Place Matters Somewhat, But Social Class Matters Even More

Place Matters Somewhat, But Social Class Matters Even More

Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century
by Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom
University Press of Kansas, 2001, 349 pp., $15.95

Here is a simple but important fact: approximately three-quarters of Americans live in metropolitan areas. Of these, about one-third live in central cities and two-thirds live in the surrounding suburbs. If you flew over these metropolises at a sufficiently low level to see their physical character you would be hard pressed to discern a coherent social pattern to the residential settlements. There would be a few small areas of unambiguous affluence and a handful of physically devastated poverty areas. But for the vast majority of residential neighborhoods there would be no easy visual clues by which to classify them.

Moving to a slightly higher altitude, you would notice a pattern to the physical density of residential settlement. There would be a higher concentration of multifamily and high-rise buildings closer to the center. As you moved out you would see combinations of row houses and single-family homes on small, tightly packed lots interspersed with smaller apartment buildings. From the middle distance to the periphery, the single-family homes would become more prevalent, larger, and stand on lots of increasing size. But even this pattern would not be uniform. Within the older settled pattern, there would be small in-fill developments of contemporary condominium “townhouses.” Some of these developments would be very close to the center but they would increase in number on ever larger expanses of land as you moved out toward the metropolitan edge. Further complicating the panorama would be the fact that as metropolitan regions grew, many, especially in the northeast and midwest, came to envelop older and smaller industrial cities that are now in their midst. They too would have a pattern of high to low density radiating from their centers.

Wealth, poverty, and everything in between have sprawled out with America’s metropolitan regions. In both cities and suburban towns there are extremes and expanses of working-class to middle-class residential life. The regions themselves are large and growing. In many cases the radius from center to periphery can be upward of a hundred miles. All the way to the edge the mixed patterns of residential communities repeat themselves in no easily generalizable order. Indeed the edge itself is a moving target. It is estimated, for example that metropolitan Atlanta alone loses fifty acres a day to this haphazard outward push.

The urban historian Kenneth Jackson described America as the world’s first, and last, suburban nation. If Jackson is correct, and I think he is, the question is, why did we do it? Is it our culture? Is it the political economy of our unique federal/state system of government? Is it our local...