Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.


The evolution and commodification of suburbia

Posted on December 19, 2018 by Fred Allebach

“The suburb has a claim to being one of the most successful and least loved inventions of the modern era. Many intellectuals, being city people at heart, find the suburb a hard place to love.” So writes city historian Graeme Davison of Monash University, in Australia, in a recent issue of the Journal of Urban History.”

This 2013 City Lab essay is still relevant today. Was the spatial expansion, colonizing, and  sequestration of new suburban space the result of population pressure only? The author looks at four other layers: religion, science, the arts, and social life.  

  • Evangelicalism. The purity of home was a central construct in the Evangelical revival. So while cities were viewed as places of corruption, while retreating into the countryside was seen as a moral refuge.
  • Sanitarianism. In keeping with Evangelical tastes, cleanliness was seen as godliness. Cities, meanwhile, were rotten places with garbage, manure, and in many cases soot everywhere—breeding grounds of disease and misconduct. The suburbs were seen as a hygienic alternative: “literally clean-aired,” Davison writes.
  • Romanticism. This aesthetic movement promoted feeling over reason, nature over artifice, solitude over sociality, nostalgia over ambition. As a result, detached residences and private gardens were considered far more beautiful and desirable than the cramped shared quarters of the city.
  • Class Segregation. As cities and towns became manufacturing centers filled with industrial workers, suburban areas were seen as exclusive retreats for the moneyed classes. “When the well-to-do fled to the suburbs, they sought to place a protective cordon between themselves and a class on whose labor they relied but increasingly sought to avoid,” writes Davison.

“With the rise of suburbia came the rise of its enemies. Libertarians rejected Evangelical morality. Socialists rejected class segregation. Artistic realism led to a rejection of Romanticism. Improvements in medicine assuaged many health fears. Suburbia became an emblem of social snobbery in the hands of Thackery and Dickens: a place full of wealth but devoid of taste.”

Then in the 20th century, “urban planners recognized sprawl as wasteful and generally unsustainable—a form of environmental disease.” Lewis Mumford “felt that suburban residents were not only withdrawing from the city, they were shrinking from civic responsibility writ large.”

“Meanwhile, the original aims of suburbia — exclusivity and relative seclusion — were compromised by its newfound affordability and popularity. The promise of individuality was turned into a prescription for conformity. Simply put, the rise of suburbia became a Pyrrhic Victory: nothing so universal could ever maintain the quality of being unique. Today, writes Davison, it exists more as a marketing strategy than a genuine ideal.”

“After two centuries of hegemony, the tide has turned against the suburban idea,” he concludes. “Its day is not yet over, but its heyday has passed.”

The story

Now, to focus on Sonoma. Everyone who moves here gets exposed to “the story.” The story of Sonoma anchors people to ownership of a sense of place here. The outlines of the story are easy enough to tell. The story can be spun various ways, to make it seem that “Sonoma was always a tourist town”, or that wine grape growing is at the center of everything Sonoma, or that social injustice has always been the hidden dirty deed that floats the whole Sonoma boat. 

Rather than accept these stories at face value, we should ask why and in whose interest the stories are told. I’m a social and environmental justice advocate. Here’s my nutshell history of Sonoma.

Vallejo took land from Indians, and used Indians for slave labor. During this Rancho Period, the Protestant ethic Yankee, Richard Henry Dana saw the Bay Area and said, “what an enterprising people could do with this land.” Oh yeah. Then came the Gold Rush, the first in a series of California and modern capitalism boom and bust cycles. These booms and busts reflect the final domination of the world’s frontiers, and the exhausting of natural resources by a growing world population. In the wake of the Gold Rush, failed miners became mixed ag farmers. Chinese were used for slave labor, on farms and for large infrastructure projects like rail. Transportation tech advances brought steamship, rail, and finally, the automobile. Cars and trucks were the ultimate suburban tools. The Resort Era came and went, waves of immigrants came, Nativism reared its ugly head over and over. Some were integrated , others with brown and yellow skin not. Prohibition bled into the Great Depression and then WW2. Ag adapted as a supplier of niche goods to the urban core, dried fruit, dairy. Industrial, corporate ag then blew local, low-tech production apart. As natural resources dwindled, the Redwood Empire transitioned in a calculated way to being “Wine Country”; the Mediterranean climate made grape growing the last crop standing. Large scale regional planning developed reservoirs and an aqueduct system to supply projected suburban/ urban growth, as Sonoma County recapped all Western Water diversions in its own way. Groundwater became the last great unexploited natural resource. Ag made a wine rebound at same time Sonoma was colonized by a suburban exodus, escaping from Urban Renewal. Efforts to find social equity and integrate urban cores caused “white flight”, strip development, sprawl. Sonoma managed to stay a backwater with no big highways to it. The backwater aspect was, and became, a story of small town charm and character. Modern mass marketing, the Internet, and suburban colonization eventually turns the Sonoma story into a commodity (the antithesis of authenticity) that can be consumed by tourists and luxury home buyers alike.  Slave labor is now the Latino immigrant workforce, still segregated in the Springs. Sonoma transplants displace the actual locals and become owners of a new story; Sonoma guards its image, story, and privilege against corruption by the forces suburbanites sought to escape. In a kind of spurious evolution, Sonoma becomes a façade, a caricature of itself. Isn’t it just great! Sonoma, a small ag backwater with accidents of history and geography, turns into suburban gem flush with wine tourism. Built-in suburban social tensions and contradictions periodically flare up over pink doors and in hot-take social media meltdowns that never seen to arrive at any agreement on what the story here really is. 

Fred’s social equity take

At the end of the day, current owners get to decide what the sense of place is. As generations of owners cycle through Sonoma, they dominate an evolving story line. All the while suburban Sonoma has avoided the river of society while creating an alternate, separate paradise. Yes, it is nice, very nice. And anyone with a stake in this status quo is going to guard it, or ask to be let in.  

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, economy took over from religion as the prime suburban cultural guidepost. Status quo religions, for their part, continued to justify the unjust; no institutionally-backed Catholic liberation theology to put wind in the sails of los obreros around here.

In Sonoma, banks, financial advice, and real estate have replaced religion as a civic organizing force. The donor class and non-profit industry have usurped social, civic action, tending to serve Wall Street-type interests. Main Street is dead, the middle class gutted. Money is the new God. Don’t rock the boat too much, play along and take the blue pill. Only a few religious congregations turn to face the world and ante up a sense of civic engagement. Enough seem to be content to sit back and justify the suburban illusion and hope their property values keep going up.

And if life is good, why not be conservative and hope it stays that way? That’s natural enough, understandable.    

As town residents were replaced by transplants, and a hand-work/ brick and mortar economy got flushed, the pursuit of profit on paper became an end unto itself. This is the commodification the Sonoma suburb story, a story turned to serve money and 1% Wall Street interests. In defense of white flight and the commodified façade, all the negative dog whistles come out: “crime”, high density, sprawl, all the things to defend the suburban castle against invasion by the inexorable tide of society as a whole. 

The stratified society pattern is the same since the beginning of civilization, only the props and the tech changes. Underneath out nature stays basically the same, maybe we evolve a little here and there and justice ratchets on a little at a time.

In an tribal world, suburbs like Sonoma are the upper crust tribe, the elite, in an increasingly untenable, hard to justify space.  The cure as I see it: Turn the gem of Sonoma and all its boon to serve all at higher and better levels. Flatten the pyramid. Do this through a wake-up call of transparency, by seeing the world as it really is, outside the suburban envelope.  


Sonoma has had the good, or bad luck, to be historically unique, and, as Bob Parmelee told me, to be a sunny place orbiting a foggy, cool, major urban center. It seems to me that an honest look at all the different stories surrounding Sonoma would be beneficial. 

Addressing Sonoma and suburban issues, are as the City Lab article points out, basically moral issues, of harm, fairness, purity, and tribal loyalty. These moral issues have become spatialized and transferred to resolution in a land use context.  Planning departments, city staff and councils now deliberate these many-layered issues kind of like shadows from Plato’s Cave. 

The General Plan, Municipal Code, and Development Code serve as the embodiment of Sonoma’s suburban morals. Could these rules ever widen their scope? 

I’m bringing the perspective of the big city intellectual, the usurper, one to challenge the charmed stasis. What is the best way to do that and enlist the local holders of power to share some of this sweet suburban pie? As Bob Edwards intimated in his Sun piece, Santa about that affordable house, this will require engaging the very inheritors of white flight, in such a way as to not cause them to dig their heels in deeper. We’re all people here right? All on the same team? 

This kind of look at Sonoma, as an evolving suburban landscape, with salient, nationwide societal issues to grapple with, can also take a look at why many seem to criticize city staff, or criticize developers, land use policy, or the school system. There are larger undercurrents at play. Some of these conform to the above City Lab article, bullet points. 

At a certain level it is all Machiavellian, and within that are moral veins that work well to explain and contextualize why various locals here in Sonoma pull for what they do. As is known from confirmation bias and Mile’s Law, you stand where you sit. A meta-awareness will at least bring to the table a raised discussion not solely at the level of immediate, suburban interests. 


One thought on “The evolution and commodification of suburbia

  1. The first time I visited Sonoma was in 1968. I lived in San Francisco. California’s population had just passed New York state. 17 plus million. Now California has 40million people. Many recent arrivals to Sonoma are escaping urban sprawl and congestion!..Many like me are retired and enjoy Sonoma. I
    hope they never widen the roads to Sonoma.

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