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Salmagundi (Fall 2006, No. 152), the quarterly journal of humanities and social sciences of Skidmore ... - page 3 / 6

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It is self-evident that human beings enjoy living in settings of domesticated nature

  • and no accident that the archetype for this is the Garden of Eden – but note that there is

no mention of parking lots in the standard accounts of it. The suburbia of our time, which even Bruegmann identifies as “sprawl,” is something of a new and different order, not adequately described by sheer compilations of numbers. Because he is allergic to any consideration of the non-empirical, Bruegmann manages to misunderstand some important elements of the suburb in history. Yes, it is true that ancient Rome had extensive suburbs. It was an urban organism of roughly a million people in the time of Trajan and a substantial elite occupied villas in its hinterlands. They did it because they could – because this elite enjoyed fabulous imperial wealth, and because the enormous power of the empire allowed civil security to extend outside the city, indeed throughout Italy, where wealth enjoyed protection. Even the mild weather of the region favored these arrangements. But was life there comparable in quality and character to Hackensack? And what kind of empirical data might demonstrate the difference? You could say that suburban Romans owned fewer automobiles per capita as compared to the denizens of Hackensack, and that would be correct – but would it be meaningful?

When Rome fell apart, nothing like it was seen again until the beginning of the early industrial age. The gothic, medieval, and even Renaissance cities were designed more or less as extensive fortifications because political security was so dicey, and to be outside the protective walls was not advantageous. The industrial age marked a sharp change in the organization of cities and their relations to their hinterlands. The differences in the development of the industrial cities themselves has a pertinence to the consequent development of suburbs that Bruegmann seems to misconstrue. He writes:

"In nineteenth century, London exploded outward as developers threw up mile upon miles of brick terrace houses. . . . The resulting cityscape horrified highbrow British critics of the time, who considered the new districts to be vulgar, cheap, and monotonous. Nevertheless, the houses continued to be built because so many middle class inhabitants of central London saw them as a vast step upward for their families. In the second half of the twentieth century, highbrow opinion came around, and today they are widely considered to be the very model of compact urban life. Ironically, they are today often considered the antithesis of sprawl."

The redevelopment of Paris in the same period took a quite different form. The heroic renovation of the city by Louis Napoleon and George Eugene Haussmann, the prefect (i.e. mayor) of the city, was based typologically on the apartment building for the growing middle class rather than the private row house. These apartment buildings, generally seven stories and under, were zoned vertically by income, with the wealthy occupying the lower floors above the shop fronts and the less well-off above them, and finally servants and poor folk tucked under the mansard roofs. The result was a substantially different quality of city life, more compact and lively than London, with people of all social ranks thrown into proximity, and a rich mix of culture and commerce at street level. Returning to compare them today, in the 21st century, one could easily conclude that the seemingly endless, sprawling, row house neighborhoods of London are indeed monotonous to an extreme, tending to be income-segregated ghettos, with retail services and cultural amenity deployed often at an inconvenient remove.

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