The Suburbs

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ABOUT SUBURBS, ONLY COMMUTERS know for sure. For single-family houses, lawns, off-street parking, and gardens they endure harrowing round trips by train, bus, and automobile, certain that life in the suburbs amply repays the time and money lost in transit. And they endure the smug jibes of residents of city and country, jibes as old as commuting. As one magazine writer put it in 1907, the typical suburbanite “neither gets all the way into the life of the city nor clean out into the country, so his view of things has neither the perspective of robust rurality nor the sophistication of a man in the city and of it.”

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?

Suburban Dawn

 

THE FACT is THAT SUBURBS, AS WE KNOW THEM , developed relatively recently and largely by accident. As colonial seaports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia increased in population and in importance, nearby agricultural villages lost their former independence. Farmers sold their harvests in the nearby “great towns,” spent their cash on books, paint, glass, and other urban goods, and rode or walked home afterward. By the late seventeenth century the port cities dominated trade in their outlying regions; by the middle of the eighteenth century, wealthy urban families had begun to acquire nearby farms not only as sources of income but also as summer residences. From May through September merchants rode daily between countinghouse and summer home, delighted to temporarily escape the heat, stench, and disease of the sweltering city, while their wives and children luxuriated in rural coolness. Summertime farming—“gentleman farming” as local agriculturalists came to call it—occupied the merchants on weekends; the gentlemen farmers organized horticultural societies, sponsored harvest competitions, and congratulated themselves on demonstrating firsthand j to their sons and daughters the rural virtues prized by classical and ecclesiastical writers.

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.

The Railroads Change Everything