The modern American suburb was developed in order to meet the housing needs of millions of GIs returning from World War II. Similarly, the interstate highway system as we know it today was originally imagined as a way to assist those men in securing jobs in major city centers, while facilitating the growth of suburbs. It might sound simple, but these two twentieth-century phenomena ultimately altered the American landscape in complex ways: physically, environmentally, socially, politically, sexually, and racially.
Why Should I Care?
Would you believe that today far more Americans live in suburbs than in cities? In fact, if you're an American, it's more than likely that you live in a suburb. If you don't, you probably have friends or relatives that do, or you shop, go to school, work, or play there. You're certainly familiar with the suburban landscape and lifestyle in some way, even if you don't realize it.
That's because for over half a century Americans—in droves—have been migrating to neighborhoods miles and miles from urban centers. And what helped facilitate this exodus? Highways, and lots of them, crisscrossing all over the nation, through its cities, and across its plains, valleys, and mountains. Sure, it's true that cars moved people long before the interstate highway system existed. But since World War II, these new sprawling roadways have promoted the transportation of people to and from the suburbs so much so that they ultimately widened the social, cultural, and economic gap between those who could afford an automobile and those who could not.
In addition, America's interstate highways have contributed to the growth of many of the country's most iconic cultural phenomena: the shopping mall, the motel, the diner, fast food, the drive-in theater, Disneyland, the family car, the muscle car, and even rock 'n' roll culture. It's the rise of the suburbs that ties all of these things together and by learning more about the development of "suburbia" we can learn how.
By exploring the history of suburbia and the interstate highway system, we might realize that not much has changed. In many ways these developments have laid the foundation for the American present. But it was not always a smooth ride, and in many ways the history of American suburbs and highways is marred by political, social, racial, and environmental controversy. As a result, many of us may have negative preconceived notions about "suburbia." (These ideas have been reinforced by popular images in film and television. Remember The Stepford Wives, or Edward Scissorhands? How about "Desperate Housewives"?) Where exactly do these notions of "suburbia"—as a place of conformity, complacency, conservatism, boredom, and racism—come from? Are these notions largely fact or fiction? And how does "suburbia" fit into our conception of America? Does it contradict the nation's essential values, or is it truly a very "American" sort of thing?
That will be for you to decide...but we'll offer you some stories to help you sort out these answers. So read on!