The Suburbs


SPECULATORS WERE CHEATING THOUSANDS OF families out of the life the magazine writers led them to expect. A developer would buy a farm or two near a rural railroad station, lay out roads and lots and perhaps even build houses. Optimistic families moved in and began planning lawns and gardens, only to watch angrily as another speculator built cheaper housing on adjacent farms. Suburbanites prized a community of “like-minded people” with similar values and interests—and incomes. Families of one sort bought twelve-room houses on two-acre lots; families of another bought five-room houses on quarter-acre lots. There was more than simple love of homogeneity to the fear of property devaluation that haunted the first decades of railroad-based suburbanization, however. So long as the real estate tax supplied almost all income for municipalities, anything that threatened property values was a real danger. While William Dean Howells in his Suburban Sketches blasted suburbanite fears of Irish-Americans and while other authors argued for developments of mixedprice houses, most families sought well-built houses unlikely to deteriorate physically, in suburbs unlikely to deteriorate socially.

So-called model or perfect suburbs offered one solution, at least to families able to buy homes in them. Outside almost every major American city, a canny speculator bought a vast acreage and created a “first-rate” development with finished water and sewer mains, paved roads, sidewalks, parks, and solid, splendid houses. Shaker Heights, Riverside, Beverly Hills, and dozens of others attracted the wealthy and the middle class; perhaps Forest Hills Gardens in Queens drew the most attention nationally, and it became a model for developments elsewhere.


In 1908 the Russell Sage Foundation acquired a 142-acre farm just beyond the speculator suburbs ringing New York City; intending to create a model suburb to be emulated everywhere, it employed a noted landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and a respected architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, to design site and structures as a perfect whole. Olmsted created a network of winding, narrow roads following the natural topography of the land, planted them with elm, English hawthorn, wisteria, rambler rose, and a hundred other species of trees, shrubs, and flowers intended to bloom at different times throughout the year, and designated the location of the houses. Atterbury designed the houses and the train station and block of stores next to it, using stucco, brick, and tile but no wood; he said his materials were more fire resistant and durable than those used by most suburban builders, and he perfected mass-production methods to make them as inexpensive.

Olmsted and Atterbury collaborated on a thousand details; Atterbury designed streetlights to accent Olmsted’s plantings, and Olmsted used a special mix of broken brick and roof tile to make sidewalks and curbs the same texture and color as Atterbury’s structures. Within three years the development had attracted all the attention the foundation had hoped for; “It is a fairy land because, while the place is nearly a hundred and fifty acres, it is all attractive,” said one visitor. “It is a garden, where the houses are mere incidentals.” Another admirer marveled that “at the ‘Gardens’ the situation of every house is studied first, in relation to the general plan or scheme of the whole development, and second, individually in relation to the plot upon which it is to stand.”

Streetcar Suburbs

OF COURSE, FOREST HILLS GARDENS SUCCEEDED for other reasons too, reasons not widely advertised. Only middle-class families could afford it, and despite the national love of backyard agriculture, Olmsted had provided little space for vegetable gardens. Indeed, the bylaws of the community forbade poultry raising altogether; no Forest Hills Gardens housewife could hope to offset her husband’s commuting costs. Moreover, no homeowner could change the appearance of his house or yard without express permission—even a fence required approval. The bylaws also forbade anyone from operating a brewery, slaughterhouse, iron foundry, or other manufacturing enterprise.