Disillusioned, Benjamin Herold

Disillusion and the Glimmer of Hope for American Suburbs

The familiar image of the American suburbs has not changed much since the 1950s. Benjamin Herold’s Disillusioned both updates and counters that image.

Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs
Benjamin Herold
January 2024

The familiar image of the American suburbs has not changed much since the 1950s. This is not surprising, given that the suburban ideal was at the core of the nostalgic Reaganite vision of the ’80s that continues to define much of political debate to this day. Journalist Benjamin Herold sets out both to update and counter that age in his exhaustively researched, impassioned, and scathing new book.

Disillusioned follows five families who move to homes in a transcontinental range of suburbs from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Each family’s experience exemplifies one stage in a familiar boom-to-bust cycle of late capitalism, what municipal planner Charles Marohn describes as “a Ponzi scheme” that creates “the illusion of wealth … trading rapid, short-term growth for massive intergenerational liabilities and a long-term loss of resilience and stability.” Rather than the exception, the suburban cycle from spanking new and full of promise to crumbling into ruin to tentatively rising from the ashes is baked into the model. Each family’s experience shows the false promises and hidden costs that drive this cycle in different ways. Although it sometimes falters from the weight of its ambition, what Disillusioned accomplishes along the way is worth your time.

Herold would be the first to concede that neither Disillusioned‘s critique nor its demographic update is new. Recent scholarship, such as Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book, The Color of Law, has indisputably established that the postwar suburban dream was built on exclusionary practices, explicitly racist government policies, and a seismic redistribution of local, state, and federal funds out of the cities and into their sprawling peripheries. Demographers and other researchers have long documented the ongoing expansion of suburban sprawl, the absence of equitable regulation, and the ghettoization of inner suburbs that have created vast pockets of suburban poverty for marginalized communities priced out of gentrifying cities.

Herold brings to these arguments a vivid portrait of the tenacity of the suburban dream for striving families regardless of race, ethnicity, or political affiliation. This portrait is accompanied by a devastating critique of the slash-and-burn development that traps the same communities left behind in the initial wave of suburbanization into cleaning up the economic mess in its wake – when the belated opportunity to pursue its promise is finally handed down to them.

Disillusioned homes-in on this double bind, which makes it a compelling read and a timely intervention in policy debates on issues ranging from education to infrastructure to development. Hrrold is especially sensitive to giving space and voice to the families whose lives he closely followed for several years before and during the pandemic: an upper-middle-class Black family in Gwinnett County, Georgia; a mixed-race family in Evanston, Illinois; an undocumented Latinx couple in Compton, California; an upper-middle-class white family in Lovejoy, Texas; and a single Black mother in Penn Hills, the Pittsburgh suburb where the author himself grew up.

This schematic list suggests the challenge of Herold’s formal choices. Disillusioned uses the nonfictional framework familiar in recent classics, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) or Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016), that effectively use individual stories to structure and illuminate broad sociological data. The individual stories told by Wilkerson and Desmond are unified by racial experience and socioeconomic status, respectively. In contrast, Herold needs his five disparate stories to capture not only every stage in the arc of a suburb’s life but also the full range of economic, racial, and ethnic diversity increasingly characteristic of the contemporary American suburb.

The Beckers, for instance, are a conservative white nuclear family trying to surf the boom-and-bust wave that characterizes exclusive suburban development in the absence of the financial and regulatory support they received during the postwar boom. The homogeneity of their Lovejoy community is ensured by requiring individual septic tanks rather than providing municipal sewage, eliminating sidewalks or small plots, and recruiting selectively. Even without the explicit covenants that segregated postwar housing, the legal restrictions effectively exclude all but the wealthiest families. “Individual choice” does the rest. Lovejoy’s public schools maintain the standard of top private institutions through high property taxes, high tuition for out-of-district attendees, and constant additional fundraising from the wealthy who are confident they and their children will directly benefit from the investment.

As the Beckers discover, the model is not sustainable. Once Lovejoy’s large plots are built out with suburban palaces, there’s no way to keep up with rising costs by further development. The only recourse is a level of taxation the residents soon find intolerable. Instead, once peak development has been reached, families like the Beckers move further out of sprawl following, as Herold notes, the frontier ethos that has defined American development from the get-go.

Like the original white suburbanites postwar, what they bequeath to those who follow after, seeking fulfillment of the same promise, is a dried-out husk rather than a vibrant community. When Black and other marginalized families like the Robinsons outside Atlanta and Bethany Smith in Penn Hills finally reach the suburbs, believing they’re buying into the same promises of security, education, and uplift, they instead find that they’ve been left behind once again. Just as they were bequeathed the rusted shells of urban industrialism and pushed out once the communities they had helped preserve began finally to prosper, the suburban resources have also already been stripped. Instead, they are left with devalued housing, decaying infrastructure, a corrupted school system, and endless long-overdue bills.

Even the most forward-looking, progressive, and sustainably developed communities, Herold shows through the story of Lauren Adesina’s family in Evanston, Illinois, struggle mightily when faced with the increasing defunding of public education and the ruptures exposed by the COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, in Compton, where, as so often happens, dedicated educators and a scattering of effective local politicians have brought their community back from the brink to which a once-prosperous model white suburb descended (Compton was the postwar suburban home of future president George H. W. Bush, his wife Barbara, and their young family), the challenges of COVID, factionalism, an incoherent immigration policy, and lack of economic support appear equally insurmountable to the Hernandez family. Herold provides few answers. Indeed, as the title suggests, Disillusioned doesn’t even get to the point of asking hard questions. Instead, it aims to describe the full extent of the problem, making visible every thread in what its subtitle terms “the unraveling”.

If there’s an arc to the book, it’s the legacy of Herold’s postwar story. Disillusioned begins with the author’s working-class upbringing in Penn Hills, underpinned by federal dollars and exclusionary policies. He details the unseen privileges and opportunities it afforded him, even as he documents the toll it took on him and his parents into the present day. Herold intertwines his political awakening with his willful ignorance of complicity in the process and his struggle with how to reckon with that complicity after the fact. He draws a stark contrast not only with the similarly willful denial of the Becker family but also with the analogous and less expected refusal of Bethany to engage with the broader issues Herold sees underpinning her everyday struggles to make ends meet and achieve the lifestyle she wants. The resolution he reaches with her is radical and moving: Herold gives Bethany the last word in Disillusioned, appending an epilogue he persuaded her to write in response to her anger at the ways he had distorted her story in the telling.

Bethany’s epilogue lays claim to the enduring promise of the suburban American dream: “We want to build good lives for ourselves. We want to raise our children in safe environments. We want to have them in schools where they are being taught and governed by folks who have their best interests at heart. We want the same deal that the suburbs gave white families like Ben’s”. She adds an essential codicil to that promise: “This time, though, we want it to last.”

Neither Bethany nor Herold provides much of a blueprint as to how that might happen. He makes clear that the Beckers’ determination to preserve the original discriminatory vision of the suburb is no less sustainable than it was in the ’50s. He also makes clear that it’s not going away easily, partly because of the power of that persistent suburban ideal. Herold is less openly appalled by, but seems no more sanguine, regarding the more socially inclusive striving of the Robinsons for a leg up in the Georgia suburbs. He continues to believe in the working-class vision of Compton as also in the upper-middle-class enclave of Evanston. But there’s no indication he expects them to succeed.

This leaves readers of Disillusioned with a strong demonstration of the enduring power of the suburban dream as the epitome of American identity and a powerful demonstration of the inevitable failure of that dream. Because the form requires “typical” families, the model is of necessity bleak since the vast majority of the suburbs and suburban families are either struggling or discontent or both. To focus on any exceptions or to include less “typical” subjects or suburbs would vitiate the broad applicability of the evidence. But the reader’s ingrained response to storytelling is to expect a satisfying narrative arc, to understand the subjects as individuals, as they understand themselves. Herold is upfront about his struggles with this paradox, but that doesn’t make it go away.

For instance, although Herrold narrates each story through the voices of each family, Susan and Jim Becker and their three kids don’t gain the subjecthood that Bethany and her son Jackson or the young Jacob Hernandez do. This won’t bother some since the Beckers tick every box in the MAGA family stereotype. During the pandemic, for instance, Susan emails the author about the widely discredited alternative medicine being promoted by a local antivaccine doctor, “‘We should be screaming this from the rooftops’, Susan said after urging me to watch. ‘But my guess is you go to Google; they will show him as being a conspiracy theorist.’”

I don’t doubt that Herrold’s subject wrote these words, but the writing reinforces a sense of otherness rather than working to bring out the humanity that lurks behind the misinformed beliefs. I don’t know if I would like the Beckers any better if they were written with more empathy. But I do know that the solution to the seemingly irresoluble divisions rooted in Herrold’s suburbs lies in getting at what’s motivating crackpot beliefs and amplified prejudices rather than doubling down on their patent absurdity

It becomes clear that any solution requires not only exceptional individuals willing to invest deeply and long-term in their communities but their efforts must be accompanied by structural support from all levels of government. We catch glimpses of that investment, it’s almost always in communities of color, and it’s always negatively affected by short-sighted policies, nimbyism, and racism. We might have caught more about these issues if the weight of the material had been more ruthlessly edited. Just because all of these lives occur in the suburbs does not mean that everything that happens to each family or community is relevant to Disillusioned’s argument. Perhaps the granular detail about the politics of education in each community can be justified. I was far less persuaded by what felt like digressions into topics such as individual reactions to the 2016 election or the myriad details about life under COVID.

Although weighed down by such details, Herold’s structure does not allow space for the exceptions and cracks that provide glimmers of hope in any system, no matter how monolithic and fatally flawed its structure may be. In that respect, Disillusioned remains a conventionally white liberal narrative, even where it provides space for nonwhite voices to be heard. It simply cannot conceive of a community of difference, a politics of relationality, or a diverse polis able to hold contradictory ideals or principles together at once, equally valid.

As Herold is well aware, that’s another consequence of classic suburban privilege. Conversely, when you’re used to living with instability and constant change, just putting your head down and getting on with your life is not only the way you become the benighted Beckers; it’s also the way you become an activist and community leader.

RATING 7 / 10