April 9, 2019
Revisiting America’s Little-Known Experimental Suburbs
In a new book, CityLab editor Amanda Kolson Hurley wants architects and planners to take a fresh look at the suburbs.
There’s a familiar narrative of postwar American suburbia that has implanted itself into our national consciousness. Despite the fact that many suburbs today are becoming more diverse and offering increasingly urban amenities like walkability and transit access, it seems impossible to suggest that the suburbs can ever be anything but white, middle- to upper-class, and sterile. But the new book Radical Suburbs, written by CityLab editor Amanda Kolson Hurley, aims to help designers rethink today’s suburbs by highlighting little-known historical examples: a New Jersey colony of anarchists who built their own community and rode the commuter train to New York; an experimental development of Modernist architect–occupied homes in Lexington, Massachusetts; the celibate commune of Economy, Pennsylvania.
Hurley, who lives in Montgomery County, just outside of Washington, D.C., was inspired by her own experiences rethinking what suburbia looks like today. “For me, suburbia is…living in a condo, with no yard or garage, and having neighbors who hail from Tibet, Brazil, and Kenya as well as Cincinnati,” she writes in the introduction. “It’s my son attending a school that reflects the diversity—and stubborn inequality—of America today.” While contemporary issues of segregation, inequity, and climate change seem to call for a wholesale abandonment of suburban values, Radical Suburbs insists that history can provide surprising insight into these national issues.
Tanner Howard: The suburbs have always been more unruly than we’ve thought. As you say in the book, the suburbs are “where the city pushed what it didn’t want to see, hear, or smell.” What do you see as the biggest consequences of limiting our view of suburbs and their development in postwar America?
Amanda Kolson Hurley: Much of the popular image of suburbia boils down to two big things: the kind of postwar Levittown of endless cookie-cutter houses, up to the horizon, populated by conformist people, and then the older, genteel suburbs, a place like where “Home Alone” was filmed—the paradigmatic, upper-middle class, WASP-y suburban home.
Those two traditions have an outsize influence on how we conceive of suburbia, and it’s led people to disregard other fascinating strands of suburban history. There were all sorts of communities living in the suburbs, especially before World War II, that were a little more informal—they bought their own lots, built their own houses, and often kept animals. There were still farms on the outskirts of large cities, as well as industrial suburbs, and religious communes.
In talking to people connected to these places about their homes, a lot of them instinctively pushed back against having the word “suburb” applied to their community. The idea of suburbia has become so narrow, so they [say], “This is an alternative living experiment, this is not suburban.” But I try to make the case that these were suburbs, if you just expand that definition a little bit.
TH: You suggest that architects and planners spurning suburbia push these areas further from their true potential by allowing for the worst tendencies of cookie-cutter sprawl to proliferate. Why should these designers be looking at suburbs with fresh eyes today?
AKH: There is a longstanding bias on the part of the cultural elite against suburbia. With architects, it really is a shame. There are a few looking at bringing suburbia into the 21st century, and making it more sustainable and equitable, but not many. They’re missing a great design opportunity, and the rest of us, those of us who live or work there—which is more than half the country—are then missing out on a better-designed environment.
All of these different actors are making fatalistic assumptions. Architects think, “Well, suburbanites just have very traditional tastes, they’re not going to be interested in this.” Developers and homebuilders make some of those same assumptions, like, “We can’t try anything new here anyway.” Maybe even suburban elected officials think, “Well, we can’t push the envelope too much, people will complain if we try to do something different.” I think it’s time for us to move beyond the set of assumptions that has us blocked into a model that I think at least a large minority of people are not that satisfied with. I’m hopeful that urbanist-minded millennials moving to the suburbs will start to move the needle in suburban politics and change conversations from no to yes in some ways.
TH: The Maryland suburb of Greenbelt, a New Deal–constructed affordable rental suburb, is one of the most fascinating in the book. It’s hard to fathom our government pursuing such a project today. What do you think Greenbelt’s success says about the government’s role in affordable housing?
AKH: What I find with Greenbelt that’s both heartening and depressing is that, back in the 1930s, the federal government took this muscular role in what was then a pretty bad housing crisis. This was in many ways successful, and if you look at Greenbelt now, it’s quite a lovely place. They produced attractive and efficient housing with this idea of grouping [residences] to foster social cohesion. That seems to have been successful, certainly with the first generation of families that bonded with the people living in their housing courts.
These were all renters. This was before American homeownership was the norm. This was rental housing, for people of moderate means—there was an income cap to live there—and it was very comfortable and dignified. The message it sent was that there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to living in subsidized housing, or to be a renter, and that there is a place in suburbia for those who don’t own homes. I find that quite inspiring, but what’s depressing is the incredibly strong headwinds that this vision faced from day one, because private industries so forcefully pushed back against it. Still, if the federal government was trying to build entire demonstration towns in the 1930s, maybe affirmatively furthering fair housing is not exactly a bold policy by comparison.
[Editor’s note: Hurley has served as an editor for several stories written by Tanner Howard for CityLab.]
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