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Response to Review no. 388

I am grateful to Richard Harris for his review of Suburban Century, a comparative study of English and American suburbanisation since 1900, not least because Harris has made an important contribution to the historiography of suburbanisation over recent years. I would like to address myself to just a few of his comments.

Harris is completely correct in his view that for a very long time, writers have sneered at the suburbs. This elitism continues and in many quarters the suburbs attract far more negative comment than they deserve. Given their increasingly heterogeneous character, and their complex intersecting with most facets of life in Britain and the USA, this antipathy is dangerous: it fails to recognise the complexity of contemporary suburbia.

The growth of working-class suburbanisation is an important but neglected subject. I simply wished to demonstrate that suburbia – still so often derided as ‘middle class’ – is much more varied in class terms. I accept that in many areas of the USA workers were driven to, or aspired to, a suburban home for reasons that were different to middle-class suburbanites. Yet I hope my broad observation holds true: that most workers pursued a suburban aspiration that privileged a house with a garden, in a pleasant residential area which was perceived as safe and wholesome for their children. Many who did not have children still felt that they wanted to move to the suburbs, and there is nothing inherently middle-class in this. Just as once-‘bourgeois’ luxury items become mainstream when more and more people can afford them, so too has suburban living become hugely more popular.

Ethnicity and suburbia is a difficult subject, and I agree, in terms of Jewish suburbanisation, that I may have drawn too wide a conclusion from my sources on New York’s Jewish population. Harris also points out that William Julius Wilson has emphasised the ghetto left behind by black suburbanisation, and other dynamic developments in American society and its economy. I fully appreciate that, arguing that ‘segregation and impoverished housing areas and their social and economic problems still existed at the end of the twentieth century.’(p. 96).

Understanding the broad parallel trends as well as the differences and nuances between countries still remains, however, an essential task of the comparative historian. The growth of Jewish, black and Asian suburbs is worthy of much more historical analysis.

As for the politics of suburbia, I accept that local political action in the United States has a greater kind of significance than in England. I did, as Harris mentions, emphasise the power of self-consciously suburban enclaves in excluding ‘undesirables’ in America. But the major and compelling similarity was this: during the 1950s, and again in the 1980s and 1990s, the suburbs, so often derided by left commentators as bastions of a crabbed conservative outlook, were seen by revisionist and pragmatic Labour and Democrat politicians as the very constituencies where the fortunes of those parties had to be revived. In this, policy revisions based upon an understanding of the ‘suburban majority’ and its needs led to electoral success, thus saving the mainstream parties of the left rather than destroying them.

Suburban Century was indeed intended to be a starting point for comparative studies. In common with Harris, I hope that more comparative history will be undertaken not only between America and England, but between many different countries. Furthermore, although still unfashionable for so many opinion formers, the trend to suburbanisation is nowhere near exhausted, and this trend, as Harris affirms, requires much more serious historical examination than it has hitherto been given. This final point is especially germane to Britain, where the historiography of suburbanisation is much smaller than in the USA.