Benjamin Herold's Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs
For generations, upwardly mobile white families have extracted opportunity from the nation’s heavily subsidized suburbs, then moved on before the bills for maintenance and repair came due, leaving the mostly Black and Brown families who followed to clean up the ensuing mess. Peter and Orlando are joined by author Benjamin Herold to discover the vicious cycle undermining the dreams upon which American suburbia was built.
Peter Biello: Coming up in this episode:
Benjamin Herold: We've organized our whole life around being in this community and having access to these public schools, and now they're actually a threat to our child.
Orlando Montoya: A Ponzi scheme is a pretty big charge.
Peter Biello: That's so wrongheaded.
Peter Biello: Why would you think that? Or why would you approach life this way?
Orlando Montoya: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia connections, hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB Radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.
Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge. We are back. Orlando, nice to be in the studio with you again.
Orlando Montoya: Great to be here. And what book are we talking about today?
Peter Biello: Today we're talking about Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs. So it's all about the suburbs today, not just Georgia suburbs. That is the Georgia connection. We like to have a Georgia connection on this podcast, but it's really suburbs all across the country. I don't know this about you, Orlando. Did you grow up in the suburbs?
Orlando Montoya: I did, I did, in one of those suburbs with the little cul de sacs and canals.
Peter Biello: This was like right outside Orlando, Fla.?
Orlando Montoya: Between Orlando and Kissimmee.
Peter Biello: I did not grow up in the suburbs. I grew up in a mid-sized city in Massachusetts. So kind of an urban environment. But I always thought of the suburbs as like, kind of like what you described, you know, the cul de sacs, the single family homes, the the moats or whatever you call them.
Orlando Montoya: They're man-made lakes with alligators. And you'd go there and you'd get stung by spiders and bees, and it was just a good time.
Peter Biello: Here's the basic premise of Disillusioned: that the suburbs are a Ponzi scheme. So just think of how they're developed, right? You got empty farmland — maybe in Florida's case, empty swampland. And it's developed really quickly, right? Like the forest is cleared. New streets are paved, houses of roughly the same type, often big houses on large lots. They're built in a short amount of time. Beautiful new schools open, and property taxes start off kind of low. Infrastructure costs are low because everything's new. Nothing needs to be repaired yet. But eventually those roads start to crumble. Schools need repairs, or they need to expand as the suburbs grow. And that means property taxes will need to go up. And suddenly the sweetheart deal that those who first moved into the suburbs were getting kind of evaporates.
Benjamin Herold: And so the families that have means historically have just left right before the bills come due. And what that results in is that the families who come in behind end up not only not getting that same generous social contract, but also, in effect, paying for the opportunities that somebody else has already extracted.
Peter Biello: That's Benjamin Herold, the author of this book, and he counts himself as among those white families who kind of reaped the benefits of of the suburbs before kind of abruptly leaving. He's from Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, and one of the families in this, in this book, lives just three houses down from where he grew up, the house his family abandoned. So there is a racial component to this, too. In the mid 20th century, redlining and restrictive covenants kind of ensured that these new communities would be exclusively for the white people, who would benefit for those, from those low taxes, the good schools, the brand-new infrastructure. So Harold says, white people were and continue to be the primary beneficiaries of this sweetheart deal.
Orlando Montoya: Well Ponzi scheme is a pretty big charge. I want to come back to it a little bit because it's, I'm not going to be a, suburb defender, but I will sort of, you know, looking forward to more information about this. But you say he profiled families. Which which families?
Peter Biello: So there are five families, that make up the substance of this book. They're from different parts of the country. And he chose these suburbs, for geographical diversity, of course, but also because each of these places is in a different phase of this boom and bust suburban cycle. Like in Texas, for example, there's this white conservative family who's perpetually chasing the next big thing, moving farther away from Dallas to get the most exclusive, the most lush experience for their children. And then there's Compton, Calif., which is on the opposite end of the spectrum in the sense that, you know, in the mid 20th century, it was it was such a nice area that — that, George H.W. Bush and his family lived there. And then we of course, know Compton from, from some of the popular rap that really publicized the poverty that was happening there. But right now, Compton is kind of coming back up by the good graces of the Black and brown families who are fighting to make it a better community. Another family that's profiled here: There's a mom in Evanston, Illinois, who is embroiled in the social and racial politics of the school system. They're trying to build a more equitable system. There's the woman in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, who I mentioned, who lives, just a few houses down from where the author grew up. She's trying to build a life in that community. She actually wrote the epilogue for this book. And then, there's the Robinsons, a Black family from Gwinnett County, Ga. Nika and Anthony have advanced degrees. They have good jobs, and they move out to Buford in search of the suburban dream.
Benjamin Herold: The first signs that something were off started when their oldest son, Corey, African-American boy, started middle school. And all of these kind of disciplinary issues started happening all of a sudden. So instead of this kind of like opportunities and grace that I received when I grew up white in suburbia in the '70s and '80s, all of a sudden their child is starting to receive these kind of really harsh punishments and messaging around things like tapping his pencil too loudly in class or, you know, being too rough with his friends and, you know, just kind of normal teenage boy stuff. And it starts to really escalate. And so what the Robinsons family really had to contend with is like, hey, "we've organized our whole life around being in this community and having access to these public schools, and now they're actually a threat to our child. We see them kind of dimming his light and, you know, kind of telling him that who he is is not okay." And so they're forced to kind of make this decision about, you know, temporarily pulling him out of Gwinnett County Public Schools, considering private schools, just going through all this angst because the community is changing on the ground.
Peter Biello: And the Robinsons, of course, one of the five families living in a changing community.
Orlando Montoya: Well, Gwinnett is sort of the perfect place to study because it's right on the cusp of so many changes.
Peter Biello: Yeah, a changing community. Equity issues haven't quite been ironed out in the way that they would in an ideal situation. And the Robinsons are fighting their way through it, trying to make the best of a situation there.
Orlando Montoya: And so are these stories arranged in some sort of narrative arc?
Peter Biello: Yeah. The the way he arranged it is really interesting, right? So it's a braided narrative. So you spend about 20 pages on this family in the context of their life, and then you move on to the next one. Harold told me he wanted to fully embody these families' perspectives.
Benjamin Herold: It was very important to me, that every family have the opportunity to have their story presented on its own terms. So as you read Disillusioned, you should see, a community like Gwinnett County through the eyes of a middle class Black family that is extraordinarily frustrated at the treatment their son is receiving in schools. But in Texas, outside of Dallas, you should also see, you know, the exurban communities 30, 40 miles from downtown through the eyes of an affluent, conservative white family who is really trying to recapture and protect this suburban dream that they feel is vanishing. And so my job, I feel like, was to really put their story out on their own terms, with their own perspectives, but then also to let the stories be in conversation with each other side-by-side.
Peter Biello: Which is how you end up getting a story about a rich white family in Texas alongside an immigrant family in Compton, for example. It's not that one is right and the other is wrong, but they're different families finding their way in suburban communities in different parts of the life cycle. And I will say that Harold embodies these perspectives so incredibly well that he, he, he conveys their feelings. So you, as a reader are like, "That's so wrongheaded. Why would you think that? Why would you approach life this way?" He becomes a vessel, in other words, for their perspective. And he shifts rather deftly from perspective to perspective.
Orlando Montoya: That's very reporter-ly of him.
Peter Biello: Oh, that's 100% what he's doing. So I — much respect for that.
Orlando Montoya: So he's he knows he's sort of doing equal sides on that. But, does, does this book really come down against suburbs because you know that they're not good, they're not bad they're not either, they're just a place.
Peter Biello: He is not coming down and saying "suburbs suck, move to the city." He is saying, that the way they have been designed is rather shortsighted. You know, it's hard to see the impact of a suburb in terms of one generation, but over generations, you can see it. Is it designed in such a way that it can be sustainable? Here's a way I thought of it, and I put it to him as well during the interview. He seemed to agree with it more or less. You're familiar with the idea of a condo building, right? And everybody having shared expenses in the condo building. So imagine there's a new building that's being divided up into, we'll say, 20 units. And each unit is going to be individually sold. And so the developer, to entice you to buy a condo in this building is going to try to keep expenses as low as possible, right? Your condo fees, your monthly payment is going to be very low. And that's going to be okay for a certain amount of time, right? Because everything in the building is new, the roof is new, the sidewalks outside are new. But if you don't vote to raise those fees over 30 years, they're going to be too low to sustain the building. The pipes are going to get old, the roof is going to get old and need replacing. And that is kind of, on a smaller scale, what happened with a lot of suburbs. Rather than stay and pay higher fees, the families with wealth would simply move to a new condo that has low fees, and will have low enough fees for the, you know, maybe the 10 years you plan on living there and then you get out. So that's why he was saying it was a Ponzi scheme — to go back to your questions about the Ponzi schemes — because there are white or wealthy families, mostly white wealthy families, who would take advantage of this introductory low rate, so to speak. And then when things got to be, "oh, no, we gotta raise these taxes," those families would look even farther afield for another suburban community to live in for as long as those low taxes last.
Orlando Montoya: So what's the solution? Can the suburbs be fixed?
Peter Biello: I think the hint of the solution here is simply that, people need to stop moving on when things get tough. I mentioned that the author, Benjamin Herold, has something of a personal stake in this. His family left Penn Hills. His father actually sold the family home at a loss just to wash his hands of that community. And later, the author returns, meets a woman named Bethany Smith who's moved into the neighborhood. She's a Black woman. She tells her story. She begins to have concerns about sharing her story with a white man who had profit from it. So Harold invites her to write the epilogue to the story, in which she writes about building a community that will last. It won't be a disposable community when she's done with it, and that is the solution. And it kind of made me wonder, and I don't know what your feeling is on this, Orlando, but like, I live in Atlanta. I live in the city. I've moved around quite a bit. I've, you know, from public radio job to public radio job. And it made me wonder, like: how committed am I to my community? Like, if my community suddenly started to fall apart and it was upon me as a citizen and as a taxpayer to stay and experience some rough weather, so to speak, before things got better. Would I do it or would I just pull up stakes and move to someplace where I would get more bang for my buck, so to speak? You know how, how, "how 'ride or die' am I for my community?" is my question. And I — it's it's it's an interesting soul searching question I asked myself. I'm wondering what you think.
Orlando Montoya: Depends on the job. Depends on the relationship. You know I — people tend to move for jobs, relationships, family issues. I — and if they have no reason to leave, then they have no reason to leave. But, something always prompts them, to go, and, you know, everybody goes, you know, everybody goes.
Peter Biello: Yeah. And it's that — it's that classic American self-interest. Not criticizing it, but it is there. Right? We are looking out for our best interests, our perception of our best interest. And I will say, almost everyone in this book, all these five families, they're — they're single-minded about doing what's best for their family. But nobody's really making a personal sacrifice for the community. Their interests have to align. They stay because they feel there's something in it for them. And if there's not, they make plans to get out of there. And I told Herold that while this strikes me as a rational choice, this is the thing that rational human beings will do, doesn't really inspire much hope for the revival of the suburban dream.
Benjamin Herold: It's hard because that is really deep rooted in our national psyche. This idea, we have to do what's best for our own families. What we have to figure out is not only how do we do what's best for our own families, but how do we create communities that sustain and maintain that kind of social contract across generations?
Peter Biello: And so to me, the question is not without a very clear answer. This is my answer, of course, is raise taxes to a level where stuff is paid for, including depreciation, account for depreciation of your assets, and everybody needs to pay these taxes. If it gets simpler than that, I invite our listeners to write a letter to Orlando Montoya, 264 14th Street Northwest, Atlanta, Ga., 30318.
Orlando Montoya: I'm not responsible for your ideas. I am not responsible for your ideas.
Peter Biello: Well, thanks for letting me tell you about this book. I really appreciate it. I think it's worth reading.
Orlando Montoya: And the book is Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs by Benjamin Herold. Thanks very much for sharing it.
Peter Biello: Glad to. Let's see what kind of angry letters you get for my opinions.
Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at GPB.org/NarrativeEdge.
Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the daily GPB News podcast Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to GPB.org/Podcasts.