- 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
Model suburbs like Forest Hills Gardens had failed the young families because they could not afford the costs of purchasing a finished, fully landscaped home, of paying the high taxes needed to build every public work immediately. But the new suburbs provided opportunity for creativity on a public scale, simply because most families found themselves more or less involved in determining the need for a new high school versus a new sewerage treatment plant, sidewalks versus traffic lights. As children in cities and older suburbs they had simply accepted such expensive things and the established political operations that maintained them; in the raw and sprawling automobile suburbs of the fifties and sixties the young adults plunged headlong into local government and shaped a public environment almost as quickly as they shaped their family property.
Baby-boom children grew up in the open automobile suburbs their parents invented and saw their way of life depicted in television shows, in magazines, even in gradeschool primers. For them such suburbs represented the world, a world open to bicycling, to backyard adventure, and ruled every weekday by women, not men. In a land without public transportation, traveling alone into cities was impossible, indeed unthinkable; everywhere within bicycle range was suburban, and cities meant only the workplaces of fathers. And as continuously increasing traffic slowed the fathers, they looked for jobs in the suburbs. Gradually white-collar employees began deserting the city altogether, and the automobile suburbs entered their present stage.
Today the automobile suburbs no longer appear as they did two decades earlier. A declining birthrate has closed many schools, made large houses unnecessary, and quieted residential streets once thronged with children. Women work beyond the home; on weekdays whole streets lie vacant, ripe for burglars, and in the evening and on weekends there are two automobiles in each driveway. But many commuters no longer fight traffic to and from cities; blue- and white-collar workers now frequently drive to former streetcar suburbs or to an adjacent automobile suburb. Such change creates new questions. Should the large, half-empty houses be divided into apartments? Should on-street, overnight parking be permitted for the people who rent there? Is an industrial park an asset or the thin edge of urban ills? Does public transportation bring drug addicts and the poor into suburbs? And most vexing of all: Can the automobile suburbs survive a severe, lengthy gasoline shortage, a shortage likely the day after another Mideast war?
Still the dream endures, the dream of rural bliss manifested in wide lawns and vegetable gardens, miniature orchards and rose arbors, the dream of personal creativity and private leisure, the antiurban dream that from colonial days to our own time appears to have been a large part of the American Dream, if not the Dream itself.