Meet the author who braved the ’burbs to explore the roots of some of America’s most progressive communities beyond city limits
Amanda Kolson Hurley is about to blow your mind. The suburbs, she argues, don’t completely suck. Look closely, the Atlantic writer suggests in her new book, Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, and you’ll even find some of the most progressive models of community in the entire country.
“Misinformed cliches,” Kolson Hurley writes, “still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity.”
The author continues, “More than half of all Americans live in the suburbs, and according to demographer William Frey, within the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, more than half of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians do. Minorities now account for 35 percent of suburban residents, in line with their share of the total U.S. population.”
As for the experimental living mentioned in the title of her book, Kolson Hurley revisits the history of fringe locales like the Stelton Colony, an anarchist community in Piscataway, New Jersey, as well as Six Moon Hill in Lexington, Massachusetts, where Bauhaus architects first moved their families back in the ’40s.
Ahead of an event that DigBoston is hosting with the author and CityLab in Central Square next week, we asked Kolson Hurley about her radical new project.
How much of this book, and this interest of yours, really comes from you growing up and living in the ’burbs?
I grew up in suburbia, so that’s my natural habitat. I’ve also lived in the city for a number of years. I guess I’ve never considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool suburbanite. But it was in the Maryland suburb that I live in now where I started to see how people continue to talk about suburbia as if it is this landscape filled with 1950s people. It got me interested in the history of the suburbs, and in reading about that, I started to realize how the suburbs have changed a lot, especially in the last 15 to 20 years. But was never this monolithic place that we sometimes assume.
When you look at a lot of the suburbs you discuss and visit in your work, does it sometimes feel like you’re looking at an oasis? How much do these places stick out from the typical suburb?
Because they were founded with a real degree of intentionality, they have not really bled out. The people who settled them really wanted them to be defined communities that embody certain principles or values. A lot of them are self-contained. In a lot of cases, there’s a really stark difference when you are driving or walking and you cross this invisible line. One former anarchist colony in New Jersey that I wrote about has sort of been swallowed up by the surrounding community, but you can still see a lot of the [original] cottages, even if they have been built on or modified in the time since. They were anarchists, so they didn’t have a lot of rules or boundaries to the community. Things were a lot more fluid there.
A lot of people in places like Boston get pushed to the suburbs, as opposed to wanting to move there, which leads me to wonder if there is a difference between communities and groups of people who go to the ’burbs intentionally, and those who just wind up or are pushed there. Is that a distinction you’ve seen in your research?
We tend to think of the suburbs in terms of aspiration and people aspiring toward suburban life. That’s definitely part of American culture. But there’s also an element of the suburbs being a place of compromise—maybe you want to be living in the city, or you were living in the city and for various reasons, perhaps the city became too expensive, you had to move. In the case of the anarchists, the suburbs were a place where they could go and have a little more privacy [since they were being spied on by the government]. Another group that compromised took part in this New Deal program in Greenbelt, Maryland. Most of them were crammed into little apartments in Washington, DC, and for them, being out in what was the countryside back then was a real mixed bag. There are poems about being that far away and isolated from things. The narrative has always been pure aspiration—that everyone wants a suburban life. But I think it’s always been the compromise place.
How accessible are these places to newcomers and outsiders? Is there a general mindset among them?
More so than the average suburban community, these places have traditions of being open and nonconformist. However, there are values you could say they share with the surrounding majority upper-middle class communities that can make them resistant to things like new affordable housing. It’s very hard to generalize that sort of thing, but if you did you could say these places are generally liberal.
Is there any research that shows people live in a more cooperative manner in the suburbs vs in a city or vice versa?
I think the assumption people make is that because suburbanites are more scattered, lots tend to be bigger, and people tend to live in single-family homes on their own lots, that you’re going to be sharing less and doing less in your community. There has been research that tries to quantify these things, and it’s kind of inconclusive. One study I [read] was about cul-de-sacs, and how they don’t connect, but there’s also research that says that people who live on cul-de-sacs become really close with their neighbors. You can probably argue it both ways. … In the first generation of a lot of the communities I’m writing about though, they really were relying on a lot of cooperative living and volunteerism. Everything from the Boy Scouts, to services for the elderly, they took it upon themselves to do these things.
Once that foundation was built, were there a lot of efforts of people to share their ideals with the people around them? Or have these mostly been walled gardens?
I write about Reston, Virginia, which was founded as kind of an anti-suburb. It would be very urban, it had a mix of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels. There was culture. It was this experiment that really struggled at first, but that ended up working a lot better than I think people imagined it would. There are certainly struggles there, because development has really taken off and people disagree about what that should look like, but there really seems to be a lot of local pride in the progressive values and work done by the prior generations.
You also write about Lexington, and specifically members of the Architects’ Collective (TAC), who founded Six Moon Hill in that suburb. How does this prominent Greater Boston model of a radical suburb fit into the context of all of the places overall that you’re writing about?
I only write about two of these communities in Lexington, but there were several, I think due to the proximity of schools like Harvard and MIT. I wanted to write about [Six Moon Hill] because it really was the best example of how, at this one period in time—right around after the second World War—where people didn’t take for granted that large-scale suburban development was going to be cookie cutter and bland. The war had just finished, there was a huge demand for housing, and there was an urgent need for it. Some of these younger, more visionary architects saw this as a sort of window to bring more modernist, progressive design to the American public in a major way. They saw it as a great opportunity to do something quite bracing. They were mostly young architects—men and women, some married and having children—and they wanted to build communities for themselves, sure, but also for other people like them. It was a pretty Utopian vision.
RADICAL SUBURBS BOSTON RELEASE AND INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA KOLSON HURLEY. PRESENTED BY CITYLAB AND DIGBOSTON. WED 5.29. 6PM. 730 TAVERN, 730 MASS. AVE., CENTRAL SQUARE, CAMBRIDGE. REGISTER FOR FREE AT CITYLAB.COM.