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It's in Our Heads -- A Review of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

02/03/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

A few years ago I wrote a short essay on Huffington Post where I asked the question, "Why Did America Destroy Its Great Cities?" I didn't have the answer, but I thought the question why was ultimately more important than the question how. What drove America to throw billions of dollars of investment, not to mention great neighborhoods, businesses, and institutions, away?

Last year Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland, published a book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, that provides a possible answer to my question. Historians of the future may debate whether Ross is right, but at least he tries to explain why 30 years after World War II it was American cities, not European, that looked bombed out.

Ross locates the answer why deep in America's contradictory collective psychology, where altruism and greed, democracy and snobbery, freedom and control, and interests both public and private, battle it out--all within an intellectual and social context of deep suspicion of cities. As Ross sees it, people and their wealth were drawn out of the city by their desires, primarily for status and what goes with it, long before they were driven from the city by their fears.

For Ross, the story begins with altruistic reformers in the 19th century, even before the Civil War. He begins his first chapter, "The Strange Birth of Suburbia," by calling sprawl, "[t]he mutant spawn of a socialist commune," and traces its beginnings to radical experiments in collectivism, originally based on Fourierist principles, instituted by "the dissidents of another era, abolitionists, sexual pioneers, seekers of spiritual enlightenment." Their experiments in communal living ushered in notions of conformity that were alien (and are still at odds with) the sanctity that Anglo-American law and culture normally ascribe to private property.

After various failed projects, beginning with Brook Farm, Ross finds that a successful (i.e., profitable) formula emerged with Llewellyn Park in South Orange, New Jersey, an hour by train and ferry from Manhattan. It's at Llewellyn Park that the physical layout of the suburb (curving streets, houses set back from the street to create front lawns, architectural controls, etc.) and the legal structure (exclusion of commerce, covenants detailing how privately owned land could be used, a private governing body, etc.) first jelled.

Most important, the formula was replicable. After Llewellyn Park, which architect Alexander Jackson Davis designed, it was Frederick Olmsted, of Central Park fame, who more than anyone else repeated and expanded upon the concept. Beginning with Riverside outside of Chicago, Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux designed fifteen suburbs connected by rail to central cities.

Consider how radical a legal notion, for America, the suburb is. In the land of the free and the fee simple, suburban homeowners believe, in Ross's words, that "property rights include a veto over building on neighbors' land--an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property." Central to the notion of the original suburbs, and the less deluxe versions that followed, was exclusivity. The effect of all the covenants, all the planning, was to exclude residents of lower incomes and lesser social standing. In a grand bargain, one that continues, Americans were willing to trade property rights for status.

Status was relative, but the ethos remained the same. The railroad suburb became the streetcar suburb. After the Depression and the War came Levittown and Lakewood. Lots became smaller, streets became straighter, and shared amenities disappeared. What remained was a fierce opposition to anyone of lower class (or suspect race or ethnicity!) moving into the neighborhood or even nearby. This meant zoning that excluded apartments and sanctified the single-family home and its attendant "community character," the preservation of which operates as ethnic exclusion.

Ross spends a lot of the book analyzing zoning and its paradoxes. Normally it's the Left that approves governmental regulation of property, but zoning is just one example of how governmental regulation may be used to benefit those with property rather than to solve social ills or level the playing field.

It's not only zoning. Ross shows that time and again, government power, first used with the best intentions for good social purposes, gets bent back again to reinforce exclusion. Take, for instance, historical preservation, which gets going initially to save true urban monuments, but then, as Ross points out, can often become another tool for preventing any change: "Nimbys who pose as preservationists speak of why they like the old building, when their real passion is dislike of the new one." Similarly environmentalism gets twisted against the city.

Consistent throughout the book is Ross's focus on how attitudes about status undermine democracy, allowing small numbers of relatively privileged people to effect policies that have negative impacts on many more.

Much of Ross's book constitutes one of the best summaries of the history of suburbanization I've read, but in the end he wants to make an optimistic point, the "Rebirth" part of the book's subtitle. He writes about how new investments in public transportation are changing the dynamic and bringing urbanism back, changes in the landscape that conform to a cultural backlash against the suburban ideal.

I'm not so sure, but Ross's optimism is admirable. In any case, time will tell. It took decades to destroy the cities and it will take decades to fix them.

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, by Benjamin Ross; Oxford University Press (2014); 249 pages; $29.95

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