Sunday, March 17, 2024

Q&A with Benjamin Herold


Benjamin Herold is the author of the new book Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Education Week. He lives in Philadelphia.


Q: What inspired you to write Disillusioned, and how did you choose the families you focus on in the book?


A: I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb called Penn Hills. The community and its public schools worked great for my white family, helping launch me into a comfortable middle-class life and a career in journalism.


But two decades after I left Penn Hills, a series of devastating headlines began pouring out of my hometown. Seemingly out of nowhere, the same school district that had once served my white family so well had run up a $172 million debt. Teachers were furloughed, budgets slashed, programs eliminated. Property taxes skyrocketed, and home values stagnated.


And underlying all the bad news was a seismic demographic shift; the Penn Hills public schools, 72 percent white when I graduated in 1994, were now 63 percent Black.


That meant thousands of families of color had come to suburbia in search of the same generous social contract I received, only to discover they'd been left holding the bag for all the opportunities families like mine had already extracted.


So the book really started with me wanting to understand what happened to my hometown, and whether it was unique.


And what I found was that huge swaths of American suburbia are caught up in a cycle of racialized development and decline that functions like a Ponzi scheme.


The first couple generations of residents in a new suburban community, usually white and upwardly mobile, get a tremendous deal. But we get it by accepting huge government subsidies for development and by pushing the true costs of maintenance, repair, and renewal off on to future residents, often Black and Brown. 


The five communities featured in the book (outside Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh) trace this arc from beginning to end. I met the families featured in each community through an advocacy group, a network of activist parents, a realtor, the staff at a local elementary school, and by knocking on doors on the street where I grew up.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: We as Americans have invested so many of our hopes, dreams, and visions for the future in suburbia and its schools. The suburbs are still where we go to give our kids a better life, which is an incredibly powerful thing.


But what I found reporting Disillusioned was that many, many, many suburban parents feel like those hopes and dreams are crumbling under their feet. Especially suburban parents of color, many of whom viewed their arrival in suburbia as a culmination of a generations-long fights to gain access to suburbia and all it had to offer.


I believe that understanding the ensuing disappointment, anger, and disillusionment is crucial to understanding what's happening in America more broadly.


And Disillusioned also has a secondary meaning. Because I grew up white in suburbia and my family is very much a part of the destructive cycle I describe, I had to shed a lot of my own illusions about suburbia and my family's experience in order to recognize and appreciate what was happening all around me.


Q: The writer Imani Perry said of the book, “Not only is Disillusioned engaging—riveting, really—it strikes at the very heart of the geography and emotional economy of race in the United States.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, first, I'm honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Imani Perry. I especially appreciate her comments because she has thought so deeply and written so beautifully about what makes America America. 


And I love that she focused on the emotional aspect of the dynamics I described above; millions of families have come to suburbia hoping for the kind of emotional security that comes with knowing your children are safe, loved, and taken care of. And what that doesn't pan out, it's crushing. 


Q: What do you see looking ahead for the American suburbs?


A: The demographic changes already sweeping through suburbia are only going to accelerate, and we are reaching the limits of our ability to keep running away from our problems by building new communities further and further into the countryside.


As a result, I think the conflicts we already see erupting at suburban school board meetings around the country are likely to intensify. I really do believe we're still at the very beginning of a larger unraveling that's going to shape much of American life over the next few decades.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Can't give away too much yet, but working on a couple follow-up book projects that use public schools as a portal into all the issues we care (and worry) about most. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If you're interested in Disillusioned, you may also appreciate the work of scholars and advocates such as John Diamond, Sonya Douglass, Decoteau Irby, Kenneth T. Jackson, L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Chuck Marohn, and Andrew Wiese.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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