The Metra station in Riverside, Illinois, a version 1.0 streetcar suburb designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
I’m reading another book a publisher sent to me. It seems pretty biased, and it’s biased in the direction I already feel, so it’s really easy reading. But it seems that people like me are its only audience and that it assumes I’m already pro-cities, anti-suburbs and maybe even anti-car. Definitely not a book that’s going to espouse the benefits of transit to those who don’t use it, don’t want to use it, or are on the fence for either situation.
If I could get my father or brother to read this book, that would be an accomplishment just short of a miracle.
The book is Straphanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile, by Taras Grescoe. I really like the section I just finished reading, a “condensed history of sprawl”. I had recently “argued” with my father about the development of the subdivision he lives in, east of Phoenix. He posited that suburbs were the result of consumer desires. Grescoe writes to the contrary. Here we go:
The origin of the Anglo-American suburb has been traced to Clapham, five miles south of London, where, in the 1790s, Evangelical Christians eager to remove their families from the evils of the city began living in what had formerly been their weekend villas, and commuting to the City by private carriage. In the United States, [author Kenneth] Jackson dates the beginning of the process to 1815, when regular steam ferry service to Manhattan made Brooklyn Heights the nation’s first true commuter suburb. (page 89)
American suburb version 1.0
- When: 1853 onward
- What it was: picturesque, full of green space, near central cities, attached by rail line
- Who lived there: As mortgages didn’t exist, only those who could afford to buy a home outright
- Examples: Llewellyn Park, NJ; Riverside, IL.
- Note: Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” design is related.
American suburb version 2.0
- When: Post World War II
- What it was: cheap, small housing on vast land tracts; pre-assembled homes
- Who lived there: Families with soldiers that expanded quickly so new homes were needed fast.
- Examples: Levittown, Long Island; Lakewood, Los Angeles.
- Note: “The prevailing myth”, writes Kenneth Jackson, “is that the postwar suburbs blossomed because of the preference of consumers who made free choices in an open environment. Actually, most postwar families were not free to choose among several residential alternatives. Because of public policies favoring the suburbs, only one possibility was economically feasible”.
American suburb version 3.0
- When: Late 1980s, 1990s to now
- What it was: Found near office parks, also known as “edge cities”, “common interest communities” (gated and homeowners associations)
- Who lived there: Single races (self-segregating), people who lean conservative
- Examples: Silicon Valley, Nevada, Florida
- Note: Under the George W. Bush administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offered easy credit and homeownership rate rose to 69% by 2004. “(By 2012, it is expected to drop to 62%, the lowest level since 1960.)”
American suburb version 4.0
- When: 2008, easy credit crisis, underwater mortgages
- What it is: Least glamorous, the clichéd image of the inner city has moved to the suburbs. Arizona has highest rate of property crime. Nevada and Florida, the most suburbanized states, have highest rates of violent crime (Florida also has highest rate of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities).
- Who lives there: A diverse group of people.
- Examples: See “What it is”
- Note: “Humans are social animals. I [Kenneth Jackson] think the biggest fake ever perpetrated is that children like, and need, big yards. What children like are other children. I think we move children to the suburbs to control the children, not to respond to something the children want. In the city, the kids might see somebody urinate in public, but they’re much more at risk in the suburbs, where they tend to die in cars.”
What are those public policies as described in American suburb version 2.0?
The federal government had carrots and sticks. Carrots were subsidies for homeownership (could be deducted from income taxes) and no down payment required for returning soldiers. Sticks included redlining (racial segregation), propagated by the Federal Housing Administration and banks. Zoning was another stick, which dictated what could go where.
Another carrot was the federally-funded highway system, the “greatest public subside to private real estate in the history of the world”.