Book Review: Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

Ross, Benjamin. Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

The city of our desire was no abstraction. It was where grandparents lived and where fathers worked. It had neighborhoods with corner stores, bustling shopping districts, skyscraper downtowns. It was full of people and of life. Its streets were were not barren suburban highways. They were natural, connected, and truly human (2).

About the Author*:

Benjamin Ross is known for being both an activist and a scholar. He spent 15 years as the president of Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit. Under him, this committee grew to be the nation’s largest grassroots transit advocacy group. Ross has served on committees of the National Academy of Sciences and the EPA Science Advisory Board. He continues to publish scholarship on political and social topics via magazines and other formal publications.

Brief Summary of the Book:

Benjamin Ross’s Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism discusses the growth, transformation, and adaptation regarding suburban development in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present. He focuses not only on the growth of suburban neighborhoods themselves, but also on the politics and the advancement in transportation and technology that allowed these areas to prosper. Ross pays specific attention to the various federal and state legislation that passed that propelled suburbanization, such as the Highway Act of 1973 and the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 which helped increase suburban sprawl and economic prosperity surrounding suburban America. Dead End also acknowledges impressions and activism within both political parties, Conservatives and Liberals.

This book also works to determine the rapid growth and changes within urban areas during this same era. Ross examines the momentum and drive to revive cities and urban areas into what we know them to look like today. This includes the push to make urban housing a bit more viable option for those who either couldn’t afford to move to the suburbs, as well as those who did not want to leave the city. Dead End also gives attention to those communities who were displaced and affected by these urban revival projects in the process. Overall, this book seeks to determine both why the suburbs were so popular among Americans and why urbanization had such great support while suburbanization was, and still is, taking place.

Types of Sources:

The primary sources that Ross uses are limited in both number and the topics they address. His study contains a few sources from federal agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration or newspapers such as The New York Times. Most of the primary source material, because of this, focuses on the development of highways and other means of transportation. However, Ross includes a plethora of secondary material that covers the many topics that he talks about throughout the book. He even includes Thomas Sugrue at various times to explain the growth and expansion of urbanization during this era.

Scholarly Reviews:

Many scholars are not quite convinced in Ross’s approach for Dead End. Richard Harris, a professor at McMaster University, expresses his frustration in Ross’s methods and explanation of suburban sprawl. Harris also mentions that the compact size of the book prevents the main arguments to be lost and “inadequately explained” (1). While Harris praises Ross in his ability to cover a lot of ground and various important points throughout the book, he mentions that historical scholars would not be pleased with its lack of primary sources and expansion on important developments (2). While this may be an understandable practice for activist scholars, this often does not agree with methods and approaches taken by many historians currently in the field.

 

My Review:

My opinions on this book are honestly very conflicted. I am convinced in his overall arguments that suburban sprawl was not the clear answer for developing American cities, and that urbanization had been more at the forefront of reinventing housing and communities. However, I feel like he attempted to compact a lot of different story arcs into such a short book of only 210 pages. Because of this, a lot of the information gets bogged down and lost within the complexity. While I really love the various perspectives that Ross offers, I feel like it would have been beneficial for the book to either be longer or two be two separate books entirely. It also would have been nice to see more primary sources.

 


>> All opinions are mine, and do not reflect the thoughts of any institutions with which I am affiliated, my academic advisers, or are intended to be viewed as a promotion for any purchases.
* All information about Benjamin Ross taken from Skylight Books website. For more information see https://www.skylightbooks.com/event/benjamin-ross-discusses-his-book-dead-end-suburban-sprawl-and-rebirth-american-urbanism.
** Image of the book was taken using the camera feature on my personal cellphone
(1)Richard Harris, “Urbanism and Urban Form”, Journal of the American Planning Association vol. 81 no. 2 (Spring 2015). Accessed November 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01944363.2015.1054704
(2)Ibid.

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