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Abolish The Suburbs

Tucker Carlson recently launched into a tirade on Democrats’ rather milquetoast efforts to address the spatial inequalities, both in terms of race and class, of America’s suburbs. During the diatribe, Carlson pulled from his usual grab bag of rightwing tropes. According to Carlson, by calling attention to the problems with exclusively zoning for single-family homes, the American Left was engaging in a dangerous experiment of social engineering. A cabal of “federal ideologues” were scheming to turn the entire country into “Democrat-run cities.” Soon, suburban neighborhoods would be overrun with crime, poverty, and blight. To drive the point home, two days later Carlson had on CEO and Chairman of the Buckhead City Committee Bill White. White used the segment to decry the Atlanta city council’s efforts to reform its zoning regulations. With the utmost seriousness, he referred to Atlanta’s zoning for multifamily units as a “Marxist land grab.”

For context, it is important to remember that suggesting that urbanity is a “Marxist” creation has a long history in the United States. Steep in anti-urban Jeffersonianism, several of America’s preeminent thinkers and politicians have insinuated that urbanity itself—with its large apartment buildings, public parks, and public transit—is nothing but a latent form of socialism. As far back as 1889, Josiah Strong, leader of the Social Gospel Movement, argued that America’s modern cities were a gateway to materialism and—heaven forbid—godless socialism. As recently as the 1980s, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean attacked the state’s Supreme Court’s decision that suburban municipalities had to accept a certain percentage of affordable housing as a “socialistic” system of municipal conformity. More recently, Susan Shelley—the columnist and vice-president for the conservative California anti-tax organization the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association—declared that ending single-family homes in California was “the Sovietization of California housing.” In this respect, Tucker Carlson is just pulling old red scare skeletons out of America’s closet.    

Still, in another respect, detractors of urbanity are not entirely inaccurate when they take note of its latent socialist qualities. When compared to the modern American suburb, the average urbanites’ existence appears as downright communal. Urban historian Robert Fishman, in his book Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia, traces the origin of the modern suburbs—with its single-family homes, private lawns, personal cars, and emphasis on the nuclear family and separating home from work—to the rise of London’s entrepreneurial and industrial middle-class. For Fishman, modern suburbia was the early bourgeoisie’s attempt at urban planning and—as a product of that class—was always intended to maintain elements of exclusion and privilege. 

While these “bourgeois utopias”—Fishman’s phrase—were created in the United Kingdom, it was in the United States that they were perfected, especially after the Second World War. After the war, suburban living was not only presented as the ideal human habitat, a signifier of comfortable middle-class existence, but—in the context of the Cold War—necessary for the battle against communism. Suddenly, cul-de-sacs, lawn ornaments, and backyard grilling were all part of the fight against international communism. Nixon’s and Krushchev’s famous “kitchen debate” had demonstrated that American capitalism was superior in satisfying consumer wants than Soviet communism. Meanwhile, William Levitt—the “father of modern suburbia”—would proclaim that “no man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.”    

Quite ironically, despite being celebrated as a glorious achievements of America’s market economy, the modern American suburb would not have come about if it were not for top-down government support. America’s “bourgeois utopias” only exist because of generous federal spending and policies to promote private homeownership and personal car use. Despite Carlson’s hand wringing over “federal ideologues,” the reality is that without federal support, his beloved suburbs would not have come about in the first place. Furthermore, on a municipal level, the tooth-and-nail fight by reactionary NIMBYs—the type of people Susan Shelly and Bill White represent—is probably the closest thing in the United States to the Soviet Union’s “bureaucratic centralism.” Throughout the US, zoning regulations are a labyrinthian micromanaged mess. However, whereas the Soviet Union at least had a modicum of using its command economy for the benefit of workers, NIMBY zoning is almost exclusively the prerogative of America’s most privileged classes. In accordance with Fishman’s analysis, the prohibitive zoning regulations of modern suburbia do what they were intended to do: create a geospatial area of private ownership that excludes undesirables. 

Since its founding, the federal government in the United States has always been involved in the settlement of its citizens. However, it was not until the New Deal that it took on an active role in promoting private homeownership. During the Great Depression, homelessness had become rampant. Along with the stock market, the housing market had crashed, affecting not only the working class but many white-collar professionals as well. To manage this crisis, the Roosevelt administration established the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). While many European nations dealt with housing insecurity by directly investing in social housing programs, the United States dealt with its housing crisis by spurring growth in the private market through government-backed mortgages. Before the FHA, a down payment on a home could cost 30%-50% of the home’s total value, and banks often required mortgages to be paid off within 5-10 years. The FHA changed this market standard by agreeing to secure mortgages that relied on as little as a 10% down payment and with a repayment window up to 30 years. These loans–combined with new building techniques, materials, a new highway infrastructure, and access to affordable automobiles that made cheap land for development readily available—resulted in a suburban housing boom. According to the US census, in 1940, 43.6% of Americans owned their home, the lowest recorded percentage of homeownership in the twentieth century. However, by 1950, that number climbed to 55%, at the time the highest record percentage. By 1960, it had jumped again to 61.9%.       

The FHA undoubtedly made it possible for members of the working class to achieve a better quality of life; however, while it reduced economic inequality, it simultaneously reinforced America’s post-war racial hierarchy. Understandably, the FHA did not want banks to lend mortgages to individuals with a high potential for default. At the time, it was assumed that certain racial groups were more creditworthy than others. The FHA produced reports that ranked ethnicities based on their “beneficial effect on land values.” At the top of the list were people from English, German, Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, and Northern Italian backgrounds. On the bottom were Russian Jews, Southern Italians, African Americans, and Mexicans. Even though the FHA would eventually revise its policy guidelines to no longer support racial segregation, their years of enforcement during one of America’s greatest housing booms meant the damage had been done. White residents left urban areas in droves to purchase cheap homes in the suburbs. While people of color, specifically African Americans, were stuck in neglected urban centers. Just as the modern American suburb was being born, so too was the modern American ghetto. Even today, while white homeownership is at approximately 74%, black homeownership is at 40.6%, and appears to be declining in the face of skyrocketing home prices. 

Still, with the passage of the Housing Act of 1968—which ended racial discrimination in all forms of housing—it appeared as if it was only a matter of time before racial minorities would be able to achieve the same levels of homeownership as their white counterparts. That was a severe problem for many white homeowners who purposely fled to the suburbs to escape the racially integrated cities. No longer able to legally discriminate, homeowner associations began advocating for restrictive zoning practices that prohibited new housing developments. Ironically, these new restrictive zoning practices were often most popular in liberal areas of the country because of their association with a burgeoning “slow growth” environmentalism. 

The rising popularity of environmentalism provided advocates of restrictive zoning with a new rhetorical toolkit. Now, prohibiting new people from moving to an area was not about racial anxieties. It was about preventing the exhaustion of precious resources and preserving the nebulous asset known as “neighborhood character.” Books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s The Limits of Growth described a world of increasing scarcity, and homeowner associations applied these prognostications of planetary destruction to their own backyards. Advocates of slow growth sought to reduce, if not stop completely, the pace of dense urban development. Through zoning restrictions, large apartment buildings were banned, effectively killing off the potential for affordable housing. Even if there was no outright ban, a long list of development requirements and bureaucratic hurdles—including setbacks, parking requirements, height restrictions, impact fees, and more—all made building any form of housing outside of expensive single-family homes essentially impossible. 

The immense irony is that despite wrapping their ideas in ecological rhetoric, the restrictive zoning practices of the slow growth movement have led to one of America’s most vexing environmental problems: suburban sprawl. Prohibitions on building taller buildings did not mean that new housing developments vanished; instead, they have just become more expensive and more spread out. Not only has this led to the destruction of land that could otherwise be dedicated to conservation, but it has made Americans extremely dependent on personal automobiles and thus a fossil fuel infrastructure. Unlike dense urban cities—where walking, biking, and public transit are appropriate forms of transportation—suburbia’s intense divisions between home, work, and recreation make private car ownership a necessity. Environmentalists might bristle at the lack of nature New Yorkers are exposed to, but New York’s dense urban landscape is perhaps the closest thing that exists to a silver bullet for climate change. While the average American produces approximately 24.5 metric tons of carbon a year, New Yorkers—with their subway system, efficiently stacked buildings, and shared amenities—produce an average of 7.1 metric tons a year. 

Besides its racial homogeneity and environmental destruction, there is another reason to oppose the modern American suburb: social isolation. It is not a mere coincidence that a massive retreat by the more affluent members of the working class into “bourgeois utopias” ended up being a prologue to America’s neoliberal turn. Immersed within the culture of suburbia, workers stopped thinking of their economic betterment in terms of wages and working conditions and started to think of it in terms of low taxes and protecting property values. By the 1980s, many former New Dealers had become suspicious of labor unions and other forms of working class civic participation. As a result of this inward shift, civic life seriously deteriorated. According to Robert Putnam, since 1965—immediately after the post-war wave of mass suburbanization—participation in face-to-face organizations has been on the decline.  

The good news is that the problems of modern suburbia can be reversed. Socialists should realize that their rightwing critics were onto something when they criticized dense urban areas for their latent socialistic characteristics. Indeed, the progressive reformer Fredric Howe believed that with modernity, “man has entered on an urban age. He has become a communal being.” The modern city “has woven our lives into the lives of others. No longer is each household an independent one, producing for its own wants alone and supplied from within. The texture of the fabric has been altered. It is now closely woven.” This altered texture means that “the city has brought whatever sense of social responsibility we now have. In a sense this is socialism.” The French Marxist urbanists Henri Lefebvre would echo Howe’s sentiment in referring to modern urbanity as the “socialization of society.” Of course, the urban infrastructure of capitalism is only in a “sense” socialism, not actual socialism. Like the movement from individual producers to the factory-system, urbanization creates the basis for a socialist society through inducing layers of cooperation. This physical infrastructure alone is not enough to emancipate humanity, but it is arguably a necessary precondition to make democratic socialism truly possible. 

At the end of his segment, Tucker Carlson attempted to scare his audience with the prospect that President Joe Biden was planning to “abolish the suburbs.” Considering how destructive these “bourgeois utopias” have been to the working class, perhaps socialists should consider embodying Carlson’s fear and start advocating to do exactly that.