Book Review: The Decaying American Dream

April 28, 2010

Reviewed by Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

“The American Dream manifests itself most acutely in the American suburb,” writes Bernadette Hanlon, author of a new work from Temple University Press: “Once the American Dream: Inner-ring Suburbs of the Metropolitan United States.”

Hanlon’s book, scholarly and a little too academic for bedtime reading, is well researched and clear in focus. It’s also very timely, given the state of the housing market in the United States, and the evolving sense of place that is changing for aging suburbs as well as certain neighborhoods in certain cities – especially the aging, industrial urban areas of the Northeast and, to a lesser degree, the upper Midwest.

The author has documented meticulous research on “the extent and nature of socioeconomic decline among inner-ring suburbs,” comparing them, in all regions of the country, to the ever-burgeoning outer suburbs between 1980 and 2000. The limited time frame is due to U.S. Census-related “data constraints,” but Hanlon scatters plenty of more recent statistics and commentary throughout.

Also, the limitations lend a somewhat conservative viewpoint to what is a somewhat alarming if, not terribly surprising, picture. If anything, one can’t help but think that things are far more stratified in 2010, between inner-ring suburbs, the land of McMansions beyond them, and the glistening new condos of revitalized central cities.

“My prediction is that the suburbs I categorize as ‘in crisis’ during the twenty-year period between 1980 and 2000 will decline even further by 2010,” Hanlon allows, in her first chapter. “One interesting story to follow will be the effects of the housing market crash on outer suburbs and continued outward suburban expansion.”

Indeed it will. Whole communities of cul-de-sacs and house farms in Florida, Arizona and Nevada are now half-empty, or worse, with house values at a fraction of their cost at the height of the bubble. But things are still up in the air for more stable markets, such as Philadelphia.

For instance, whither the 3,000 square-foot new homes of Franconia, in northern Montgomery County, with their three-car garages and chandeliered cathedral foyers? Who can get half-million-dollar mortgages anymore? (A small tranche of the population, one suspects.) How about the garish starter castles of Voorhees, N.J., out beyond Cherry Hill in what is, still, deep S.U.V. territory? Will they continue to sell, even reduced from $1 million to $800,000?

But Hanlon’s volume is about the Upper Darbys (Delaware County), Bristols (Bucks) and Pennsaukens (Camden County) around the nation, places with aging residents, declining incomes, crumbling infrastructure, and, increasingly, newly arrived immigrants.

“Just as the wealth and resources moved from the central cities to the suburbs, now these resources are moving from the inner ring to the outer suburbs and, in some cities, back into downtown,” Hanlon writes. “Inner-ring suburbs are being left behind, caught in the middle between suburban sprawl and downtown revitalization.”

It’s the conventional wisdom that the towns known as Levittown (the original on Long Island, New York and its successor in Lower Bucks County) were among the first suburbs in the nation, engendering – at times encouraging – white flight from New York City’s outer boroughs and the city neighborhoods of Philadelphia that had begun to racially integrate in post-World War II America.

But New York’s Levittown these days is an ironic exception to the overall trend of inner-ring suburbs. Sold for about $7,000 in the 1950s, the lower end of original Levittown homes are now at least $350,000. Translation: it is a neighborhood no longer affordable to the lower middle class. (Hanlon doesn’t say so, but a $350,000 house, with 10 percent down and a conventional 30-year mortgage, insurance, taxes and closing costs would mean monthly payments between $2,000 and $2,500; even a person or family with income well into the six figures might have trouble swinging that.)

Some 5,000 suburbs in 100 metropolitan areas were covered in the two decades that Hanlon studied. In the book, she more than meets her goals of describing the current state, prevalence and extent of suburban decline, and the current definition of “inner-ring.” She carefully differentiates between regions and discusses the policy implications of her research, though the latter is necessarily limited due to the complexity of the issue.

An example is that some inner-ring suburbs are practically evergreen if their housing stock predates World War II. Roomy “old stonies” (in Realtor parlance) or rambling Victorians will always be in demand in the regions where they exist, and most have been renovated to modern standards. But post-war tract housing is small in comparison to homes built since 1980, and downright tiny next to the pre-fab palaces of the 2000s. This is to say nothing of the vagaries of the many regional economies of the U.S.

Hanlon, an analyst at the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education at the University of Maryland, is strongest when interweaving the socioeconomic trends of city and suburbs. She recounts, for example, a theory among urban sociologists labeled “invasion and succession.” Based on ecological studies, the theory is “where one group ‘invades’ a city neighborhood and ‘succeeds’ over the existing group of residents.”

This is not generic gentrification of which Hanlon writes. It has more to do with newly arriving immigrants sinking down roots in sections of town, displacing the previous population. These days, it’s happening in the ’burbs, too.

Hanlon concludes with possible fixes for the inner-ring plight. They are rare (successful local initiatives around Baltimore are an exception but could be replicated), and most Federal programs aimed at declining areas focus on revitalizing urban areas (Community Development Block Grants, empowerment  zones, etc.). State funding? Forget about it: in this recession, it’s a rare statehouse that’s not grappling with massive budget deficits.

Hanlon offers informed, if familiar, suggestions, including new legislation at the Federal level and the establishment of effective lobbying at the state and national levels. Managing growth better, encouraging affordable housing that is safer and of better quality, and legislating a living wage are other considerations. 

Given the housing market (pre- and post-boom), new suburban demographics, a restructuring of the American workforce and “metropolitan fragmentation,” Hanlon reports that fully two-thirds of American suburbs in crisis are located in the inner-ring of big cities.

But some news since the book went to press brings a bit of hope. The Obama administration created the new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Further, it has crafted policy in the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which is aimed at improving regional planning, integrating housing and transportation decisions and increasing the capacity to improve land use and zoning.

And a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency finds that urban areas and older suburbs are showing a “clear trend toward more redevelopment.” The authors of the study admit to a number of limitations, but there is nonetheless a marked increase in “demand for homes in walkable communities close to high-paying jobs,” they find.

The EPA used Census data over 19 years (1990 to 2008), looking at residential building permits for the 50 largest metropolitan regions around the country. It then compared the amount of permits issued by central cities and “core suburban communities” to the amount issued by “suburban and exurban communities.”

“The permit data showed that, in several regions, there has been a dramatic increase in the share of new construction built in central cities and older suburbs,” the report states. “Specifically, in roughly half of the metropolitan areas examined, urban core communities dramatically increased their share of new residential building permits.”

Contact the writer at ThomasWalsh1@gmail.com.

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