Thursday, December 20, 2007

Arrested Suburban Development

Has Suburbia, Like Levitt & Sons, Gone Bankrupt?

Nostalgia aside -- and we all love to dwell in the perceived wonders of the "good old days" -- the conclusion, that suburbia is a place of "affordable homes, good schools, nice parks and public safety," eludes us on Long Island.

Sure, there remain pockets of wholesome goodness still contained by the white picket fence, but gone are the days when the kids rode their bikes from home to anywhere until dinner (even after it got dark, and all without cell phones), and the chain link, adorned with barbed wire, has too often supplanted picket, white or otherwise.

Can we, as descendants of the first suburbanites, still lay claim to -- or perhaps reclaim -- "the best?"

We'd like to think so. But such wishful thinking -- along with how much for a ride on the LIRR? -- will not the legacy of Levittown rekindle.
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From the Wall Street Journal:

Suburban Development

I didn't grow up in Levittown, N.Y., the iconic American suburb founded 60 years ago. But you could call North Woodmere, the Long Island town my parents moved to in 1957, a close relation.

In 1963, poet Richard Wilbur wrote "To an American Poet Just Dead": "In summer sunk and stupefied/ The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death." Many of us who were raised in these places would have agreed. Some might even have cheered the news announced a couple of weeks ago that the Levitt Co. has gone bankrupt.

The streets of our suburbs were often roughly paved at first; trees were slim sticks that provided little shade. Everyone was similarly aged and, for the most part, from one of the three major New York social food groups: Italians, Irish and Jews. Boredom could be relieved only by a train ride to Manhattan. In our innocence, we did not know why our parents moved to these pre-packaged wonderlands. The only times we got an inkling was when visiting relatives still back in Brooklyn. They lived in apartments on blocks with no yards and often attended dangerous schools.

Our parents, as we understood only when we got older, knew what they were doing. They were part of a nationwide revolution in expectations among middle- and working-class city dwellers for whom a move to suburbia meant the chance to flee the crime, crowding and other ills of urban America.

What made this revolution possible was in large part what made cars, refrigerators and TV sets luxury goods no longer: mass production. Like most geniuses, William Levitt, the founder of Levittown, worked on a simple premise. If you could build houses on an assembly line and remove cost-creating encumbrances (most famously, basements), you could make them affordable for average Americans. "Any damn fool can build homes," Mr. Levitt, who made the cover of Time in 1950, once noted. "What counts is how many you can sell for how little."

Previously, homeownership had been a prospect for only the affluent or people in the hinterlands. But Mr. Levitt, using production techniques he perfected in the Navy, offered amazingly cheap homes: The first Cape Cods went for $6,990 in 1947 (when median family income was $3,031). With the aid of mortgage financing from the GI Bill, buyers could get along with down payments as low as $100 and monthly installments of as little as $65.

By the time he was finished, 17,500 homes were completed in Levittown. This was not a singular achievement but one repeated by Mr. Levitt himself in Philadelphia's suburbs and by imitators from coast to coast. Indeed, by the mid-1980s America enjoyed a rate of homeownership -- roughly two-thirds of all families -- double that of Germany, Switzerland, France and Britain. Nearly three-quarters of AFL-CIO members and the vast majority of intact families owned their own homes.

New York planning czar Robert Moses, who constructed the road system that made developments like Levittown viable for commuters, understood the appeal of these new communities. "The little identical suburban boxes of average people, which differ only in color and planting, represent a measure of success unheard of by hundreds of millions on other continents," he said.

Suburbs absorbed a remarkable 84% of the nation's population increase during the 1950s. And the pattern has not much changed. We remain an increasingly suburban nation. Despite a strong uptick in residential growth in some core cities, during the first five years of the new millennium suburbs and exurbs accounted for slightly more than 92% of the total growth in our metropolitan areas.

But what of suburbanization's naysayers? Social critics have long denounced these neighborhoods as racist, and Levittown, like many suburbs, did once exclude African-Americans. Only a few trickled in after the Supreme Court rulings on segregation in the 1950s.

In 1970, nearly 95% of all suburbanites were white.

Traditional urbanists also have little love for suburbia. Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs agreed on little but this. Mr. Mumford identified the suburbs as the "anti-city," sucking the creative essence out of old urban areas and turning them into disregarded parcels of "a disordered and disintegrating urban mass." Ms. Jacobs was hostile both to suburbia and to its primary means of transportation. She identified the car as "the chief destroyer of American communities."

This assessment hasn't gotten better with time. The tradition of suburb-bashing among intellectuals like Richard Wilbur continues today in the writings of James Howard Kunstler and urban critic Paul Knox, who denounces suburbia as "vulgaria." Such hostility is based on everything from the aesthetics of the communities to claims that their car-dependent culture helps to expand the nation's waistlines. And now suburbs have come under fire from environmentalists, who hector them for their alleged contributions to global warming.

But places like Fort Bend County, Texas, and Walnut, Calif., are not your father's suburbs. They boast some of the most diverse populations in the nation. Today's Levittown, N.Y., is still only 10% nonwhite, but Willingboro, N.J., another Levittown development (in the Philadelphia suburbs), is now majority black. Indeed, more than one in four suburbanites nationwide is a minority-group member. Along with immigrants and their offspring, African-Americans have been consistently moving to the suburbs; the percentage of blacks living in the periphery has risen to well over one in three.

And although they are far from hotbeds of culture, many suburbs are not as boring and featureless as they seemed when I was a kid. Recently, Details magazine even published a guide to "the hippest 'burbs to live in." Foodies know that many of the best ethnic restaurants can now be found in suburban strip malls, operated by immigrants who have flocked to places like Los Angeles's San Gabriel Valley or Houston's Bellaire Road. Thriving performing-arts centers have risen in such unlikely locations as Cobb County, outside Atlanta, and Costa Mesa, Calif. Some newer suburbs also come complete with extensive park systems, bike trails and areas with restored natural habitats.

Yet despite these changes, no one will mistake contemporary Levittown, or the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where my family now resides, for New York's SoHo or San Francisco's North Beach. Instead, their success revolves around many of the basics that William Levitt recognized as critical -- affordable homes, good schools, nice parks and public safety. As long as suburbs continue to deliver them, the master developer's legacy is likely to live on for another 60 years.

Mr. Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. He is author of "The City: A Global History."

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