Reclaiming an Ethical Suburbanism: On Amanda Kolson-Hurley’s "Radical Suburbs"

Reclaiming an Ethical Suburbanism: On Amanda Kolson-Hurley’s "Radical Suburbs"

Amanda Kolson-Hurley | Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City | Belt Publishing | April 9, 2019 | 160 Pages


Threats of suburbia’s imminent irrelevancy have proven overblown. But the common image of suburbs as mass-produced, white middle-class citadels of picket-fences and two-car garages is also no longer sufficient. Suburbs are increasingly racially and economically diverse. As Amanda Kolson-Hurley writes of her own suburban community in Montgomery County, Maryland, suburbanites speak an array of languages, rent modest apartments, take the bus, and importantly, are not lily-white.

Far from an uncharted era of suburban living, Kolson-Hurley’s Radical Suburbs shows that this more eclectic and inclusive suburbia has historical roots. Drawing on archival research and interviews, she writes in animating prose about the “waves of idealists” who established offbeat, alternative models of suburban habitation designed to foster the precise opposite values often associated with suburbia, such as communalism, denser and affordable housing, and interracial cooperation.

As a senior editor at CityLab, Kolson-Hurley publishes widely on suburbs, urban design, and metropolitan politics, and she makes her book’s contemporary stakes repeatedly clear. Recovering the history of radical suburbs, she insists, will inform a more equitable and greener suburban development strategy. And with 52% of Americans residing in suburbs that continue to struggle with racial inequality and carbon-unfriendly sprawl, reclaiming this “birthright” of “bold social and architectural experimentation” in suburbia is as urgent as ever.

Each chapter details both the historical development and central policy lesson of a different radical suburb. We hear the quirky story of nineteenth-century Harmonists, a German religious group of avowed celibates who created a commune in a town called Economy outside Pittsburgh. From the Harmonists we learn of the value of co-housing, which can lessen environmental harm and prevent social isolation by encouraging denser living and tighter community ties.

Then there are the early-twentieth century anarchists who settled in Stelton, New Jersey. They fled to New Jersey’s farmlands from their beloved New York City when police began to crack down on anarchist organizing. Stelton is most famous for its Modern School, an anarchist educational institution that sought to inculcate youth with the tools to think independently. But Kolson-Hurley sees Stelton’s building of smaller, secondary rental housing units that efficiently utilized vacant land for cheap housing as the core takeaway for future suburbanites, who might consider developing and renting out their own “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs.

Or take Concord Park, where progressive builder Morris Milgram created an interracial suburb during an era of virulent government-backed racial exclusion in new suburban developments. Built in 1954, Milgram worked with civil rights groups in the Philadelphia area to develop a stock corporation and found a bank (after twenty refusals) that would lend to African Americans. To ensure true racial integration, Milgram and his board members utilized racial quotas – hardly anyone’s first choice, given the use of quotas to explicitly limit marginalized people from institutions. But the unsavory policy mechanism worked, producing an integrated suburb with brand new, impeccably designed single-family homes. Although Concord Park did eventually become a majority Black middle-class suburb, Kolson-Hurley traces its influence in contemporary fair housing groups that help steer buyers towards integrated neighborhoods.

The countercultural imaginations and practices of radical suburbanites deserve our attention. But they contain interpretive limits. Kolson-Hurley’s focus on a curated patchwork of suburban idealists does not fully expand upon the most enduring and central dynamic that holds suburbs back from an inclusionary utopia: that real estate, as historian Nathan Connolly argues in his book A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, is not a “blank slate” but the “latest form of landed investment in a country built through slavery, racial exclusion, and repeated acts of race-based land expropriation.”

Now, Kolson-Hurley is clearly aware of the insidious history of government-endorsed racist lending and real estate practices, like redlining and urban renewal, that inextricably imprinted racial hierarchies onto housing and development markets. She is also careful to point out such racial myopia in radical suburbanites’ visions. For example, she laments how Greenbelt, a government owned, affordable suburban experiment from New Deal economist Rexford Tugwell, barred of African Americans. She also acknowledges the shortcomings of Milgram and his backers’ open housing strategy, which focused on changing white people’s hearts and minds rather than dismantling the structural racism embedded in suburban property markets and politics.

But her focus on radical suburbanites’ architectural innovations or commune-style living does not substantively grapple with the inherently racial logic of property; a logic that disadvantages Black and Brown Americans by devaluing the spaces they inhabit, crowding them into segregated, and therefore exploitable housing markets, and by perpetuating racist assumptions of Black and Brown inferiority. Excluding the chapters on Concord Park, race and racism fade in and out of the text, appearing as a subtext rather than a core analytic of suburban space. The fact that whites still flee from suburbs that become majority-minority, that assessors value the property of African American homeowners significantly lower than white homeowners, and that police routinely subject Black suburbanites to fines and abuse become fleeting points in Kolson-Hurley’s text rather than defining problems for suburban development. Her recognition that fixing racial inequality in the suburban housing markets will require “muscular policy intervention” is certainly welcome, but the quick addition that “no federal policy change of this sorts seems likely in the foreseeable future,” already stunts both the gravity of the issue and the possibilities for its transformation.  

Kolson-Hurley’s work makes an important contribution to literature that insists suburbs are both historically and presently more diverse than is commonly understood. And policies such as bolstering fair housing practices and offering tax breaks to towns with a high percentage of non-white residents, as she advocates, will mitigate patterns of spatialized racism in these suburban locales. But while diverse suburbs hold marked social benefits for its inhabitants, many appear to be merely undergoing racial transition and eventually become majority-minority. Indeed, majority non-white suburbs are on the rise, and they often face similar if not worse structural inequities to non-white communities in urban areas. Kolson-Hurley acknowledges the “challenges” of such places, such as Ferguson, Missouri, where a “toxic convergence of metropolitan balkanization, disinvestment, and racism” led to the 2014 police killing of African American teenager Michael Brown. While clearly disapproving of such developments, Kolson-Hurley’s radical suburbanites do not offer much for solving this central dynamic of racial containment, exclusion, and exploitation that courses through the sordid history of metropolitan development and politics.

Still, Kolson-Hurley’s call to action for suburbanites to speak out against spatial inequity and environmental harm in suburbia is sorely needed. In addition to Harmonists, anarchists, and progressive builders like Milgram, however, we might add groups like the Black Panthers to Kolson-Hurley’s list of historical and radical voices who envisioned a better, more just metropolis. Although focused primarily on transforming the city, the Black Panthers criticized both white urban elites that targeted their neighborhoods for clearance and policing and the “white suburban ‘noose” that contained them in disinvested neighborhoods. They understood that the history of the white settlement is one of state-subsidized white privilege that structurally disadvantages and threatens Black and Brown livelihoods, regardless of whether they move or are displaced to the suburbs.

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