A scholarly but vigorous study of the forces that made the US a nation of suburbs.
Colleagues Baxandall and Ewen (American Studies/SUNY, Old Westbury) organize their history, which reaches back to the
1920s, around three leading themes: the debate over who should be responsible for developing the suburbs opened by the
explosion of the American population and fueled by the automobile; the relation between abstract ideas and specific places; and
the attempt by many Americans of different backgrounds to claim the well-advertised national dream of democracy and prosperity.
Having staked out as their prime territory the suburbs of Long Island, whose mass-produced Levittown is universally agreed to
be the quintessential suburban community, they devote most of their attention to the first and last of these goals. Though their
writing is studded with scholarly footnotes, their citations of earlier writers and suburban denizens (many of them interviewed
half a century after they moved out to paradise) are lively, and their story is absorbing and often revelatory. The authors trace
the crazy quilt of present-day Nassau County communities to the days of the robber barons, who actively promoted land-use
policies designed to keep their estates from being overrun by urban rabble. They discover Senator Joseph McCarthy warming up
for his Red-baiting by linking government-sponsored housing to communism in order to protect the interests of the commercial
builders who eventually prevailed. They note the ways William Levitt, "the Henry Ford of housing," not only revolutionized the
way new homes were constructed but consistently paid his nonunion workers better than union employees. And they examine the
uneasy mix of races in contemporary suburbs before wondering if Disney’s private community of Celebration is really the wave
of the future.
It’s only in their relatively perfunctory treatment of suburban mythmaking that the authors fall short of a comprehensive study
of the forces that shaped the suburban dream.