On the Edge
The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia
London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2013.
Paperback. 206 pages, ISBN 978-1907103728. £ 15.99
University College London
As a university teacher of sociology in the suburban Kingston University and deputy mayoress of the London Borough of Ealing (2010-11), Rupa Huq is well qualified to write about this topic. By definition, ‘suburbs’ are situated beyond long-established urban areas. They came into being at different stages in the past, and have markedly different appearances, ranging from 19th-century terraces, inter-war semi-detacheds and planned estates of social housing, to concrete ‘walls’ and ‘towers’ dating from the 1960s and more recent manifestations, usually characterised by a lack of living space and poor construction standards. Suburbs are linked in different ways, and with varying degrees of efficiency, to central cities by commuter railways, motorways, or older road networks. Some suburbs are important foci for employment, whilst others are predominantly residential and are labelled as ‘dormitory suburbs’.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, all suburbs have distinctive social characteristics that change with the passage of time. Some become gentrified, whilst others ‘go downhill’ as their houses are subdivided to accommodate less wealthy residents than the original occupants. The political persuasion of English suburbs varies substantially, as facing signs at the boundary between two local authorities near my home in suburban south London suggest. One declares that you are entering ‘The Brighter Borough’; the other states ‘You are entering a nuclear-free zone’. The residents of suburbs manifest great diversity in socio-ethnic composition and organised religion. Some suburbs have the reputation of being staid and boring, whilst others are vibrant, attract new residents and witness increasing house prices. Suburbs are most certainly not all the same. Rupa Huq cites countless examples of this diversity but never spells it out with maps or statistics, which is a pity. As her sub-title indicates, the spatial frame of her book is England, with particular stress on some parts of Greater London (especially Ealing, Kingston, and Dagenham), some localities around Manchester, and occasional reference to other suburban sites; no attempt is made at being comprehensive.
On the Edge begins with the stark reminder that some English suburbs experienced riots and looting in 2011; they were indeed localities that were ‘on edge’. After a brief review of such themes as gender, class, family, and gentrification, the book is organised into seven chapters that are enlivened by references to the author’s own experiences of suburbia and by her interviews with a handful of politicians. English suburbs are contrasted with car-dependent suburbia in North America, and with concrete expressions of la banlieue in France and other European countries. Some suburbs are shown to be (or to have been) residential dreamlands, but others fall far short of such ideals. Suburban electoral behaviour is diverse and by no means entirely ‘conservative’; each suburb contains differing social areas with differing political preferences. Average electoral behaviour expressed by constituency conveys a great oversimplification of voting choice. As geographers insist, the picture that emerges is much to do with the scale of analysis. Some suburbs have been sites of protest, and will surely be so in the future, with squatters occupying empty housing, demonstrators protesting at proposed new roads, and visionaries seeking to occupy empty spaces to prevent expensive apartments being constructed when there are no ‘affordable’ flats available nearby.
English suburbs form a kaleidoscope of religious expressions, with many Anglican churches attracting dwindling congregations (unless there is a fervent Afro-Caribbean community in the locality), but new Evangelical churches taking over redundant church buildings or moving into former factories or warehouses. Many Roman Catholic churches in the suburbs now offer masses in Polish, and mosques and temples proliferate. One of my favourite examples is of a former Roman Catholic convent that has become a mosque, with the roof-line statues of Christian saints left intact. English suburbs are also places of consumption, but many traditional shopping streets are unequal to the challenge of nearby retail parks and have become the domain of charity shops and boarded-up premises. Some suburbs have spawned political extremism, whether that be expressed through the British National Party or by various sinister forms of terrorism. After exploring all these themes, Rupa Huq concludes her discussion with a brief review of how suburbs have been depicted in British and North American films and television programmes.
Diversity, change and contestation are central themes to this interesting, albeit rather fluid book that draws on academic literature, newspaper articles, websites, blogs, interviews and focus groups. It is a lively and well-informed account that will appeal to students of sociology and to many general readers. Others may regret that opportunities to display social differences through maps and statistics are missed, and that the author’s selection of suburban case studies is not explained more fully.
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