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Salmagundi (Fall 2006, No. 152), the quarterly journal of humanities and social sciences of Skidmore ... - page 4 / 6





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In American cities, you got a mix of both patterns. New York went crazy for Paris- style apartment living and eventually elaborated it into the skyscraper, while other places like Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore stuck almost exclusively to the row house. In Chicago and San Francisco, you got some of both. In any case, the industrial growth of American cities was furious and resulted in an urban ecology with the ambience of a gigantic machine. Little of the pre-industrial scale survived, and once you got west of Chicago, it barely existed in the first place. The ensuing discomfort and revulsion inspired an intense nostalgia for the non-city, for country living, for the garden. Rural land outside these American cities was plentiful, cheap, and unencumbered by entailments beyond fee-simple ownership. So as the Civil War concluded, the new railroads facilitated a ready escape from the awful industrial city into the hinterlands and the American suburbs were born.

The suburban evolutionary sequence moved quickly from the railroad through the brief but exuberant streetcar phase to the drive-in utopia based on universal democratic car ownership, and the development pattern changed with it. Eventually, it resolved into the dendritic roadway system we see today, of cul-de-sac income-segregated housing tracts, commercial collector boulevards with the familiar chain retail, and the activity pods of the mall and the office park, tied together by limited access freeways – all of it predicated on the rationalized insanity of single-use zoning.

The automobile and all of its requisite infrastructure, of course, would not have developed the way it did without ready supplies of cheap oil, and America coincidentally had vast supplies easily obtainable inside our own borders. Europe had to rely on much more distant supplies of oil. Meanwhile, their societies were savagely disrupted by two world wars, with after-effects lasting for decades. On top of that, they had age-old land- tenure laws that did not favor real estate subdivisions. So, it was not so easy for them to suburbanize. They got into the game late, never enjoyed cheap gasoline, and did not sprawl even close to the extent that we did, or the way we did – a point that Bruegmann obscures with a blizzard of statistics about relative city densities in late 20th century Europe that would have the reader think that the Ile de France today is not substantially different from Nassau County, Long Island.


Something strange happened to American suburbia as it went through its phases of development. It started out as country living, the sovereign antidote to the industrial city. Then it became a rigorously domesticated variant of country living. Then, after World War Two it mutated into something insidiously different: a cartoon of country living in a cartoon of the country (in a cartoon of a country house). This sad fact explains why the chronic disappointment of suburbia inspires ridicule even among those who live in it. It hasn’t delivered very well on its promises for a long time now. In its florid, climactic incarnation today – the McMansion precincts of Dallas, Atlanta, or Northern Virginia – it presents the worst elements of urban and rural life in the same package, with few of the benefits of either. The megaburbs have all the congestion of a city and none of the human contact. They have all of the isolation of the country, but no real connection to nature.

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