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Thursday, November 10, 2005
Geographies of Privilege: Keeping the Backyard Clean

The situation in France has inspired me to think about the relationship between the urban centers and the suburbs in a cross-national context. My intuition is that, at least in the United States, the city serves two social geographic functions: (a) as a site of gentrification and (b) as a slum for the poor. The suburbs, in contrast, are (1) where the rising and established persons of middle class status make their homes and (2) serve as nodes of capital flow and investment for smaller commercial and residential enterprises. In Europe, particularly on the Continent, it seems to me that there is a greater concentration of the established and the rich in the cities whereas the poor live on the outskirts. Outside of Europe, especially in the poorest countries and the countries with the least developed political institutions, the cities are administrative centers (rather than centers of capital concentration and investment) which live off the wealth and production of the non-urbanized sections of the countries. In the richer, non-European countries, I don't have a sense about what the perception is.

So I'm trying to wrap my head around these issues when I discovered an article in Slate named "Is Urban sprawl really an American menace." The article is a book review of Sprawl: A Compact History (pun-intended I presume) both of whom's main point is summarized as "Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Sprawl the is a description of people physically locating their residences outside the city by some invisible hand.

But this begs the questions: who is fleeing from whom and why? The historical record, as portrayed by Slate and the book, offer mixed evidence:
As long ago as the Ming dynasty in the 14th century, the Chinese gentry sang the praises of the exurban life, and the rustic villa suburbana was a common feature of ancient Rome. Pliny's maritime villa was 17 miles from the city, and many fashionable Roman villa districts such as Tusculum—where Cicero had a summer house—were much closer. Bruegmann also observes that medieval suburbs—those urbanized areas outside cities' protective walls—had a variety of uses. Manufacturing processes that were too dirty to be located inside the city (such as brick kilns, tanneries, slaughterhouses) were in the suburbs; so were the homes of those who could not afford to reside within the city proper. This pattern continued during the Renaissance. Those compact little cities bounded by bucolic landscapes, portrayed in innumerable idealized paintings, were surrounded by extensive suburbs.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, while the poor moved increasingly eastward, affluent Londoners built suburban estates in the westerly direction of Westminster and Whitehall, commuting to town by carriage. These areas are today the Central West End; one generation's suburb is the next generation's urban neighborhood. As Bruegmann notes, "Clearly, from the beginning of modern urban history, and contrary to much accepted wisdom, suburban development was very diverse and catered to all kinds of people and activities."

When inexpensive public transportation opened up South London for development in the 19th century, London sprawl took a different form: streets and streets of small brick-terrace houses. For middle-class families, this dispersal was a godsend, since it allowed them to exchange a cramped flat for a house with a garden. The outward movement continued in the boom years between the First and Second World Wars, causing the built-up area of London to double, although the population increased by only about 10 percent—which sounds a lot like Atlanta today.

Residential location, then, always seems to have been about wealth, class, and social status. Earlier in history, the rich couldn't suffer to have the poor and the dirty industries destroying their beautiful urban landscapes. Then societies reached a point where the middle classes, particularly during the industrializing period, viewed public transportation as a "god-send"--a gift from heaven--to escape the confines of the city into the beautiful lands where they would have space for the family and for the garden.

The connection of space, beauty, and residential location took on a very sinister logic in industrializing England and in America during the immediate post-WWII era. Marxist historians often remind us that the cities were a cauldron into which the proletariat and the Irish were thrown, subjected to wage-slavery, and ground into nothing. The machine(s) of capitalism literally consumed the worker in production. The working class became precisely the working classes because, lacking property, they only had the labor power of their bodies to sell for a wage. The wage was then translated into monies with which they could purchase subsistence. Their addiction to the wage, then, developed from a set of imperatives derived from lack of a viable substitute to the wage.

In America, the GI Bill's implementation led to the creation of white flight suburbanism and home-ownership; the blacks and the Irish who had moved the cities in the "Great Migrations" of the two world wars to replace the men who were fighting abroad couldn't be sent back to the South. The returning victor-veterans could, however, flee to the suburbs and institutionalize wealth disparities. If the Berlin Wall became the symbol of Cold War divided Europe, then the white picket fence should represent the literal barring of the poor and minorities from the suburbs. (Legal segregation didn't help either.)

Questions of geography and sprawl, then, are not questions of "good" and "bad"--and Slate would agree with me here--but are questions of equity. And in so far as one's residential location was the physical depiction of one's class and social position, a government ostensibly obliged to protecting and fostering equality--like present day France or America--has a present, real, legitimate, and material interest in regulating the conditions of sprawl and flight.