Flying over San Jose at 4,000 feet, Silicon Valley unfolding below, one sees the stretch marks of the digital boom. Acres and acres of new tract housing, neighborhoods in progress, push their way up the verdant hillsides of the rolling Santa Clara Valley, waiting to absorb the thousands of newly minted dot-com millionaires and almost-millionaires fueling the area's astonishing growth. Except for the size of the houses, the scene calls to mind the 17,000 homes dropped by the Levitt brothers onto the potato fields of Long Island to make room for young families beginning to prosper in that earlier, postwar era of remarkable expansion.
As in Levittown, the houses are all single-family dwellings, placed on uniform lots at uniform distances. An occasional cul-de-sac lends suburban flavor. But even from 4,000 feet up, the houses appear enormous, their unfinished three-car garages yawning to the sky.
A car, or perhaps three, is a nonnegotiable necessity for the incoming residents of these developments. Most people will work within 20 miles of home but will commute an hour each way on packed expressways. Many will complain about congestion and smog and lack of green space, especially given the $1 million-plus they've just shelled out. But people will continue to buy these mega-mansions simply because there's nowhere else to go. And the builders will continue to build them because the money's there.
Since the end of World War II, when New Deal ideas about housing the masses could first be realized, demand for new single-family homes has largely outstripped supply. Acute housing shortages, for veterans after the war or for techies in California today, prompt large-scale developments often criticized for being unimaginative (as in Levittown) or ecologically detrimental (as in Silicon Valley).
Of course, attacks on suburbia are as old as the suburbs themselves. But what if it didn't have to be like this? It's a simple question, an increasingly popular one among planners, environmentalists, and urbanites these days, and one worth mulling over. In the growing literature about America's suburban quandaries, two books bring necessary historical perspective to the current debates about sprawl. By recording not what we ended up with, but how we got there, Picture Windows and The Old Neighborhood show that very little about the suburbs as we know them--including long-established patterns of racial segregation--is inevitable. From that vantage point, the sense that all is not right becomes less ambiguous, but also in some ways more troubling.
"How the Suburbs Happened" is the subtitle of Picture Windows, Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen's revisionist history of Long Island's bedroom communities. "What Happened to the Suburbs" might be a more fitting heading, as it was the multitudinous ways in which their students, many of them Latino, Indian, or African American, defied the conventional stereotypes of suburban living that prompted the authors--both Manhattanite professors at a Long Island university--to write their book. "Initially, we didn't understand that suburbia had a history. We imagined suburbia as an anesthetized state of mind, a 'no place' dominated by a culture of conformity and consumption," they confess, before coming to the realization, perhaps more patronizing than profound, that their students "led lives as intricate as any urban dweller."
Baxandall and Ewen set out to tell the stories of diversity, adventure, and freethinking that get left out of suburban scholarship à la William Whyte or Betty Friedan. Piecing together new oral histories of Levittown residents (Levittowners must be getting awfully tired of social historians knocking on their doors) with local newspaper accounts and existing literature, the authors point to organized day care and battles over school curricula as proof that critics who would see only isolation and consensus culture in the boring 'burbs aren't looking hard enough.
Though it is not a new observation, the authors are right to remind us of the heady optimism and pioneering spirit that sustained many of these young families in their trek to greener pastures, or lawns, and that the condemnation they suffered at the hands of critics was often the same cultural elitism that Brooklyners were subjected to a century before. (The difference being that for the newer suburbanites, buying a house with a backyard was not an expression of newfound status; it was the means of ascension itself.) The real problem is that the authors' earnest attempt to overcome their antisuburb snobbery turns out to have been for naught, as the problems plaguing Long Island today--crime, congestion, overcrowded schools, substandard housing, an underclass of illegal laborers--are urban ones indeed. Long the bellwether of suburban life, Long Island now grapples with rising homelessness, the highest rate of AIDS in any suburban area in the country, and a general discontent that barbecues and pool parties have given way to "a peeling-vinyl, soiled-astro turf, diminished vision of the future."
So what happened? Baxandall and Ewen can never quite decide. While admitting that suburbia is by design segregationist (one of the most interesting chapters in the book recounts Senator Joseph McCarthy and William Levitt's collaboration in killing the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Housing Act that would have created federally subsidized housing in the suburbs), they spend a disproportionate amount of ink tracing the history of Long Island's very few integrated or predominantly minority suburbs. While they call for "large-scale social solutions," the advice they offer leans more toward the "why can't we all just get along?" variety than toward sweeping policy initiatives: "Long Island villages need to both familiarize immigrants with the tacit customs of the suburbs and get longtime residents to accept the different mores of their new neighbors."
Ray Suarez, the former NPR commentator and self-professed urban enthusiast, takes a more focused look at the emptying out of the cities and the hallowing out of the suburban ideal. Armed with a "tape recorder and a notebook," Suarez spent three years indulging every parent or grandparent who had a story about "the way it used to be" in the old neighborhood. What if, he asks, the old timers' fondness for city blocks and stickball isn't just the nostalgia of the aging? What if something more profound was lost in the mass exodus to the suburbs, an elusive blueprint that the architects of the "New Urbanist" towns of Seaside and Celebration, Florida, are now desperately trying to recreate? What he comes up with is a powerful implication of white flight and a sobering look at the phenomenon of millions of white urban dwellers pulling up stakes in order to put them down again a few miles beyond city limits.
With a critical eye for the push factors--"It wasn't all desire for a bigger kitchen and a parking space"--Suarez catalogues the malign forces driving the flight from the city. Banks redlined, real estate agents panic peddled and block-busted, and longtime residents sold out, many of them packing up and leaving in the middle of the night to avoid facing the disapproval of neighbors. It's the complicity of millions of ordinary Americans, each facing the loaded question "Should we stay or should we go?" that most interests Suarez, and he's at his best recording the stories of ordinary folks who made tough decisions. Most of those Suarez talks to chose to stay, but there's a marked sense of being left behind in a strange land, where nobody knows the neighbors and everybody but the teenagers is afraid to go out after dark.
"We squandered what might have been an opportunity, in 1958, 1965, or 1971," he writes, "to find a new way for Americans to live with one another. We blew it one family at a time. The chance that American race relations might have been altered by personal discovery was lost in a way that is hard ever to create again. We are reaping the results of those blown opportunities every day in the 1990s, in celebrated show trials, like that of Rodney King's assailants in Simi Valley, and in the corrosive drip, drip, drip of the bile that runs through our national conversations on race."
According to Suarez, race--more than income, profession, or any other factor--is most important in determining which neighborhoods will succeed and which will bottom out. As whites move away, so too do resources and investment. "Urban decay in one neighborhood leads to decay in adjoining neighborhoods. It's the only 'domino theory' from the sixties that really worked." And the problem is not confined to either a distant past or to cities: Suarez cites studies showing that whites are still more likely to move if the black population increases anywhere within a 25-mile radius of their front door.
The community activist Saul Alinsky once said, "Integration is the period of time between the arrival of the first blacks and the departure of the last whites." Suarez stops just short of endorsing this conclusion, but his outlook is no less stark. Americans have long preferred to deal with race by pretending that it doesn't exist; conversations often turn to ailing schools and rising crime when race is the subtext. So long as our zip codes remain the expression of our preference for homogeneity and familiarity, not much is likely to change. Though cities with significant technology and service industries are faring well, these cities tend to be whiter than their older, manufacturing-based counterparts, and the American preference is decidedly, and irreversibly, for the suburbs. Solutions will have to be regional, though as politicians have long known, this is a tough sell to a population used to voting with its feet. Meanwhile, we continue to squander resources--financial, natural, and psychic--to enable those who can afford it to move farther out and to build thicker and higher walls.
"Was it worth it?" Suarez asks. "Did we end up with the country we wanted? Did we end up living a life we cherished? If we did, what did it cost us?" ?