June 16, 2024

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Almost a quarter-century ago, I documented the shifting population of Cicero, a working-class suburb to Chicago’s west side. The town, comprised mostly of Italian and Eastern European American families, strived tirelessly to prevent black families from setting down roots there. In 1951, when a black family took up residence, a mob vandalized their dwelling and forced their piano out of the window while police stood by. The governor was forced to mobilize the National Guard. It felt unjust that the white families had reaped the benefits of the prospering community, only to desert it, leaving a crumbling town in the hands of the Latino refugees, who now accounted for 75% of the population

After perusing Benjamin Herold’s Disillusioned, it dawned on me that what I had observed was a larger phenomenon: the gradual decaying of America’s suburbs. An education reporter, Herold was curious as to why “thousands of families of color had come to suburbia in search of their own American dreams, only to discover they’d been left holding the bag.” In this thoroughly researched piece, he profiles five families who sought refuge and hope in America’s suburbs over the past few years in the outskirts of Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh.

While racial and social fractures in our urban settings have been widely reported, little has been written about how these divisions have manifested themselves in the suburbs. This is a surprising omission, given that the suburbs are deeply symbolic of American ambition. Alluring aspects include a house, quality education, secure streets, and abundant services. Between 1950 to 2020, suburban populations surged from about 37 million to 170 million – a major reconfiguration of population, space, and financial resources in America’s history.

Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs

By Benjamin Herold

The suburbs have become so symbolic of the American Dream that during the 2020 presidential campaign, Donald Trump utilized their decline as a weapon against Democrats, suggesting their dream was fading. “All of sudden something changed their life,” he announced about suburban dwellers. He tweeted, “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low-Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators Looters, and, of course, ‘Friendly Protestors.’” It can’t be fully discerned what Trump was on about, but it seems clear that he was tapping into fears that these communities would be infiltrated by people who don’t resemble them.

Herold begins his book by profiling his native suburb, Penn Hills, outside of Pittsburgh. With its declining property values, the saga of this suburb encapsulates the unraveling of many such places. Herold unmasks a town in disarray, beset by decaying infrastructure and a school district in debt. Mismanagement and aging infrastructure are endemic, mirroring the plight of many suburbs, a pattern that Herold notes has been replicated in numerous locales.

Herold postulates that we have been directly observing this problem without admitting or caring about what’s occurring. He brings up Ferguson, Missouri, an inner-ring suburb just outside St. Louis. This town was thrust into the spotlight when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teen, in the summer of 2014. The subsequent news coverage revealed that over 20% of the town’s operating income was derived from fines and fees accrued from the predominantly Black residents, the outcome of aggressive policing strategies

. It’s an alarming revelation but not a unique one; many inner-ring suburbs have trod the same path.

It is worth noting that a significant portion of our residential areas were erected using sponsored funds, either through government-facilitated infrastructure like freeways or affordable home loans backed by federal loan assurances. However, Ferguson laid off scheduling for prolonged maintenance in order to maintain low taxes. By 2013, according to Herold, the city had plunged into deep deterioration, and in that year, it spent $800,000 merely to cover the interest on its debt, leaving a mere $25,000 for basic services such as footpath restoration. Consequently, there arose a need to draw income from unforeseen sources, including fees, penalties and court orders. By this time, white individuals had long since relocated, leaving the new inhabitants—the city was now predominantly occupied by Black people—with the remnants and rubbish of their wealth. “The illusion that suburbia remains separate from America’s problems,” Herold writes, “is no longer credible.”

Charles Marohn, who Herold refers to as “a mild-mannered, white conservative hailing from Minnesota,” is the one who outlines Ferguson’s downfall to him. Marohn, according to Herold, had a significant role to play in constructing suburbs. However, he has since undergone a sort of epiphany. Marohn asserts that the occurrences in places like Ferguson and Penn Hills is equivalent to engaging in Ponzi schemes. He describes it to the author as “the developmental counterpart of slash-and-burn farming.” He further explains, “We construct a place, we deplete the resources, and when the returns start to dwindle, we depart, leaving a geographical time bomb in our wake!”

This book spans a large range, which is both its merit and the cause of its occasional missteps. Counting five families can be quite overwhelming and, at times, I found myself having to backtrack through the book to recall the characteristics of each family and their respective suburb. I wasn’t convinced that Herold needed all these individuals to validate his point. A lot of their narratives seemed to repeat and, on occasion, I simply desired to know more about the architects of America’s dream. Especially those like Marohn who have allegedly become discontented with their grand scheme. For instance, I wanted to understand more about Marohn. Exactly who is he? How did he contribute towards the building of America’s suburbs? It seems like a missed chance, considering that Marohn is helping Herold to decipher what he’s observing.

Even with its shortcomings, Disillusioned remains an exceedingly important piece of work. We are aware of what has transpired and what’s unfolding in our cities. At last, we have someone who can lead us to those regions that initially served as an escape route, primarily for white families trying to flee from the shifting demographics of urban America. These are the places where a significant fraction of Americans visualized a sort of social and economic utopia.

At a certain point, Bethany communicates to the author her fear of being stereotyped. She affirms that she isn’t a victim and that she is much more than just a floundering single Black mother. To his merit, he doesn’t evade, but rather ponders how he may have disappointed her. After some thought, he proposes to let her write the concluding chapter of the book. In those few, astutely composed pages, we get a realistic perspective on what has transpired in places like Penn Hills, together with an ardent appeal for what could possibly be.

“We have aspirations to construct good lives for ourselves,” writes Bethany Smith. “We strive to raise our children in safe surroundings. We want to enroll them in schools where they are educated and managed by individuals who truly care for their well-being. We crave the same perks that the suburbs offered white families like Ben’s. However, this time, we want it to endure.”

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