In 1962, Malvina Reynolds captured both the rapid development and growth of the suburbs, as well as their homogenous character, in her song “Little Boxes,” which Pete Seeger made famous the following year: “Little boxes on the hillside / little boxes made of ticky tacky . . . they all look just the same.”

Fifty years later, as Leigh Gallagher observes in this captivating and thoughtful social history, the suburbs that the Ozzie and Harriet Nelsons of the 1950s and early 1960s so coveted are now declining, fostering a shift in the shape of the American dream of home ownership.

In The End of the Suburbs, Gallagher traces the history of the suburb from its rise during the post-WWII development of tract housing in places such as Levittown, Pennsylvania, to the great urban exodus of the ’50s and ’60s, when many city-dwellers decamped to wealthy enclaves such as Lake Forest, Illinois. The suburbs grew so quickly because of the rapid growth of the middle class, the advent of mass production of building materials and houses, and the freedom provided by the automobile.

Gallagher acknowledges that most Americans still live in the suburbs because we are a culture that values privacy and individualism, but she provides plenty of evidence that suburbia is at the beginning of a steep decline. Drawing on extensive interviews with policy analysts, construction and housing experts, and suburban dwellers themselves, she cites several reasons for the decline of the suburb as we know it: Home values have inverted; cities are experiencing a resurgence; households are shrinking; the price of oil is rising. As urban areas have witnessed a rise in population and influx of wealth over the past decade, the suburbs have experienced a rise in poverty; from 2000 to 2010, she points out, “the growth rate in the number of poor living in the suburbs was more than twice that in the cities.”

The End of the Suburbs is a first-rate social history that asks pointed questions about one of America’s most cherished cultural institutions.

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