Everyone agrees that America’s cities are in trouble. The familiar complaints about “urban blight” and overcrowded slums now seem almost quaint compared to the actual problem of wholesale desertion: the New York Times recently reported that residents of inner Detroit have taken up the cultivation of abandoned lots as the city is emptied of its population. The downtowns of mid-size and small cities become more and more eerily quiet as commercial vacancy rates continue to climb. A relocating or merged corporation’s decision to situate its headquarters in a downtown tower rather than a sleek suburban “campus” is now so rare as to be treated as a major victory by the dwindling bands of old-fashioned boosters who gamely devote themselves to promoting the alleged economic advantages of obviously moribund central business districts. Meanwhile, expensive vinyl shantytowns sprout ever more quickly in the fields and deserts at the far periphery of every metropolitan area in the country. We are left with a hollowing center and a vast encircling wasteland of macadam, studded with obtrusive signage and broken up in the more affluent residential zones by the overwatered shadeless lawns that have been the emblem of American suburbia since its inception. The social and environmental costs of this development pattern, from spiraling obesity to air pollution to unsustainable petroleum consumption to rootless suburban anomie, are by now so evident as to have become cliché.
Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture and Am erican studies at Yale and a leading historian of the American built environment’s relationship to its political integument, offers in Building Suburbia an explanation of how the now-characteristic forms of that environment took shape and of why the problems they cause have proven resistant to amelioration. She writes, her preface tells us, “from the perspective of an urban landscape historian who is also an architect, wife, mother, and suburban resident.” The last term of her self-description hints at what sets this book apart from even the most worthwhile other treatments of the urban crisis: Hayden tells the stories of suburban settlers without condescension and without automatic ascription of their choice of domicile to racism or mindless conformity. She scrupulously avoids both the self-congratulatory tone that creeps into, for instance, Jane Jacobs’s picture of her own idyllically bohemian Lower Manhattan neighborhood in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the wild anger at suburban piggery that pervades James Howard Kunstler’s books from The Geography of Nowhere on. For Hayden, the suburbs’ growth is not a drama of moral choice but the product of political and economic forces that she sets out to delineate, armed with formidable archival knowledge of two centuries’ worth of building practice and with a sensibility alert to the cultural roots and consequences of that practice.
The book’s chief historiographical innovation is its division of American suburban expansion into seven distinct stages, each guided by a different set of economic and social conditions. From the early years of the nineteenth century, when rendering plants and abattoirs were exiled to the outer fringes of nascent industrial cities, Hayden takes us through the construction of “picturesque” retreats for the upper class to the “streetcar suburbs” of the early twentieth-century and on into the successive waves of automobile-driven suburban explosion in the postwar decades. Textbook accounts tend to present these transformations as the inevitable result of incremental advances in transportation technology: the invention of the automobile, one learns, doomed the compact building patterns hitherto dominant and led inexorably to the dispersal of the middle classes across broad swaths of newly accessible hinterland. Hayden’s book, by contrast, insistently demonstrates that technological change cannot be treated as a neutral process unfolding in a political vacuum. Building Suburbia takes us beyond the familiar story of General Motors’ purchase and evisceration of the country’s electric trolley lines to show the regularity with which the influence of business interests, acting individually or collectively, has shaped transportation and development policy at all levels of government. Concerted lobbying and advertising campaigns helped ensure that public plans for growth were generally designed to maximize the profits of builders and land speculators. Hayden marshals evidence for extensive collusion over the last century between private real estate interests and the governmental bodies that were purportedly regulating them, collaboration that yielded on the one hand strong federal and local support for new private construction and on the other the financial starvation of efforts to provide affordable public housing.
During and after the Second World War, though, the speculative stranglehold on development seemed briefly imperiled by unprecedentedly robust public support, in the wake of the New Deal and of successful wartime public housing construction, for a national shelter policy that emphasized “new towns and multi-family public housing.” It is in Hayden’s analysis of the terms and outcome of the ensuing political struggle that the subtlety of her argument shows itself. She makes clear the broader ideological motives both of those who proposed meeting the postwar housing shortage with public or cooperative development and of the opposition arrayed against these plans. The new development planned by Catherine Bauer and other urban reformers and built with federal money during the 1930s and `40s challenged not only “free market” dogma but also the patterns of social life and consumption that private development helped to encourage: war housing, for example, sometimes “provid[ed] women war workers with support services including around-the-clock child care and take-out meals” and Greenbelt, Maryland, the first of a projected series of cooperative Greenbelt towns, “preserved pedestrian access to schools, parks, shops, and transit” and included retail stores owned and run by residents. The postwar backlash that torpedoed the Greenbelt program and effected the sale of wartime public housing to private landlords was consequently not, Hayden shows, simply a case of a single industry protecting its literal turf. The formidable real estate lobby led the charge, of course, but the centrality of the issue to the larger conflict over the economic and political direction America would take soon attracted the attention of, among others, Joseph McCarthy, who “hated multifamily designs as well as public funding for shelter” and declared public housing “a breeding ground for communists.” A coalition of business groups, including the powerful National Association of Manufacturers, succeeded in defeating proposals to expand the government’s direct role in providing housing, substituting for them a package of mortgage write-offs, federal loan guarantees, and massive highway expenditure that amounted to a colossal public subsidy for private construction and in particular for the single-family tract homes that filled what Hayden calls “sitcom suburbs.”
The chaotic suburban design encouraged by these policies made economic sense within the logic of a growing economy based on “mass consumption,” as the atomized, automobile-dependent way of life in the burgeoning suburbs generated explosive demand for the consumer appurtenances marketed as indispensable adjuncts to the suburban home. “Thousands of television commercials and print ads,” Hayden writes, “used the model house as the setting for all sorts of consumer goods.” She provides abundant illustration of advertisers’ persistent efforts to make consumption conceptually inseparable from tract-home ownership, but what seems to be her central point, that the imperative to consume is built into the very design of the postwar subdivision, is made more cogently in her essay “Capitalism, Socialism, and the Built Environment,” published in the pathbreaking 1983 anthology Socialist Visions. “Home ownership,” she wrote, “indeed proved to be an effective symbol to justify land speculation, excessive use of private automobiles, excessive purchase of consumer durables, and wasteful use of energy, as well as male chauvinism and racism.” Hayden argues in the essay that “the aesthetically disconnected pieces [of the suburban landscape] are coherent economically,” that is, serve a function in the larger scheme of an economic system in which all else is secondary to the maximization of profit. The political decision to entrust suburban construction to private investors and to design new development for more lucrative individual transportation, as opposed to enterprise-dampening publicly-owned mass transit, resulted inevitably in the sort of landscape we see today, one in which the undernourishment of the public sphere makes opting out of consumption impossible.
Hayden’s discussion of Levittown, the archetypal “sitcom suburb,” shows the extent to which enmeshment in an economy of private investment limited the choices available to both developers and their customers. The Levitt family built their Long Island subdivision on the scale of a town, but failed to provide for any of the necessary civic amenities, from schools to trash collection. The entire enterprise depended heavily on federal loan guarantees and became wildly profitable by “passing on the responsibilities for public services as quickly as possible.” In a regulatory climate so hospitable to speculation and with lavish federal funding for the highways that enabled builders to profitably ignore transit planning, the Levitts’ slash-and-burn approach to development was simply good business sense. When Alfred Levitt proposed a better-planned, multi-use project to be called Landia, his differences with his harder-headed brother became so intractable that the company split up. Landia was never built. The artificial conditions created by the political war on public housing and comprehensive planning made deviation from the Levittown model Quixotic. Once private investors had been entrusted with building America’s homes, buyers were allowed to choose from among the varieties of development that made investors rich—a narrow spectrum indeed, as it turned out.
The emphasis Hayden places on the economic and political reasons for the present form of American suburbia throws into relief the superficiality of several of its other prominent critics. Kunstler, for instance, has made a career out of sledgehammer attacks on the vulgarity and stupidity of American suburban building and planning without managing to acknowledge that the problems he identifies are anchored in the nature of American economic and political life. The frantic energy of his assault usually precludes the kind of reflection that might bring underlying causes to the surface. He writes of Las Vegas in his latest book, The City in Mind, “As a city it’s a futureless disaster. As a tourist trap, it’s a metajoke. As a theosophical matter, it presents proof that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.” He’s just getting warmed up: that excerpt kicks off twenty-one pages of Vegas abuse. In his world, the exteriors of suburban office park buildings are like the reflector sunglasses of a sadistic prison guard, a ring of such buildings is a “circle jerk,” and every chain restaurant is a “fry pit,” a term used so often over his last three books as to suggest clinical fixation. Kunstler conceives of city and town planning as a transmitted art, a tradition disrupted over the last century by the irresponsibility of the “architectural establishment,” the rise of the automobile, and the swinish ignorance of the American people. Classicism in architecture and urban design, he writes, “offers us a comprehensive set of tools for resolving some of the practical problems of the human ecology.” The freeways and pod subdivisions of American suburbia mark for Kunstler an epochal rejection of classical design practice. The suburban environment, he argues repeatedly throughout his oeuvre, has become so humanly intolerable and so manifestly unsustainable that America must return to the principles of human-scale planning or risk social and economic collapse.
Kunstler has a point here: the exhausting commutes and debt-ridden slavery to the automobile that suburbia imposes on its middle-class residents do seem to be generating mounting unrest. A number of jurisdictions have enacted “smart growth” ordinances limiting the development of virgin land and attempting to redirect growth back into older and denser areas, and Hayden describes in the final chapters of her book a growing impatience among suburbanites with “the economic and environmental consequences of the longest splurge in private housing the world has ever known.” It is axiomatic in American politics that “market forces” can push around the poor with impunity, but those results of corporate banditry that, like the aesthetic horror and social chaos of suburban life, begin to inconvenience the propertied themselves can generate rumblings of concern and possibly even gestures towards remediation. The most provocative among the anti-sprawl movements Hayden surveys is the New Urbanism, an umbrella term for a variety of experiments in the design of coherent pedestrian-scale neighborhoods. Andres Duany, dedicatee of Kunstler’s latest book and the best-known of the New Urbanists, has built a series of what Hayden calls “neo-traditional enclaves” premised on the rehabilitation of the sustainable, community-minded planning whose fall into disuse Kunstler laments. Hayden notes sternly that even the best-meaning builders “thrive on new construction” and that Duany and his allies have built almost exclusively “affluent greenfield projects on the suburban fringe.” Duany and his collaborator Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk assure us in their own book, revealingly titled Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, that they direct those interested in settling in a New Urbanist neighborhood to first consider the crumbling Old Urbanist metropolitan core, but Hayden’s point that neo-traditional neighborhoods cater to the wealthy, are unable to escape dependence on the car-centered transportation grids in which they are embedded, and make as much of a fetish of single-family home ownership as the Levitts ever did sheds much light on the deficiencies of the entire New Urbanist enterprise, and by extension on the sort of solutions to the urban crisis Kunstler and his like demand. The ways in which the effort to build real communities, planned for social rather than simply individual need, falls short of its goal point up the basic incompatibility of such goals with the economic environment in which the projects are attempted. The contradiction between New Urbanist objectives and the profit imperatives ruling the Darwinian world of commercial development shows the usefulness of Hayden’s account of the structural exigencies under which the suburbs took shape. The reader of her book understands that sprawl is not just the product of individual choice and so cannot be reversed by piecemeal changes that leave in place the subordination of housing need to the tyranny of private investment.
Hayden herself offers some proposals for improvement. Her previous work has concerned, among other topics, the architectural and urban design projects arising from American communitarian socialism, and it is thus hardly surprising that her tour of the seven stages is always attentive to whatever place the designs of each phase might find in a community of equals. The book’s tight focus on historical causality, that is, never crowds out imaginative attention to the possibility of finding models in the past. “Where streetcar suburbs have been well maintained,” she writes, “ they offer livable patterns worth reexamining for their compact land use and good public transit.” Her alertness to what might be salvageable in the suburbs we have inherited is equally apparent in her Socialist Visions essay, which includes an ingenious plan, complete with diagrams, for the conversion of a cookie-cutter subdivision block into a functional community, with housing for an array of different households and cooperative facilities for child-care and shopping. Real social and economic change, she shows, can soften the isolation and wastefulness built into the postwar suburb, but attempts to remake the built environment while leaving in place the forces that spawned it mistake effect for cause.
The city of Baltimore, having failed to convince its inhabitants by vigorous park-bench and bus-flank sloganeering that they were in fact living in “The Greatest City in America,” recently launched an advertising campaign in which the same long-suffering inhabitants were exhorted to “Believe” in their city. Hayden’s book helps us see what is wrong with this sort of thinking: the emptying of country’s older settlements is the consequence of a systematic policy of leaving the provision of housing and transportation to private interests and can be arrested not by moral suasion but by political rejection of those policies and the economic system in which they are rooted. Discussion of the buildings in which we live is inescapably moral and political, Hayden shows us, not in the easy and smug sense in which those who “Believe” in the city and stay resident there are superior to their suburban siblings, but in that such discussion soon raises fundamental questions about capitalism’s ability to respond effectively to human needs and desires.
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