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Crabgrass Crucible

Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

Christopher C. Sellers
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Crabgrass Crucible
    Book Description:

    Although suburb-building created major environmental problems, Christopher Sellers demonstrates that the environmental movement originated within suburbs--not just in response to unchecked urban sprawl. Drawn to the countryside as early as the late nineteenth century, new suburbanites turned to taming the wildness of their surroundings. They cultivated a fondness for the natural world around them, and in the decades that followed, they became sensitized to potential threats. Sellers shows how the philosophy, science, and emotions that catalyzed the environmental movement sprang directly from suburbanites' lives and their ideas about nature, as well as the unique ecology of the neighborhoods in which they dwelt.Sellers focuses on the spreading edges of New York and Los Angeles over the middle of the twentieth century to create an intimate portrait of what it was like to live amid suburban nature. As suburbanites learned about their land, became aware of pollution, and saw the forests shrinking around them, the vulnerability of both their bodies and their homes became apparent. Worries crossed lines of class and race and necessitated new ways of thinking and acting, Sellers argues, concluding that suburb-dwellers, through the knowledge and politics they forged, deserve much of the credit for inventing modern environmentalism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0173-1
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Prologue: Green’s Suburban Provenance
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book’s most formative moment came in 1994, when I became a suburbanite. That year, my wife and I bought a house on Long Island, New York, by local lights “the nation’s first suburb.”¹ Seeking shelter on Long Island seemed about as far as you could get from anyone’s idea of a nature quest. Driving around, my overriding impression was how, as if in archetype, its endless subdivisions, malls, and traffic matched my preconceptions of what a suburb was. To the realtor, we must have seemed just as true to type: first-time home buyers, looking for a place in between...

  4. Chapter 1 Suburban Country Life
    (pp. 11-36)

    The literary advent of suburbia in America issued from the pen of a nature seeker. Henry Bunner, a reporter and playwright who worked in New York City but resided in New Jersey, in 1896 wroteThe Suburban Sage, a book-length, partly fictional paean to his life there. He himself was an avid walker who spent “many good golden hours . . . in well-tracked woodland ways and in narrow foot-lanes through the windswept meadow grass.” His enthusiasm traced back to a childhood in the upper reaches of Manhattan, where “streets and houses were as yet too few to frighten away...

  5. Part I. New York

    • Chapter 2 Nature’s Suburbia
      (pp. 39-68)

      Suddenly, around 1950, the nation’s suburbs surged into the headlines. It began as a story about builders heroically stepping up their projects just outside New York and other cities to relieve a postwar housing shortage. Strapped for affordable living space, returning veterans and their families had been living in cramped apartments or even chicken coops. Now, huge low-cost developments like Levittown in Nassau County offered them the chance to own their own roof. Coverage of suburban mass building quickly evolved into something more—it was about an entirely new slice of the world where a youthful middle class was moving...

    • Chapter 3 Ecological Mixing and Nature Fixing
      (pp. 69-104)

      As Julian and Muriel Kane drove home from a camping trip in upstate New York sometime in the late 1940s, they spied two baby skunks darting along the highway. They, as well as another motorist, stopped. Guessing the mother had been hit by a car, the other driver persuaded them to give her one of the tiny creatures and take the other one home themselves. As babies, they would die in the woods without maternal care, she had argued; besides, with the scent gland out, “they make wonderful pets.” The Kanes carried the tiny skunk back to their Queens apartment....

    • Chapter 4 Worrying about the Water
      (pp. 105-136)

      Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Colpas had already bought their new house in Lindenhurst, Long Island, in January 1962, when Mrs. Colpas first tasted the tap water. She gagged in disgust. When she tried to fill a cooking pot with it, “clean, crisp-looking suds” roiled up. She was not alone; soon thereafter, journalists discovered dozens of such stories. Thus was born the “saga of detergents,” one more way by which Long Island became known in the nation’s media over the early 1960s. As the story broke, and a reporter from theNew York Timespaid the Colpas a visit, the message...

  6. Part II. Los Angeles

    • Chapter 5 Missing Nature in Los Angeles
      (pp. 139-170)

      Who knew there was nature in Los Angeles? William Hollingsworth Whyte, visiting the city in the late 1950s, saw hardly any. Peering out a window as he flew over the San Gabriel Valley from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, the author of the acclaimedThe Organization Man(1956) glimpsed only a “last remaining tract of green,” on the verge of vanishing. A “legion of bulldozers” gobbled at its eastern edge; from San Bernardino, another “legion” was “gnawing westward.” The epic hunger of Los Angeles developers jolted Whyte’s conscience, and in the January 1958 issue ofFortunehe first sounded a...

    • Chapter 6 Suburban Taming: From the Personal to the Political
      (pp. 171-206)

      On the morning of Saturday, February 28, 1953, a cow suddenly appeared on an East Pasadena front lawn. Upset over “boarders” next door, nurseryman Thomas Ames had choreographed a mocking commentary on where the neighborhood seemed to be headed. Next to the heifer’s feed pail he pitched a sign: “Protect Your Property from the Rooming House Menace.” The cow’s mooing “hasn’t bothered me in the least,” huffed Mrs. Arline Kraft, the widowed neighbor who was Ames’s target. Others felt differently. Complaints poured in to the local police. “ ‘You may think I’m crazy,” went the refrain, “but I think I...

    • Chapter 7 Anxious about the Air
      (pp. 207-240)

      In late July 1943, a “low hanging cloud of acrid smoke” gathered over downtown Los Angeles. It was the fourth such “gas attack” that summer, “by far the worst.” “Thousands of persons coughed, cried and sneezed” throughout the morning until the cloud broke up around noon. “What is that?” wondered commuters to downtown jobs, among them, Jackie Rynerson. “Smog,” Angelenos called it by the war’s end, a fusion of “smoke” and “fog” initially thought to be the same as that gusting along the streets of New York and Pittsburgh. Over the next few years, however, Los Angeles’s billowing flumes defied...

  7. Part III. Environmental Nation

    • Chapter 8 “The Environment” as a Suburban Place
      (pp. 243-284)

      The sheer magnitude of the first Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, 1970, took many by surprise. Some twenty million people, by the organizers’ count, packed its assemblies or poured into the streets. Although it surpassed the tallies of other protests that splashed across the headlines and nightly newscasts over the late sixties, Earth Day remains arguably the least understood of all these movements. Antiwar and civil rights protesters had marched on central citadels, Washington or Birmingham, but Earth Day activists assaulted a bewildering abundance of targets. In towns and cities, schools and colleges across the country, they seemed to...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 285-296)

      For anyone who recalled the giddy excitement of the original, it must have been hard not to feel disappointed by the Earth Day 2000 celebration in Glen Cove, on Long Island’s North Shore. Mother Nature inscrutably scowled on the occasion, nearly raining it out. The day’s only collective action, a cleanup of a nearby creek, brushed along Garvies Point Preserve, the very place Levit town’s Julian Kane had defended at a packed public hearing some forty years earlier. Now strewn with spent beer bottles and decaying newspapers, its tidying mustered only a “few dozen volunteers,” mostly enlistees from two local...

  8. Appendix: Figures 2–6
    (pp. 297-300)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 301-354)
  10. Note on Sources
    (pp. 355-356)
  11. Interviews
    (pp. 357-360)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 361-364)
  13. Index
    (pp. 365-374)