Are The Suburbs In Decline?

The suburbs: this highly romanticized location was once the Holy Grail for nuclear families in America; however, this is not true in today’s world. In the past decade, the suburbs have gone into decline, due to numerous reasons, with the first being that millennials have absolutely no desire to live there. Additionally, there is a perception that nothing happens in the suburbs and has been regarded as a conventional, dreary land with no opportunity in store for them. Thus, many of today’s young, working class desire and flock to urban areas to live in. Poverty is another contributor to this shift, as it has now overwhelmed the suburbs, due to the influx of wealth coming into cities from these once prosperous communities. This flood of wealth has resulted in cities becoming an increasingly affluent place to live, forcing out those who can no longer afford to live there, which has attributed, at least in part, to the abandonment of now low-quality, inner-ring suburbs. As these areas become more occupied with minority residents, police presences within these areas also rises, leading to an upsurge in crime rates as the police are more likely to arrest residents based of racial biases and prejudices. The suburbs were viewed as a positive development for Americans when they were first constructed because they provided many young families with a home of their own – a luxury they could not have afforded before. Nevertheless, this opportunity also came with its fair share of problems, which ultimately led to its demise. In order to fix this decline of the suburbs, I suggest housing developers and investors begin producing affordable housing options in all neighborhoods.

The American Dream is an idea that has been a constant part of American culture and identity since the United States was first established. One thing about the American Dream that has not been consistent, however, is what it represents. For instance, the American dream during the 1940s through the 1950s is vastly different from today’s American Dream. Traditionally when you hear “the American Dream” the first images that often pop into the mind of many Americans living today is an idyllic view of a picturesque house surrounded by a white-picket fence with a happy nuclear family playing on the front lawn.  In the 40s and 50s, this was precisely what American Dream was: homeownership. It became fundamental for Americans to have a place they could call their own, which additionally symbolized upward mobility. The American Dream in today’s society has been characterized as having the “’Freedom of choice in how to live’…having a good family life…and retiring comfortably.”[1] This means that in order to acquire the American Dream, it no longer requires owning a quaint house in the suburbs.

Due to extreme economic turmoil from the Great Depression in America from 1929 to 1941, many Americans were forced to evolve from the materialistic lives that they were accustomed to throughout the Roaring Twenties. The Great Depression had a monumental influence on the American Dream post-World War II, due to the limited amount of housing that was available across the country and yet Americans wanted a place all to their own more than ever. Post-World War II, Americans used their new economic freedom to their advantage by buying a home. “One of the first necessities sought after by Americans was housing. By late 1945 and early 1946 the housing crisis was acute. Veterans and other Americans demobilized from wartime production desired housing but were met with a lack of supply.”[2] William Levitt recognized this problem early on and decided to capitalize on the crisis by offering returning World War II veterans and their families affordable housing on Long Island, in a community he would name Levittown.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, veterans (specifically white-middle class) had access to mortgages, while the Federal Highway Act of 1956 allowed for new highways to be built, making commuting to and from the city easier.[3] These laws being passed made it even more reasonable for white, middle-class veterans to live in the suburbs, giving them the opportunity to have their own piece of the American Dream. While aspiring to obtain your own space is unquestionably a strong reason for wanting a home, it is not the only one. Owning a home also signifies a symbol of self; “many people brought houses to bolster their image of self-both as an individual and as a person in a certain status position in society.”[4] Americans use both the interior and exterior spaces of their homes as expressive extensions of one’s self and has also been used to convey messages about how people view and feel about themselves to the outside world, as well as those who they would permit into their homes. Interior decoration and well-preserved exteriors are notable indications to the status of Americans – theses spaces are both conscious and unconscious expressions of social identity or the identity chosen to be displayed to society.

The suburbs have constantly exhibited a sense of mass conformity over the course of their existence; houses tend to be uniform in appearance and so were the people who lived there. Everyone desired to have the reputation of being a well put together, happy, and stable nuclear family accompanied by good morals or, otherwise known as, the perfect family. This, in turn, produces “the classic image of American Suburbia as a homogeneous place of conventionality”[5] The suburbs unequivocally exemplified an era of domesticity, as women were confined solely to the home, fulfilling the conventional housewife role. Women were regularly forced into these roles, as the domestic sphere was where women belonged, according to men, resulting in them restricting women from the work force and, in turn, the public sphere. Women were now exclusively confined to the home; dissatisfied with their lives on the inside, but were forced to continually put on a façade of contentment throughout their lives. With few opportunities available to them in the suburbs, women felt isolated from outside activities and viewed the home as “a potential source of repression.”[6] Being so isolated, they became dependent on the resources of their families and a majority felt that they “lacked stimulation” and felt their personalities suffered as a result. Before the suburbs, many of these women lived in the cities. Once they moved the suburbs, a third of them reported that they missed “their old patterns of socializing”[7] and felt lonely. Suburban women had an overall, less positive view of the suburbs than their male companions, as the men viewed it as a place ideal for raising children and relaxing after spending the day in the hustling city. Women generally agreed that they too thought of the suburbs as being a respectable place to raise children. However, women also viewed it as an oppressive place that had no opportunities available to them and no stimulation, leading to feelings of stagnation and depression among suburban women. Now, as well as then, the majority of women have no desire to live in such a place of oppression, as they value the ability to have and pursue their own personal goals and pleasures outside of the private sphere. Modern women view the suburbs as a place of stagnation for personal growth that has not offered an equal amount of opportunities and experiences like urban areas have offered. Nor do they view the suburbs as being the only good place to raise children, as many view the city as being a place where their children can encounter vast amounts of diversity with accompanied opportunities and experiences that can not be replicated in the suburban life.

The home as an entity was just not important to the nuclear family because it served as a private and tranquil switch from the bustling city life for the husband and was perceived as the perfect location to raise children, but also because it represented one’s status. Houses in Levittown were mass-produced, making them all looking exactly the same. The original house of Levittown called the “Cape Code style” and allowed for families to renovate and add additions to their houses, as they had no garage or basement, and an unfinished second floor. Residents began to reshape their houses with renovations to demonstrate their wealth, as well as their personalities. These continuing renovations done by homeowners throughout the beginning stages of the suburbs led to a transformation of the suburbs, as they transitioned from a housing development for low-income workers to a middle-class community. Residents had reshaped their environment and raised it to a “new socioeconomic level”[8], and elevated their community’s standards for innovation and growth to a new level, prompting for residents to refurbish and upgrade their houses even more. Renovations boosted individuals’ social status and also their home’s value and the surrounding ones as well, resulting in it becoming an area limited to only certain types and classes of people. In fact, William Levitt built Levittown to keep minority groups, specifically African Americans, out of Levittown and excluded them from buying homes in Levittown even after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.[9] The suburbs were extremely segregated and had no desire to acquire more diversity within their communities, as some thought of it a threat to their security and safety because they often correlated people of color with crime, continuing the appalling stereotype about minority groups. Still today, only 1% of Levittown’s population consists of African Americans, even though it is surrounded by an urban region with a large population of African Americans[10]. By marking the suburban communities as a space made for innovation and improvement for houses and by having residents revamp their houses, it increased costs and value of the houses went up drastically. The average price of a house in Levittown in the 1950s was around $7,000 and in 2008 the average cost of a house in Levittown sold for no less than $350,000[11]. The original Cape Cod houses of Levittown have been radically transformed into houses that are no longer accessible or affordable to lower and middle-class citizens and minorities.

In the past decade, there has been a surge to live in the city rather than the suburbs; “’these days the market is driven much more by people who are either choosing to live in the city or in the near-in suburbs’”.[12] This flocking to the cities has been mainly consistent of white Millennials who are more interested in the growing work opportunities and amenities that the cities offer; such as diversity, great public spaces, and endless activities and attractions scattered throughout the city. The attractiveness of the city doesn’t only appeal to millennials, but also many white, wealthy elites as well, for the same reasons. This gentrification of urban centers over the past decade has been the one of the main reasons in explaining why there have been significant increases in rent for apartments. In 2016, the average rent in Manhattan ranged from $2,500 monthly to $30,000 monthly[13] developers are continuing to construct these lavish and expensive apartments even though there is a high demand for affordable apartments. These ever-rising prices of apartments have also made the city a place that only the wealthy or upper-middle class can afford. Therefore, these economic trends have been pushing out those who cannot afford living in city to homelessness or inner-ring suburbs.

Minority groups often have no other option than to relocate to inner-ring suburbs because these communities are not as attractive, or clean, or sought-after, or as high quality as outer-ring suburbs. Inner-ring suburbs are the older suburbs usually constructed in the 50s and 60s, are located near the central city, and no longer entice new inhabitants or developers because of its bleak out-of-date model and location.[14] Contrasted with the outer-ring suburbs, which are characteristically inhabited by white wealthy families looking to distance themselves from the core of the dirty and harsh city environment to a place with healthy, safe, clean living conditions, while also being perceived as morally sound and exclusive. This constrains the options of living spaces for lower-income and minority families because they cannot afford to nor are they “allowed” to live in the outer-ring suburbs due to rising housing costs, which pushes them to the only space available, the inner-ring suburbs. The suburbanization of minorities began to disrupt previously all-white suburbs, resulting in African Americans being condemned to the suburbs while also being sequentially detached from white suburbs. Pushing African Americans into inner-ring suburbs created an environment where below average income levels, higher-levels of poverty, and higher crime rates festered compared to predominantly white suburbs. In 2000, the median household income of inner-ring suburbs was twenty-five percent below the median income of other suburban neighborhoods.[15] The inner-ring suburbs have been characterized as being “the new metropolitan calamities of the United States, areas of ethnic, racial and income segregation where the suburban dream has largely vanished.”[16] Being in poverty, entities such as having food, water, and shelter are prioritized over items like cars and high-quality living conditions; meaning that for many of these of low-income or poverty-stricken families to have a shelter, they frequently must opt for low-quality housing, with sub-par conditions as these are the only communities where they can afford to buy a home. Houses new and especially old can require extensive maintenance work as they deteriorate over time, thus requiring renovations. However, the cost of renovation has soared; for instance, the average cost for replacing a roof is now $6,838; kitchen renovations can range from $4,500 to $49,000[17]; new siding runs on average $14,000; and replacing one window can cost up $100 not including installment fees. The cost of repairing basic amenities of one’s home comes at a hefty price and many residents in inner-ring suburbs cannot afford to replace them, unlike upper-middle class individuals who have the funds to pay for such maintenance. Police have had a long a history of targeting neighborhoods such as these, whose inhabitants mainly consist of poor, people of color by arresting them for minor crimes in an effort to reduce more serious crimes. This over-aggressive policing tactic is known as “broken window policing” because police thought broken windows represented disorder and, if left unattended, assumed that the residents did not care enough to replace it and would eventually lead to more chaos and crime in the neighborhood. This tactic leads to the crime rates in these neighborhoods to soar. In past decades, it has been acknowledged that crime rates in the suburbs are rising. Between 2003 and 2008, Atlanta’s violent crime rate in the suburbs increased by twenty-three percent.[18] This rise of crime in the suburbs is not solely caused by the actual crime being committed by residents, but also by over-policing by law enforcement – giving a rise in dangerous and toxic cycles of policing of minorities.

The suburbs once presented itself as a sublime, unadulterated, and optimal location for the nuclear family to raise children in that allowed for numerous working-class Americans to attain the American Dream of owning a house. As time has passed, many things have changed, including the American Dream, as it no longer exclusively represents the vision of owning a house. Another dynamic that has change along with the American Dream is the suburb. While the suburbs were initially seen superficially as good, yet there were and continue to be many problems that accompany it, which ultimately led to the decline of the suburb we see today. Many Millennials have no interest in living in the suburbs and seek to vanish from them as quickly as possible. Many view them as an oppressive place that repressed women for decades and enforced gender-stereotypes for decades to come. While also being desolate and expensive, the suburbs present no opportunities for Millennials to grow as individuals or professionally, giving rise to a surge of white millennials and wealthy elites flocking to cities. This increase of groups such as these displace poor minority groups as rents continue to rise, due to the influx of wealth from the once affluent suburban communities. Since these groups often cannot come up with the funds to continue their city lives, they must find housing elsewhere. These disenfranchised groups are now excluded from the rich, white, wealthy outer-ring suburbs because it too requires vast amounts of money to live in the better neighborhoods of suburban communities, but because it requires a car, something poor minority groups often cannot afford. Therefore, they are pushed into the inner-ring suburbs, full of cheap, low quality housing and living conditions. Police target these minority neighborhoods, as they assume that disorder will ensue due to unruly exterior conditions of the homes that these residences cannot afford to fix. Thus, this leads to a rise in crime rates as police are increasingly over-policing these areas, making it an undesirable place to live and making livelihoods fall further into decline. In order to restore the suburbs to stability, and prevent this from happening to other suburbs, I suggest major action be done on affordable housing projects throughout America. By creating more average quality houses and apartments that are affordable for minorities, lower-class and poverty-stricken individuals can have access to every neighborhood. This not only aids in individuals obtaining their own homes, but potentially help lower crime and poverty rates around America and assist in declining communities to get back on their feet again.


[1] Smith

[2] Lesh, 3

[3] Weingroff, 10

[4] Cooper, 169

[5] Short et al. 644

[6] Imrie, 156

[7] Saegert, S105

[8] Kelly, 28

[9] Kushner, xiv

[10] Rothstein, 27

[11] Hanlon, 4

[12] Frizell

[13] Kaysen, RE1

[14] Hanlon, 7

[15] Hanlon, 95

[16] Hanlon, 109

[17] Home Advisor

[18] McWhirter and Fields


Cooper, Clare. “The House as Symbol of the Self.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, First., 1–446. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Hanlon, Bernadette. 2010. “Once the American Dream.” In Once the American Dream: Inner-Ring Suburbs of the Metropolitan United States, 1–11. Temple University Press.

Home Advisor. “How Much Does It Cost To Remodel Multiple Rooms?” ..Com. Home Advisor, n.d.

Frizell, Sam. “The New American Dream Is Living in a City, Not Owning a House in the Suburbs.” ,Com. TIME Magazine, April 25, 2014.

Imrie, Rob. “Disability, Embodiment and the Meaning of the Home.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, first:1–446. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Kaysen, Ronda. “2017: Year of the Renter.” New York Times. January 6, 2017, sec. 360 View.

Kelly, Barbara M.. 1993. “Little Boxes, Big Ideas.” Design Quarterly 158: 26–31.

Kushner, David. 2009. Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. New York, NY: Walker & Company.,+One+Tycoon,+and+the+Fight+for+Civil+Rights+in+America%E2%80%99s+Legendary+Suburb.+&ots=4BwPcSVSHO&sig=ZjjJp7DZ–faMHRzS4BdFDt1bpU#v=onepage&q=levittown&f=false.

McWhirter, Cameron, and Gary Fields. “Crime Migrates to Suburbs.” The Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2012.

Rothstein, Richard. 2015. “The Racial Achievement Gap, Segregated Schools, and Segregated Neighborhoods: A Constitutional Insult.” Economic Policy Institute, Race and Soical Problems, 7 (1): 21–30.

Short, John Rennie, Bernadette Hanlon, and Thomas J. Vicino. “The Decline of Inner Suburbs: The New Suburban Gothic in the United States.” Geography Compass 1, no. 3 (2007): 641–56.

Smith, Samantha. “Most Think the ‘American Dream’ Is within Reach for Them.” ..Ord. Pew Research Center, October 31, 2017.




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