Our Town

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of "The Sneaker Book: Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon."

In 1963, as the country basked in the glow of postwar economic prosperity, a Maryland developer named James Rouse was plotting utopia on a 14,000-acre patch of the Washington-Baltimore corridor. Rouse, a shrewd entrepreneur credited with inventing the term “shopping mall,” was also a reformer who believed that postwar suburban utopias like Levittown had become bastions of racial exclusivity, promising a new start for everyone but cloaked in restrictive covenants and the subtle segregationist ploys of real estate agents. His response was Columbia, Md., a master-planned community, a series of nine villages interspersed with parks and ponds and connected by some 78 miles of walking paths. It was a social laboratory in the shape of a cul de sac.

Rouse’s dream provides the rich fictionalized backdrop of Stephen Amidon’s “The New City,” an ambitious novel that seeks to examine the human failings that often undermine the most perfect of human designs. Newton is the Columbia of “The New City,” built by the Rouse-like Barnaby Vine, a place without overhead power lines or factories, a “place where people would finally start living like they could.” Its residents are a kind of new people, described by one character as “[y]oung couples weaned on all that idealism, kids who thought the ‘burbs were unfashionable. Black families with a little spare change.”

The book opens in 1973 to find that idealism rather thin on the ground, however. The town’s youth center has just seen a race riot in miniature. To compound matters, the fish stocked in a decorative pond near the town’s center are going belly-up, despite the best assurances of marine biologists that the artificial lake is ready for life. Enter Austin Swope, a smooth-talking Beltway lawyer and future Newton city manager, to initiate spin control, preserving the city’s image as a fledgling cradle of social harmony and rising property values.


Swope’s key ally is Earl Wooten, builder of Newton, focus of a lengthy Ebony profile and rising star in the firmament of EarthWorks, the developer of Newton. Wooten, like Swope, was lured to Newton by the unflinching idealism of its creator, and together they seem to be living embodiments of the Vine vision: a City That Works. Things begin to unravel, however, when a rumor begins making the rounds that it is Wooten, and not Swope, who is being groomed for the city manager’s post, ostensibly in an effort to ease the racial tensions simmering throughout the suburb. Suddenly, the facade of the model city begins to dissolve, replaced by big-city politicking of the most corrupt order. The machinations for power begin to corrode the presumed social harmony as well, and the Garden City suddenly begins looking like Peyton Place. The race card is dealt from the very bottom of the deck.

This action takes place within a carefully observed temporal and spatial context. The Newton that Amidon depicts is a place where Estes rockets are launched in parks, a “Coppertone reek” drifts by at a pool and a character swills coffee out of a “tartan Thermos.” It is a landscape of hissing gas lamps and freshly planted survey stakes. The writing is evocative and as precisely rendered as a suburban lawn. “The county magistrate entered the chamber like a small mammal looking for food,” Amidon writes. “His lips tasted like something that had leaked through slit cellophane onto the chipped ice in the A & P meat department. Cold and warm at the same time; wet and dry.” At times, he can’t resist using pat plot devices to move action along or coasting on a kind of breezy glibness. More characteristically, though, he is superb with detail: “As he waited he noticed the strange silence that gripped the street. It took him a minute to realize what was missing. Wind in the trees. The just-planted saplings that lined the road were still too small to catch much breeze.” In that silence one understands the yearning for roots and tradition in a society now based on mobility. We want the wind in the trees without waiting for the trees to grow.

“The New City” is a post-white-flight “Native Son” that reads not simply as critique of the neo-Levittowns but more broadly as an encomium for the idealism-from-above ethos of postwar liberalism, an astringently cautionary note about the cost of good (and not so good) intentions--no surprise that one of the characters is a returning Vietnam vet struggling to rejoin society--and a piercing portrait of America at a historical crossroads. Amidon’s book is an honest and searching look at the human relationships that are at the root of abstract categories like race and class and at the center of often equally abstract communities, whether urban or suburban, real or imagined. It reminds us that while environments can be rigorously planned for maximum uplift, there is no accounting for human behavior.