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The Ties That Bind

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I don’t drive a car, although I grew up in L.A. and have lived my life here. I walk to the dry cleaners, my dentist, the post office and my job. I walk to the big shopping center less than a mile away. On Sundays, I walk to church. I ride a bus for dinner on the town. I ride light rail to get to downtown Los Angeles and the new subway to Hollywood.

These are my habits, and I have them because of disability, not because I was persuaded. I’m visually handicapped, with all the burdens of a nondriver in a culture of motorized fluidity. I can have this life (that few of you would choose) by the grace of living in Lakewood, a mass-produced blue-collar suburb begun in 1949 and completed by 1953. It’s the kind of place Lewis Mumford vilified in “The City in History.”

“A multitude of uniform unidentifiable houses,” he wrote, “lined up inflexibly at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.”

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As far as I could tell by their lives together here, my parents did not escape to their mass-produced suburb. They never considered escaping from it. Nor have I. My parents and their neighbors in the 1950s understood, more generously than Mumford, what they had gained and lost in owning a small house on a small lot in a neighborhood connected to more square miles of just the same. More men than just my father have said to me that living here gave them a life made whole.

D.J. Waldie lives in Lakewood, where he is a city official. He is the author of “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.”

“I went to find women full of angst and children who were stunted and men who were emasculated,” Barbara Kelly said of Levittown in “Expanding the American Dream” in 1993. Instead, she found people who were both grateful to be exactly where they were and ready to remake their places in it completely. Their lives, she found, had expanded even as they had added new rooms to their abstract 800-square-foot houses.

Why places like Levittown and Lakewood had to be built is the subject of Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen’s “Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened.” They reframe the 50-year debate about worker housing that preceded the mass-produced suburbs. They report interviews with dozens of past and current Levittowners on what became of them through the 1960s and into the 1990s. And they help explain why contempt for suburban places has left their critics so poorly informed about the suburbs’ complicated history.

The suburb I live in wasn’t an aberrant imposition on the map of America. It was virtually obligatory. More than 50 years before the ground was cleared for Lakewood, Puritan fears of the city and its fleshly temptations blended with fears of urban ethnic and racial minorities. Social hygienists within the “City Beautiful” movement raised concerns about the emotional and physical hazards of city life that combined with Frank Lloyd Wright’s reformulation of Jeffersonian democracy based on suburban homeowners instead of yeoman farmers. Above all, places like Levittown and Lakewood appeared when beliefs about worker housing as a prophylactic against class conflict intersected a postindustrial economy that required millions of reliable consumers for the new products of mass production.

Utopians, social workers, radical architects, writers for women’s magazines, union leaders and businessmen like Boston department store owner Edward Filene agreed that working-class housing was the overriding issue of the age. “Make houses like Fords,” Filene insisted in his influential book “The Way Out” in 1925. Make them as cheap and as easy to own too.

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It took just 20 years (and the Depression, World War II and the first terrors of the Cold War) to make the millions of small houses “like Fords” that William Levitt, Mark Taper, Louis Boyar, Fritz Burns and dozens of other merchant builders tilted up on the once-rural fringes of cities. And it took the creation of a risk-free mortgage market for banks that had endured the Depression’s mass foreclosures, as well as a federally subsidized pool of cheap credit for the merchant builders and a workable plan for the mass production of houses. New Deal reformers made the first two innovations; Levitt engineered the third.

These changes, reflecting a generation’s longing for homeownership and a radical redefinition of property ownership, transformed the nation’s built environment and made the suburban house a standardized commodity. It wasn’t only the new houses’ size, interior layout and mechanical systems that were standardized but their social context as well. Federal loan regulations in 1950 mandated racial and ethnic segregation, imposed on builders a crude summary of progressive town planning ideals and created a stable market for long-term (and therefore affordable) loans to ordinary people with little to recommend them except the habits of work they had acquired in the Depression and the war years.

Levitt and the other builders depended on those habits to make abstract houses--so cheaply built that anyone who wasn’t African American or Hispanic was welcome to buy one--seem an astonishing gift to grateful men and women like my parents.

An intense national debate at every level of society, the completion of permanent structural changes in banking and the federal government and the creation of a spectacularly successful consumer product that husbands and wives waited hours to see in 1946 . . . and it was Levittown.

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“The history of suburbia is at the heart of twentieth century American history,” write Baxandall and Ewen. “At every critical juncture, suburban history collides with the history of housing and its pivotal role in the evolution of American society. The idea of suburbia was central to visionaries, planners, and socially conscious architects who began to imagine a new America where ordinary people, not just the elite, would have access to attractive, modern housing in communities with parks, gardens, recreation, stores, and cooperative town meeting places.”

That generous imagination congealed soon after Lakewood. Those who had presumed to mold working-class neighborhoods for the moral improvement it would give working-class lives were appalled at the houses and neighborhoods that working people desired. By 1960, former advocates believed, on no verifiable evidence, that the mass-produced suburb was inevitably a place of dehumanizing conformity, anxious consumption and aching regret.

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Despite the critics’ moralism, this is actually an aesthetic argument pitched to the privileged. Suburban places were ugly, photographs of Lakewood and Levittown in 1950 seemed to show, and the ugliness leached into the people who lived there.

Among the classics of anti-suburban irony is Bill Owens’ reissued “Suburbia,” a 1973 collection of deadpan photographs of new move-ins at the Sunsetown subdivision in Northern California. In one, a little boy rides his Big Wheel defiantly into the empty street, his toy Winchester rifle on his hip. It’s impossible not to think that Columbine is on its way.

David Halberstam, who has written perceptively of America in the 1950s, contributes a startling introduction to these pictures. “What comes through is Owens’ empathy for the people he photographed,” Halberstam says, who he thinks were pioneers at purchasing a middle-class life. When I first saw Owens’ pictures in the mid-1970s, what came through was existential dread. These pioneers, Owens seemed to show, had been suckered into buying only suburbia.

Ironic and detached, the aesthetically privileged blindly processed pictures of suburbs into an image of suburbia. Suburbia--from Mumford through Peter Blake’s “God’s Own Junkyard” to William Howard Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere”--erased the story of the suburbs.

The erasure included the story of what William Levitt deliberately omitted from Levittown: a human-scale consensus among its new residents that they were a community, not just consumers. Levitt intended to train his new purchasers (of whom he had a notably low opinion) in the burdens of home ownership, but they proved intractable community builders on their own terms. Levitt, a conservative Republican with ties to Joseph McCarthy, sought to control the habits of Levittowners as firmly as any repressive regime. He owned and used both the town’s newspapers to manipulate public opinion, employed McCarthy-style smear tactics and disinformation techniques to stifle the town’s growing political life and engaged in pure intimidation against some residents.

The Levittowners were far ahead of him. They successfully filled in the blanks of Levitt’s street grid with women’s clubs, churches, charity drives, political organizations and their own complicated efforts at living together. They continued the process through the 1950s and into the turmoil of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam conflict, the transformation of the family in the 1970s, post-Cold War recession and the new realities of living in a multiracial, multiethnic suburb.

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The Levittowners’ consensus about community building failed repeatedly in specific subdivisions afterward--there is no lack of toxic places in suburbs or anywhere else--but they succeeded in defining expectations about the neighborhoods in which the majority of us seek to live. Regardless of race, income or current housing status, 75% to 80% of Americans want to own a single-family house with a yard on a block of similar houses connected to a community in which the resources of an ordinary life (a school, a church, a store, a friend) can be found.

When a 1995 Newsweek cover story prescribed “15 ways to fix the suburbs,” some Lakewood city officials were quietly amused. Of the “fixes” that architects and planners saw as lessons from authentic communities before the mess of suburbia, eight had been built into Lakewood in assembly-line fashion by its developers 45 years before.

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Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk--architects, founders of a movement called New Urbanism and authors with Jeff Speck of “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream”--hardly want more.

Despite its rhetoric about “sprawl” (into which everything built for working people since 1946 is collapsed), New Urbanism in practice is the promotion of new suburban housing developments--like the towns of Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md., that Duany and Plater-Zyberk designed--that combine nostalgia for 19th century, small-town neighborhoods with a near-religious belief in light-rail mass transit. (Los Angeles is an instructive example of the price paid when the “growth machine” of suburban development stalls and a new growth machine of government spending on rail transit takes its place.)

Duany and Plater-Zyberk hope to persuade you to give up your car, your large yard and your isolating privacy for places made (or remade) to be New Urbanist towns. These are intended to be diverse in terms of land use and mixed in terms of race, age and income; dependent on mass transit to reduce dependence on the automobile; more compact than the middle-class suburbs of the 1970s and 1980s (but only slightly more dense than working-class Lakewood); and rigorously conforming to design criteria for homes and business as restraints on owner preferences. “The most effective plans are drawn with such precision that only the architectural detail is left to future designers,” Duany and Plater-Zyberk insist. Such stringency leaves out not only the dormers, carports and patios of evolving Levittown, into which the lives of its residents expanded, but most of the contingencies of everyday public life.

At the heart of the New Urbanist program is the conviction that design influences behavior. But the code and contract-based regulations of the model New Urbanist town affect everyday habits more directly. In the New Urbanist town (like Levittown originally), wash cannot be hung out to dry on weekends (when new buyers are expected to drive through the subdivision). A codified rule based on a suspicion about public behavior replaces the rough accommodations of living together.

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The overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle-class residents of the New Urbanist towns that have been built want places that appear to have been created by generations of small-town conviviality but without any small-town ambivalence about the rules or the face-to-face labor of sustaining them or the risks that democratic processes might change their form entirely. New Urbanist towns are managed by the immutables of contracts and codes and the autocracies of phantom “governments” of facility management companies to simulate a shared moral order. New Urbanist towns aren’t incorporated as cities. Their disenfranchised residents aren’t citizens, just property owners. They’re anxious lifestyle consumers.

“Suburban Nation” is New Urbanism’s manifesto and a handbook for mobilizing the sophisticated consumers of place. It boils down messy contingencies to a slogan that yokes New Urbanism’s genuine aspirations to a static NIMBYism: No more housing subdivisions! No more shopping centers! No more office parks! No more highways! Neighborhoods or nothing!

Despite their apparent differences, the New Urbanists and William Levitt are linked across the 50-year gap between the erasure of the stories of Levittown and Lakewood and the militant nostalgia of Suburban Nation. Duany and Plater-Zyberk believe, as much as Levitt believed, that shaping places shapes people.

Rationally, I agree with Alex Krieger of Harvard’s department of Urban Planning and Design, who disparages the power of places to give a moral shape to working-class lives. Places don’t make communities. I agree, but I do not believe. I am a member of another faith, sustained daily by my habits in a mass-produced suburb that has resisted suburbia but is unrecognized in the sentimentality of New Urbanists and the architectural profession’s postmodern irony. I encounter at every step on my walk to work the intersection of this place and my character. Small houses on small lots at a density of about seven units per acre on a flat grid of narrow streets bordered by trees that are about twice the height of the houses give my racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood of working people the geography of home.

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