- Historic Sites
Today more Americans live in them than in city and country combined. How did we get there?
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
For generations farmers mocked the small-scale agriculture beloved by suburban gardeners, while editors of city newspapers derided the lack of suburban cultural facilities. Caught in a sort of cultural cross fire, suburbanites inhabited a no-man’s-land beyond traditional definition. They still wince when charged with abandoning cities to decay, with living in economically and socially homogeneous settings, with wasting vast quantities of gasoline in their daily treks between home and workplace, between home and shopping mall. Nevertheless, they are not about to give up their patch of heaven.
More Americans live in suburbs now than in cities and rural areas combined; they love suburban life, if indeed they think about it at all. Each single-family house offers its owners the opportunity to make a unique architectural statement about themselves; window boxes planted with geraniums, a plaster cat climbing the roof, new garage doors patterned after barn entrances all reinforce the real, if controlled, individuality that thrives in suburbs. The house lot, too, allows the resident to personalize a tiny piece of American territory, to display a perfectly green, perfectly mowed lawn, a raised-bed organic vegetable garden, a collection of plaster gnomes, or a flock of plastic flamingos. And together the house and lot offer far more: privacy, space for personal recreation, safety for infants and pets, and in a time of income tax and inflation, a reasonably safe investment. So today suburbanites accept the sprawling landscape of single-family houses on small lots without questioning its origin. After all, they argue, suburbs have always been, have they not?
In the early years of the nineteenth century the spread of well-surfaced, reasonably level turnpike roads and hundreds of new bridges helped to quicken commutes. But it took the steamboat to change matters dramatically, at least in the New York City region. Men able to pay the fare—and, of course, able to buy a farm in the first place—discovered the joys of steaming down the Hudson in the early morning and cruising slowly upstream in early evening. No longer bound by the constraints of owning a horse and carriage, many more people began commuting and enjoying distinctly new ideas.
As commuting became feasible, the wealthy businessman now inhabited two worlds and learned a great deal about the landscape separating them. Only local historians remember the farms of Dorchester south of Boston, of Harlem north of New York; the cities long ago expanded over them, burying the fields beneath row houses and factories. But such expansion usually flowed along the roads favored by the commuters, who profited mightily when growth overwhelmed their rural retreats, for they sold their fields dear and bought other residences farther out. More than any other group, the forward-looking, upper-class commuters understood the direction and rate of urban expansion, and even as they savored rural bliss, they calculated the profits of urban growth.