Soul of the suburbs

From "American Beauty" to the New York Times, those who satirize and celebrate the burbs seldom understand how they got the way they are.

Published April 13, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The suburbs are everywhere. From the presidential campaign -- now reduced to two nearly indistinguishable suburban dads -- to Hollywood to the newspaper of record, the traditionally anti-suburban cultural elite is now buzzing with talk about how the burbs aren't what we thought they were. Expect the New Yorker to publish a special Suburban Issue any week now. (OK, I can't resist: Every issue of the New Yorker is the Suburban Issue.)

Left unanswered in all this, however, is the question of what the suburbs actually are. In both the Oscar-laden "American Beauty" (a very fine film, in my estimation) and the April 9 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with its "Suburbs Rule" cover package, the issue is clouded by an understandable ambivalence as well as, perhaps, a lack of focus. The suburbs are liberating; the suburbs are confining. The suburbs have become just like the city, or maybe it's the other way around. The suburbs are full of minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians; the suburbs remain small-minded bastions of fear and conformity. The ambivalence with which Americans regard suburbia is the same ambivalence with which they regard, well, America. On one hand, it's the home of the free. On the other, to paraphrase that great poet of the late-mid-suburban era, David Byrne, How did we get here?

For many years, one of the unspoken assumptions about the suburbs was that the people who live, work and shop in them -- most of the U.S. population -- must like them the way they are. With the late-'90s emergence of "sprawl" as a political buzzword, it became clear that things were not that simple. Those most concerned about the traffic-choked new malls and subdivisions sprouting in cornfield after cornfield, not surprisingly, were the people who lived next to them. Le Corbusier's vision of the future had come true: "The cities shall be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree." What that vision omits, of course, is the 5 or 6 million people in between, each with his or her own pine tree.

There are some significant political and philosophical differences between "Suburban Nation" and "Picture Windows," but these two important new books agree that suburbia, as it exists today, was not the inevitable result of a seamlessly operating free market. Both sets of authors see the history of suburban development as a tragic story of greed, poor judgment and missed opportunity. Moreover, they are willing to buck conventional wisdom by suggesting that many suburban Americans would embrace a different, more community-based lifestyle if it were made available to them.

The world of suburban studies can seem topsy-turvy sometimes; at first glance it appears that the authors of these books must have switched agendas in a moment of "American Beauty"-style midnight weirdness. Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen are feminist academics who live in Manhattan -- precisely the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead at the mall. Yet while "Picture Windows" may find the manner in which the suburbs were developed regrettable, it paints a nuanced and in many ways sympathetic portrait of life in suburbia. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, on the other hand, are prominent town planners (that is, people who actually design new suburbs). "Suburban Nation" is a furious jeremiad against a form of development that, they argue, is undermining the very nature of American citizenship, destroying the public realm and making virtual prisoners out of our most vulnerable citizens.

Although the authors of these two books may believe they have competing agendas (or at least Baxandall and Ewen think so), their concerns are quite different and they complement each other in fascinating ways. The apparent conflict between them, I think, is largely a matter of ideology rather than practical application. They disagree, for example, on the highly charged question of whether urban design can influence social behavior. (Many social scientists, scorched by the social-engineering debacles of Great Society public housing, have retreated to the position that it can't. The authors of "Suburban Nation" respond, quite sensibly, "One does not have to believe that front porches encourage sociability to accept that unwalkable streets discourage it.") And behind this lies an even more theoretical debate about the legacy of modernism, which neither book, frustratingly enough, engages head-on.

"Suburban Nation" is mainly an extensive account of the flawed land-use and design decisions, each apparently rational in itself, that created mass suburbia and made it into such an alien environment. "Picture Windows," as its subtitle suggests, is primarily a work of history. Focusing mostly on Long Island, N.Y., America's primordial suburban region, Baxandall and Ewen tell the dramatic story of its development, full of struggle, skulduggery and ambiguous, larger-than-life characters. Beneath its neutral, antiseptic exterior, they argue, "suburbia [has] always been a complicated place, shaped by conflict and community activism."

It's no accident that "Suburban Nation" has the angry, call-to-arms tone of a manifesto; its authors have been preaching the gospel of a design philosophy known variously as New Urbanism, neotraditionalism and "traditional neighborhood development" for many years. All three work at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the Miami design firm behind new town-scale developments such as Seaside, Fla.; Kentlands, in Gaithersburg, Md.; and Middleton Hills, in Madison, Wis. These unusually dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly developments remain controversial (and we'll get to that), but they have proved to be a startlingly successful alternative to the typical, space-devouring housing tracts around them. In both Seaside and Kentlands, the authors report, houses and homesites sell at a significant premium over similar, or even larger, lots in nearby conventional subdivisions.

Whatever one thinks of DPZ's solutions to sprawl, "Suburban Nation" provides a marvelously detailed critique of suburbia as it exists, a landscape most of us are intimately familiar with but few of us have thought much about. It's a place where the roads are too wide, the traffic too fast and the buildings too low and too far apart, so walking is discouraged if not forbidden. (In the rare instances when suburban planners do build sidewalks, the authors write, the empty pavement becomes "the physical embodiment of sprawl's guilty conscience," used only by indigents and stranded motorists.) Nearly identical houses cluster in enormous pods of uniform density, where vast amounts of open space are wasted in a bewildering tangle of curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs. Titanic shopping centers sit amid vast oceans of parking; schools, hospitals, municipal buildings and other public structures are isolated on faux-rural "campuses."

All of this, needless to say, depends entirely on the private automobile, which the authors of "Suburban Nation" call "a private space as well as a potentially sociopathic device." Suburbia claims to offer its residents a choice of lifestyles, but it really offers only one: "to own a car and to need it for everything." Time spent in the car is specifically time not spent in the public realm, which has in turn been eviscerated, the authors argue, as urban planners have tried to lure car-culture suburbanites back to America's downtowns. "Interstate highways were welcomed into the city core, streets were widened and made one-way, street trees were cut down, sidewalks were narrowed or eliminated, and on-street parking was replaced by massive parking lots," they write. The result, of course, is that encounters between people of different racial and socioeconomic cadres -- precisely the encounters that define the urban experience -- become increasingly rare.

Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck write surprisingly pithy, elegant prose, and "Suburban Nation" is full of juicy insider observations drawn from the Orwellian world of suburban planning. This is a realm where traffic engineers define trees as "fixed and hazardous objects" and keep widening and multiplying highways despite ample evidence that increasing traffic capacity only makes traffic worse (because it encourages people to drive more and live farther away from their workplaces).

The obsessive single-use zoning of suburbia, stemming from the era when separating industry from housing was a crucial health issue, meticulously segregates every economic function from every other and, in particular, groups the rich, the middle class and the poor in their own homogeneous clusters. Those residents who are too poor, too young or too old to drive are subjected to virtual house arrest, while suburban parents are forced into the stereotypical multitasking "soccer mom" role.

Baxandall and Ewen are well aware that the American suburbs were founded on economic and racial segregation, and remain isolated and car dependent to an unhealthy degree. They agree with the "Suburban Nation" authors that the suburbia we see around us today resulted from highly specific decisions, and that something quite different could have been built instead. "Picture Windows" offers an account of how the private development typified by Long Island's infamous Levittown became the dominant suburban form, and it is an attempt to resurrect some defeated alternatives. Still more ambitiously, it strives to transcend anti-suburban snobbery and rehabilitate the potent dream of "a place where ordinary people, not just the elite, would have access to affordable, attractive, modern housing in communities with parks, gardens, recreation, stores and cooperative town meeting places."

As left-leaning social-science intellectuals, Baxandall and Ewen write, they "had been schooled in a tradition that celebrated urban culture and looked at the rest of America as a backwater." When both began teaching at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, in the heart of Long Island suburbia, they became aware that their surroundings were far more diverse and complicated than the familiar stereotype of "an anesthetized state of mind, a 'no place' dominated by a culture of conformity and consumption." In fact, the suburbs of Long Island were created and populated in numerous waves of 20th century migration, beginning with the Gilded Age mansions and "Gatsby"-era nouveau riche playgrounds of the North Shore and continuing to the present, when Long Island reportedly houses more Central American immigrants than New York.

This is a history with many heroes and villains, none of them simple. Unlikely as this may seem today, when the demand for housing exploded after World War II, many people believed that the government should build public rental housing for the newly minted middle class, composed of returning veterans' families. It took hearings presided over by no less a figure than Sen. Joseph McCarthy, along with an extensive public relations campaign by the home-building industry, to enforce the idea that public housing was solely for the destitute and that private homeownership was the American birthright. The result, of course, was that the government subsidized suburban development with cheap mortgages and massive highway projects but left the design and building to rapacious private developers.

Of these, surely none was more influential than William Levitt, "the Henry Ford of housing," in Baxandall and Ewen's apt phrasing. Levitt and Sons pioneered the use of mass-production techniques in home construction, and the $7,999 ranch house they introduced in 1949 -- essentially a Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff designed by Levitt's brother Alfred -- virtually defined the future of suburban architecture. Undeniably, Levitt houses were passably well built and made homeownership affordable for many city dwellers who had never previously imagined it.

But Baxandall and Ewen view the Levittown legacy with what seem to be appropriately mixed emotions. Levitt openly discriminated against blacks and battled against Levittowners' attempts to democratize the town and run it themselves. Levittown's very name came to symbolize dullness and conformity, and as an automobile-based residential community with no downtown it spawned turnpike shopping centers, the ancestors of today's enormous malls. (Architectural Forum magazine called the new shopping centers "markets in the meadows," perhaps inaugurating the suburban language of denial replicated today in all the malls named after the geographical features they have replaced.)

"Picture Windows" is at its best when exploring the experiences of actual suburbanites, both those who felt that life in Levittown and places like it fulfilled their American dream and those who faced much more of a struggle. Baxandall and Ewen's interviews with working-class suburban women, for example, paint a far more varied portrait than the "mad housewife" archetype perpetuated by misogynists and feminists alike. Their compelling chapters on the Long Island towns of Roosevelt and Freeport, loaded with original research, provide an invaluable chronicle of two crucial episodes in the history of suburban integration.

Roosevelt was "blockbusted" in the mid-1960s by real estate speculators who bought houses cheap from terrified whites and resold them at a premium to blacks who were not welcome in most suburbs. Ironically, the result of this fear-mongering and profiteering was a stable community, one of the first middle-class black enclaves in suburban America. When the same tactics were used in nearby Freeport, blacks and whites eventually joined forces to resist blockbusting and white flight. Some of Freeport's methods have been controversial -- the village government has been accused of allowing whites to buy houses at artificially low prices to maintain racial balance -- but the result has been one of the few truly integrated suburbs anywhere in the country.

The major differences between these two sets of authors arise when they consider Lenin's question: What is to be done? In fairness to both, you could say they're really asking two related but separate questions: The DPZ planners ask what can be done, given the realities of the marketplace, and the academics ask what ought to be done, even if it's impossible. Both claim a kinship to the godparents of urban sociology, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, and both find inspiration in the new town movement of the early 20th century, which produced communities such as Greenbelt, Md., and Radburn, N.J.

In fact, Baxandall and Ewen see Greenbelt, a low-income cooperative community built by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal government agency in charge of relocating the poor, as the most poignant example of what might have been. Although they realize that under current conditions federal intervention is exceedingly unlikely, they suggest that it remains the only agent capable of reinventing suburbia for the newly diverse working and middle classes of the 21st century. "Updating the suburban dream," they write, "requires visionaries such as those in the 1920s and 1930s, who saw social problems as questions demanding democratic, utopian answers."

While "Picture Windows" does not address the geographical component of suburban sprawl in any detail, it's hard to imagine that Baxandall and Ewen wouldn't concur with Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck's call for mixed-use, mixed-income developments designed to encourage street life and public transit and discourage isolation, traffic and waste. Yet they specifically excoriate them, comparing DPZ developments to theme parks where "set design takes the place of social imagination" and calling Seaside, DPZ's trademark town, "a packaged collection of nostalgia from a past that never was -- except perhaps on television."

Even if it's true that the small-town Americana design of Seaside looks like the set for "The Truman Show" (since, in fact, it was), how do we account for this vitriolic response to developers who are actually building a community-based alternative to conventional suburbia? Baxandall and Ewen even suggest that they prefer Levittown to Seaside, since at least the former is uncontaminated by nostalgia.

What we see here, I think, is the inevitable clash between modernism's mistrust of the past and traditionalism's mistrust of the future. For avowed progressives like Baxandall and Ewen, it may be impossible to abandon the Mumford/Wright dictum that Americans should embrace the clean, simple design of the machine age and purge themselves of their unhealthy and sentimental attachment to older styles. I doubt they really believe aesthetic choices should be imposed on suburbanites by some central authority; it's more that suburban development only seems acceptably democratic and Utopian to them if it's tied to the modernist project of creating a new, more rational social order. Never mind that the wood shingles, tin roofs and front porches of Seaside are apparently what home buyers want; they represent a reactionary "escape into the good old days."

It's certainly no secret that the DPZ planners have self-consciously modeled their new communities on old-fashioned urban neighborhoods, like Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown, or venerable American towns, like Alexandria, Va. As they concisely put it, "The design of new places should be modeled on old places that work." In fact, the DPZ design guidelines are style neutral, and they point out that a neighborhood can be traditional in its spatial organization and modern in style, like Miami's South Beach with its justly famous boulevards of art deco buildings. But Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck clearly have no interest in fighting the good fight for flat roofs and sliding glass doors. Architectural style, they insist, has almost no bearing on neighborhood function, so their developments employ styles that will sell. "All architecture is meaningless in the absence of good urban design," they write. "Behind six acres of parking, a true cantilever is no more ethical than a fake arch."

Accurately, if a little defensively, the "Suburban Nation" authors point out that while the European public may swallow modernism eagerly, Americans still don't like it or trust it. "The vast majority of home buyers are only interested in traditional architecture or, sadly, the middle ground of damaged compromise," they write. "It is hard enough convincing suburbanites to accept mixed uses, varied-income housing and public transit without throwing flat roofs and corrugated metal siding into the equation."

Somewhere in the tension between these two books there's a valuable discussion about the moral nature and purpose of urban design waiting to happen. One could certainly argue that principled planners like DPZ have a responsibility to strive for excellent contemporary style and to resist the kitsch and gingerbread that, they admit, often infect their developments. On the other hand, what is suburban sprawl, with its endless malls and subdivisions, but the bastard child of modernism, the nightmarish realization of Le Corbusier's dream of a decentered "radiant city"? No matter what our politics are, I wonder if we owe that tradition anything except a vigorous effort to destroy it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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