Tuesday, May 12, 2015

suburbia, segregation machine?

suburbs are machines for segregation in two ways: one narrow sense, a racial and class sense which could potentially be overcome with enough political will, and one wider sense, built into the structure of the suburban form itself.

growing up in Madison, CT, i was well aware that the poor and colored were excluded from our grassy, shaded suburban world. a token few urbanites were selected from New York City to attend our high school, a charitable gesture which salved some guilty white consciences, i suppose. but i never linked this obvious residential exclusion with the triumphal narrative we had learned in school, that the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s had broken down color lines and brought an end to Jim Crow.

it is only some book-learning of the last few years that has made me conscious of the fact that as society was desegregating its lunch counters, hospitals, and schools, it was re-segregating residentially. and as towns segregated -- suburbs, i should say -- using seemingly race-neutral tools like local zoning authority -- schools followed, resegregating in fact even if legally, whites-only schools had been prohibited.

sometimes it takes a book or two to see one's own experience in a new light of understanding. our segregated lifestyle was so evident in the attitudes of me and my classmates. i will never forget bussing down to NYC to watch Cats (the musical) in 6th grade, driving through Harlem, and the snickering from some boys over the black woman standing on a sidewalk, in mini skirt and high heels. 'hooker,' one said. one word, two snickers, three knowing looks -- not much, maybe, but kids are not dumb. even if i didn't quite know what 'hooker' meant, a kid could tell there was a world of contempt behind that simple word, and a world of history behind that contempt. so what if it took me 30 years to begin to comprehend?

'consumer's republic' but lizabeth cohen, about new jersey's suburbanization, really opened my eyes to how the country was re-segregated in ways even worse than jim crow. for one thing, suburbs found legally safe ways to exclude. they didn't need covenants that said, 'no blacks, no jews.' they just said no apartments, minimum lot size of one acre, and voila, no blacks need intrude. all perfectly legal. older cities had been unequal, with rich and poor, black and white neighborhoods -- but at least they were under the umbrella of one city hall, so negotiation could take place between factions and groups, and rich neighborhoods couldn't utterly segregate themselves off from the rest of the city.

it is clear that from the start, suburbs were meant to keep out black folks, and other undesireables. it wasn't just the william levitts and other developers. it was real estate agents and the federal government itself, whose agencies steered mortgage money and guarantees to white suburbs and steered them away from cities. if the house became ordinary people's most valuable consumer item, and as housing prices appreciated from the 50s all the way to 2008, then clearly for most americans, owning a suburban house was like an escalator riding up floor after floor with each passing decade, making their owners wealthier and wealthier. if one is kept off the escalator on the first floor and trapped in poor neighborhoods as renters, then guess what? 50 years later, one's family and descendants are going to be far poorer than those who were allowed onto the escalator.

or you could ignore this history and simply say that black people are innately lazy and inferior, always looking for a handout -- ignoring the ways white people benefited from government largesse, the largesse that built white-only suburbs back in the 50s and 60s. so blacks gained the right to be served lunch at woolworths. at the same time they were kept out of suburbs. which one matters more? woolworths may be important symbolically, but the suburban house matters more economically.

suburbs don't have to be racially and class-exclusive. they could be more fair. it would be difficult, since the underlying premise of home values is that proximity to poor or colored peoples hurts the value of one's home. this twisted sense of value would have to be overcome for suburbs to be more fair. but it is possible.

but even if we overcome this racial and class segregation, i believe suburbs as an urban form are still deeply segregationist.

suburbs in general put a premium on spatial separation. the further we are from our neighbors and from cities, the higher the value. distance is the highest value.

but most of the world does not work that way. in most of the world various classes, tribes, sects, and races negotiate resources through contact. this contact may be troublesome and even violent, but at least there is contact. suburbs represent a sort of retreat from contact.

how can people ensconced in this sort of retreating mentality be expected to understand people who are different, much less embrace difference? it is not impossible. i don't want to say an urban form totally determines individual thinking. i grew up in the suburbs, and i enjoy contact with different sorts of people and cultures. but i had to break out of the suburbs to do so. the whole form, unfortunately, is premised on separation, control, exclusion. it is an apartheid system that does not announce its apartheid logic. code words like 'small-town character' and 'lot size' are used instead.

actually, small towns used to have people of various classes living in one place. postwar suburbs were not so accepting of different classes.

suburbs indeed became machines for segregation. and they still are.

it was overwhelmingly people living in suburbs who bought into the national security state, who bought into the lie that we could invade iraq, destroy its state, and produce not chaos but freedom and harmony. only suburbanites nurtured by reaganite fantasies could believe removal of goverment could result in utopia. only people totally removed from social reality -- whether at home, in troubled cities locked out of progress, or abroad, in places like south africa and iraq and palestine -- could believe that military or police force could magically solve social conflict.

maybe i am pessemistic. but i am not pessemistic about people. only certain institutions and systems. people can overcome the bad legacy of bad systems. but it takes effort.

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