is talking about. It was clear to me that this book is written for a general, rather then specialized audience. Hayden's writting style is easy to understand, and she provides multiple in text illustrations and photographs to illuminate the text. The book tracks the hi Building Suburbia is a capable synthesis of historical and recent scholarship on the development of the suburbs in America. Hayden, a professor of architecture and urbanism and professor of American Studies at Yale, knows what she is talking about. It was clear to me that this book is written for a general, rather then specialized audience. Hayden's writting style is easy to understand, and she provides multiple in text illustrations and photographs to illuminate the text. The book tracks the historical development of suburbs in time (the subtitle is "Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000.) She starts with "Borderlands", then covers "Picturesque Enclaves", "Streetcar Buildouts", "Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs", "Sitcom Subrurbs", "Edge Nodes" and "Rural Fringes". This historical approach is book ended by an introduction with two chapters and a conclusion with two chapters. Hayden includes excellent end notes and a selected bibliography that is worthwhile to have on your shelf. Since this book was written in 2003, the bibliography is chock full of RECENT books on urban studies that allow the student or casual reader to follow up in any number of directions. Worth checking out.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    At times interesting history of the changing pattern of suburban and rural development in the United States punctuated by bloated diction and terribly misguided substories. In particular the hamhanded effort to paint much of urban development as a racist plot against minorities. That part is bad enough, but the sophomoric feminist rant against male driven family structures... allegedly perpetuated by modern suburbs... that is tactlessly slapped onto the text sends the book from the realm of bein At times interesting history of the changing pattern of suburban and rural development in the United States punctuated by bloated diction and terribly misguided substories. In particular the hamhanded effort to paint much of urban development as a racist plot against minorities. That part is bad enough, but the sophomoric feminist rant against male driven family structures... allegedly perpetuated by modern suburbs... that is tactlessly slapped onto the text sends the book from the realm of being merely poorly edited into near unreadability. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier Does a far better job of addressing the race question in regard to urban development... see the Atlanta chapter.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tracy

    Hayden does a good job of systematically describing the history of the suburb. Of particular value is her inclusion of periods prior to WWII, in contrast to many who see the beginning of the 'burbs in the post-war construction boom. Much of the discussion focuses on the stories of particular examples of the types of suburban pattern she describes. The examples make for interesting reading, but lack something in terms of generality. Of course, the book almost deserves three stars for a single sent Hayden does a good job of systematically describing the history of the suburb. Of particular value is her inclusion of periods prior to WWII, in contrast to many who see the beginning of the 'burbs in the post-war construction boom. Much of the discussion focuses on the stories of particular examples of the types of suburban pattern she describes. The examples make for interesting reading, but lack something in terms of generality. Of course, the book almost deserves three stars for a single sentence: "[Tysons Corners] resembles...a model with all the building blocks for both suburb and city thrown on the ground by a two-year-old having a tantrum." Too true.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Wade

    One of the best books anywhere on anything. Then you take the fact that we all fascinated with where humans live and how we came to this odd suburban arrangement and you really see her strength. The intelligent time lines leading from the 1800s to modern mcmansion is impressive and her chapter on sitcom suburbs is brilliant including the communist red aspect of Levitttown. Hayden writes quick and crisp and lays out segments you'll want to quote later. Her closing chapters talk poignantly about h One of the best books anywhere on anything. Then you take the fact that we all fascinated with where humans live and how we came to this odd suburban arrangement and you really see her strength. The intelligent time lines leading from the 1800s to modern mcmansion is impressive and her chapter on sitcom suburbs is brilliant including the communist red aspect of Levitttown. Hayden writes quick and crisp and lays out segments you'll want to quote later. Her closing chapters talk poignantly about how public history can help reconnect suburbs and honor the hard work creating community when those places were raw and new.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    The academic writing style is not my favorite style. This is definitely written in that style. The book does do a good job of explaining the history of and development of the rural and suburban life style and I enjoyed those parts. I however couldn't get over the random feminist rants and odd ideas about race and the urban environments. I am obviously not the target audience for this book. Reads more like a doctorate dissertation than a readable history book. I gave it two stars because the hist The academic writing style is not my favorite style. This is definitely written in that style. The book does do a good job of explaining the history of and development of the rural and suburban life style and I enjoyed those parts. I however couldn't get over the random feminist rants and odd ideas about race and the urban environments. I am obviously not the target audience for this book. Reads more like a doctorate dissertation than a readable history book. I gave it two stars because the history part was sound and interesting and would of gave it more stars except for the obvious political bias that hit you over the head over and over again.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Pam

    Hayden. talks about the importance of preserving our existing built environment, understanding the history of suburbs, and realizing the socio-economic impacts of our actions. She acknowledges efforts to achieve these goals through planners, architects, historians, etc. but completely neglects the field of historic preservation (until the last 5 pages of the book) despite the fact that preservationists often approach the issues she discusses from the holistic approach she claims is sorely needed Hayden. talks about the importance of preserving our existing built environment, understanding the history of suburbs, and realizing the socio-economic impacts of our actions. She acknowledges efforts to achieve these goals through planners, architects, historians, etc. but completely neglects the field of historic preservation (until the last 5 pages of the book) despite the fact that preservationists often approach the issues she discusses from the holistic approach she claims is sorely needed. This book was good, but short sighted and incomplete in many regards.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Halle

    If you've ever been curious about how we've built this massive society and life around suburbs, this book is for you. It's a historical description of suburbs from their conception until now, including the author's thoughts on the future of the suburb. I found this book fascinating and fun to read! If you've ever been curious about how we've built this massive society and life around suburbs, this book is for you. It's a historical description of suburbs from their conception until now, including the author's thoughts on the future of the suburb. I found this book fascinating and fun to read!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Linda Stewart

    Hayden explains the seven historical periods of suburbia. Her discussion of the cult of domesticity for women and the single-home ownership for men and the influences of Beecher on suburban "home missionaries" is fascinating. The historical roots of suburbia are helpful to understand the present configurations of suburban systems, particularly the gendering of suburban landscapes. Hayden explains the seven historical periods of suburbia. Her discussion of the cult of domesticity for women and the single-home ownership for men and the influences of Beecher on suburban "home missionaries" is fascinating. The historical roots of suburbia are helpful to understand the present configurations of suburban systems, particularly the gendering of suburban landscapes.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gisela

    I'll write a review as it's unlikely I'll finish, not because the book is bad, but because I keep getting mad. It's a succinct history of the development of suburbia and the political and economic factors that created it. My complaint is that it's a little too brief for me, I would have enjoyed more detail. I'll write a review as it's unlikely I'll finish, not because the book is bad, but because I keep getting mad. It's a succinct history of the development of suburbia and the political and economic factors that created it. My complaint is that it's a little too brief for me, I would have enjoyed more detail.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Gordon Howard

    Excellent book that combines a concise history of suburbia in the U.S. and its different stages, leading to a last chapter with meaningful actions to take. Dolores Hayden is a former professor of mine from UCLA almost three decades ago, and her analysis of the built environment in the U.S. is the most complete and thoughtful that I have found.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    Very engaging, and a good companion piece/update to "Crabgrass Frontier." It covers much of the same ground but goes off in some additional directions and emphasizes the the cultural aspects of the suburbs (critiques and advertisements) a bit more than the legal/economic analysis that Kenneth Jackson provides. Very engaging, and a good companion piece/update to "Crabgrass Frontier." It covers much of the same ground but goes off in some additional directions and emphasizes the the cultural aspects of the suburbs (critiques and advertisements) a bit more than the legal/economic analysis that Kenneth Jackson provides.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    eh she's right, taxes and politics need to be reformed for true suburban reform to occur. so once we solve this energy thing, and cut the demand for it's use in cars and move that demand to neighborhoods and houses and cities, we'll be cool. eh she's right, taxes and politics need to be reformed for true suburban reform to occur. so once we solve this energy thing, and cut the demand for it's use in cars and move that demand to neighborhoods and houses and cities, we'll be cool.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jama

    While I found the first few chapters disjointed, and I wished the author would lend her interpretations to the many many historical examples she gave, the book ended up being very informative and interesting.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    Interesting perspective on suburban sprawl, particularly because it makes the point that it is not a new phenomenon. Depressing to learn how manipulated the housing market has been since time immemorial. A little too much "tell" not "show" but decent nevertheless. Interesting perspective on suburban sprawl, particularly because it makes the point that it is not a new phenomenon. Depressing to learn how manipulated the housing market has been since time immemorial. A little too much "tell" not "show" but decent nevertheless.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Schein

    an excellent history of urban planning and suburban sprawl, with a nice feminist twist.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    For those interesting in suburbia and urban planning issues.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rachael Richardson

    A comprehensive history of the evolution of the suburbs.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Aaronwilcher

    For the general audience. Hayden is the seminal contemporary scholar on community in the built environment, the Jane Jacobs of her generation.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Excellent history of US urban/suburban development, very readable.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

    Easy to read and fruitful.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Natasha

    so far: excellent. A history of Real Estate Land Development and it's perverse effects on America due to poor policy. so far: excellent. A history of Real Estate Land Development and it's perverse effects on America due to poor policy.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    A great look at the surprising history of suburban growth in the US, with a narrative style that captures the story in perfect detail.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    An excellent synopsis of how we got these cancerous "little houses made of ticky tacky" metastasizing all those hydrocarbons away from city centers. An excellent synopsis of how we got these cancerous "little houses made of ticky tacky" metastasizing all those hydrocarbons away from city centers.

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