Suburbanization (Dialectical Theology Part 4 of Many)


After World War 2, there was a housing shortage. Very little new housing had been built since the 1920’s. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South and the movement of rural people to the cities for wartime jobs, meant that a lot of new housing had to be built, especially for returning veterans.

Suburbanization was the chosen solution, implemented by the housing industry, but enabled by government policy.

Cheap farm land near the cities was developed into mass produced housing. The new houses were offered for sale on credit; an expanding mortgage market was guaranteed by the government. Governments invested in the infrastructure of the new suburbs: building the roads and sanitation systems, establishing schools, standing up suburban governments to administer new towns and cities. Vast wealth was created, much of that wealth accumulated as real estate equity held by the residents of the new suburbs.

But through a series of interlocking policies and practices, including unlawful violence, these new suburbs were effectively closed off to African Americans.

The result was the white working class left the cities and became a white home-owning (and indebted) middle class in the suburbs. Another outcome was the disparity in family wealth between whites and African Americans.

The cities, of the other hand, were neglected, their tax base dwindling, cut off from credit for investment in housing, setting off a cycle of decay and despair. Home values plummeted in the city, accelerating the movement to the suburbs. We now call that process “white flight,” a term that implies that it was just individual prejudices that drove the process. But exploiting and reinforcing those prejudices was a system of interlocking institutional policies that drove it, for profits. If you want to understand what people mean by "institutional racism," investigate how the present residential geography developed.

Suburbanization transformed Unitarianism and Universalism in the 40’s and 50’s. This story has been told less.

Our largest churches had been urban churches. Congregation members lived closer together, often in a few (and usually the better) neighborhoods. They voted for the same mayor and city council reps, their children went to a relatively small number of public and private schools.

But, our congregation members were moving to the suburbs, as were many white Americans. Even the churches that stayed in the city were suburbanized because the people they served had moved to the suburbs.

Suburbanization fractures and atomized communities. Whatever cohesive community existed in the city, people scattered to different suburbs where no cohesive communities existed.

This was true in general, and also true in congregations. In the city, in that older urban congregation, the church and its congregation existed as one strand in a much larger network of relationships. In the suburb, community connections were much weaker, and the church became much more important to the congregant. In many cases, suburbanization made the congregation the most important community for people. 

A subtle transformation was occurring. The liberal church was moving from being the liberal voice in the diverse culture of the city to being the fulfillment of its members' need for community. Building up the congregation as  "community" became its primary goal.

Suburbanization was also part of the process of the racial segregation of the USA that continues to this day. The suburbs were for white people by policy, and as our churches became filled with suburban dwellers, our congregations became whiter and whiter spaces, spaces where just being black creates a series of discomforts and unfamiliarities.

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