American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Urban Suburb: How the Built Environment Influences Class Identity

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Timothy Messer-Kruse (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Carolyn Tompsett (Other)

Third Advisor

Benjamin P. Greene (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Rebecca J. Kinney (Committee Member)


Roughly 62% of Americans identify as middle-class but do not meet the middle-class characteristics long depicted in the national imagination: homeownership, savings, disposable income, and a comfortable retirement. Forty percent say they cannot cover an unexpected bill of $400. Because relying on objective characteristics like median family income, profession, and homeownership often ignore the nuances of class consciousness, this project hypothesizes a correlation existing between class and the physical environment, specifically that of post-industrial and residential landscapes. This project seeks to answer, “how does the built environment influence class identity?”

Using the neighborhood of Canaryville, Chicago as a case study, this project uses an interdisciplinary methodology, historical and visual analysis, ethnography, and landscape theory, to examine the landscape's influence on class identity. It determines that a new identifiable landscape, defined as an urban suburb, can exist. An urban suburb is a densely populated urban area that alters its landscape to masquerade as suburban for class and racial identity affirmation. Urban Suburb demonstrates the performativity of landscapes. By looking at stereotypical attributes of suburban landscapes, Urban Suburb argues the transposition of those stereotypes is not confined by geographical location. Furthermore, performing the stereotypical suburban landscape is a subtle way to demonstrate both class and racial identity.

Identification of the urban suburb adds to the growing body of research of understanding how race is reflected in the built environment, the performative nature of suburban landscapes, and the influence the built environment has on class identity.