The Magic of Crabgrass: Thirty Years Later, An Appraisal of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (Best of UHA 2014, Part 2)


“If I had added everything I’d still be writing it,” eminent historian of U.S suburbanization and Columbia Professor Kenneth Jackson reflected during the UHA’s 2014 roundtable discussion honoring the upcoming 30th anniversary of his 1985 work, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. A packed house of historians dressed in their “urbanist best” greeted Jackson who admitted to being a bit “overwhelmed by the turnout but pleased for many reasons.”

One can take for granted the enormity of Jackson’s most famous work Crabgrass Frontier (CF). Today, it seems common knowledge that federal policy in the form of redlining and racial bias in mortgage infrastructure simultaneously privileged and naturalized white homeownership—to the extent that, as David Freund notes in Colored Property (2007), it sutured white identity, overcoming class, ethnic and religious difference while convincing homeowners that “property had no politics.” (In fact, government intervention undoubtedly secured homes for millions of white suburbanites.) Tom Sugrue, no stranger to ur-texts—his 1996 work The Origins of the Urban Crisis will undoubtedly enjoy a similar roundtable at some future UHA gathering—chaired the conversation between Matthew Lassiter, Diane Harris, Nikhil Rao, and Matthew Garcia. The discussion, absent Harvard’s Lizabeth Cohen, who could not attend due to a death in the family, covered a wide range of territory, including Jackson’s role in helping to create a suburban history and his influence over the new suburban or metropolitan history, CF’s relationship to transnational suburbanization, and what avenues of inquiry historians need to pursue in the present and future.

[Editor’s Note: In the interest of disclosure, both Alex Sayf Cummings and Ryan Reft were once students under Jackson. Several of ToM’s other contributors can say the same.]


Matthew Lassiter, University of Michigan

In the introduction to his 2007 book, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Lassiter highlighted a critical passage from CF: “[E]conomic causes have been even more important than skin color in the suburbanization of the United States … because of public policies favoring the suburbs, only one possibility [for homeownership] was economically feasible,” Jackson wrote. “The result, if not the intent, of Washington programs has been to encourage decentralization.” Jackson’s work synthesized the field’s body of literature, articulating how federal homeownership policies created the suburbs while simultaneously contributing to the decline of cities. Jackson also paid close attention to symbolic meaning: the suburbs represented the fulfillment of the American dream, while cities came to stand for public housing, crime, and racial discord as suburbanization and deindustrialization combined to rob urban residents of economic opportunities, a political voice, and any meaningful hope for racial integration. In the Silent Majority, Lassiter built on Jackson’s findings, deconstructing tropes about Southern exceptionalism and recasting Southern resistance to desegregation as centered in the race-neutral language of suburban whites rather than the blunt racism of Massive Resisters.

Having been raised in the largely white, upper-middle-class suburbs of Atlanta, Lassiter admitted that as a youth he never really thought about how his community originated.   Jackson helped to contextualize such experiences, demonstrating how redlining and FHA policies raised questions about American individualism and bootstrapping narratives. “The colorblind language of consumer rights and meritocratic individualism,” Lassiter notes in The Silent Majority, shrouded the ways in which government largesse had intervened to privilege white homeownership and helped deliver such status to middle-class white Americans. Along with contemporaries like Kevin Kruse (White Flight) and Robert Self (American Babylon), Lassiter has contributed greatly to the larger shift in urban history, in which historians avoid binaries like city and suburb, instead focusing on metropolitan regions and the various interactions that unfold with such a space. It seems natural, then, that he lead off the roundtable discussion of Jackson’s now 30-year-old book.


For Lassiter, Crabgrass Frontier (CF) remains an essential text for undergrad and graduate students alike. Granted, CF might not pay adequate attention to the diversity of suburbs and perhaps it downplays the impact of race in federal policy, but one of its more brilliant aspects, argues Lassiter, is that it clearly notes the “imprecise and arbitrary” definition of suburbia that persists in popular imagination. Whatever its faults, Jackson’s model of suburbia, based on its “cultural meaning and value,” allows for more elasticity in scholarship and debates: the suburbs served as a form of land-use planning but also a symbolic embodiment regarding ideas about the American dream.

Perhaps even more impressively, at a time when most historians were invested heavily in grassroots social history, Jackson engaged suburbanization from the vantage point of policy or what some less generous critics might call “history from above.” Yet as Jackson demonstrates, policymakers exerted a great deal of influence in the demographics of suburbia and knowing this has given social history that much more resonance.

IPRH Dan Whaley

Diane Harris, University of Illinois-Urbana

“An indispensible classic,” announced Professor Diane Harris in her appraisal. Harris too highlighted the book’s almost abstract treatment of suburban housing: “ever present, yet ever absent.” The superficial similarities of the architecture, Harris noted, obscured a great deal of “internal complexity and diversity.” For Harris, the smooth economic prose or, as she described it, the “elegant economy of the writing” seemed to mirror “the modernist elegance” of the subject.

With special attention to chapters 11, “Federal Subsidy and Suburban Dream,” and 13, “The Baby Boom and the Age of the Subdivision,” Harris drew attention to the fact that without Jackson’s study the “new suburban history” or “metropolitan history” would have taken longer to develop. Today, with CF under the field’s collective belt, scholars have begun to expand past boundaries. Discussions about urban renewal like those in CF have now turned to “suburban renewal.” With Jackson having established a set of characteristics for suburbs—such as racial and economic homogeneity, gender roles, and architectural similarity—newer historians now have a template with which to compare and contrast, and yes, to push back against.

While Harris never mentioned specific works, she suggested that Jackson’s work enabled the emergence of new vantage points in metropolitan history. If not for CF, perhaps we would never have made the turn toward studying transnational suburbs embodied by the work of Mike Davis (Magical Urbanism) or Wendy Cheng (The Changs Next to the Diazes); the hopes and dreams of Latino, black, and Asian suburbanites found in the work of Eric Avila (Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight), Andrew Wiese (Places of their Own), Emily Straus (Death of a Suburban Dream), and Charlotte Brooks (Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends); the role of suburban housewives in the New Right demonstrated by Lisa McGirr (Suburban Warriors) and working class suburbanites in the modern classic by Becky Nicolaides (My Blue Heaven); or even how foreign policy and covert action reshaped metropolitan regions like Northern Virginia as Andrew Friedman (Covert Capital) recently demonstrated.

Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America

Since Jackson never intended to write an architectural history of suburbia, Harris notes, the book fails to really explore this aspect. Author of award winning works on the history of landscape architecture, such as The Nature of Authority (2003), Maybeck’s Landscapes (2005), and the Little White Houses (2013), the University of Illinois professor admitted that historians and other scholars needed to address this blind spot with ethnographical studies that “cross the threshold of front steps,” thereby venturing into the home’s interior. After all, with so much suburban housing built by corporate developers and others whose archives may be lost to us for the ages, “getting inside the house,” as she put it, remained another “frontier” for historians to traverse.


Nikhil Rao, Wellesley College

Context means everything—or least, some things. Published one year prior to CF, Andrew King’s The Bungalow: The Production of Global Culture explored the transnational meaning of the bungalow. Originally a type of housing in India, the vernacular form was adopted by British imperialists and spread widely, becoming influential in Australia and England and landing stateside first in California and later gaining popularity throughout the nation. Jackson’s work, though decidedly domestic in scope, nonetheless provides food for thought when considering suburbanization in the developing world, argues Wellesley professor Nikhil Rao. Rao, author of House but No Garden, first read CF while dissertating and returned to it when preparing his manuscript for publication. Impressed by “the totality of the work,” Rao admired CF for its economic and political scope. However, the Wellesley Professor acknowledged he wondered what relevance the book held when examining South Asian cities. The influence of colonialism and the fact that the vast majority of South Asians owned or rented apartments rather than purchased single family homes meant homeownership carried with it a very different meaning in places like India than it does in Levittown, PA. Moreover, CF delved into the issue of annexation as history. Annexation efforts by American cities had largely diminished in the later half of the century, yet in India it remained a central aspect of urban growth. The result for towns on city outskirts often meant going from “village to slum,” Rao argued.

Other marked differences emerge. In CF, Jackson established the tendency of elites to move out of cities into suburbs, and that this resulted in greater decentralization. Jackson juxtaposed this pattern with South Asia, where centralization seemed to be a key feature of infrastructure and governance. For example, in metropolitan Bombay, Jackson noted, potable water could only be tapped through the city. Yet Rao offered examples related to colonialism that disputed such assertions. British imperialists viewed native cities like Lahore, Delhi, and Lucknow as “illegible.” The older cores of these cities horrified imperialists who chose to build cantonments on the outskirts. Bombay had been a British construction, its centralization contrasted with these older, more indigenous examples. The British gave up trying to impose order on cities, choosing to build mansions elsewhere. Local indigenous elites sometimes did the same. Interspersed between these varying sites, subaltern populations lived in pockets. What this means in regard to CF is that Jackson’s depiction of the periphery as subordinate did not adequately explain South Asian suburbanization. Nor did Indian suburbs guarantee status and quality. Often slums receive services such as water and sanitation while some suburbs remained largely uninhabited and lacking in even the simplest of infrastructure.


In the end, Rao asserted, two central themes persisted:

  • The physicality or materiality of space: Land in India and elsewhere in South Asia remains hard to come by. When one accounts for the incredible number of people living in places like India and really much of the world, U.S. suburbanization took place in a nation that overflowed with land. Places like China, Russia, and Canada might have large swaths of territory, but climatic conditions and geography prevent any meaningful settlement.
  • The politics of space: While dodgy record-keeping plagues businesses and causes migraines among historians, many South Asian cities lack land records all together. Establishing who developed what, when, and for how much can become a nearly impossible task, especially when rent-seeking officials jealously guard access to important documents. While U.S. homeowners watch shows like HGTV’s notorious House Hunters where feckless couples tell realtors they prefer an “open plan” and a “double shower” to what they see before them, South Asian homeowners must maintain lower expectations. Lack of space and bursting populations meant that one pays a high price for what some might consider “crappy homes.” With land locked up in several layers of Byzantine regulation rarely understood by the average person, high housing prices aren’t about quality homes but rather the space/land that they occupy.


Matthew Garcia, Arizona State University

Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1992), George Sanchez’s Becoming Mexican American (1995), and Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, Professor Matthew Garcia (A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900 – 1970) told the audience, served as his foundational texts as he took his first steps into the field of history. While a grad student at Berkeley, the San Gabriel Valley native sought to “make sense of Los Angeles.” CF took Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbia seriously, a fact that encouraged Garcia to undertake the task in his own work while addressing the omissions in Jackson’s opus. Without Jackson, Garcia might never had been able to consider the importance of automobility and how that manifested itself in places like El Monte and Pomona where low riding culture emerged. One need only look at recent contributions to the historiography of metropolitan California, notably Southern California, to understand Jackson’s impact on the state’s history.

What did CF miss? As demonstrated by Garcia’s nod to lowriders in SGV, Jackson had ignored the diversity of Los Angeles’s and America’s suburbs. Sure, the discovery of oil proved important to Californian fortunes; it did influence the built environment and demographic growth of industrial suburbs in Orange County and South Los Angeles. However, when one examines the period from 1899 to 1930, citrus production proved far more pervasive and central to local economies. In 1930, the five citrus-producing counties of California raked in 144 million dollars. Outside of economics, citrus production deeply shaped local demographics, architecture, and development. “Citrus cities” expanded the metropolis eastward, particularly through SGV. Farmers could turn a profit on as little as 10 acres of land. While the surrounding communities remained more rural than industrial counterparts, citrus communities typically demonstrated greater density than typical rural areas.


Demographically, citrus production—the harvesting, packing and transportation of fruit – required the labor of people of color particularly Latinos and within that categorization Mexican Americans. Indeed, other scholars like Laura Barraclough, building on and engaging with Garcia (The Making of San Fernando Valley), have in recent years documented how this labor proved a critical component in the construction of San Fernando Valley’s image of suburban “whiteness.” Others like Jose Alamillo have explored how labor militancy among Mexican American workers and baseball intersected in Orange, Los Angeles, and Riverside counties. Even in the industrial suburbs, blacks provided a key source of labor, a point that the aforementioned Wiese explores in his own work.

For the record, its Jay-Z and KJ

Kenneth Jackson on Kenneth Jackson

“In the 1980s, it was much easier to generalize about the United States,” Jackson told the audience. While growth at the edges of cities and even exurbs does continue, over the last two decades, young people, notably professional women and others, have helped to revitalize cities. Immigrants too have proven a godsend for flagging urban fortunes. Immigration, in particular, serves as a critical factor in modern urbanity, Jackson asserted. The yellow glow of the Bronx, highlighted so prominently in the book The Bronx is Burning and symbolized by Howard Costell’s memorable proclamation “There it is ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” seems far behind us. Dovetailing with newer arguments from the likes of Mike Davis and sociologist Saskia Sassen, immigrants steadied crumbling neighborhoods and provided a sort of low-level gentrification while often giving a boost to struggling suburbs. “If you don’t attract immigrants you’re cutting your own throat,” Jackson noted, but he also admitted that this and other developments have complicated the picture for American cities. (For instance, Jackson suggested that Philadelphia’s lesser pull for immigrant communities might have held back its economic revival in recent decades, especially compared to New York City, with its larger proportion of foreign-born residents.)

To those who argue that Jackson paid too little attention to the agency of the poor, the Columbia professor admitted as much but also noted that those homeowners who had choices available to them were the ones that, rightly or wrongly, defined suburbanization. That said, with places like Prince George’s County in Maryland, today one of the first minority-dominant suburban regions, the landscape has again grown more complex and requires new attention.

Types of housing changed as well. In the 1950s, nearly 90% of new construction resulted in single family homes (SFH) but in recent decades mixed housing, apartments, condo conversions and other residential architecture had eaten into SFH dominance. The ranch house of postwar America no longer embodied typical construction. In regard to Rao’s observations about South Asia, Jackson conceded that he addressed the differences too minimally but also noted that by referencing India he anticipated the transnational turn of historians over the past twenty years, even if he did not pursue it.

Finally, Jackson noted other sociological changes in American culture that had come to make the contemporary situation more complicated. Sexual mores, with the advent of the pill and decline in marriage rates, had been radically altered. People no longer got married “just to have sex,” but rather put such decisions off until later in life, thereby altering population flows and demographics. Car culture too declined. In his day, Jackson reflected, a teenager would “cut off their right arm than not have a driver’s license,” yet 25% of young people today eschewed them.

While the roundtable produced a very nice Q&A session and provided a great opportunity to revisit the themes in the work, only Garcia mentioned Asian Americans’ role in suburbanization in his references to the San Gabriel Valley. While just about 5% of the US population, Asian Americans have been central actors in California suburbanization and urbanization. Places like Monterey Park (San Gabriel Valley) and Gardena (Los Angeles County) raise new questions about transnationalism and race that works such as Wendy Cheng’s study of Asian American-Latino dominated SGV, Charlotte Brooks’s book on Asian Americans and California urbanization, and Hillary Jenks’s scholarship examining the “ultimate Japanese American suburb,” Gardena, engage. Moreover, the conversation largely excluded any references, outside those made by Jackson himself, to sexuality. In Erotic City, Josh Sides has demonstrated the gentrifying effect that gay homeowners had on San Francisco’s Castro district, which regrettably led to the displacement of its working-class immigrant population. It would have been interesting to hear the panel’s thoughts on gender and sexuality and how they have changed how we think about the suburbs and suburbanization. Whatever one thinks of shows like Modern Family, they do suggest the dawning of a new metropolitan reality. Ultimately, not everything can be addressed in a ninety-minute session. After all, as Jackson told the audience, if he had included it all, he’d “still be writing.”

For more of ToM’s conference coverage, check out our ongoing series Academics in the Wild. Part I of ToM’s UHA 2014 coverage can be read here and Part III here.