Radical suburbs and the freedom of the margins

American suburbs are usually associated with conservative norms. But through U.S. history, the urban fringes have supported communities – led by dissenters, utopians, and reformers – that challenge rather than reinforce the status quo. This tradition contests widely held assumptions about “suburban values.”

In this paper, I will describe two unusual suburbs of the early 20th century: the Stelton anarchist colony in central New Jersey and the New Deal model town of Greenbelt, Maryland. The former was improvised, a bottom-up experiment with little formal planning or architecture, while the latter was conceived by the U.S. government down to the smallest detail. But in both places, community members seized the chance to take on new personal roles while working toward an egalitarian vision. And both were shaped by their continuous back-and-forth with the big city—economic, social, cultural.

The Stelton colonists set up on-site cooperatives and farmed, but many still commuted to jobs in New York City. The nearness of New York was a financial lifeline that let them focus on the anarchist education of their children, while a degree of removal brought safety from the urban authorities. In Greenbelt, the ordinary men and women chosen as Roosevelt’s tenants felt charged with a deep responsibility as pioneers of “the town of the future,” and energetically built new civic institutions, fostering a shared, distinctive Greenbelt identity that still endures.

In conclusion, I will assess the potential for new suburban experimentation and dissent in an era of pronounced urban gentrification.

Discussant: David Stark

PLACES: Session 1