Suburban studies 101

A few college courses begin to acknowledge the role of bedroom communities in American life


No, you probably can't get college credit for watching the scandalous adventures of Desperate Housewives, but if you look hard enough on American campuses you'll find an occasional course on literature of the suburbs, a seminar discussing Crabgrass Frontier and other discourses on the growth of suburbia.

Increasingly, if still a bit disdainfully, academia is beginning to pay attention to the 'burbs, home for years now to at least half of all Americans.

"Emerging" is the assessment Robert E. Lang gives to suburban studies on most college campuses. He's the founding director of the Metropolitan Institute on Virginia Tech's satellite campus in Alexandria, Va. The institute is one of a handful of academic think tanks that have sprung up around the country in recent years - including in Maryland - that study suburbia as well as cities.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about suburban studies incorrectly stated that two reports on Baltimore area's suburbs had been produced by the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The reports were written by graduate students in UMBC's public policy department, but not for that institute.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"Places like Fairfax, that's where the future is made or broken," declares Lang, who calls himself "a student of the suburbs."

The outer Washington suburbs where Lang lives are typical of what he calls "mega" counties that are transforming the American landscape - huge, rapidly growing communities with no towns or cities at their core.

Compared with cities, suburbs still get little respect as a topic for serious study on many campuses, except perhaps as examples of the pathology of American society. Getting a bachelor's degree in suburban studies might be years away - though one can pick up a minor at George Mason University, a commuter-oriented school in Washington's Virginia suburbs.

But here and there, amid courses on history of the city and urban planning, more students are being exposed to the sociology of homeowners associations and the suburban themes of such popular films as American Beauty, Bowling for Columbine and The Incredibles.

"The Suburbs: From Chaucer to South Park," for instance, tempted Ohio State University English students recently. Georgia's Kennesaw State University, meanwhile, offered a senior seminar titled "American Suburbs: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Academic conferences are being held in suburban hotbeds such as Long Island and Riverside, Calif. There's even a new scholarly journal devoted to the field, called Opolis.

Americans have been pushing out beyond city boundaries since the 1820s, a historic pattern that accelerated explosively after World War II with the spread of automobiles and government subsidies for home loans and highway construction.

Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson's prize-winning 1985 history of suburbs, is considered a classic in the field. Since its publication, the output of books on the how, why and what's wrong with suburban development has grown from a trickle to at least a stream.

Those who've called attention to the demographic dominance of suburbia suggest the dearth of teaching on campus about suburbia might stem from a liberal bias or even snobbery on the part of academics.

"Many of these people see the suburbs as the ultimate expression of everything they hate about America," contends California author and social critic Joel Kotkin. A native New Yorker, he has lived in suburban Los Angeles for the past three decades and writes frequently about the suburbs. "Even the people who study suburbia do it mainly to dis it."

"There's a huge bias [against suburbs]," agrees Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, situated in another suburban locale, Catonsville. "I've had countless academics in this field tell me, `I wouldn't live in a suburb. I only live in a city.'"

But others contend that - whatever reluctance academics might have had at one time to embrace the suburbs as worthy of study - it has changed even as suburbs have grown and evolved.

"With the arrival of women's history, women's studies and renewed interest in race and ethnicity, people started to look at these places in much more complicated ways," says Dolores Hayden, a Yale University professor who has written two recent books on suburban development. She also teaches a pair of classes on suburban history and "the culture of sprawl" within the university's American Studies program.

"It takes time for people to rename majors and departments," Hayden says.

Though college catalogs carry relatively few courses explicitly about the suburbs, some professors say they incorporate the reality of America's changing lifestyles into their lectures on politics, economics and other social sciences.

"When I talk about `city,' I mean Columbia, Md., as much as I mean Baltimore," says Norris. He directs a policy analysis center at UMBC that has produced two recent studies on suburban issues - the controversial widening of Route 32 in western Howard County and the decline of Baltimore's older suburbs around the Beltway.

The suburbs have certainly arrived in popular culture, providing the setting for popular television series such as Desperate Housewives, The OC and The Sopranos.

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