You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
home truths

How the Suburbs Became a Trap

Neighborhoods that once promised prosperity now offer crumbling infrastructure, aged housing stock, and social animus.

Blue ink drawing of an ideal American suburban home, 1933
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
Blue ink drawing of an ideal American suburban home, 1933

How do the suburbs feel? Does climbing the stairs of your split-level ranch amid other, similar homes and neighbors create comfort and hope, a feeling of possibility? Or does that home contain a quiet, persistent threat, a feeling of dread?

By now, the suburbs’ origin story seems familiar. In the mid-twentieth century, the federal government and its chosen mass developers, like Levitt and Sons and American Home Builders, plowed colossal financial resources and political will into building new towns across the country. Each was situated beyond city boundaries and was accessible primarily by cars navigating freshly laid highway asphalt. The developers divided suburban towns into fractions of an acre. On each sat a freestanding house designed for two parents and two or more children, a lawn to show a neat face, and a driveway for a car manufactured by General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler. The suburbs tied these standard model homes and families to strong local schools. Together, modest shelter, steadily increasing in value, and favorable education promised flourishing futures for both parents and children. For the young, white families who were able to access low-cost mortgages that subsidized their moves, the clapboard and concrete sealed in the promise.

Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs
by Benjamin Herold
Penguin Press, 496 pp., $32.00

Of course, the suburbs never delivered the sanctuary they pledged, even for those people they were supposed to favor, and less so with each passing decade. This well-recognized slippage between suburbia’s polished surface and its dark emotional core itself spawned a film genre that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000. Those movies erupt in horror, disgust, or dark humor as they peer through the suburbs’ fraying assurances. Early in American Beauty, 2000’s best picture and best screenplay Oscar winner, beleaguered wife and real estate agent Carolyn Burnham (played by Annette Bening) strips off her tailored beige power suit to squeegee grimy windows, dispel dust bunnies, and buff worn kitchen tile, all while intoning her mantra, “I will sell this house today!” When, plaster-smiled, she greets her potential purchasers—a mixed white-Asian couple, a Black couple, and a lesbian couple—they slide secret sideways glances, stare perplexedly, and outright demand that Carolyn justify the illusion she is struggling to sell them.

Although Benjamin Herold, a long-time education reporter, might be surprised to find himself cast alongside director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, he likewise wrestles with the suburbs’ treachery in Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs. Through beautifully layered reporting, Herold argues that time and demographic change have created a novel disenchantment. The suburbs are now a trap. The new suburbanites of the twenty-first century are often families of color forced to live inside a crumbling American dream. Disillusioned teaches us about the pain and anxiety these suburbanites face as vaunted public schools undercut their children and the promised increases in home values don’t materialize. Where the films often focus on the long psychological con of mid-twentieth-century abundance, Herold shows how today’s suburban scam snares residents in the material degradation of aging homes and deteriorating infrastructure, as well as the social animus of unfriendly schools and racism from neighbors and town leaders. Both were built in from the beginning.

Herold captures this creeping material and social disillusionment in his own suburban Pittsburgh hometown. The township of Penn Hills rapidly expanded just after World War II, ignoring the tight, steep roads, missing sidewalks, and, worst, jerry-rigged sewer system. Human waste sludged into septic tanks and cesspools in areas too crowded for their safe use. Treatment plants were bolted shut, and throughout town storm pipes regularly heaved filth into basements and onto roads. To expand, unite, and repair the waste system would cost money, a lot of it. Penn Hills residents, however, would not agree to the necessary tax levies. This infrastructural cost cutting was hardly unique to Penn Hills. According to the great urban historian Dolores Hayden, one city engineer said the common use of septic tanks within suburban developments was “like a person walking down the street with a silk hat on his head and a hole in the seat of his britches.” Residents frequently refused to mend the problem, instead opting to kick the can to future inhabitants.

Penn Hills’ residents not only shrugged off collective responsibilities for their town; they also combined their poor waste management with racial aggression. In the 1960s, leaders rezoned a ravine so that builders dumped their toxic, flammable construction rubbish next to a Black neighborhood; infected insects bit local children, and underground fires mysteriously broke out. In the following decades, more Black home-seekers arrived in Penn Hills ready to pay the town’s now-depressed home values. As their children enrolled and the school became diverse, however, its teaching staff did not. Meanwhile, the school district’s debts exploded to $172 million, submitting the town to possible state takeover. By 2018 when Bethany Smith, her mother, and young son moved into Herold’s former home, the town presented a respite from the high rents of Pittsburgh’s gentrifying East End, but it was no longer a launching pad for future generations, as it had been for Herold’s own family. It was more of a setup than an escape.

Just outside Atlanta, Georgia, Nika and Anthony Robinson may have been laureled with significant degrees and fancy jobs, but, as Herold describes, they too were forced to confront suburban faithlessness. The Robinsons moved to northern Gwinnet County in 2019 when Nika Robinson was tackling graduate studies in epidemiology and Anthony was climbing the corporate ladder. The suburbs represented the next, obvious, step up in their ascent, a confidence that was shared and accepted. “We were very optimistic then. Sky was the limit,” a friend of the Robinsons told Herold.

Families like the Robinsons—upper middle class and focused on more for their children—are common among the Black, brown, Asian, and multiracial suburbanites who now make up nearly half of the populations living outside the major metro areas. This migration, the sociologist L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy wrote in Inequality in the Promised Land, is frequently driven by a hope that “suburbia would serve as a buffer” against the racism that they and their elders had experienced in cities. Professional achievements and financial success would ease access to generous homes and strong schools once reserved for whites, these families expected. Only after they’d unpacked their moving boxes did the reality become clear.

Beginning in midcentury, white residents outside Atlanta had blockaded themselves against Black and brown families. They resisted desegregation, just as other towns across the country did. When they could no longer deny the Black “dentists, data processors and Delta airlines workers” who brought legally recognized rights and down payments to their towns, white residents established control by other means. They uprooted themselves and moved to places like Gwinnett County, where they enforced their own agendas in the schools.

By 2019, Gwinnett County appeared to have shed much of this past, and the Gwinnett schools were a major attraction for the Robinsons. A great education for their children would continue the rise in success that Nika’s and Anthony’s own parents had started, they believed. Nika liked to muse on her son’s wide-open future, “Where might her son go to college? What would he study? Where would he work, live, raise a family of his own?” But it didn’t take long for him to become a target. Like other preteens in the majority-white Jones Middle School, Corey was a mischief-maker. He belched and clowned in class, taunted his teachers, and fought playground skirmishes with nasty wit. But then came the school’s escalation. Teachers accused him of dishonesty and repeatedly wrote him up, including for disrespect when he pointed out that a teacher had misgraded his test. Then he poured glue into a classmate’s hair. The school suspended him for the first time.

Nika felt a “fire alarm” go off inside her. She believed that the school bureaucracy was singling him out and that the suspension could lead to even worse punishments. Although Black boys and girls represented under one in 20 kids in the Gwinnett school, they experienced the school’s disciplinary action more than one-third of the time. Across the country, Black children are far more likely than their white peers to receive suspensions for minor infractions, like ignoring a dress code, talking back to a teacher, or pulling out a cell phone in class. They miss school, and they feel degraded—as Corey did when he said, “I just don’t think they like me … I guess I’m just a bad kid.”

These humiliations carry consequences. The psychologists Juan Del Toro and Ming-Te Wang have found that suspensions for minor infractions depress student grades for up to two years afterward. They also affect students’ long-term futures. Young people who’ve been suspended are more likely to drop out, failing to graduate from high school or college, and they are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Other kids learn lessons from these suspensions too. Lopsided treatment, as when white students get a pass for disruptive behavior, elevates the preferred kids’ standing, while revealing the authorities’ view of Black kids as deficient and menacing. In other words, by inflicting unfair punishment, schools hold down the kids they are supposed to be launching. They also transform the way the suburbs feel by embedding the potential for violation into the school’s hallways, classrooms, and offices.

Nika found herself consumed by frustration, disappointment, anger, and “something like grief.” But she did not choose to retreat. Instead, she joined a fight against Gwinnett’s punitive schools. An organization named STOPP, or School to Prison Pipeline, was gathering data on Gwinnett’s record of dealing out undue suspensions of Black students. Founded by Marlyn Tillman, who had sued and won Gwinnett’s acknowledgment that her son was not the gang member they claimed, STOPP assisted parents in exercising their rights and helping them advocate for their kids when the school system bared its racial bias. Nika armed herself with STOPP’s statistics and confronted the Jones administrators, demanding acknowledgment that Corey had suffered at the hands of biased teachers. They needed to remove the unjust suspensions from his record and devise a plan for Corey’s success, she insisted. The school administrators listened but backed down only partially, agreeing to drop Corey’s two outstanding suspensions. That didn’t address how he would fare going forward in school, but at least it gave him something of a fresh start.

Instead of launching residents into steady upward mobility or at least stability, the suburbs now send many families into a state of constant questioning: Will they be able to remain in their homes, or will their towns price them out with property tax hikes? Will their children be boosted up by their teachers and principals or torn down? Will creative and dedicated educators have enough funding and political support to realize their visions, or will they be forced to disappoint their young charges? The uncertainty and the constant dread that conditions might worsen defines the new suburban landscape as solidly as a run-down Cape Cod.

Nika Robinson, Bethany Smith, and their families are forced to live inside this American infrastructure of betrayal. The hostile landscape gives them little choice but to fight. But by giving readers the insights and words of Nika, Bethany, and many other Black and brown suburbanites, Disillusioned delivers more than a tale of strapped families overcoming adversity with grit. The book moves through exposing the pernicious politics of broken pipes, devalued neighborhoods, and punitive schools to detailing the residents’ emotions and strategies to defend their kids and their homes, and to assert control over their own lives. This is Nika and Bethany’s politics of caring. When Corey Robinson faced his school’s aggression, Nika responded with determination, drawing on a family history of upward mobility and personal history of professional achievement to counter authorities and demand more by confronting them with evidence of their own malfeasance.

Bethany extends the criticism to Herold himself, and questions his authority to tell others’ stories. Herold writes with perceptive self-criticism about Bethany’s resistance. At first, she answered his questions and told Herold the details of her life and hopes. Then she pushed back and turned again to her first priority, her family. She did not want to be confined within a tale of oppression. During her silence, Herold discovered a better way forward. He called to ask if she’d be willing to write the epilogue. Her words end the book. They also challenge those who want more equitable suburbs to work in service of the everyday pleasures, care, and love that she “puts out in the universe.”