images copyJackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

The Author

Kenneth Jackson

JacksonProfessor of History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University

My Thoughts

Jackson’s work—Crabgrass Frontier—is the most ubiquitous citation in my experience of studying suburbia. He published this history of the Suburbs in 1985. It was on the front edge of a wave of suburban studies and framed much of the academic imagination thereafter. Most of his work is that of historical documentation of how suburbs evolved. A significant contribution this book has made is debunking the popular misconception that the suburbs were born after WWII. Suburbia has been around for many generations. It began with the romantic ideal of living in the countryside, while still having access to the commerce of the city. The wealthy were able to achieve this ideal. Jackson demonstrates how the evolution of transportation technology reshaped the urban landscape and allowed more and more people to achieve the garden life outside the city.

Summary Argument

“I will argue that there were two necessary conditions for Americans residential deconcentration—the suburban ideal and population growth—and two fundamental causes—racial prejudice and cheap housing….The residential behavior of the American people, therefore, can be viewed primarily a the result of market forces and government policies. Some suburban families may have acted out of ignorance or irrationality, but most moved to a single-family house because it maximized their utility from a stable set of preferences. In other words, low-density housing was a good deal.”⁠1

My Notes

The uniqueness of the United States Suburb:

  1. 1. population density
  2. 2. home-ownership
  3. 3. residential status – wealthier people live further away from the central city. This is just the opposite of other countries where it is considered a privilege of wealth to live close to the city.
  4. 4. journey-to-work⁠2

early 19th century:

“suburbs, then, were socially and economically inferior to cities when wind, muscle, and water were the prime movers of civilization. This basic cultural and spatial arrangement was essentially the same around the world…even the word suburb suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, and physical squalor.”⁠3


“The process of suburbanization began between 1815 and 1835 and was well-advanced by the advent of the Civil War. Cities increased in size and area and also in internal structure as speculators constructed class-segregated residential suburbs for white-collar workers and managers at the circumference of the city. Whereas poorer housing had been hidden, quite literally, behind the agreeable facades of the more prosperous dwellings, and whereas blacks had lived in back-alley slums, close to the houses of whites, the new suburban areas, with discriminatory barriers, attractive topography, and inflated real-estate values, attracted wealthier residents.”⁠4


“The nineteenth century was the century of steam, when the commuting railroads created suburbs of a new type in North America—distant from the city, distinguished by an elite dominant class, semirural in orientation, and mixed socioeconomically…The railroad suburbs…stood as a model for success. In the nineteenth century the image of suburbia as an affluent community of railroad commuters was set, and the image remained until the interstate suburbs developed in the 1960s.”⁠5


Lewis Mumford:

“In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of its evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could flourish, forgetful of the exploitation on which so much of it was based. Here individuals could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.” 155-156


1933 governmental report:

“In a considerable degree the rapid popular acceptance of the. Es vehicle centered in the fact that if face to the owner a control over his movements that the older agencies denied. Close at hand and ready for instant use, it carried its owner from door to destination by routes he himself selected, and on schedules of his own making; baggage inconveniences were minimized and perhaps most important of all, the automobile made possible the movement of an entire family at costs that were relatively small. Convenience augmented utility and accelerated adoption of the vehicle.” 173.


The automobile benefitted the suburbs most because the the tractor minimized the need for manual labor in the country, thus reducing the population, and the problem of parking and congestion made the automobile a limited boom in the city. The suburbs had the people and the space. 173-175


“the automobile suburbs that appeared in the 1920s differed in four major respects from their mass transit related predecessors: (1) the overall pattern of settlement, (2) the length and especially the direction of the journey-to-work, (3) the deconcentration of employment, and (4) new forms of low-density, residential architecture.” 181.

in 1949 the housing Act made public housing voluntary for local municipalities. That meant wealthy suburbs that didn’t want to tarnish their image didn’t have to provide public housing. 225.


This reinforced segregation.


1 {Jackson, 1985 #189@287-296}

2 Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 6-11.

3 Ibid.,  19.

4 Ibid.,  310-311.

5 Ibid.,  102.

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