In 1945, even before troop ships brimming with returning World War II veterans hit ports in America, the suburban “plan” had been hatched. Defense contractors like Levitt & Sons knew many of these men, and some women, would never go back to their cities after their breakout. No longer were aspirations shelved by the make-do years of the Great Depression and then a devastating conflict. As well, there was renewed confidence in survival. The G.I., the sailor, the Marine, the airman, had made it back, and maybe these Americans could forge yet a new frontier, as is written in our national genetic code.
The newest frontier was affordable housing for the average American, to fulfill the dream of home ownership. William Levitt and his family, businessmen surely seeing great profit as well as possessing the ability to meet a need, were the first to step up to the plate in 1947 when they began selling homes fabricated in an assembly-line method, with payment as low as $57 a month. “Levittown” would completely alter the Long Island farm landscape, and everywhere else. Quickly, housing developments would grow across the nation, including in New York City’s suburbs, fertilized by eager investment and cultivated by willing towns and villages, which envisioned much more money for tax coffers. What was not expected in the heady rush was suburbia’s cost, its great and growing expense that today is helping drain treasuries from the federal government to the states to communities.
Aging infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, utilities, parks and public buildings; hastily built homes now requiring new plumbing and electrical work; houses illegally modified over the years against zoning regulations to create multiple units; insufficiently maintained homes, some of which stand out as eyesores, with unregistered cars on lawns, litter and unpainted siding; and bulldozed-over floodplains that raise the water table for other residents, filling their basements in storms – all these concerns now haunt graying suburbia, just as many of them have afflicted the old cities from which suburbanites fled in the decades after World War II. Yet, ironically, many of our urban areas have been rebuilt in their rediscovery. Children of suburbanites, turned off by the great development expanse, shopping strips that you have to drive to and the loss of old neighborhood downtowns, seek closer community in walking, downtown areas in Brooklyn, for example.
But this leaves suburbia wanting, for our growing national, state and local deficits and the ever-escalating cost of government combine to raise taxes prohibitively while concurrently not providing sufficient re-investment. Our infrastructure repair budgets are cut; our social services and health care expenses increase as suburbanites age. Reductions in manufacturing jobs and other workplace losses shrink the ranks of the middle class, the suburban bedrock. Suburbia no longer is growing, yet the rather big elephant in the room needs to be fed, its appetite almost insatiable. Who will pay?
A partial answer is in balance, which is necessary in the maturing of the suburbs. When the suburban boom began, planners, developers, investors and government should not have abandoned our downtowns and hamlet centers, instead balancing rebuilding there with the growth of fringe development. Without visionary thinking, we left areas to sometimes unscrupulous, exploiting landlords who turned them into substandard housing. And we vacated our downtown shopping zones in the process.
The proper plan would have been to reinvest in the downtowns, to tear down and renew the old and build a community of shops and housing, tied to outer suburbia. Instead, a gazillion shopping strips went up, with yet another pizza shop, dry cleaner and now the standard bagel joint. No visionary was available then (1945-2005 at least) with a strong enough voice. Everyone thought the suburbs were the best thing since toasted bread. Leave the crowded cities behind, people said. So, many Gothamites fled to the suburbs, but many, too, have now fled from them as well in the inevitable aging of suburbia.
Balance is required in development, particularly in rebuilding suburbia; that is, if growth and regrowth ever happen in this scary economy. But will visionaries speak up and be heard this time, over the shuffling of the mighty greenback?