Monday, November 23, 2009

‘Once upon a time …’

Once upon a time in the nascence of suburbia, there was a street in a community called Hillcrest that had a model home at 25 Karnell. Being such, it was wallpapered with huge floral print in 1953 style. But that was the extent of added attractions. It was still a $12,500 Cape Cod-style house with two bedrooms, dining room, eat-in kitchen, full, unfinished basement and expandable attic, then also in vogue for, well, expanding families.

Time came when that attic was built-out, usually with scrap wood found here and there (a friend located beautiful hardwood in a bowling alley that was to be torn down for strip shopping). “Repurposing,” you see, was not invented in today's “going green” age, although originally the term was synonymous with “saving money.” The annual income tax refund also helped construct expandable attics into two big bedrooms, with, if the shekels were there, a modest bath.

The finishing of the attic, in Hillcrest and elsewhere in this nation, was a suburban ritual, a mark that the family had grown, and so its needs, and that there was a bit more money to move forward in overall progress. Only well-heeled professionals lived in the McMansions of the day, still-modest brick ranches that cost a whopping $40,000. For most, the ready-to-be-enlarged capes were a godsend, especially for families who had come through the Great Depression and survived a world war.

Everything was new on those suburban streets, including the water, sewer and electric/gas infrastructure. And in Hillcrest, there weren’t yet enough homes to overwhelm. The woods were still there, if no longer everywhere.

But suburbia is to expansion as a weeping willow is to rapid growth. Water the latter, and it multiplies. People the former, and suburbia explodes. So, in time, the expandable capes were built no more, replaced by fully finished and bigger spilt levels, then larger high ranches, then even bigger colonials, then McMansions of various super sizes. These never-ending developments would take over the woods, stress the old infrastructure and crowd the land with density.

The 1953 Hillcrest cape my parents bought in 1953 and sold in 1964 for $19,000 would sell for about $380,000 today, but it now includes apartments in the basement and attic. It was concern about  neighborhood overgrowth – illegal and illegal – that caused my mother and father to leave for a less-dense community in the same New York county.

Now we have the graying of suburbia in troubled times for lack of foresight and planning; for too many homes built; for infrastructure neglected; for anonymous strip shopping that must be accessed by car; for illegal housing and other zoning violations that are officially ignored.

Suburban planning could have arrived more responsibly,  providing for new residents  by expanding walkable village centers, just as we built expandable cape cods; by limiting growth; by protecting flood plains and the air-filtering and mind-easing woods. Instead, developers were allowed to follow a timed-release policy of “scorch and burn,” in this case bulldozing the woods and fields, building too much density, making a quick profit and walking away from the seeds of conditions that would inevitably result in greater traffic, a stressed infrastructure, higher schooling and government costs and reduced quality of life through both density and what it often spawns – illegal apartments.

It all could have been different, this suburban story, in Hillcrest and elsewhere. But, as the first paragraph of this piece introduces, “Once upon a time. …”

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