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The Suburbanization of the US Working Class

Much of the working class is being forced out into suburbia. We must adapt our organizing strategies to keep up.

Imagine a city council meeting filled with engaged residents. Following a discussion of school sports leagues and property taxes, it’s decided that the body will “pursue ceaselessly the task of education and combat to substitute for false bourgeois democracy the true democracy of the people against its profiteers.”

It’s difficult to envision this taking place in any US city. It’s even harder to see it happening in the suburbs. Yet these words were spoken eighty years ago in Bobigny, a small town on the outskirts of Paris. Is that kind of working-class consciousness possible in US suburbia?

Cities have always been hubs of worker organizing in the United States. The class geography of US cities has traditionally been the inverse of European ones. In the US, the rich took to the suburbs, leaving workers to occupy urban centers. There, many found easier access to social services, job opportunities, and cheap housing. The social connection that density offered helped workers build strong movements, from the sweatshop laborers of turn-of-the-century New York City to the cultural frontists of the 1930s and the civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

In the last three decades, however, the bourgeoisie has returned to claim the city as its home. Driven in part by their embrace of high-density, environmentally friendly living, and in part by speculative investments of public and private capital in high-end restaurants, luxury housing, entertainment centers, and other amenities, the elite are transforming cities at a shocking rate. Meanwhile, working-class residents are being displaced to suburbs, where job opportunities are more scarce, public services and benefits are harder to access, and people are spread farther apart.

The migration of the working class to suburbia and the colonization of inner cities by the leisure class represents a significant shift in our understanding of the geography of political movements. And yet, it also has the potential to create a new theater for the twenty-first century’s class struggles.

All Together Now

Since the Industrial Revolution, residential patterns in the United States have been characterized by the ideal of the workplace as a public space and the home as private. As factories sprang up, transportation networks spread, and those who could afford it chose to live away from the dirt, noise, and chaos of the urban neighborhood.

In his classic study of suburbanization Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson notes that the early streetcar suburbs of the nineteenth century were not socioeconomically homogeneous, though they satisfied the anti-urban desires of rich industrialists. The servants of the wealthy lived in the same suburbs as their employers — job security was even then a primary factor in dictating where workers could live. As cities expanded, extending their growing network of public services to outlying areas, urban dwellers subsidized the outward spread of roads, sewers, and utilities to these areas.

In the late 1800s, cities responded to the extension of public goods by annexing neighboring communities. Between 1850 and 1910, the twelve largest cities in the US — Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago among them — collectively added more than eight hundred square miles of land. Manhattan annexed the entire city of Brooklyn, along with the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. This practice enabled cities to consolidate and coordinate municipal governments, as well as increase their control over outlying areas.

The process of annexation, whatever its aims, increased both diversity within municipal boundaries and the amount of residential and industrial neighborhoods under the jurisdiction of centralized local governments. Greater concentrations of population and infrastructure made cities an ideal destination for migrant workers. The great waves of migration from Eastern Europe and the Jim Crow South brought millions of workers to cities, where they often lived in tenements or cramped apartments and labored in factories. While many of them found support and gained political awareness in these surroundings, their presence provided the middle class with another reason to escape to the suburbs.

White Flight

In the interwar and postwar eras, the federal government acted to further incentivize suburban living for the middle class, primarily through veterans’ benefits and government investment in single-occupancy homeownership. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Home Owners Loan Corporation, and the mortgage-interest deduction made suburban living extremely attractive for those who could afford it. Suburban homeowners, not coincidentally, made for ideal workers as far as the bosses were concerned. They didn’t live close to their coworkers or their jobs. They were invested in the meritocracy that had supposedly allowed them to succeed. And they were in debt for the length of their mortgage, which was extended at that time to an average of twenty or thirty years.

William Levitt, the creator of the pre-fabricated “Levittown” communities that defined postwar suburban living, is supposed to have said, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” Homeownership continued to be the centerpiece of the American dream, though black Americans and others were systematically excluded from that dream. By the time the FHA began authorizing mortgage insurance for inner-city neighborhoods, even the middle-class families who had remained in those neighborhoods had already moved to the suburbs. The result was inner-city neighborhoods populated by the poor and working class.

In the 1960s, radicals affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other groups centered their movement-building strategies on those urban communities. In his chronicle of SDS leaders Democracy is in the Streets, James Miller describes the young organizers who participated in the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), moving to places like Cleveland and Chicago to mobilize the urban poor.

The ERAP volunteers, rather than organizing factories or campuses, tried to radicalize interracial coalitions of the unemployed. They set out to build a base by knocking on doors and attending community meetings, eventually addressing joblessness, tenants’ rights, and welfare rights as they affected community members. But without a deep understanding of the problems facing the communities they had entered (ERAP set out to organize the unemployed in Cleveland just as unemployment rates were falling in that city) and beset by internal problems, the experiment was short-lived.

As the SDS organizers moved on to other projects, the federal government and wealthy investors entered those neighborhoods with wholly different intentions. Starting with the urban renewal efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, which displaced so many inner-city residents that they were popularly known as “negro removal,” the balance of poverty began to shift. In an effort to consolidate capital, the affluent have invested heavily in urban centers over the last thirty years, driving up land values and displacing entire communities. Neighborhoods that were once solidly working-class and home to strong political movements, like Boston’s Roxbury or San Francisco’s Mission District, have seen drastic changes.

A recent report by the Bay Area grassroots organization Causa Justa :: Just Cause sums it up: “In a full-circle reversal, the white populations that fled urban centers in the postwar era have returned to city centers that now drive Internet and communications technology development rather than manufacturing. Conversely, communities of color are being evicted to the suburbs.”

Urban Boutique

American cities have begun a new life as desirable commodities for the ruling class. In his 2012 book Rebel Cities, David Harvey notes that “quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money,” and that the 1% increasingly shapes the development of cities to its advantage. Developers create mixed-use entertainment districts for the leisure class and luxury apartments multiply like $3000-a-month rabbits, while private interests take over contracts for water treatment, subway fare collection, and trash pickup.

In Harvey’s analysis, the surplus value created by the mere existence — not to mention hard work and organized efforts — of residents is being appropriated and sold to investors and visitors. The city as commodity is on the rise, and so are rents and home prices in urban areas, driven by speculation as much as by public investment:

The primary means by which [this surplus value] is appropriated in an urban context is, of course, through the extraction of land and property rents. A community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighborhood . . . may suddenly find its property prices (and taxes) rising as real estate agents market the “character” of their neighborhood to the wealthy as multicultural, street-lively, and diverse.

Meanwhile, as housing prices increase and once-affordable apartments are converted into luxury condominiums, cities are becoming inaccessible to the poor and working class. This not only displaces actual residents, but also creates a barrier to entry for potential new residents. Cities have always been havens for new immigrants because of their dense social networks and easy access to public services, but this, too, is changing. “Affordable housing” now means formally subsidized units rather than de facto cheap rents, and the subsidizing entities rarely accept tenants without social security numbers or clean criminal records.

Because of this, working-class Americans increasingly live in suburbs or exurbs. As of the 2010 census, three-quarters of all metropolitan-area residents lived outside the urban core. This suburbanization means that workers are less likely to have easy access to public transportation, and that they will have to travel farther to visit the post office, bring their children to daycare, or join a rally. Isolated and disempowered, the suburban poor must work even harder to meet basic needs, leaving less and less time for “what they will.”

For leftists, the suburbanization of the working class should be concerning for another reason. Organizing has never been easy, but as long as workers have been concentrated in urban areas, it’s been more geographically efficient. As the working class moves into the suburbs, we will need to adapt in order to successfully mobilize and create change.

Class War, 90210

What does this mean for those hoping to build class based movements? If we had all the answers, we’d already have expropriated the country clubs and turned them into socialist summer camps. As with all organizing, it will be vital that different groups share strategies and learn from one another. These thoughts, however, may be a useful starting point:

Be flexible.

Cities are dynamic places to live and to organize, for some of the same reasons that they are now becoming inaccessible to the working class. But the work of movement-building shouldn’t be confined to cities, especially if the workers are increasingly elsewhere. Organizers and working-class leaders should view suburbs as sites of untapped class anger.

However, there are important lessons to be learned from the SDS activists and their brief ERAP project. Despite the obvious logic of organizing dispossessed urban dwellers in tight-knit communities, the ERAP volunteers were unsuccessful in creating strong working-class movements. Savvy about Marx but ignorant of the local communities, the ERAP organizers struggled to take hold and build relevant grassroots campaigns.

We don’t have to follow in their footsteps. Many working-class activists displaced to the suburbs retain a connection to the cities they have left, and they bring with them knowledge and tactics that can be adapted to new surroundings. Organizers should learn from those leaders about the issues that could most effectively bring people together. Activists who belonged to a tenants’ rights organi­zation in a city might lead a campaign for better public transit in the suburbs. Tactics might be different as well; while we’ve grown accustomed to the power of a large rally, movements that draw from a wider geographical area might find greater strength in smaller coordinated actions.

Identify relevant local campaigns.

We must resist the assumption that most people respond instinctively to an injustice without understanding how it affects them personally. A campaign to cut the US military budget is unassailable in principle, but it will attract mostly New Leftists seeking to relive the glory days of the antiwar movement. Local leaders know what the most pressing and specific issues in their communities are — an organizer’s task is to facilitate a unified movement around those issues and connect them to the bigger picture.

Rather than follow the Alinskyan model of organizing for organizing’s sake, we should recognize that base-building is a step toward political power and systemic change — but the process is slow, and we have to meet people where they’re at in order to get where we need to go. In the meantime, local campaigns should educate people about the economic relationships that connect suburbs, cities, and metropolitan regions, as well as the larger structures that govern capitalist society.

Underlying these campaigns, however diverse in nature, should be David Harvey’s right to the city — the idea that the people have a right to the value they create in a particular location, and that they have the right to remain despite speculative pressures. Fundamentally, it’s a question of creating consciousness and using that consciousness to build strong relationships and organizations.

Target local political systems.

Local governments can be provincial, and they are undeniably bit players in the grand scheme of things. However, they can also be more responsive than urban-machine politicians, as well as more dependent on an organized bloc of voters. Beyond that, local politics can provide a platform for progressive politicians. Bernie Sanders, the only US Senator who publicly identifies as a socialist, began his career as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. If the work of organizing is seen not just as a series of campaigns, but as the building of a political movement with strong leaders, the dispersal of those potential leaders to far-flung communities can take on the gleam of a silver lining.

Annex the suburbs.

For those seeking a utopian political project to expand the powers of the public sector, annexation is a historically viable and comparatively recent example. As suburbs became wealthier and more homogeneous, they pushed back more strongly against association with the urban core, whether by taxation or by shared resources. But as they fill with working-class residents, including immigrants from countries with a stronger social safety net, the benefits of a large municipal government may start to regain some of their appeal.

A tongue-in-cheek manifesto in Boston Mag­azine last year proposed that Boston annex affluent neighboring Brookline, one of the original streetcar suburbs — by force if necessary. Though it depends on Boston for jobs, public transportation, and infrastructure, Brookline’s school system is separate, funded by the property tax dollars of its more affluent homeowners. “Brookline residents, who voted for Barack Obama over Massachusetts’ own Mitt Romney by nearly four to one, would surely agree that with great wealth comes great responsibility to open their hearts — and school doors — to the underserved children of neighboring Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.” Schools, incidentally, are sites of civic participation and class struggle in many working-class suburbs, as parents and teachers resist the hegemony of standardized tests and the creep of charter schools.

In addition to redistributing the resources of wealthier suburbs, municipal annexation would consolidate working-class suburbs within a single municipal system, providing a central target for political campaigns and a single identity under which to unite. It’s certainly not a flawless proposal — annexation does nothing to solve the privatization of public services or other neoliberal reforms. But it sets the stage for those battles to be fought.

Create banlieues rouges.

We should follow the example of the banlieues rouges  — the red suburbs of Paris. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Parisian working class — including many immigrants — was driven out of the city by Baron Haussmann’s reforms and a severe housing crisis. Those forces, combined with rapid industrialization, brought many workers to the suburbs, setting the stage for a class-based politics there.

That class consciousness eventually strengthened into several municipal chapters of the SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière). The party emphasized local urban issues like housing and munic-ipal services, and integrated local workers into city government to give them training in administrative skills. They formed mutual-aid societies in the name of working-class solidarity and held demonstrations and festivals, including “red baptisms” to protest the enforcement of Catholic norms. Although many of the people living in the suburbs that came to be known as the “Red Belt” left for work during the day, in their leisure time they met in cafés and public spaces and formed interest groups to petition the local government.

The Red Belt encircled Paris and remained a stronghold of the French Communist Party (PCF) until the early 1980s, when right-wing forces like the National Front began to grow in strength. Despite the more recent history, they provide an inspiring opportunity to think outside the bounds of the city itself for workerled movements.


Ultimately, David Harvey concludes, the struggles that concern workers in the factory are the same struggles that concern them once they return home to their neighborhoods. Taking this conclusion one step further, we must assume that the struggles of the urban working class will also be the struggles of the suburban working class.

Exploitation, political disenfranchisement, lack of access to resources — these are injustices universal to capitalism. We must learn to confront them outside the familiar comforts of our cities.