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Summer Books

Book tells tale of ’60s reform in suburbia

By Nicholas Dagen Bloom
Ohio State University Press, 352 pages, $27.95


Reformers are not people usually associated with the suburbs. The perception is that the ’burbs are for those who want to isolate themselves from social problems, settle down, take care of families and enjoy the wonders of American consumerism.

Yet as Nicholas Dagen Bloom argues in his Suburban Alchemy: 1960s New Towns and the Transformation of the American Dream, not all suburbs are identical. His study of the new towns of Reston, Va., Columbia, Md., and Irvine, Calif., reveals a reform movement during the 1960s that modeled a suburbia beyond the endless ranch homes of conventional suburbs.

Under the leadership of enlightened developers such as Robert Simon in Reston and James Rouse in Columbia, these towns pursued ambitious social visions through conscious planning. They organized homes in clusters and provided village centers intended to foster community and personal interaction. Further, the towns, particularly Reston and Columbia, made special efforts to offer mixed and affordable housing, to promote racial integration, to create new opportunities for women and support the arts.

While the concept and planning of these suburbs came from progressive developers, Bloom shows how the work of sustaining the reform ideals of these towns lay with the residents themselves. In myriad ways the residents of the new towns created vibrant, diverse communities. In Columbia, they founded a community newspaper. In Irvine they created such civic rituals as an annual community festival. In all three towns the residents demanded a greater role in the governance of the communities, insisted on preserving the original goals of mixed housing, all the while developing cultural institutions such as galleries and performing arts centers.

Bloom admits that the towns have not solved all the problems of suburbia -- such as their dependence on the automobile -- but he convincingly shows how these towns creatively responded to the limitations of much of suburban life. His study therefore helps complicate an understanding of suburban America.

Homogenous communities, racial segregation and cultural emptiness do not represent the only story of suburbia. The historical forces and people associated with what gets called “suburbia” are too complex to be reduced to simple interpretations. Suburban Alchemy reveals one dimension of the vast reality of suburbia by exploring efforts to address the suburban dilemma from within suburbia.

Indeed, so preoccupied is Bloom with portraying these suburbanites as reformers that he leaves out other important aspects of the lives of the residents in the new towns. For instance, religion is largely marginalized in his story. This is unfortunate because, at least in terms of Catholics in Columbia, Md., Bloom’s theme of the new towns as centers of reform could have been extended. For, though Bloom doesn’t refer to it, the interfaith worship center that Rouse created for the religious communities in Columbia gained praise in both America and Commonweal as an experiment in ecumenism.

It would therefore have been interesting to know to what extent these Catholics understood their suburbs through the lens of the second Vatican Council’s spirit of reform. Perhaps the reform ethos wasn’t completely generated from within the towns themselves but was fed by larger realities such as the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as well as by the Protestant churches’ involvement in the civil rights movement.

Another dimension to the reform suburbs that Bloom doesn’t pursue is their place in the transformation of middle-class culture from the plastic world of Tupperware associated with the older suburbs of the 1950s to the authenticity and diversity so valued by the educated middle class of the 1990s.

The new towns that Bloom describes may have been one of the early incubators in recreating middle-class identity around what David Brooks has called the “Bobo”-- the person who combines bourgeois commitment to success with bohemian values of self-expressiveness, creativity and individuality.

For, as Bloom notes, the new towns of the 1960s and 1970s caught the attention of liberal, middle-class professionals yearning for alternatives to the alienating suburbs of postwar America.

But, as Bloom realizes, these new towns, by the 1990s, had also become communities of the highly educated and affluent. Culturally exciting and textured these new towns may have become, but one wonders how deeply the basic struggles for family and home that many Americans continue to face resonate in such well-intentioned and well-appointed communities.

Finally, as the latest census reveals, many suburbs in large metropolitan areas are becoming more racially and ethnically diversified. Diversity is thus now reshaping the suburbs even without the conscious efforts of enlightened businessmen and residents. It may be that such places where Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and their children attempt to claim a piece of the American dream are the new towns of social change.

Anthony Smith is an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Dayton.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002