Wide lawns and narrow minds. That is how suburbs often are depicted in popular culture: places of repressed, putty-colored respectability where the population is white; the houses, cookie-cutter; and the housewives, incredibly desperate.
Urbanism writer Amanda Kolson Hurley seeks to challenge that view in her new book, “Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City,” released by Belt Publishing in the spring. Not only are suburbs more representative than they might get credit for — “minorities account for 35% of suburban residents, in line with their share of the total U.S. population,” she notes early on — in many cases, their roots can reflect a variety of utopian ideals.
In her slim, highly accessible volume, Hurley, who lives in a Maryland suburb outside of Washington, D.C., offers six intriguing case studies of Northeastern suburbs whose development was based on more than commercial real estate interests. This includes examinations of a religious settlement in Pennsylvania, a suburb founded by anarchists in New Jersey and a pair of avant-garde bedroom communities outside of Boston designed by the acolytes of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
In this interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Hurley talks about what makes these places so unique — and how they might serve as models for the suburban urbanism of the future.
What launched your investigation into suburbs?
It was informed by my experience living in a suburb that is not stereotypical in various respects. I lived in a condo rather than a house, in a diverse neighborhood where people rode the bus a lot. I had also written a piece about Columbia, Md., and its 50th anniversary — this place that was conceived not as a traditional suburb but as a new town that would accommodate people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. It ended up being quite diverse.
There was also a piece I did for Architect magazine about this 100-year-old suburb of Wilmington, Del.: Arden. It was an experiment, founded by these Georgists who followed the economic philosophy of a journalist and thinker named Henry George. He wrote a book called “Progress and Poverty,” one of the bestselling books of the 19th century — he was like a TED Talker. The Georgists wanted to hold land in common and charge a land value tax, the idea being that land held as a common good was a better model of assessment than a property tax.
[While reporting the story] I met this long-term Arden resident. He’s this confirmed Georgist. His grandfather helped settle Arden and he’d been with Henry George on his deathbed. That set me on the path for this book.
You write about Five Fields and Six Moon Hill, a pair of 1950s Boston suburbs that were designed, in part, by women architects. How did that affect how they were designed?
That to me is a fascinating example. It was this collaborative firm of youngish architects who were working with Walter Gropius called The Architects Collective (TAC). Out of the eight partners, two were women. That would be a good ratio at a lot of architecture firms even now. In the late 1940s, that was quite out of the ordinary.
It was a time in the architects’ lives when they were starting families and thinking about what an optimal domestic environment would be — and they were thinking about how the community could support that. The common area was really important, where kids could meet up with each other and have some independence. A lot of the homes have playrooms, but they are often in the basement level. These were working architects and midcentury parents who were not helicopter parents. The idea was that kids could have their own space.
You also cover a suburb of Philadelphia that was an important site of integration in the mid-1950s — Concord Park.
Yes. At that point the racially exclusionary policies of suburbs like Levittown had been reported and were pretty well-known. But [Concord Park founder] Morris Milgram, who was first and foremost a left-wing activist, and then became a homebuilder (a career he stumbled into through his father-in-law), he wanted to prove that it was possible to [integrate] and desirable to [integrate] and that it could be done without subsidy — as a business.
Milgram had various partners. They included African American leaders — there was a retired president of a historically black college and other prominent African Americans — as well as prominent white civil rights activists. They really wanted an integrated community but were afraid that white people would not move there unless they could have some confidence they would not end up as the only white person.
Some of these fears were rooted in racism and some of them were of a financial nature — that is, if this was an all-black neighborhood, property values could decline. So, they adopted a quota. The neighborhood would be 55% white and 45% black. Of course, this was the ’50s and so the idea that you could have someone who was neither black or white didn’t enter anyone’s imagination. Today, the neighborhood has a much wider spectrum.
Any reason why you didn’t include the West Coast in the book?
I wanted this to be a short book. It’s a niche topic and I just wanted to plant the seed that a different way of looking at the suburbs is possible. But I would love to supplement this with other volumes looking at places in the Midwest and West. California alone has so many examples.
What urbanism lessons do these suburbs offer us today?
I think there are a few lessons. The main one is thinking beyond the single-family home. In the book, I talk about Greenbelt, Md., from the 1930s — this New Deal town. It was the European model imported to the U.S. It had apartments and rows of attached homes. It’s a pleasant place with houses that face these green plazas, and it feels very open and spacious despite people living in a dense configuration. The principle is very pertinent to suburbs and cities today that are looking for housing types that are more affordable and more suited to smaller households.
Hopefully the book will spark some more conversations about that — the realization that there are different models available within the history of the suburbs themselves and they are waiting for us to rediscover them.
Amanda Kolson Hurley
Belt Publishing; 160 pp., $16.95