Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs

Image of Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

“Herold really goes to town reporting, and it’s an impressive book that deserves your attention.”

Are the suburbs really unraveling? Benjamin Herold, a very accomplished education reporter, certainly establishes that some of them are. In Disillusioned he studies the suburban lives of five families around the country, and in none of them is the American Dream fully manifest.

Herold’s reporting is exhaustive and delivered with you-are-there urgency on the lives of the families. When they go on vacation, he goes with them. When the lights go out in the evening, he’s (presumably) on the couch. This approach lends an almost cinematic urgency to his reportage.

But despite the geographic spread (Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Georgia) the suburbs he studies, with the exception of Texas, are quite demographically similar. These are previously all-white suburbs that resisted integration, in some cases building their own schools to escape the diverse regional centers. This process, combined with later white flight, essentially bankrupted the communities—leaving a defunded mess for the new Black and Hispanic majorities. 

Herold’s study period coincided with the worst of COVID-19, so that compounds the problems in some of these on-the-brink communities (Compton, California; Gwinnett County, Georgia; Evanston, Illinois; Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, where the author grew up).

But there are other suburbs—in Connecticut, for instance—that don’t fit this pattern at all. For one thing, they benefited from COVID as federal money poured in and New Yorkers fled the city looking for homes with swimming pools.

And these communities—which remain very largely white—are far from bankrupt. They’re thriving, and pretty smug about it, too. See Lisa Prevost’s book Snob Zones for the details on how these towns, backed by phalanxes of lawyers, stay homogenous by keeping out multi-family housing and insisting on preservation of the “rural character of the town.” Housing mandates can, and have been, fought off for decades. The irony is that these towns tend to embrace diversity language (unlike the white minorities in Herold’s book) but not actual diversity. The Black and brown kids, in the schools via splashy liberal programs, are bused back to the urban core at the end of the day.

Another oddity about Herold’s book is that it focuses almost exclusively on schools. Certainly, urban flight goes to the suburbs because of the perceived quality of the educational experience, but Disillusioned’s almost comical focus on classrooms crowds out almost every other aspect of suburban life. How are the downtowns doing in these communities? Is drug use out of control? What’s happening with real estate? Open space? The book doesn’t have that much to say.

The reader will have some difficulty keeping the members of five extended families straight, along with their respective educators. The quick cuts from one to another can be jarring.

Remarkably, Herold fully documents how one Black family (living a few doors down from his childhood home in Penn Hills) actively reject his thesis that the suburbs have become squalid no-go zones. Bethany Smith (a pseudonym) likes Penn Hills, despite its crumbling infrastructure and corrupt politicians. Its working for her. Herold is forced to apologize (“My need-not-to-know kept getting in the way”) making for a uniquely awkward section of the book.

“We want to build good lives for ourselves,” Smith writes in her own epilogue. “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.” Smith is clear-eyed about Penn Hill’s financial problems, but still sees the town as a viable alternative to Pittsburgh. And there remain many barriers, including financial ones, preventing her family from moving to wealthier outlying suburbs.

The Hernandez family, headed by illegal immigrants from Mexico but raising American citizens (one of them an apparent prodigy), aren’t complaining all that much about Compton, either. Son Jacob gets to start his own newspaper and help prosecute a mock trail—from his vantage point in a Compton grade school. The only people who repeatedly pull their kids out of the public schools are the white Beckers in Lucas, Texas. Susan Becker goes down a disinformation rabbit hole and wants to escape the vaccines and left-wing political indoctrination.

Herold quotes an outraged parent at a Texas school meeting. “We are disenrolling our child,” he says. “We refuse to leave him in an environment that tells him he is a racist merely based on the pigment of his skin and that attempts to shame him or make him feel guilty because he is white.” Connecticut parents are much more subtle about things like this.

The suburbs don’t fit a simple template. And they’re a big part of American life. There are more than 60 million Americans in high-density inner suburbs (the kind studied by Herold) but also 47 million in mature suburbs (like those in Connecticut), as well as 14 million emerging ’burbs and more than six million in exurbs.

Bethany Smith gets the last word. Disillusioned doesn’t offer a program for fixing our suburbs, but instead rather wallows in the details of how underfunded and poorly run they tend to be. Still, Herold really goes to town reporting, and it’s an impressive book that deserves your attention.