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Bourgeois utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia.

Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia.

Robert Fishman. Basic Books, $19.95. Most people instinctively identify suburbs with one country (the United States), one means of transportation (the automobile), and one short time period (1945-1970). In this admirably brief and clearly written book, Robert Fishman convincingly argues that the suburbs originated in England, that they long predated the invention of the automobile, and that the supposed peak of American suburbia was actually more of a coda to the suburban age.

The original impetus for suburbs, Fishman says, was the desire of the Anglo-American upper middle class to emphasize the nuclear family as the basic social unit. This was a new idea in the late 1700s, when the urban home was also a place of business and a residence for apprentices. Although there is a dislike of city life implicit in the creation of suburbs, classic suburbs actually strengthen the city as an institution because their residents all go to the city for work, big-ticket shopping, and recreation.

Since World War II, however, the spread of innovations like the telephone and the beltway (and, Fishman might have added, the microcomputer) have made it possible for once-urban work places to move to the periphery of the cities; for all the hype you hear about gentrification, the real change of the last generation has been a reduction in suburb-to-city commuting because most people now work as well as live in the suburbs. The "fall of suburbia' of Fishman's subtitle has come about not because of an urban renaissance but because big cities are dying and most people no longer work in a downtown.

One of the most interesting questions about American life over the next half-century will be what these new non-urban places where people live and work--Fishman calls them "technoburbs,' and other experts have coined their own ungainly names--turn out to be like. Will they breed conformity or individualism? A closer or more distant relationship between man and nature? More or less class stratification? Liberalism or conservatism? Will they cause culture to flourish or to die? Fishman doesn't claim to know the answers to these questions, but he sets them up very well. Urban studies tend (and have, as Fishman shows, always tended) to embrace voguish prejudices unthinkingly. Since the fifties, the prejudice has been toward a vibrant city life centered in stable neighborhoods; meanwhile the country has been moving in exactly the opposite direction. It's to Fishman's credit that, while he clearly feels the appeal of the current dream, he's intellectually honest enough not to claim that it's coming true, or that suburbs--even technoburbs--are necessarily barren.
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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