Doing Urban Studies from the Suburbs

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Steve Macek talks with AREA about the interdisciplinary minor in Urban and Suburban Studies that he coordinates at North Central College, what suburban students learn about when visiting Chicago as part of the program’s “Chicago term,” and issues facing the suburbs now.

Where is North Central located?

North Central is located in Naperville. The place epitomizes the transformation that suburbia has undergone since the era of the classic Levittown mass suburb. In 1950, Naperville was a city of 7,000. Now it’s 142,000. Most of that growth has taken place since the 1980s. Its population is very white and very affluent: something like 88% of the population is European-American. Most people who live there do not work in the city of Chicago; it’s not a bedroom community, it’s an “Edge City.” People work at Bell LabsLucent Technologies, there’s a BP headquarters; along I-88 there’s a “High Tech Corridor.”

In the Chicago term, what classes do students take in the city?

Usually, they take the capstone, “Urban and Suburban Studies.” And they take “Urban Field Study” or “Chicago History” or “Chicago Art and Architecture.” They pick a neighborhood in the city and become participant observers for ten weeks: commute in and immerse themselves in the life of that neighborhood and meet local leaders and residents. They’re responsible for finding out who those people are and interviewing them, and they have to then come back at the end of the term and do a presentation and a paper.

What do you do in the capstone class?

We analyze the economics and politics of the divisions that define the metropolitan area. We take visits to Washington Park, and do basic investigations of social statistics, demography, economics, comparing Englewood and Washington Park to Naperville. One thing students come to recognize is that we’re living in separate worlds: Naperville is homogenously white; Englewood is homogenously Black. Schools in Naperville are among the top in the state; schools in Washington Park are consistently down towards the bottom. One of the most striking things to my students when I take them on tours is how many vacant lots there are on Chicago’s South Side. In Naperville, what farmland still exists is being bought up and subdivided, so there’s a real land crunch.

And the most appalling difference is the difference in the poverty level. In the city something like 25% of African Americans are in poverty, 16-18% of Latinos, and among children, it’s something like a third—a third of all Chicago children live in poverty. In Naperville child poverty rate is 1%. And frankly I have no idea where those 1% live.

Where you live determines so much, networks of friends, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, life chances. Place matters. That’s something we hope they take away from their coursework, the idea that place matters.

One of the self-conscious aims of the program from the point of view of our faculty is to introduce our predominantly suburban students to the reality of metropolitan economic inequality and cultural and social polarization. You can give students books to read, you can show them maps which lay out the patterns of residential racial segregation, but really the only way you can get them to face up to contemporary urban reality is by taking them into the city. It’s easy for middle and upper-middle class students to believe that everyone is as wealthy as they are, has had the opportunities they’ve had. The urban poor are virtually invisible in the mainstream mass media and national political policy debates. Politicians don’t even bother to talk about them anymore. I think that speaks to why this program is needed.

We also meet with local activists and government decision makers; one year we had a guided tour of Cabrini Green by someone from the Planning Department, and then we met with folks from the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. This year I’m trying to get someone from the city to talk about 2016, and then we’ll meet with people from the anti-Olympics groups. I see urban studies as a way to open up the classroom to current political controversies and educate students about these really contentious urban issues.


It’s one of the few Urban and Suburban Studies programs. What makes it distinct from just Urban Studies?

At most colleges and universities, you have urban studies classes that focus on the city, usually the big metropolis, as a center of power, economic activity, and culture. This paradigm is anachronistic: since the 1990 census, we’ve been a majority suburban nation. Electoral power is in the hands of suburban voters. And they’re the main poles of economic growth, where jobs are being created—though often they are low paying, low security, no benefit jobs.

So the program speaks to the reality of North Central’s location. There hasn’t been enough attention to the suburbs from historians and sociologists. The classes we teach in Naperville use the suburbs as a learning laboratory in the same way we use the city in the Chicago term courses. We have them do social, economic, and cultural mapping of their own communities—for most of them that’s Naperville, or AuroraElginDowners GroveGlen Ellyn.


Are your students already primed for a critique of the suburbs?

Absolutely, but it’s often a facile critique. One of the things we talk about is why suburbanization happened. What were the forces that drove this dramatic demographic shift to the suburbs? The explanation that many social scientists offer is that it was really the result of conscious government policy: the U.S. government subsidized and encouraged—especially white—suburbanization. FHA-insured loans, the mortgage interest deduction, the federal highway program, urban renewal—all these programs contributed to this shift. Students are always shocked that this wasn’t simply the workings of the invisible hand of the free market, but in fact that the U.S. government engineered this. It’s eye-opening for them because they tend to regard central cities as parasites that are constantly asking the government for handouts and are dependent on suburban tax dollars!

What are the pressing issues in the suburbs right now?

Immigrant rights issues, police and ICE harassment, especially in suburbs with a high percentage of Mexican Americans, like Aurora, or Carpentersville where there was an English-only ordinance. There’s been a long-standing affordable housing crisis and now a middle-class housing crisis. Another big issue is transportation infrastructure. There’s very little public transit beyond the first ring suburbs. People displaced by the CHA, living in the suburbs on section 8 vouchers, or people making $10 an hour—they have to find the money to buy and maintain a car and keep it insured and full of fuel.

Then there’s what sprawl is doing to the rural landscape. When I first moved to Naperville in 2002, the subdivision where I live was adjacent to an operating farm. And the city of Naperville found some way of shutting down the farm as a “noxious use.” I see cornfields being transformed into subdivisions and shopping malls.


Does the economic crisis provide any opportunity for rethinking that agenda?

There have always been people questioning the breakneck pace of development in the western suburbs and the environmental and social impact of sprawl. But I actually think now with the economic downturn city governments are all the more likely to just cave into whatever developers want. ◊

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