While looking for dirt on internment camp builder and tract home kingpin Del Webb, I stumbled on an essay called “The Suburban Mind” from the April 1946 issue of Harper’s. It was written by a guy named Carl Von Rhode, who besides apparently being an exiled aristocrat from mitteleuropa, has somehow also “lived in the suburban and satellite cities of two of our leading metropolitan American centers.” Which means he knows what he’s talking about.
Anyway, it amused me to read about the ways surburbia has changed or not in the past 66 years. Von Rhode describes the Exurban Escapism Paradox:
…every suburb passes in time through three more or less standard cycles – rural, urban, and metropolitan. By the time the urban stage is reached, the best homes have been built-and the churches have gone deeply into debt for imposing community houses. Then comes a decline in property values; while the apartment dwellers are creeping in at the front door the “suburbanites” steal out at the back door. A few home owners remain to fight a losing battle against “encroachment;” but the young people, and those who can sell, retreat to the new “Waverly Hills” farther out.
The jargon is strange, but what he’s basically describing is the frustration of the early adopter, who moved to the edge of town to get away from the city, only to have a new subdivision pop up nearby after a few years. Many continue to move outward, feeding and being fed by the real estate speculation machinery that has long fueled the American economy. Those who stay try to control, and that was true then as now:
Building restrictions insure the uniform excellence of the dwellings, generally prohibiting apartments and two-family dwellings, and “undesirables” are often excluded by a common agreement not to sell or lease property to them even if they can afford it. Though the suburbanite is unalterably opposed to governmental control, there is one kind of legislation he approves of thoroughly – zoning. He invokes every kind of building and housing restriction to maintain the social excellence of his section, and to keep it inviolate.
Suburbia having run quite a bit further down its course in our own time, it seems the barbarians have finally stormed the gates. As such, images such as this likely strike the modern viewer as quaint:
Not only have the suburbs picked up a bit more diversity in the past 66 years, the train has long ago left the station. If people use park-and-rides, they’re taking a bus. But this image also reveals the fact that Von Rhode was talking about a breed of suburb that was about to be killed by highways and mass-produced housing:
The new houses of Suburbia, especially the “additions” built in the nineteen-twenties, exhibit a contemporary version of escapism in architecture, what with the English half-timbered cottage types, the Spanish villas, the Cape Cod salt boxes, and other habitations as remote as possible from our everyday American contemporary life.
Interesting to consider that the suburbia he’s talking about is the same neighborhood that we in Minneapolis now call the city: that vast swath of the southern portion of Minneapolis and the western portion of St Paul that lies between lakes and vales and is dotted with the revivalist mini-castles that were the McMansions of the era. Being from “our leading metropolitan American centers” the author was more describing railroad suburbs, whereas our provincial equivalent was spread by streetcar. But both are a bit different from the suburbia of the contemporary mind, which is more the product of mass-production than the escapism that bothers Von Rhode, to the degree that he predicts widespread abandonment of “sense of civic duty”. Nonetheless, he concludes with 40s optimism:
Americans are sprung from a pioneering stock which has always met the challenge of new frontiers. Our hope for the suburb lies here. When the suburbanite becomes fully aware that he is not “out of things,” as he fondly supposed, but at the center of things, he may rouse himself from his lethargy to play his full role in the development of the stimulating, labyrinthian culture of cities.
66 years on, I’m not sure how many suburbanites have been roused to meet the challenge of the new, old, urban frontier.