The New Suburban History
Colloquium on U.S. History
History 800-002

Amanda I. Seligman
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Fall 2003
Instructor comments on course

Course Description | Readings | Writing Assignments | Grading | Class Schedule and Assignments

Class Location: Holton Hall 341
Mondays 4:30-7:10 p.m.
Office Hours: Holton Hall 331
Monday 3:00-4:20 p.m. and by appointment
Phone:  414-229-4565

What are suburbs in the United States like? To some, they represent single-family detached houses, manicured lawns and prosperity, epitomizing the “American Dream.” To others, suburbs represent tacky conformity, racial segregation, class snobbery, and homogeneity. Until recently, the dominant history of suburbs has reflected both of these themes. In the past several years, however, emerging scholarship has suggested new directions for the study of American suburbs. This course will examine both the older and the emerging scholarship, in order to pose the question, “What is new about the new suburban history?”


In the history department at UWM, graduate-level colloquia are structured around intensive reading, rather than the development of research skills. Therefore the reading load in this course may be slightly heavier than you expect for a seminar. Reading strategies for graduate courses will be discussed in class; in addition, you are welcome to come and see me to discuss approaches to graduate-level reading of historical scholarship. The following books have been ordered through the UWM bookstore in the Student Union:

  • Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (U.S.A.: Basic Books, Inc., 1987).

  • Ann Durkin Keating, Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002). [Note: the reprint edition ordered for this class has a new photo essay not available in the original.]

  • Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

  • Margaret Marsh, Suburban Lives (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

  • Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).

  • Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

These books have also been placed on reserve in the Golda Meir library. In addition, several other assigned readings are available on reserve and through the UWM library web page, which holds electronic subscriptions to the journal articles assigned in this course. You should consult the schedule section of the syllabus regularly, well in advance of the time you plan to do the readings, to make sure that you have the required items in hand.


The written work for this class has several distinct components.

First, all students must send me an email ( by noon the day of each weekly meeting (i.e. noon every Monday). The email should include two discussable questions based on the assigned reading. By “discussable” question, I mean a question about the reading that can instigate conversation in the class. A discussable question is not a question about a factual matter, such as one you might use to test whether a group of undergraduates had done an assigned reading or not. While I prepare for class discussion independently, you can expect that some of the questions submitted by email will be introduced into the seminar meetings. Timely submission of each pair of discussable questions will count for one percentage point of your final grade in the course. Late submissions will not be accepted for credit.

Second, all students in this course will write three short (2-3 pages) papers in response to the reading assignment for three different weeks. These papers are due at the start of the class session on the day when we discuss the readings in question. They may not be turned in after the day on which these readings are discussed. It is up to you to select the pace at which you turn in these papers. I recommend very strongly against leaving them for the last three weeks of class. I do recommend that you write at least one of the short papers before the first longer paper is due (i.e. turn in one by October 6), so that you can receive preliminary feedback on your writing; I also recommend that you spread them out across the semester, so that you write about each of the different bodies of scholarship addressed in this course.

These papers should be response papers developed into formal, but brief, essays. That is, you should pick some aspect of the assigned reading that you found intriguing, provocative, wrong, or profound, and write a paper about it. You should not feel compelled to write about everything in an assigned reading that you found interesting; rather, you should pick out one feature and develop it at length. I will hand out model papers that you may use to help structure your paper. The purpose of this assignment is threefold:
(1) to ensure that each week in the course several students are especially well prepared for discussion;
(2) to provide for an extended conversation with each student about how to improve his or her scholarly prose;
(3) to give students an opportunity to develop the ideas with which they will work in their final paper.

Finally, there are three formal papers due in the course, at dates indicated in the schedule section of this syllabus. The questions to be addressed in the paper are posed along with the due dates and required length. The major factor in grading these essays is their analytic effectiveness. The quality of prose and observation of formalities (such as punctuation and proper citations) will also be noted and considered. I have intentionally assigned due dates for these papers that fall a week after the class discussion of the readings on which they are based. This means that the due dates of papers coincide with the initial readings for the next section of the course. You should not give short shrift to the assigned reading; instead, you should begin work on the paper in question before the week in which they are due. Note that there is a penalty for late papers.

The format of all papers must include the following elements:
  • Double spacing
  • At least a 12-point font
  • At least one inch of margin at the top and bottom and each side of the page
  • Page numbers throughout
  • Formal footnotes, based on Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations


Timely submission of discussable questions: 13%
Three response papers: 5% each, for a total of 15% of the course grade
Two papers due on October 20 and November 10: 10% each, for a total of 20% of the course grade
Final paper: 25%
Participation: 27%

To receive full credit, all assignments (except where otherwise noted) must be turned by the beginning of the class period on the day they are due. Late papers will be graded for their quality, but will be reduced by one step of a letter grade for each day they are late (e.g. a B+ quality paper submitted one day late will receive credit equal to a B quality paper). In the event of an emergency, please contact me about the possibility of an extension. Failure to complete all required components of the course may result in a failing grade for the course as a whole.

The success of graduate-level courses depends on the full participation of all students in the course. The fact that this course is called a “colloquium” reflects its root in discussion among the participants. Students are expected to come to class on time, listen respectfully to their classmates, and contribute to discussion every week. Contributing to discussion includes making observations based on the readings, asking questions of peers about their comments, answering questions posed by the professor and other students, and sharing one’s own confusion and uncertainty about the topics at hand. The allotment of 27% of the course grade to participation reflects the importance of your active contribution to the group throughout the semester; your grade will reflect both the quality of your participation and the regularity of your attendance. One or two absences for serious illness or other genuine emergency may be unavoidable, but more than two absences can be severely disruptive both to your own learning and to the intellectual development of the other members of group. Students with excessive absences can expect to receive a participation grade no higher than C+. If you find that you must miss several class meetings, you should consider dropping the course. Reminder: According to UWM policy, laid out in the Graduate Student and Faculty Handbook, graduate students whose GPAs fall below 3.0 are subject to formal academic warnings.

If you need special accommodations in order to meet any of the requirements of this course, please contact me as soon as possible.

All students are expected to observe University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee standards of academic honesty. UWM’s policies regarding academic integrity are available at:

For an excellent guide to understanding plagiarism, see:

Note: The following abbreviations indicate where you can find the readings:
(b): book recommended for purchase
(r): book held on paper reserve at Golda Meir Library
(e): article or chapter on electronic reserve, through Golda Meir library
(s): article available electronically through UWM library subscription, which must be accessed through a UWM computer. Note that the academic journals available through electronic subscription are also available in hard copy in the library stacks; their locations can be identified using the library’s online catalog system.

September 8 Introduction
September 15 Read:
(b) (r) Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, Introduction and chapters 1-5.
September 22 Read:
(b) (r) Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias, preface, introduction, and chapters 1-3; note images following page 116.
September 29 Read:
(b) (r) Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, chapters 6-9.
(e) Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900), 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978 [originally published, 1962]), Chapter 4, “A Selective Melting Pot,” pp. 46-66.
October 6 Read:
(b) (r) Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias, chapters 4-7.
October 13 Read:
(b) (r) Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, chapters 10-16.

October 20 Write:
Paper due (6-7 pages): Consider the readings assigned in the first section of this course, under the header “the old suburban history.” Select a major theme developed in those readings. Write an essay that explains what that theme is, analyzes what the authors have to say about that theme, identifies differences among the authors about that theme, and assesses the kinds of evidence the authors bring to bear on the theme.


(s) From the Journal of Urban History, vol. 27, no. 3 (March 2001), read the following selections:
  • Richard Harris, “Introduction,” pp. 259-261.
  • Richard Harris and Robert Lewis, “The Geography of North American Cities and Suburbs, 1900-1950: A New Synthesis,” pp. 262-292.
  • Mary Corbin Sies, “North American Suburbs, 1880-1950: Cultural and Social Reconsiderations,” 313-346.
  • Andrew Wiese, “Stubborn Diversity: A Commentary on Middle-Class Influence in Working-Class Suburbs, 1900-1940,” 347-354.
  • Mary Corbin Sies, “Moving Beyond Scholarly Orthodoxies in North American Suburban History,” 355-361.

October 27 Read:
(b) (r) Keating, Building Chicago, entire.
November 3 Read:
(b) (r) Marsh, Suburban Lives, entire.

November 10

Paper due (6-7 pages): Pick either Keating or Marsh and write a paper responding to this question: What intellectual approaches did this author take that distinguished her scholarship from that of her contemporaries in suburban history?

(b) (r) Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, Introduction and Part I, “The Quest For Independence, 1920-1940.”

November 17 Read:
(e) Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 11-15 and 20-53.
(e) (s) Andrew Wiese, “The Other Suburbanites: African American Suburbanization in the North before 1950,” Journal of American History 85(4) (1999): 1495-1524.
(e) Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Suburban Alchemy: 1960s New Towns and the Transformation of the American Dream, chapter 9, “Colorblind: Race Relations in the New Towns,” pp. 184-207. [Optional: View Review (H-DC: December, 2001) of Bloom's book by Joshua Olsen, Independent Scholar.  ---H-Urban Editor]
November 24 Read:
(b) (r) Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, Part II, “Closing Ranks, 1940-1965,” and Epilogue.
December 1 Read:
(b) (r) Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside, Introduction and Chapters 1-3.
December 8 Read:
(b) (r) Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside, chapters 4-7 and conclusion.
December 15 Write:
Final paper (10-12 pages): What is new about the new suburban history?
Turn in your paper to Amanda Seligman, in person or to her mailbox on the 3rd floor of Holton Hall, by 5 p.m.

Instructor Comments: Amanda I. Seligman
(27 August 2003):
This course was directly inspired by two publications: Becky M. Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven: life and politics in the working-class suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) and the March 2001 issue of the Journal of Urban History. Together, they appeared to signify a turning point in how American historians think about the suburbs, emphasizing previously minimized class and land use patterns among suburbs. I was also influenced by a small conference on “Rethinking the Metropolis—Historically,” held in February 2002 at the Consortium for Economic Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Finally, I have been mentored by Henry C. Binford and Ann Durkin Keating, both scholars of what I have billed as “the old new suburban history” in this syllabus. This confluence of scholarship suggested to me that the moment was ripe to introduce graduate students in History and Urban Studies to the field. Within the context of the classroom, I hope to help the students see how a scholarly field evolves; and beyond the course, I hope it will inspire a couple of master’s level and PhD theses.

( 18 December 2003 on H-Urban):
As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to take a moment to share with you a few reflections on my experience with my graduate class on the "New Suburban History," whose syllabus appeared on the H-Urban in the early fall. Several of you responded offline to its appearance, and I was most gratified by your compliments. I am happy to report that in fact the course turned out quite well. The students really got the purpose of the class, especially the explicit emphasis on historiography (a topic I have raised from time to time on the H-Teach list). They became quite adept at drawing connections between the different authors and assessing their relationships. They also know a lot about the history of suburbs, which some of them had never thought of as historical topics before they signed up for the class.

About mid-way through the semester I changed the topic for the final paper to a simpler question: Is there a new suburban history? I was pleased to discover that several of the students responded to my in-class directions that they were encouraged to challenge the intellectual framework of the course. The results were split. In their final papers, 9 argued that yes, there is a new suburban history, and 6 argued that there is not. They all agreed, however, that the field is a lively one with much more work to be done.

See also the H-Urban discussion on "New Suburban History" sparked by Seligman's December 2003 comments above.

Syllabus prepared for the H-Urban Syllabus Archive 27 August 2003. Updated 19 December 2003.