Getting uppity in suburbia

Have some tea with your Brandywine at Thornbury? A little Anglophilic branding will make all your insecurities go away.

Published February 22, 2001 8:20PM (EST)

While the sun has long since set on the British Empire, its legacy lingers at a cul-de-sac near you.

"You have people like me to blame for that," confesses Gary Stefanoni, director of sales for Pulte Homes' New Jersey market. They know that northern New Jersey bears little resemblance to the Yorkshire Dales and that Detroit-upon-Michigan is a far cry from Stratford-upon-Avon, but judging from the names of these so-called "communities," they don't care. Want to snuggle up with royalty? Head to Buckingham at Queensbridge in Las Vegas, Nev., or Regency at Kingsgate in Woodstock, Ga. At a crossroads in your life? Try Southwyke at Victoria Crossing in Manassas Park, Va., or Canterberry Crossing in Parker, Colo. (But don't go looking for canterberries; they don't exist.)

These are the American suburbs, served up by Pulte Homes, K. Hovnanian Companies, Ryan Homes, Toll Brothers, Inc. and a handful of other corporations responsible for America's McMansion housing developments. "Aristocratic British names are popular, they're safe, no one complains about them," says Stefanoni. "With ethnic names there's problems with pronunciation. Usually we try to use something that relates to the area. We try and find out who owned the property, if there was a manor or estate, we look at old maps. We might spend three months researching a name." Stefanoni took this formula to New Jersey and came up with "Brettonwoods of Paramus." "Well, there's woods nearby," he explains, "and I found the name of an old English estate in a book."

Despite the snarling anthems of the Sex Pistols, the stark social realism of contemporary filmmakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and literature from D.H. Lawrence to Hanif Kureishi -- despite all this and the Spice Girls, Americans still associate status, wealth and propriety with all that is English. Anglophilia runs deep in American culture, but it's been particularly useful in helping Americans lay out a fantasy for how they want to live, a measure of wealth and success that's guided urban planners for a century. But as companies like Toll Brothers and Pulte Homes consolidate the business of suburb building -- much the same way McDonald's consolidates the business of hamburger making -- Anglophilia has graduated from cultural tradition to powerful branding tool.

We anoint our suburbs with the names of invented British estates out of insecurity, nostalgia and a love of fantasy. America's Buckingham at Queensbridges and Canterberry Crossings are, in the words of "Geography of Nowhere" author Jim Kunstler, "only part of the growing abstraction that is necessary to sell the suburbs. It's a place without a past and without a future that leads to anxiety and depression. It's through those cracks in the damage, that the marketers fill a void."

But marketers fill this void haphazardly. Take for example Brandywine at Thornbury, a K. Hovnanian property in West Chester, Pa. The name is a hybrid of a nearby street and a famous local battlefield; the development's black-and-white logo features a line of 18th century soldiers firing volleys into the sky. Are they colonial patriots or the king's henchmen? The logo does not specify. It doesn't matter that the Battle of Brandywine was one of George Washington's bloodiest defeats and that it led to the British capture of Philadelphia. Two hundred and twenty-five years after the Declaration of Independence, America's quaint revolution resonates as a marketing gimmick first and a historical reality second.

British names give suburbs an air of, well, suburbanity -- the promise of a retreat from city life, with a connotation of the landed class. This association has been selling subdivisions since the 19th century. Take this excerpt from the original promotional pamphlet for Riverside, Ill., America's first suburban development, designed in 1869 by Frederick Law Olmsted:

"A life at Riverside involves no banishment from all that is good in city life, but is rather the elegant culmination of refined tastes which cannot be gratified in the city, and is the proper field for the growth of that higher culture which finds in art, nature, and congenial society combined a greater variety of pleasures than can be found between the high walls of city houses."

This notion -- that the city is not a place for the wealthy to live -- was born out of the Puritan revolution in England, when wealthy citizens fled the filth and fires of London for a purer country life. Meanwhile, those who couldn't flee the city developed similar tastes, thanks to urban planners like Olmsted who brought the countryside downtown, dotting urban America with Central Parks -- a slab of British countryside in the middle of midtown Manhattan.

In the late 20th century, suburbs promised more than just the fantasy of life in an English manor; they offered peaceful distance from America's racial strife. "The suburbs have always traded on fear of the inner city," says Andrew Ross, chairman of the American studies program at New York University and author of "The Celebration Chronicles." Americans fled the city to places where racial conflict, poverty and other urban realities didn't exist. And they gave them names to match.

Steve Katz, a former real estate marketer and founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, says the English names are a way of masking our uncomfortable proximity to each other. "Everyone is in denial, pretending we're living in splendid isolation in some English manor when we're really existing cheek by jowl next to our neighbors." It's an advertising white lie that's become increasingly handy to developers as suburbs -- between the traffic problems of sprawl and the paltry lot size of individual homes -- live up less and less to their original promise of a rural idyll.

Houses aren't sold on names alone, but a good one helps. Pseudo-British fantasy names don't just convey a class association and a history, they settle themselves in our brain just like any other brand, and like loyal consumers, we come back to them. "You would be surprised how many people in their 40s are buying their seventh home," notes Stefanoni. It's easier to keep a customer than find a new one. So cementing a brand name helps keep the houses filled. Residents of Ryan Home developments like The Hamptons at Victor in upstate New York feel a certain sensation of homecoming upon encountering another Ryan development called The Estates at Windsor Forest in South Carolina.

Real estate branding guru David Miles says, "When a customer identifies with the personality of a home or community and finds it attractive, he or she transfers that personality by buying and using that product." The British names merely function as part of the corporate personality, just as names like Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side add brand equity and recognition, but don't affect the actual appearance or amenities of the individual home. Who cares that your bathtub is in the kitchen, when you're living in the hipster headquarters of the East Village?

But according to Miles, this endless rehashing of pseudo-British estate names reveals little more than a lack of creativity. "We don't need any more Willow Creeks in the world," he complains.

America may not need another Willow Creek, but it does need, according to Miles, a "Trailmark" (with a logo stamped in leather for a rugged western flavor) a "Reunion" and a "Provenance." The message here isn't British landed gentry so much as "Little House on the Prairie," but it serves the same need: Miles' names reflect a longing for a collective past, one that's probably fictional (how exactly does one have a Reunion with a structure still reeking of plaster and paint?) but whose associations are potent.

Say we kicked the Anglophilia and gave our suburbs names that more accurately reflected their surroundings. Would people drive home to Arby's Overlook? Balmoral-upon-Interstate 90? Probably not; we name places after our highest hopes for them; they reflect our faith in the American dream of upward mobility. Gretchen Gerzina, professor of English at Vassar College, speculates that moving into a development like Cheltenham Estates is an American version of purchasing a title. Buying into the Anglophile's Brit fantasy satisfies a longing for historical and cultural rootedness, a social structure that cements our unfixed class distinctions and gives us a narrative to replace the one we'd rather forget.

"No Logo" author Naomi Klein describes branding as a corporate strategy wherein commodities "divest [themselves] of the world of things." When we convert a flat stretch of former farmland into row houses and christen our creation "Tuscana" (an archaic rendering of "Tuscany" cribbed from an antique map), the farmland, the flatness and the miles of geography, culture and history that divide this former American Indian hunting ground -- this Civil War battlefield, this cotton plantation -- from scenic northern Italy no longer matter. All that matters is our hope for this new place, our latest vision of a new American destiny, packaged and up for sale.

By John Dicker

John Dicker is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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