Sunday, November 21, 2004


Book Review by James Abraham

How home sweet home lost its sweetness

The next time you have to climb into your car to go get a loaf of bread as you wonder why your housing development lacks local schools, hospitals or other such amenities, do this: Slow down, take a deep breath, and read "Building Suburbia," ($26, Random House) by Dolores Hayden.

Her book, subtitled "Greenfields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000," offers the best single-volume guide to how the road to a quiet place in the country became a crowded freeway to suburbia.
How exciting can a discourse on urban planning be? Well, read the book and see how Hayden plows new ground in discussing the post-war housing boom.

"The planning of these postwar suburbs was often presented in the press as hasty, driven by the patriotic need to meet the demand for housing created by the khaki-clad, beribboned heroes returned from the Battle of the Bulge...The press attributed problems in suburb design to rushed planning, but this was not the case. Backroom politics of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s had shaped postwar housing and urban design. There was no haste at all in the twenty years of lobbying for federal support of private-market, single-family housing development. The postwar suburbs were constructed at great speed, but they were deliberately planned to maximize consumption of mass-produced goods and minimize the responsibility of the developers to create public space and public services."

We were robbed, both as homeowners and as tax-payers, by guys out to make a buck on our dreams of home ownership.

Hayden writes of the fabled Levitts of Long Island's Levittown, stripping back the layer of myths about the father and two sons who built 17,000 homes during the post-war housing boom.

"Levitt and Sons often boasted that they "set aside" land for schools to both towns, but according to the NYU report, they paid for nothing and built nothin," writes Hayden. "Towns had to assess the taxpayers in special districts to pay for the land costs as well as school buildings, school operations and public libraries. "

Residents and governments were left holding the bag as the Levitts shucked off the burden of infrastructure on government, thus stranding thousands of homeowners miles from schools or shops. In the original Levittown, writes Hayden, the builders left the residents with cesspools instead of sewers. Guess who paid to create a sanitary disposal system?

Services were soon outstripped in the counties and towns whose borders made them responsible for the Levitts' metastasizing homes. Taxes rose as residents found themselves paying to extend trash, police, fire and rescue services to thousands of new homes and newer residents annually.

What went wrong? What turned the American dream of a nice, quiet home in the country into this nightmare of mega-developments and endangered green fields?

Unchecked capitalism, says Hayden. She offers the reader a historical view of the first suburbs, areas of borderlands where city dwellers with the wherewithal would repair to build nascent suburbs. From the religious sects of the nineteenth century such as the Shakers to the exclusive gated communities of that era's wealthy, the stories of such communities inform Hayden's thesis that the desire for peace, quiet and safety was compromised early on.

A destination close to commerce, schools and urban services but far from the madding crowd has always been somewhat illusory, Hayden writes. Sure, if one had enough money one could do what was done in Baltimore's Roland Park or New York's Tuxedo Park, where wealthy men built private, gated suburbs close the city.

But all too often, as Hayden writes, what resulted was either an elitist shell of a "good neighborhood" or an end to the dream as the surrounding urban area expanded to engulf the Eden of seclusion.

One can see examples of both those phenomena in our state. In North Port, residents who years ago thought they were living on the edge of that fast-growing town, for example, south of the Holiday Park area, now find themselves swallowed up in the burgeoning community's south-southeast growth pattern.

And Abacoa, a glittering "New Urbanism" community near Jupiter designed to hearken back to old-fashioned neighborhoods -- with a mix of diversity -- is instead an enclave of wealth, as the cost of realizing the development's goal has placed its units far beyond the capacity of the average resident.

Hayden looks beyond the confines of housing to examine the other components of the built environment necessary for a community's sustainable growth and how they contributed to the erosion of peace and comfort suburban living was expected to foster.

She tells how tax breaks granted by Republican administrations encouraged big box store and strip mall owners to build cheaply, then profit by pulling out and leaving a community with a huge abandoned piece of real estate. The developers made money by employing low-skilled, non-union labor, thus driving down wages in the area. Families forced to drive long distances helped every component of the auto industry and its ancillary industries, from Fords to fast-food joints, grow rich at the expense of center cities starved by the outflux of industry and taxpayers bound for the suburbs.

Left behind were the worst jobs, the worst kind of people (at least in many a suburban emigre's eyes) and eventually the worst buildings.

Hayden takes such a scenario to its logical high-tech conclusion, as families cocoon in smart houses to telecommute, shop on-line for goods and services, and otherwsie sustain themselves.

Walls would be replaced with computer-generated images of city streets, concert halls, daisy fields or whatever visual stimulation soothed and satisfied the smart house owner.

Of course, the rest of us unable ro afford a smart house would be still out there in that brave cool world, sucking up auto fumes and wondering why we have to shoulder such a large burden to maintain basic municipal services.

But it doesn't have to end that way. Hayden offers concrete suggestions for true urban renewal. Concepts such as historic preservation, urban service boundaries, or energy conservation are as old as traffic jams. But Hayden brings new insight and intelligent historical context to her advocacy of those elements of good comprehensive growth plans.

Better yet, she wisely suggests that only a change in political will would effect a change in the way houses are developed and greenlands destroyed. After writing a road map of the major legislative actions that concretized our suburban ways, Hayden says Congress and governments must now clean up a system that favors houses as units rather than as parts of a community whole. Only informed and intelligent citizen pressure can bring about such a change, she says.

Hayden, a Yale University professor, has written often and well about the sad dynamics of our cities and suburbs. It's to the professor's credit that, instead of playing Cassandra and then skedaddling for the 'burbs, she argues cogently for some practical solutions that could lead us back to the road of our national dream.

James M. Abraham, a syndicated book columnist, can be reached at

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?