# HISTORY /// The obscure history of suburbia by Noam Chomsky, Peter Galison and Mike Davis


Respectively in 5 Codes, War Against the Center and City of Quartz, Noam Chomsky, Peter Galison and Mike Davis bring other explanations about the creation of Suburbia than the most known one concerning the idea of an American visceral desire for land ownership.

– In the following excerpt, Noam Chomsky evokes the 1940’s General Motors, Firestone Rubber and Standart Oil California’s conspiracy to buy and destroy the urban collective transportation system in order to make cars and oil as indispensable as they are today. This conspiracy was then followed and institutionally implemented by the Eisenhower Administration’s National Interstate and Defense Highway Act in 1956 which was the first real step of what we nowadays call “urban spreading”.

Noam Chomsky: It [suburbia] was created in the 1940s by the biggest state social engineering project in history under the Eisenhower administration –beyond anything they did in Russia. The specific goal was to eliminate public transportation, destroy the inner cities, forces everyone to use cars, trucks. And in the 1940’s there was an authentic conspiracy, a real one, between General Motors, Firestone Rubber, and Standard Oil California to buy up the public transportation, destroy it, and force everyone into buses and cars. The conspiracy went to court and they were convicted and fined –I think $5000 or something. Then the government moved in and took it over, under cover of defense.

Stephan Truby: You mean President Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956?

Noam Chomsky: Yes. The pretext of the National Defense Highway Act was that we have to move missiles around the country. But the point of it was to massively subsidize road transportation –cars, trucks, gasoline and so on- and to undermine public transportation.

Chomsky Noam in conversation with Daniel Mock and Stephan Truby on Homeland, Paranoia and Security in Igmade. 5 CODES. Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror. Basel: Birkhauser 2006

– In War Against the Center, Peter Galison establishes that suburbia was created in the very beginning of the Cold War as a military strategy of dispersion in order to avoid the possibility for a nuclear strike to affect too considerably the United States. Even the planning of the road would then be extremely important: evacuation roads, military reinforcement road (I even heard about highways that was designed to allow planes to land on them), replacement roads in case of the first being destroyed etc.

“It was in this context that in August 1951, the president announced a national policy for industrial dispersion, and the National Security Resources Board quickly followed with a booklet entitled Is Your Plant a Target? that proclaimed, “The risk of an all-out atomic attack on the United States grows greater each day, since we are no longer the sole possessor of the secret of the atomic bomb. This means that no industrial area in the Nation can be considered safe from attack.”20 To guarantee survival, the National Security Resources Board insisted, would require that productive capacity be protected: “The dispersion (or deployment in space) of new plant development for war-supporting industries can make American production less vulnerable to attack.” Space could protect men at the battlefield, the authors continued, and space, by multiplying targets, would diminish “the vulnerability of any one concentration.””

Galison Peter. War Against the Center Grey Room. Cambridge: MIT Press 2001

– One last component of this political interpretation of suburbia’s birth is brought by Mike Davis in his City of Quartz (and also in Michael Sorkin‘s Variations on a Theme Park). In this book about Los Angeles, Davis affirms that public space in the American city has been destroyed for a reason of control and security, free gathering of people being too hazardous and uncertain for a system that bases its self-sustainability in the anticipation of its subjects’ behaviors. Suburbia is thus a way to kill the Mediterranean street to replace it by the road or the highway that prevent any social interaction between people.

“The ‘public’ spaces of the new megastructures and supermall have supplanted tradtionnal streets and disciplined their spontaneity. Inside malls, office centers and cultural complexes, public activities are sorted into strictly functional compartments under the gaze of private police forces.”

Davis Mike. City of Quartz. London: Verso 1990  

Another very interesting book about suburbia (more on its urban typology than on its history though) is Alan Berger’s Drosscape. Wasting Land in Urban America