By Arthur H. Gunther III
Rockland County, N.Y. -- What has happened to the suburbs, our great, post-World War II promise of middle-class life away from the smog-filled cities where so many immigrant forebears sweated and were blessed to have a chance at the American Dream?
Well, the burbs have gotten grayer, and the promise of bettering the dream has not always been met. For we historians, for lovers of old Rockland, the coming of “Huggy Bear Estates” on a zillion cul-de-sacs and the consequent loss of so many farms and irreplaceable Dutch sandstone, Victorian-era and other houses, the immense growth has been a jolt.
Not because there are more people in Rockland. This county had to grow after the war, a terrible conflict that ironically ended a terrible depression, offering a chance for G.I.s in particular to broaden their horizons, have a patch of land, send their children to better schools, maybe even build a society that could prevent war. The old World War I song, “How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree?)” was more true after the Second World War, principally because of the G.I. Bill and the G.I. mortgage. Opportunities to become educated and to buy into the American Dream of improving life beyond urban centers became a very proper investment that saw America boom in the 1950s.
Trouble was -- trouble still is -- and this is where the jolt comes in -- too many hucksters sold off our land, and more than enough old-time Rocklanders bought the bait. Farms that had been worked for decades, even centuries, were proving difficult to sustain economically. Refrigerated trucking, super farms owned by conglomerates, supermarkets -- all under-cut truck farm profit. Even just $100 an acre for long-inherited farmers’ land seemed a way out of the hole in 1950. And there were the usual political connections, then as today, which gained property and its development at any cost, whether it was farm land or flood plain where there should have been no building at all.
Planning and zoning boards were rare after the war, and well-intentioned officials were inexperienced against some slick individuals. The net effect of rapid growth, strong demand, quick land grabs and almost non-existent planning was to bring too much development, too fast, at the cost of heritage homes, neglected village downtowns, which have their own history, and poorly built infrastructure such as sewering and drainage that must now be restored at great cost in an economy hobbled in recovery by greed.
What has happened to the Rockland suburbs is neglect -- in planning, execution, re-investment, and that has stunted our history education as well.
Just where our graying development is headed is uncertain. It surely is a challenge and a quandary. The grandchildren of our 1950s’ eager residents want to live not in the burbs but where their forebears did -- in trendy Brooklyn, or in rare village downtowns like Nyack where you can walk to a store, sit on a porch and chat with a neighbor. When the suburbs were built, each home got a backyard, not a front porch, and that’s where the new owners disappeared, only to come out of the garage in a car, drive to one of too many strip-shopping centers or malls and perhaps live on a development street for 30 years and never know the neighbors’ names. In such a setting, how could they realize that a home built in the 1600s was a few streets away? Or that a Revolutionary War battle happened in Stony Point? Or that British recognition of the United States began with a gun salute off Piermont? How could they care, caught in the hustle and bustle of suburban life where communities were the developments themselves? Where in the suburbs has there been sufficient opportunity to build the sort of cohesive neighborhood that values history, protects it, preserves it and passes it to the next generation?
I’ve painted a picture of anonymity and disconnect in the suburbs with little mercy because I do not think the promise has been met and that our heritage has been bulldozed over by a march of progress without thought. Despite early neighborhood associations, block parties, civic groups and a generally euphoric feeling of creating a new and better world, anonymity and disconnection have indeed been the overall characteristics, however the opportunity for out-of-the-city living and improvement in the American Dream has presented itself since World War II.
Maintaining our burbs will be ever more costly, and good planning for the land that is left, largely illusive in the past, will be even more necessary since there will now be a call for density construction. But what of the expense of that in added police, DPWs, education needs and decreased quality of life? Isn’t there a point at which we all say “enough” and then slowly but surely seek to redefine the suburbs, to save them? Can we, for example, connect existing development to renewing hamlet and village downtowns by foot and bike paths? Can we tear down some of the too numerous strip shopping centers, with so many empty stores, and some older development as well and rebuild as hamlet-center, walkable communities that mix commercial and residential with green space, perhaps even constructed around an old homestead that we want to save? Can we return a bit of the land for uses such as small local truck farming that is cost-competitive given fuel expense and that offers so much better quality than supermarket produce?
Maybe if we think out of the box on our suburbs’ future rather than continue the hellbent quest for development at any cost, with planners and zoners listening only to the promises never met, maybe if we finally slow down for the first time since 1950 and think fast and hard about what the burbs really should be, Rockland’s towns and villages will also look at the few heritage homes that are left and also literally smell the flowering of our great history. Perhaps then, our historical names, this historical society and local historians will be as recognizable on the suburban map as are “Huggy Bear Estates,” or say the West View Shopping Center on Highway 59 or the Palisades Center Mall, set in a flood plain, which, history tells us, our Native Americans deliberately avoided.
If only the burb makers had read history first. ...
This essay was read to the Historical Society of Rockland at its 22nd annual Preservation Awards ceremony in New City, N.Y., May 20, 2012.