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Suburbia Changing, but Still Part of the American Dream, Author Says : Urban Realities of the '80s Intruding Upon Idyllic Retreats That Flourished in '50s, '60s

July 06, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Suburbia. The very word conjures up images of sprawling, ranch-style homes with backyard barbecues, safe and stable neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, and traditional nuclear families with dad commuting to work and mom staying home with the kids.

During their heyday in the 1950s and '60s, the suburbs were part of the middle-class American dream--an idyllic alternative to the cities and the urban ills that plagued them.

But while the suburban dream may still be flourishing in the mid-1980s, the reality has changed. Indeed, says urban sociologist Mark Baldassare, there is trouble in paradise.

"Initially," said Baldassare, an associate professor in social ecology at UC Irvine, "the suburbs in the United States were a bastion for white, middle-class families, and that really persisted right through the 1960s. But in 1970 that started to change and became something else, and it's the 'something else' that's of interest to me."

The new suburbia is the subject of Baldassare's new book, "Trouble in Paradise" (Columbia University Press; $25), which examines "the suburban transformation in America."

Baldassare maintains that although the suburban reality is over--that doesn't necessarily mean the suburban dream is over.

The reason for the discrepancy, Baldassare said in an interview, "is that, despite rapid growth and industrialization and the fact that this is really a very different type of suburb than we've had in the past, people still want the same things: They want a single-family home. They want basically a family-oriented community. They want low densities. And they don't want to be hassled by traffic and pollution.

"They want these things and they're not going to get them, and that's the dilemma. They're holding out hope for the suburban dream and they're ignoring the fact that suburbia was something that existed in the past and won't exist (in that way) again.

"My guess is, as suburbanization progresses, increasingly there will be inequality within suburbia. Some communities will get more of this dream than others, but no one is going to get it as it was because of the densities and the diversity of people and activities in suburbia today."

In "Trouble in Paradise," Baldassare primarily uses survey data from his own research in Orange County--a suburban region he describes as a national pacesetter.

Orange County Laboratory

In fact, the Manhattan-born Baldassare, 34, says he chose to move to Orange County in 1981 because it offered the best "laboratory" in which to study suburbia. He has since interviewed more than 12,000 Orange County residents as director of a local newspaper poll and as study director for the Orange County Annual Survey at UC Irvine--in which county residents are asked about a variety of subjects, including housing, government, transportation, services and the quality of life.

"Orange County is a trend-setter in a lot of ways," Baldassare said. "For one, it was the first suburban county to be defined as a separate metropolitan community--that happened in 1970. It has both the emphasis on high technology and the service industry and the lack of a smokestack industry, (qualities) which we expect our communities of tomorrow to have. And its residents--although they're typically described as conservative Republicans--are actually in political philosophy new fiscal Populists, or that mixture of social liberals and fiscal conservatives."

Moreover, Baldassare said, "Orange County has the political structure of the typical suburb in that there is a very weak county-level authority and 26 municipalities, each going their own way. So for a lot of different reasons it epitomizes what is going on in suburbia today and at the same time allows us to kind of look five to 10 years in the future at what's going to happen when communities become high technology."

Baldassare traces the beginning of what is now a predominantly suburban nation to the mid-1940s.

Mass Appeal

"Some people trace the suburbs as far back as into the 19th Century, but suburbs had more of a mass appeal to the middle class really after World War II when there was a big housing crunch in the cities," he said.

At the time, Baldassare said, cities could no longer house all the people who worked in them. But with the aid of Federal Housing Authority and Veterans Administration loans, and by expanding the freeway system and other planning innovations, he said, the land on the fringes of the cities was opened up for housing developments that were affordable for the middle class.

In the 1950s, Baldassare said, "suburbs were primarily residential, so land use was segregated: It was all housing, or almost all housing and not mixed with industry or commerce. Suburbs also offered people what they wanted the most, which was single-family homes and backyards: private outdoor space."

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