Sprawl and the Evolution of the American Dream

“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for the Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

The impulse to push boundaries and to seek new and unknown environments has been an integral part of American culture since the country’s founding. It is no real surprise that, when technological and economic circumstances aligned in the early 20th century, Americans began taking the opportunity to pour out of the cities in waves. The haphazard suburban development that followed was eventually termed urban sprawl. Its impact on the structure of our communities, government institutions, jobs, and environment was profound, engendering challenges for the country on developing infrastructures, maintaining economic sustainability, and resolving resulting cultural divides between urban, suburban, and rural communities. This paper examines how the emergence of urban sprawl directly reflects the evolution of the American Dream in the 20th century, and along with economic and technological changes, allowed an increasing number of Americans to pursue that Dream.

            Defining the American Dream is a difficult task. American cultural values, which form the foundation for the Dream, have evolved since the country’s founding. Freedom, equality, justice are values that very few Americans would contest. But when one examines how these core values interact with other values, such as citizenship, sustainability, and diversity, inherent contradictions begin to emerge. In “Beyond Sprawl and Anti-Sprawl,” Thad Williamson pinpoints the heart of the matter, asking: “How can a measure of justice and freedom be realized in a world … in which there are continual tensions between public and private interests?”[1]  American democracy is founded on the idea that all individuals possess certain inalienable rights; however, individuals will also inevitably possess different views of how those rights should be exercised. Williamson examines contradicting American values using the example of sprawl, and argues that Americans must decide which values they will prioritize if they wish to form cohesive initiatives to counteract the effects of sprawl. Anti-sprawl activists, for example, are likely to “[appeal] to the core values of justice, citizenship, and sustainability”[2] over others such as privacy and individualism. Williamson’s choice to elevate these three values above other, conflicting values in the sprawl debate is an excellent example of the process that must also occur when dealing with the American Dream. In the end, not all American values can be equally reflected in the Dream. Rather, the Dream of each generation will be determined by the values that that generation prioritizes above all others. Different generations produce different dreams, prioritizing their values in a way that reflects not only their moral and ethical beliefs but also the technology and economic circumstances of the time.

Thad Williamson

Thad Williamson

            To understand the rapid decentralization of American cities beginning in the 1920s, one must look at the underlying values and technologies that led Americans to first flock to, and then fly from, the cities. Douglas Rae examines this question in his book City: Urbanism and Its End, and concludes that between 1840 and 1920 technological and economic circumstances aligned to produce the ideal environment for the growth of cities.[3]  The agricultural revolution and development of national markets made the existence of new, large cities possible, just as steam-driven manufacturing and a rush of immigration provided fuel for urban growth. Even more significant was a “critical timing gap between the maturation of the rail system (which centralized cities) and the coming automotive and truck transportation (which decentralized them).” [4] Americans had every economic and technological incentive to go to the cities, and did not yet possess a feasible way to leave the cities while still taking advantage of city facilities and employment. The core values of this period of urbanism conform to the circumstances described, emphasizing tight-knit, urban communities and socio-economic mobility within those communities. Rae recounts the story of Joe Perfetto, an elderly business owner in New Haven, Connecticut, as an example of how a creative and hardworking youth could succeed in the age of urbanism. The following is an account from Perfetto himself, detailing the events after he quit his first job and decided to work for himself:

Douglas Rae

Douglas Rae

I went down to a friend of mine…He took me over to Commerce Street, to a print shop there, and we had some name cards made up. Monday morning I went out, passed out some of those cards, telling people I was working for myself now, and if they could use me I’d appreciate it. Would you believe I made $113 the first week working for myself?  I didn’t have anything but a tool bag, not a ribbon to sell, not anything.[5]

Perfetto’s account parallels with one of a longstanding interpretation of the American Dream: rags-to-riches. The “rags-to-riches” dream focuses not just on “riches” but also on the idea that a person who comes from nothing can build a successful life with hard work, perseverance, and self-reliance. Joe Perfetto followed this Dream, and the potential opportunity to do the same was more than enough to draw millions of immigrants and Americans to the booming cities. The Dream, following a significant pattern, aligned itself with the technological capacities and economic inclinations of the age.

            In the 1920s, the foundations for the post-World War II explosion of urban sprawl were laid in new technological developments and cultural changes. Rae identifies the growth of General Motors and the dominance of AC electricity as key factors in making sprawl economically feasible.[6]  Along with the expansion of the highway system throughout the mid-twentieth century,[7] these technological developments made sprawl possible; however, it was the cultural changes occurring in the same time period that eventually motivated Americans to take advantage of that possibility. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, written in 1925, provides valuable primary source material in examining American attitudes toward these cultural changes as they occurred. In the following passage, Fitzgerald describes the industrial outskirts of the city, which his narrator must pass through to reach downtown, as follows:

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to a rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.[8]

            Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes is a metaphor for purgatory that conveys his negative perception of the city in the 1920s. To journey into the city is like a descent into hell. Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, considers the tragic events in the novel—which begin with his move to New York City—the result of the fact that he and the other characters “possessed some deficiency…which made [them] subtly unadaptable” to the urban lives that they attempted to lead.[9] Fitzgerald’s characters use the city and its outskirts as a setting to lie, cheat, and sin, and at the conclusion of the book, Nick decides that the only way to recover from what has occurred is to return home to the country. Fitzgerald’s message concerning urban life is clear: the city breeds corruption and death, not the American Dream; that dream, the dream of “the old island here that flowered once for the Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world,” is forever lost to the past. Fitzgerald’s writings clearly displayed that for many Americans, their perception of the cities and the American Dream in the 1920s was changing. Some urban Americans, including Fitzgerald, were beginning to long for the purity and privacy of the suburbs.

Richard Register

Richard Register

            The growth in urban sprawl slowed during the Depression and World War II. When Americans returned home in the 1940s, however, they began what Richard Register identifies as “the last great binge” of American expansion and individualism: a massive, unprecedented boom of urban sprawl.[10] In the decade after WWII, more than nine million people moved to the suburbs, taking advantage of a growing highway system, cheap and abundant oil, and government support for housing development.[11] For the first time, middle-class Americans were able to move their families out to the suburbs while still working in the city. They could afford new homes with property, privacy, and better schools, along with the car necessary to take them to and from work every day. In his book The Prize, Daniel Yergin argues that the suburbs became “a haven for optimism and hope in post-Depression and post-war America.”[12] Back in the 1920s, a small portion of Americans had already begun to question the virtues of urbanism and the rags-to-riches Dream. Following the Depression and WWII, Americans became even more disillusioned with urban life. Perceptions of the city began to correspond with those revealed earlier by The Great Gatsby. The city was a center of corruption, and Americans wanted to escape. The values of individualism and privacy trumped those of community and economic mobility—a new American Dream emerged.

Daniel Yergin

Daniel Yergin

            Post-war America gave birth to the dream of a comfortable home in the suburbs, with a white picket fence, children in the yard, and dinner waiting on the table. The rags-to-riches dream was not lost, but rather absorbed into a new dream centered on home ownership and private life. Richard Register, when describing the primary activities of soldiers returning from WWII, states: “they built cars and suburban houses and roads and went to college on federal money to learn how to do more of the same.”[13] The dream of home ownership became so significant during this period that it is still considered by many to be the core of the American Dream today. As recently as 2003, George W. Bush signed the American Dream Downpayment Act, with the stated goal of helping low-income buyers to purchase homes and “achieve an important part of the American Dream.”[14] In 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech titled “Reclaiming the American Dream,” in which he states that his family was able to achieve the Dream “because my grandfather got the chance to go to school on the GI Bill, [and] buy a house through the Federal Housing Authority.”[15] For decades now, the prevailing conception of the American Dream has centered on home ownership. The rapid and consumer-oriented housing development that constitutes urban sprawl is a direct result of the immense demand for the American Dream of home ownership. Moreover, as long as home ownership continues to be the driving element of the American Dream, Americans will continue to sprawl.

            There is nothing negative in the dream to own a home. The preference of post-war Americans for the suburbs over the city was a perfectly rational reaction to technology and economic circumstances of a generation. However, urban sprawl has produced many problematic externalities that future generations will need to address. Not all Americans had the financial means after WWII to move their families out to the suburbs, and those who did were primarily middle and upper-class whites—“white flight”. As a result, many urban areas today have low tax bases and a high percentage of low-income residents. Many Americans living in the suburbs, in turn, face hours of commute time into the city each day, changing the dynamics of their families and communities as well as creating environmental issues. The reallocation of wealth and income from urban areas to the suburbs resulting from urban sprawl has led to a growing cultural divide between the city and the suburbs that often manifests itself in heated political and social conflicts. Many urban, suburban, and rural communities remain socio-economically segregated. With limited opportunities for economic and social mobility within many urban communities, the cycle of poverty continues unbroken, and the cultural divide remains.

            To fully understand and address the consequences of urban sprawl, it is necessary to understand the manner in which sprawl took root over the course of the 20th century. The Great Gatsby is just one example of how Americans in the 1920s were beginning to deprioritize the values of urbanism and look for an escape from the cities. Following World War II, the values of individualism and privacy, paired with economic and technological circumstances allowing for mass development, led Americans to place home ownership at the center of the American Dream. Ever-increasing demand for homes outside the perceived corruption of the city led to the rapid and often unregulated development now termed urban sprawl. Each version of the American Dream has its consequences; the question facing future generations is how to minimize the negative consequences that sprawl can produce so that a balance between urban, suburban, and rural communities can be maintained. Science and technology now provide us with a far greater understanding of how to develop communities efficiently, and ever-increasing mobility makes it economically feasible for Americans from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to make a choice of where and how they live. What remains to be seen is the Dream that will drive that choice—the balance of values that future generations will choose as their American Dream.



[1] Fitzgerald, 176.

[2] Richard Register, Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (New Society Publishers, 2006), 105.

[3] Daniel Yergin, The Prize (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 550.

[4] Yergin, 551.

[5] Register, 106.

[6] The White House, President George W. Bush, News and Policies, December 2003, “President Bush Signs American Dream Downpayment Act of 2003” (2003), http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/12/20031216-9.html: (accessed September 15, 2014).

[7] Barack Obama.net, “Barack Obama “Reclaiming the American Dream” Speech, January 29, 2008” (2008), http://www.barackobama.net/barack-obama-reclaiming-the-american-dream.html: (accessed September 15, 2014).

[8] Thad Williamson, “Beyond Sprawl and Anti-Sprawl,” in Critical Urban Studies: New Directions, ed. Jonathan S. Davies and David L. Imbroscio (Suny Press, 2011), 175-176.

[9] Williamson, 180.

[10] Douglas W. Rae, City: Urbanism and Its End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 11.

[11] Rae, 11.

[12] Qtd. in Rae, 6.

[13] Rae, 17.

[14] Although President Eisenhower did not sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act until 1956, highways were being constructed in America much earlier; their development was stalled by the Great Depression and World War II.

[15] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 23.