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America's First Suburb Turns 60
November 8, 2011 8:56 AM   Subscribe

America's First Suburb Turns 60 Almost 60 years ago, a planned community embodied the hopes and prosperity of America. Now, it represents a more realistic picture of the American experience. The BBC investigates Levittown, Pennsylvania, as part of a year-long series.

Levittown had been founded [in 1952], when America was on the cusp of a huge burst of prosperity. GIs home from the war had started families in earnest. The baby boom had begun, and a new middle class was driving the economy... For the first time, people who once rented apartments in the city could afford a modest home of their own.

...

In 2012 Levittown will turn 60. Now, as then, the community is home to a diverse cross-section of middle-class voters. But whereas in 1960 unemployment rates were less than 6% and business in Levittown could not expand fast enough to meet growing demand, the outlook for current residents is grimmer.
posted by modernnomad (91 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I assure you there were planned suburbs in the US before 1952. They just weren't aimed at the same demographic as the Levittowns were
posted by JPD at 9:07 AM on November 8, 2011 [10 favorites]


Levittown had been founded [in 1952] . . .

. . . a mere 40 years after Shaker Heights:
In 1905, the land was bought by brothers M.J. and O.P. Van Sweringen who envisioned the first garden styled suburb in Ohio for the site. The brothers constructed homes, set aside land for churches and schools, and planted trees. Originally referred to as Shaker Village, the community was incorporated in 1912. . .
posted by Herodios at 9:08 AM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


The phrasing makes it a little confusing, but the first Levittown was the one in Long Island. The Pennsylvania one came directly after.

My mom couldn't afford summer camp that year, so I spent the summer between third and fourth grade living in the Long Island Levittown with family friends. It was my only experience living in the subrubs until I moved to the north L.A. 'burbs when I was 21 (and promptly moved back a year later.)

I can see why people would want that sort of quiet life but holy shit I would rather be strung up by my ankles off a helicopter than have to live through that agian.
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on November 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


suburb != planned community
posted by DU at 9:11 AM on November 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


Levittown is kind of unique because it was the prototype of the standard buy up farmland and airdrop a bunch of tract housing and shops maneuver. It wasn't until the 1970s the "master planned community" became cancerous, though.

/sent from my gated yuppie ghetto
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:13 AM on November 8, 2011


Also, the Thing about Levittown is not the suburb part but the mass-produced suburb part. There's a bunch of Levittowns because you plunked down basically the same town wherever there was room for it.
posted by griphus at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


From above, Shaker Heights looks a lot nicer than Levittown, NY.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


We've had suburbs in the United States since at least the mid 19th century, at least in the sense of building communities where the built environment and landscaping were deliberately non-urban on the fringes of cities.

What made Levittown unique was the adaptation of mass-production techniques (refined by World War II), combined with the federal government promoting homeownership through the FHA and VA loans for veterans.
posted by heurtebise at 9:15 AM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


suburb != planned community

Not sure what that is directed at, but certainly there were planned communities pre-1952. Garden City NY was laid out in 1870's.

And yeah Levittown was the first true "Production Built" suburb, but its not like there is a huge diversity of form factors in Garden City and what not.

Besides Levittown NY gave us both Billy Joel and Eddie Money
posted by JPD at 9:18 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


...and it can have them back.
posted by griphus at 9:18 AM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


> Besides Levittown NY gave us both Billy Joel and Eddie Money

All the more reason for a fuel-air bomb.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:18 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Shaker also integrates thoughtfully curving streets to prevent through traffic (and to confuse outsiders).
posted by leotrotsky at 9:19 AM on November 8, 2011


From above, Shaker Heights looks a lot nicer than Levittown, NY.


Zoom out one more on Levittown, then realize the Levittown pic is during winter. Not so different.

(of course I realize they are very different and Shaker Heights is much nicer, just making a point)
posted by JPD at 9:20 AM on November 8, 2011


I like this comment from gompa on the fundamental flaw of the suburban model: it traded the community that grows in great public spaces for the amenities and creature comforts of private spaces.

Also, Jane Jacobs.

I am saddened by places where one need an automobile to get around.
posted by exogenous at 9:21 AM on November 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


Also, Jane Jacobs.

Close up the thread right here. We're done.
posted by Jehan at 9:22 AM on November 8, 2011


From above, Shaker Heights looks a lot nicer than Levittown, NY.

God, at least they were both made before we really went all map-is-the-territory and suburbs started to be planned with the bizarre and wholly unecessary Oprah-style YOU GET A CUL-DE-SAC YOU GET A CUL-DE-SAC EVERYONE GETS A CUL-DE-SAC feature.
posted by griphus at 9:22 AM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, and was a planned community.

What makes Levittown special is that it was one the largest and most famous archetype's of the 1950s post-war suburban planned communities. It's where the Baby Boomers grew up. As those boomers are now aging out, they are looking back at their youth. Maybe they didn't grow up in Levittown, but some place like it.
posted by stbalbach at 9:23 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am saddened by places where one need an automobile to get around.

yeah I pretty much agree with you. But if I was living in some cramped room in my parents apartment in Brooklyn or Queens with my two young kids I'm not sure I'd think the tradeoff wasn't worth it.

Its easy to see the folly in suburbs today, post WWII maybe not so much.
posted by JPD at 9:23 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I have a theory that the reason Levittown gets so much attention is because the first one was built near New York City (the second near Philadelphia), which garnered a lot of attention from national media, largely centered in NYC. Suburbs like it (in the sense of having the stereotypical "suburban" built environment, not in the mass production/FHA loans sense) had been built elsewhere in the US, starting in the 1910s and 1920s, particularly on the fringes of cities in the American West, further away from the media spotlight. But once said communities began to sprout up more along the East Coast, then, as now, you get a lot of the erroneous "America's First Suburb!" rhetoric.
posted by heurtebise at 9:24 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


> Besides Levittown NY gave us both Billy Joel and Eddie Money

Whereas Shaker Heights gave us Peter Bergman, Paul Newman, and (sort of) Harvey Pekar.
posted by Herodios at 9:24 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can see why people would want that sort of quiet life but holy shit I would rather be strung up by my ankles off a helicopter than have to live through that agian.

I am saddened by places where one need an automobile to get around.


True enough, but if your other option after the war was living in an apartment like that of the Lower East Side, still going strong at the time -- I can fully understand why some raced to the suburbs for a bit of space, air, and privacy.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:27 AM on November 8, 2011


Levittown, NY gave us Zippy
posted by zippy at 9:29 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


God, at least they were both made before we really went all map-is-the-territory and suburbs started to be planned with the bizarre and wholly unecessary Oprah-style YOU GET A CUL-DE-SAC YOU GET A CUL-DE-SAC EVERYONE GETS A CUL-DE-SAC feature

Now I'm picturing Oprah as like the Cul-de-sac Fairy, just traipsing around tossing them to people left and right.

(For real, though, what does Oprah have to do with this? Or self-reference, for that matter? Is there a 500 pound Douglas Hofstadter book on cul-de-sacs that I missed?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:32 AM on November 8, 2011


Jane Jacobs et al--all those unhappy writers living in cities--of course bad mouth the suburbs...
Sort of like religion: true believers have to believe they have revealed truth and those who think or live differently live in error and are foolish.
If the suburbs did not exist, there would be many writers with a desperate need for a subject to write about.
posted by Postroad at 9:36 AM on November 8, 2011


Well, the map-is-the-territory thing was a reference (heh) to the fact that one of the big pieces of ideal imagery of suburban living is the cul-de-sac. So everyone started getting a cul-de-sac even if it didn't actually make any sense (or, in fact, was completely contrary) to the rules of how you plan a community. An aspect of the suburb that was a result of a certain kind of planning became the actual feature you planned around.
posted by griphus at 9:37 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe, but it's easier to play street baseball and such in a cul-de-sac since there's far less traffic.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:38 AM on November 8, 2011


I'm not saying it's not a nice thing to have, but when you have two cul-de-sacs separated by a lawn or whatever instead of a through street, that is insane.
posted by griphus at 9:42 AM on November 8, 2011


People in the US love their suburbs because we've let our cities go to shit. As it is, we've only got two -- NYC and SF -- that have good public transit, and they're our least affordable. It doesn't have to be this way.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:57 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]



Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
-- "Little Boxes", Malvina Reynolds (1962)

In a small suburban garden
Not a single neighbor knows our name
I know the woman wishes we would move somewhere
Where the houses aren't all the same
Jesse, I wish you would take me
Where the grass is greener
I really couldn't say where it may be
Somewhere up on a mountain top
Or down by the deep blue sea

And there we'll do just as we please
It ain't nothing but a breeze
-- "Nothing But A Breeze", Jesse Winchester (1977)

 
posted by Herodios at 9:58 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


> we've only got two -- NYC and SF -- that have good public transit

Don't forget about Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Seattle.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:59 AM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


What makes Levittown special is that it was one the largest and most famous archetype's of the 1950s post-war suburban planned communities. It's where the Baby Boomers grew up. As those boomers are now aging out, they are looking back at their youth. Maybe they didn't grow up in Levittown, but some place like it.

It was also around this time that the re-invention of the word 'home' to equal house began, in terms of marketing per Vance Packard's The Status Seekers which has some excellent chapters on the impact and influence of such mass produced housing, their marketing and advertising on mainstream consumer society (and the early efforts to create such a society which is better articulated in The Hidden Persuaders).

Excerpt from Status Seekers:
"The upper classes LIVE in a HOUSE . . . use the TOILET, the PORCH, LIBRARY or PLAY-ROOM. The middle classes RESIDE in a HOME . . use the LAVATORY, the VERANDA, DEN or RUMPUS ROOM." -- E. DIGBY BALTZELL, University of Pennsylvania.

10. The mass production of homes, with the attendant growth of homogeneous suburban communities. In earlier days, an American community was usually a scale model of all society, with a fair share of butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, creamery owners, manufacturers, laborers. Such towns are relentlessly being replaced by one-layer towns, which encourage birds-of-a-feather flocking. Many of the new suburban towns, built around shopping centers born full grown, not only attract buyers of specific income level (almost everyone's in- come will fall, say, between $5,000 and $6,250) but also people of specific ethnic backgrounds.

Further, they are rather narrowly age- graded. A town built by a home marketer specializing in houses ranging in price from $27,500 to $32,500, for example, will attract families of middle-management men and other successful couples capable of paying that price. Typically, only couples over forty years of age qualify. In such developments you will see few smal1 children -- and few grandmothers.

posted by infini at 10:01 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"What is a Democrat doing campaigning for Nixon?"
"I think he's the best man. "
"Who did you campaign for in the last election?"
"The last presidential election? I was for Eisenhower."
"Doesn't this make you a Republican?"
"No, I'm a Democrat."

Take home lesson. IQ of average American voter unchanged since 1960.
posted by Gordion Knott at 10:04 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't forget about Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Seattle.

Do forget about Seattle. It has public transit, but you can't call it "good", unless your comparison is with having no public transit at all. Seriously, it has exactly one train line, which goes from downtown to the airport, with half a dozen random stops in between. That's it. Maybe in 20 years it will be possible to say that Seattle has good public transit.

Sacramento, California - a sprawled out suburban mess that might as well define the term - has better public transit than Seattle. And I say that as a bitter ex-Sacramentonian who will never, ever move back, ever.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:07 AM on November 8, 2011


Don't forget about Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Seattle.

All of them really expensive places to live.

What about Houston, Detroit, Cincinnati, or St. Louis?

Plus, I have limited knowledge of Chicago, Boston, and Seattle; don't know how feasible it is to live there car-free.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:08 AM on November 8, 2011


Seattle doesn't have public transit befitting a first-world city. It's not the worst I've ever seen, but it's no Portland, never mind SF or NYC.

On preview, what Mars Saxman said.
posted by zjacreman at 10:10 AM on November 8, 2011


And frankly all of the cities mentioned absolutely pale in comparison to, say, Hong Kong. It's not even close.
posted by zjacreman at 10:11 AM on November 8, 2011


Boston is definitely liveable car-free. Chicago has a transit system second only to NYC in size and is cheaper than either NY or Boston.
posted by modernserf at 10:14 AM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Don't forget, prior to WWII most people ( other than farmers) lived in tenement buildings in crowded urban neighborhoods, often segregated into ghettos of race or culture. ( Little Italy, Spanish Harlem, Boston's North and West Ends... Soldiers returning from WWII had had enough of that. They all grew up during the depression and now were flush with GI Bill money. The choices were: Rent a larger apartment in the city or own your own home. Remember although a few Co-ops existed Condos were a thing of the future. So in the late 40's and early -mid 50's you had a huge war machine of industry that still needed to produce and be profitable. As they grew into larger spaces they moved to the suburbs. New infrastructure was built to accommodate the workers (Route 128 in Massachusetts is a perfect example), and naturally new housing. The Visionaries of architecture of the time ( Wright, Fuller, Corbusier, etc.) all had modeled the "city of the future", however with no space in the actual cities these plans were modified for the suburbs.
posted by Gungho at 10:15 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


nebulawindphone: "(For real, though, what does Oprah have to do with this? Or self-reference, for that matter? Is there a 500 pound Douglas Hofstadter book on cul-de-sacs that I missed?)"

Oprah gave away cars to everyone in the audience one time (or has she done it other times, too?).

There's a bit of a joke animated gif you can see here.
posted by symbioid at 10:16 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


it traded the community that grows in great public spaces for the amenities and creature comforts of private spaces

This is such bullshit. I live in Providence, RI, and am doing everything in my power to move back to North Kingstown or out to Westport. I couldn't tell you my upstairs neighbors' names, and they change once every 8-12 months. That was also true for Boston and Lowell (tho untrue for New Orleans and Newport.)

Outdoor public spaces are generally filthy and usually crime-ridden, indoor public spaces are either libraries or places where they demand you shop or pay for food and drink. Oh, you have an intimate community with drunks at the bar. Fantastic, I'll give up a backyard for that. Used needles on the playground? Sure, why not, it lets my kids be part of this here community, where everyone needs to set up playdates, because there's no way in fuck they're going to be able to play outside without hawk-like and constant supervision.

It's constantly noisy, the air reeks, everything green except for the doggy toilets running along the sidewalk has been paved over but, hey, it's for the environment.

In the sticks, I knew my neighbors, the libraries and markets were better (esp. butcher and fish market - god bless the locovores), traffic was manageable, the air clean, the nights quiet, I was a part of the local theater and regular patron at some very nice restaurants and cafes... and I could also host my own BBQ and change my sparkplugs in my own driveway, and had someplace to park the canoe and pop-up camper.

Newport is about the only urban area I could spend the rest of my life in - because it's built to human scale. You can actually walk one end to the other in a day, streets are designed for houses (albeit with tiny yards) and not tenements or other forms of human warehousing.

Big cities are hazards to health and sanity.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


For those of us who would rather actually talk about the Levitt communities instead of just backing up the truckload invisible knapsack of hipster snark:
  • Levittowners.com is a good history site for the PA levittown.
  • Levittownbeyond.com has a lot more on Willingboro, NJ (nee Levittown, NJ), including floor plans for most of the models.
  • Energy assesments have been done at some of the PA Levitts - The PDF on that page shows the results
...I just realized that I may, in fact, be the only person in the thread who's currently living in a Levitt community.

As far as public transit - It's better than when I was in Indiana: Walk a few blocks and wait under :30, you can catch a bus to regional rail hubs which take you the regional employment centers - and all over the eastern seabord. There are three strip malls within walking distance - lots of good pizza places, a few decent seafood restaurants, but the nearest Starbucks is an hour's walk since the one in the old Levitt plaza closed.
posted by Orb2069 at 10:30 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


And like five replies later I finally have enough context! Go team!
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:34 AM on November 8, 2011


I grew up in a Levittown in Maryland. When I was in college, a friend came home with me on a weekend visit and freaked out because she had grown up in the exact same house as me, in New Jersey. My stepfather bought a vacation home in Palm Coast Florida that was the exact same house as his regular house in MD. That was weird.
posted by headnsouth at 10:37 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


...wait under :30...

A half-hour wait for a bus, unless it is past 9PM or something, is a sign of shitty public transportation.
posted by griphus at 10:38 AM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Adding to gungho's points (although a lot of people in American cities didn't live in crowded tenements, at least once you get outside of NYC/Boston, some other cities) -- American cities, all over the country, were in pretty bad shape coming out of the war, at least in terms of their housing markets. Both the Depression and World War II resulted in massive disinvestment in residential real estate -- during the 1930s, few could afford to construct new houses or apartment buildings, or even renovate existing ones, and during the war, private housing was not high on the priority list for scarce building materials. Which meant 15 years, more or less, where few new housing units were built in most cities and people didn't really have the means to fix up existing ones. Yet, most American cities expanded in population during the same time period, as people moved there to find work. What you ended up with was a housing crisis. There were more people competing for the scarce available housing, and the apartments or houses that were available were often of poor quality, and expensive to boot. In Denver, for example, in 1942, fully 25% of the city's housing was in poor condition -- meaning lacking electricity, hot water, sometimes even real floors -- partly a result of the economic crises of the previous decade.

The "housing crisis" of the late 1940s -- when the Levittowns and their cousins across the country started being built and publicized -- was real. If you were living in poor conditions in an American city, and the government offered to lend you money at very low interest rates to buy a new house on the outskirts of the city (remember, before the federal government began getting involved in the mortgage industry in the 1930s, it was very difficult to get a loan for a house), wouldn't you take it? Even if it meant you had to have a car and commute?
posted by heurtebise at 10:42 AM on November 8, 2011


People in the US love their suburbs because we've let our cities go to shit. As it is, we've only got two -- NYC and SF -- that have good public transit, and they're our least affordable. It doesn't have to be this way.

Wait, nobody's mentioned Philadelphia yet? (Although I suppose one could argue that Philadelphia has gone to shit -- but it has decent public transit, at least by US standards.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:42 AM on November 8, 2011


I know a lot of people in Minneapolis without cars. Public transit here isn't perfect, but it's better than San Francisco, and the city is very bikeable for a lot of the year (year-round, for some intrepid souls).

I live in the city proper but my neighborhood was definitely a suburb for its time, a way for middle-class people a hundred years ago to have a little space, single-family homes with yards or much roomier apartments, but still adjacent to the city center by car, horse, and streetcar.
posted by padraigin at 10:47 AM on November 8, 2011


Outdoor public spaces are generally filthy and usually crime-ridden, indoor public spaces are either libraries or places where they demand you shop or pay for food and drink. Oh, you have an intimate community with drunks at the bar... Used needles on the playground? Sure, why not, it lets my kids be part of this here community, where everyone needs to set up playdates, because there's no way in fuck they're going to be able to play outside without hawk-like and constant supervision. It's constantly noisy, the air reeks, everything green except for the doggy toilets running along the sidewalk has been paved over but, hey, it's for the environment.

Sounds like a lot of suburbs I know.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:50 AM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


@Slap*Happy, I'm sorry you have had such a negative experience in big cities, but you're really being quite unfair.

1. It's totally preposterous to generalize that outdoor public spaces are generally filthy and usually crime-ridden. Have you been to large city parks? I'd never call Millennium Park, Central Park, Union Square (in both NYC and SF), Boston Commons, "filthy" and "crime-ridden." Conversely, there is a gorgeous park in the suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up that is extremely well-known for drug deals and other unsavory business going on at night.

I'm not saying outdoor city public spaces are never filthy or unappealing (Pershing Square in downtown LA? Ugh.) But this is really unfair to paint all municipal public spaces with such a broad stroke. Many of the world's public squares are the most pleasant places to spend time in.

In the sticks, I knew my neighbors, the libraries and markets were better...traffic was manageable, the air clean, the nights quiet, I was a part of the local theater and regular patron at some very nice restaurants and cafes... and I could also host my own BBQ and change my sparkplugs in my own driveway, and had someplace to park the canoe and pop-up camper.

2. There really isn't any correlation between city/suburb and the quality of your social ties. I know many, many individuals here who know their neighbors; in fact, if you have slightly unusual interests (let's say, slam poetry) it's often much easier in the city to find a like-minded community. Libraries? I'm skeptical that any suburban library has a larger collection than its central-city library. And what's stopping you from being a regular patron at a restaurant or a cafe in the city? Nothing, that's what.

You have some very legitimate points. If you are interested in outdoor pursuits a la caneoing, camping and fishing, automobile mechanics/maintenance, the city is not the place for you. No one claims that you should live in Chicago or New York if you like to go fishing weekly or hiking through the woods after work every day. But just because it doesn't cater to your interests doesn't mean it doesn't cater to other's.


Look, I grew up in a very well-manicured suburb. I understand the appeal: When I go home for the holidays, the peace and quiet is enormously refreshing (and I appreciate seeing green in December, but that's a function of being in California and not Illinois.) Public schools are almost uniformly more excellent in suburbia than in the city. But I think it's just unfair to describe all cities as crime-ridden, gang-infested and unhealthy. After all, New Yorkers, who live in the archetypal big city, have a lower rate of obesity than almost all other places in America.
posted by andrewesque at 11:04 AM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


I know a lot of people in Minneapolis without cars. Public transit here isn't perfect, but it's better than San Francisco

That's very surprising.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:14 AM on November 8, 2011


Hey, Andrewesque: Are you comparing apples to apples here? Most of the levitt homes in this area are around $100k currently - Can you point out one place within walking distance of Central park with three bedrooms, two baths and a garage I could buy for twice that? Five times? Twenty?

Voting related comment, since I'm back - Walked out to the well staffed, not busy polling place this morning (*) - The yard signs are all Dem, had two canvassers out to the house so far, and half the local/school board seats are running Democratic unopposed. Again, better than the similar-income neighborhoods in Indiana, where the Rep. local gov't was suppressing voter turnout by reducing staffing at selected ( IE: in low income neighborhoods) polls.

Cul-De-sacs: They've got Courts(cul-de-sac) and turns (non-throughfare loops) here, too, and houses on them sell for more - safer to let your kids play in the street, I imagine.

It's a little left-field, but I think racial integration deserves a mention when you're talking about the Levitts.

(* - At the local Kindergarten - All the Levitts were built with a school and a recreational pool within a few blocks of every house. Remember when people used to believe in community?)
posted by Orb2069 at 11:15 AM on November 8, 2011


Pepperidge farm does
posted by griphus at 11:18 AM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]



Living in an in-city sub-division is the best of both worlds. A small house on a largish lot, close to work, close to down-town should you desire to go there, and the vibe of a bustling metropolis without the noise and clutter.

There are other cities besides SF, NY and Seattle. Atlanta for example. It could pass for a city. Especially now that we've got an Ikea.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:21 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Especially now that we've got an Ikea.

That just means that you're infected.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:23 AM on November 8, 2011


@Orb2069:

Fair point. I certainly couldn't afford to live anywhere close to Central Park that wasn't a tiny shoebox. However, the post I was responding to didn't address that. If it had said something like, "Big cities are crappy AND are way too unaffordable for the middle class," that is completely legitimate commentary. But it didn't say that, and I think the two points I made are true regardless of income/affordability.

The point of public spaces is that they are *public.* You don't have to live right next to Central Park, Millennium Park, Union Square or any of the world's great public spaces. That's the point. I can live in upper Manhattan, in a penthouse on Central Park West or in Brooklyn and it's still a public space. Sure, it's different to live right next to it than to have to walk, take a train or bus to it. But it's still a public space.

And the point about community is true. No one says you have to live in a wealthy, gentrified, expensive park of the city to have community. I can be as much a regular patron of the corner bodega as I can of whatever five-star restaurants happen to be there.
posted by andrewesque at 11:25 AM on November 8, 2011


I am getting the impression once again that many people here think the choices are 1) idealized/demonic Manhattan and 2) idealized/demonic Levittown. There are square miles and square miles of land in the US that are within the city limits of major cities, that consist of neighborhoods with single family houses with lawns, within walkable distances to schools, libraries, parks, retail business districts, &c.

It's not all filthy crowded downtowns vs boring isolated planned communities (with a side-order of sky-high rent vs trailer parks).

Upon preview, Ruthless Bunny has it.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:27 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


We studied the idea and history of Suburbia a lot in college, and I remember reading an awesome book about that history (starting in 1800s London!) called Bourgeois Utopias and the "fall" of suburbia towards an idea called Techoburbs, where we are now. Levittown, if i remember, was an intermediary step towards Technoburbia.

It's a fascinating book, if a bit dated. Just wanted to chime in about it.
posted by tittergrrl at 11:27 AM on November 8, 2011


I grew up in Levittown, PA, and lived there in the 80s and 90s before I left for school (and, um, never went back). My father ran a local business that was started by my grandfather about the same time as Levittown was founded, so my family is about as old-school L-town PA as you can get. The article is pretty spot-on about how there are different sections- sure, it's all "Levittown" (except for where it isn't), but you can drive through some of the "nicer" parts and not recognize the houses, because they've all been remodeled and had additions put on and such...then there are the other parts, where you sort of drive a little faster through houses that all look the same, all have unkempt yards, and all have definitely seen better days. There's no real public transportation to speak of that I'm aware of, but everyone I knew growing up drove, regardless of being in a "nicer" section or not. I get that it's historic or something, but aside from being first, it's just like anywhere else these days.

Bucks County, PA in the 1980s was still mostly farmland, and was definitely outside of Philadelphia. Today, it's been so covered by developments (all of whom owe a debt to good old William) that it's nearly unrecognizable to me, who left in 2000. Levittown is, unsurprisingly, not one of the nicer areas in Bucks County.

Also, if it was William Levitt who personally thought that the big brick fireplace dividing the living from the kitchen in every goddamn house was a good idea, me and about 18 years of horribly mangled stubbed toes have words for him.
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:28 AM on November 8, 2011


I'd never call Millennium Park, Central Park, Union Square (in both NYC and SF), Boston Commons, "filthy" and "crime-ridden."

No, I'd call them tourist destinations, even for people who live in the city, and not any part of reality city dwellers actually deal with day to day.

I'm skeptical that any suburban library has a larger collection than its central-city library.

Small town library seemed to get books loaned to it from thge state-wide system a heckuva lot quicker than the local branch library from the city library system. The local branch is also dingy, understaffed and in poor upkeep. Central libraries themselves are day-trips and tourist destinations, not city life.

After all, New Yorkers, who live in the archetypal big city, have a lower rate of obesity than almost all other places in America.

And higher incidences of COPD and asthma.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:28 AM on November 8, 2011


Look, my fundamental issue is that your conclusion about big cities is broad and over-sweeping. I'm guilty of cherry-picking my examples as well.

It just came across to me as if I had concluded "Suburbia is a cultural wasteland and hostile to strangers" because the suburb that I lived in was full of gated communities and had a very small public library collection and few cultural facilities. I'd be guilty of the same overbearing conclusion. (And I've almost always had the opposite experience with the libraries. When the local library system didn't have a book, interlibrary loan would take ages -- and I use a central library not just as a tourist destination. I work downtown and often pick up books after work there. But I digress.)

And for what it's worth, the city park closest to me, in walking distance, less than 10 minutes away, is by no means full of hypodermic needles, crimes or is rundown.
posted by andrewesque at 11:38 AM on November 8, 2011


To follow on to my own comment, I think one of the interesting things about the 2nd generation of Levittowners (I'm not sure if I qualify as second or third) is that we didn't really have the suburban ennui that I think is so prevalent today. Since the suburbs really hadn't hit Bucks County hard when we were kids, we were much more tied into our communities. The guy who worked on my car was an old friend of my dad's- they grew up together. Same for my barber and my doctor. I know their kids and their parents. When I moved to DC, I felt the definite lack of that community network, and it seems to me that as society continues to increase in mobility, those sort of networks aren't being re-formed. Levittown may have been the "first suburb," but it was still a small town in the Americana sense for a long, long time. I don't think that is the case today, and definitely is not the case with every other new development being paved in outside cities everywhere.
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:45 AM on November 8, 2011


Don't argue with Slap*Happy about suburbs. He's had negative experiences with urban life and assumes all cities are like his, when in fact there are probably parts of his own city that differ from his description. But whatever, he doesn't like city life, so fine, who care?

Thing I try to point out in these discussions is that America's built landscape is largely a contingency. Our cities were shaped as much by race riots and white flight as they were by automobiles and returning GIs. A lot of factors created the blighted urban landscape of America's cities, and it's a shame and a crime that this is what Americans think of when they think of city life.

Many of the things people complain about when they complain about cities -- bad schools, needle-strewn parks, crime rates (which have been falling precipitously for the last couple decads) -- are a product of community disinvestment and shrinking tax base. It doesn't have to be this way! Urban life can be quite pleasant. My life is quite pleasant. But I've been privileged enough to live in cool neighborhoods in world-class cities for the last 8-9 years. And I say privileged because these places are expensive! Even the still-gentrifying urban hipster enclaves I've called home.

Sure, there will always be people who really really love their lawn and their quiet and their white picket fence and what-have-you, but I feel like more people would choose urban life if pleasant neighborhoods with good public transport were available at a reasonable cost. This should be an option for everybody! Cities are great! It's a terrible thing that car culture and suburban isolation are foisted upon people who may be happier in a city, if they had better options.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:47 AM on November 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


What city do all the strawmen live in?
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:48 AM on November 8, 2011


The Emerald City?
posted by andrewesque at 11:49 AM on November 8, 2011


Many of the things people complain about when they complain about cities -- bad schools, needle-strewn parks, crime rates (which have been falling precipitously for the last couple decads) -- are a product of community disinvestment and shrinking tax base. It doesn't have to be this way! Urban life can be quite pleasant.

Repeated for motherfucking truth and emphasis.


The Emerald City?

So, Seattle?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:51 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


As long as we're pointing out that there are functional cities in the United States besides NYC, SF, and Seattle, let me mention that I live a perfectly happy car-free existence here in Denver, besides many people both in my city and elsewhere insisting that this must be impossible. (It helps, of course, that I live in a part of the city that was built up before the car and is adjacent to downtown, where I work.) Sure, you need a car to get to the mountains, but that's what Avis is for. The only part that's a real pain in the ass is getting to the airport, but that would be a pain in the ass with a car, too, since it's essentially in Kansas.
posted by heurtebise at 11:51 AM on November 8, 2011


Jane Jacobs et al--all those unhappy writers living in cities--of course bad mouth the suburbs...

I grew up in the suburbs. I get an allergic reaction now when I'm in suburbs. Extreme dissaffection, depression along with suicidal ideation spring up unbidden. Crime ridden cities? In the suburbs the crimes are those of omission, not of commission. I prefer the latter.
posted by telstar at 11:57 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thankfully, it's a big world and different people find fulfillment in different environments.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:58 AM on November 8, 2011


Ahem.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:05 PM on November 8, 2011


No one claims that you should live in Chicago or New York if you like to go fishing weekly or hiking through the woods after work every day.

Anecdote:

I grew up in Chicago, in a northwest neighborhood. I could step outside of my home and walk to my choice of two bus lines, each running every 12-15 minutes each, to whisk me to the Jefferson Park transit hub in 10-14 minutes. From there, I could take the train downtown, or to the airport, without changing trains or lines, and I could get to my high school by jumping off at Addison and hopping one of the buses they kept parked in a line for students like myself (both coming and going.)

I could also step outside of my home, walk the same two blocks, and reach the Cook County Forest Preserves, miles and miles of (mostly) unimproved forest, maintained by the Park District. Bike trails, hiking, picnic areas, the Chicago River, and so on. Granted, it wasn't mountainous, but we are talking about the midwest here. One of the bus stops was right at the forest boundary, and both bus lines followed Central Avenue through the Forest Preserve.

Oh, and I could also have hopped on the Metra Train to head to Jefferson Park or straight downtown, but it wasn't as convenient or inexpensive.

Did I mention that as I grew up and moved out of my parents' house, living in various Northwest Side neighborhoods, that I was typically living within a block or two of one of the many subway lines (Blue line, Brown line, Red line)? It is a very transit-oriented city, if you pick the right neighborhoods, and on the northwest side at least, it is hard not to pick the right neighborhoods.
posted by davejay at 12:16 PM on November 8, 2011


and yet for some reason I currently live in a Los Angeles suburb established in 1952, in a house I bought from the original owner, and I have to wait 60 minutes for a bus or walk over a mile to the transit hub, which rarely goes where I need it to go. Sigh.
posted by davejay at 12:17 PM on November 8, 2011


Cook County Forest Preserves

Fixed that for me; I did not go hiking in a giant green jar of leafy jam.
posted by davejay at 12:18 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


No, I'd call them tourist destinations, even for people who live in the city, and not any part of reality city dwellers actually deal with day to day.

Central libraries themselves are day-trips and tourist destinations, not city life.


What strange comments. Great public spaces in cities don't count because you say so? I'm an urbanite who makes great use of the public parks and central library in my city, but according to you this isn't really part of the urban experience?
posted by auto-correct at 12:27 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


... but according to you this isn't really part of the urban experience?

Of course not, it's contrary to his AIDS-quilt-sized blanket of an opinion.
posted by griphus at 12:47 PM on November 8, 2011


Great public spaces in cities don't count because you say so?

No, because they require a day trip to get there. You're just being a tourist in your own town, no different than somone driving in from the 'burbs. Try throwing a cook-out on Boston Common sometime.

Sometimes, in some special circumstances, the cards fall just so where you can replicate a part of suburban life in the city. It's an aberration and is usually a sign you're rich or lucky or both. In the suburbs, it's just being a part of the middle class. The parts of city life people adore - usually something materialistic like boutique shopping or fine dining - aren't exclusive at all to the city, and people can just drive in for the evening.

In short, I'm sick of people pretending that cities are a solution and not a problem, and that cities like Worcester or Akron aren't the rule rather than the exception.

Urban areas can be made human-friendly, but the biggest urban boosters are too busy sneering at people for owning cars to address the problems of scale and transportation afflicting them.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:49 PM on November 8, 2011


Try throwing a cook-out on Boston Common sometime.

I have been to more than one cookout in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I am not rich. My friends are not rich. It's a regular thing that happens every spring and summer and the families having these cookouts are all races, creeds and income levels. Of course, any proof contrary to your philosophy on this is the exception and not the rule.
posted by griphus at 12:53 PM on November 8, 2011


Of course not, it's contrary to his AIDS-quilt-sized blanket of an opinion.

Of course, any proof contrary to your philosophy on this is the exception and not the rule.


Nice. I'm out, kids.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:57 PM on November 8, 2011


People in the US love their suburbs because we've let our cities go to shit

Or because they prefer suburbs. Not everyone likes cities, even "good" cities. It's a fundamentally different lifestyle.

I've lived in both (lots of suburbs before, city now) and they both have their appeal. Of course it depends on the suburb -- the one I grew up in had a lot of open space (lots were 1+ acres each in long rectangles, so everyone had woods/etc in their backyard but houses were close together side-to-side), which was pretty nice.

Of course, I have no interest in a "car free" lifestyle, so that aspect of city living holds no appeal for me (being in the city of LA, a car is still necessary, which is fine by me).

Cities like SF basically just combine the worst of both -- you can't really easily get around without a car, but the public transit isn't like NYC, so it's just inconvenient and there is no parking.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:15 PM on November 8, 2011


Okay, well, enjoy your destructive and unsustainable lifestyle that is subsidized by our tax dollars!
posted by entropicamericana at 1:19 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nice. I'm out, kids.

Come back! I want to tell you about canoeing from my house in a city to pick up my kids from school!
posted by padraigin at 1:40 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Canooing from my house in the city - I had to post this, it is an image from the inner city of Copenhagen, a sad slum when I was young, now a popular neighborhood. I'm hoping we can develop new forms for cities, where nature and culture are combined. cities and suburbs can change.
When I moved from a village in Yorkshire to Düsseldorf as a child, I thought the end times had come. The goddamm river was paved!! But cities across the Globe are changing, as are suburbs. Maybe we'll end up getting a livable median.
posted by mumimor at 2:36 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The parts of city life people adore - usually something materialistic like boutique shopping or fine dining - aren't exclusive at all to the city, and people can just drive in for the evening.

Huh. And here is the thing I miss most about living in the city, now that I've lived in an uber-suburb for over a decade: stepping outside my front door and being within visual distance of...

- A laundromat;
- The El stop on Southport;
- The chintzy but delicious bagel place that eventually got muscled out by a chain restaurant;
- The "ding ding", aka the convenience store on the corner;
- The people, people everywhere, even late at night.

Besides, "driving in" just ruins the fun. There's nothing more soul-sucking than knowing I can't go to, say, some non-chain restaurant that I love without getting in my car and driving for 20 minutes each way -- I don't want my fun evening to begin and end with a same-as-it-ever-was drive, I want it to end with a lovely stroll. Plus, it is always fun to walk up to a crowded destination and see cars circling, circling, circling or waiting for a valet, meanwhile I got there later and yet I'm in line ahead of those people. City life is about convenience in that way, and about sharing the experience with other people.

if memory serves
posted by davejay at 3:28 PM on November 8, 2011



I'd never call Millennium Park, Central Park, Union Square (in both NYC and SF), Boston Commons, "filthy" and "crime-ridden."

No, I'd call them tourist destinations, even for people who live in the city, and not any part of reality city dwellers actually deal with day to day.


What a strange thing to say. In San Francisco the parks are very well used by residents.

Cities like SF basically just combine the worst of both -- you can't really easily get around without a car, but the public transit isn't like NYC, so it's just inconvenient and there is no parking.

I don't even live in SF, and I can get to and around it easily, without a car. Sure, it's not like NYC transit, but if you get sick of waiting for the bus or Muni, you can just walk. The City is only seven miles wide.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:32 PM on November 8, 2011


No, I'd call them tourist destinations, even for people who live in the city, and not any part of reality city dwellers actually deal with day to day.

I used to walk past by Union Square in NYC on my way to work and many many city dwellers delt with day to day. (And had (has?) and awesome Farmer's market to boot). Now I live in SF within easy walking distance of at least 4 parks full of people year round, not to mention plenty of other public spaces that get lots of use. You don't know what you are talking about.
posted by aspo at 4:37 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is my favorite planned suburban community. (It's not technically a suburb as it's in Minneapolis proper, but it's got about the density of a suburb.)

The houses have normal back yards, but instead of a front yard and a four-lane street there's a hundred-foot-wide linear park with bike paths, running trails, playgrounds, and a two-lane street that extends for about 4 miles. Not all the houses face the park, but it puts everyone in the neighborhood within a short walk of shared space. On a sunny weekend, the park is packed with families.

It's not an expensive area, either. The area was built to be affordable for returning WWII vets, like Levittown. Even today, many of those houses are under $200k.

It's still very car-dependent, as there are not many neighborhood businesses. But the sense of community is vastly ahead of every other low-density development I've seen.
posted by miyabo at 6:58 PM on November 8, 2011


...
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
...


Na, the Homeowner's Association makes sure they're either grey or beige.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:02 PM on November 8, 2011


Don't forget, prior to WWII most people (other than farmers) lived in tenement buildings in crowded urban neighborhoods, often segregated into ghettos of race or culture.

Eh, I'm late to this thread, but, in NYC and Boston (and I'm sure Philly, DC...) this isn't as true as a modern look back suggests. Many people lived in tenements, but they weren't the target market for the suburbs. (Although many tenement dwellers certainly did move out, and not always voluntarily.)

Meanwhile, here are some photos of middle-class NYC neighborhoods being built and occupied in the 1920s. Not exactly hellish inner-city ghettoes. About half of Brooklyn is built up like this, and nearly all of Queens is, as well as much of the northern Bronx. In New York, the 1920s were a development boom paralleled only by the period from 1844-1860, and most of that development took place along what we would now call "urban" but was then called a "suburb."

In fact, areas like Bay Ridge, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and many more, were built up with large (1200-2000 sq ft) houses by 1910. Upper Manhattan in the 1880s was mostly occupied by the country houses of wealthy downtowners. The suburb was well-developed. Just not the car-driven suburb.
posted by zvs at 8:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Er, oops, Jackson Heights wasn't built up by 1910. That sentence contains 1 lie.
posted by zvs at 8:09 PM on November 8, 2011


and I'm sure Philly, DC...

much of current West Philadelphia, especially along trolley lines, was essentially suburban in the early 20th century; parts of West Philly are now officially the West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. (map; downtown Philadelphia is just off the map to the east.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:17 PM on November 8, 2011


I was born and raised in Levittown, New York. I currently live in a small village in rural northern England.

The fact that the BBC is doing something on Levittown, and it's the damned one in Pennsylvania, hurts on multiple levels.
posted by Hickeystudio at 5:29 AM on November 9, 2011


much of current West Philadelphia, especially along trolley lines, was essentially suburban in the early 20th century


As your link points out, you can actually trace the development of suburban West Philly, built around horse-drawn street car lines, as far back as the mid-19th Century.

My favorite thing about those brownstone townhouses with the tiny front yards and porches, is that they were marketed to middle class families as "country style" living.
posted by snottydick at 11:32 AM on November 9, 2011


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