The well-cultivated lawns of Levittown

The history of environmentalism in the suburbs Crabgrass Crucible includes this description of how Levittown encouraged good looking lawns:

Abraham Levitt, among others, remained keenly aware of the additional work and expense suburban horticulture demanded, as well as the collective benefits that could follow if all Levittowners took the time and trouble to cooperate. However well-chosen and planted, all their grass, shrubs, and trees would die, and the chickweed prevail, if new owners’ commitments and skills were not also fortified. Through a gardening column in the Levittown newspaper, Abraham opened up a weekly line of communication to bring home to Levittowners how “lawns, like all living things, require care.” He “used to come around in a chauffeur driven car” to check on his homeowners’ floral upkeep. If lawns went unmowed or unweeded, he sent his own landscapers to do the job and followed up with a bill in the mail. Most developers at the lower end, like the Romano brothers, were far less solicitous, especially once their homes had been sold.

As lawn cultivation was taken up by new as well as longtime homeowners, its collective benefits, reinforced by the pressure of neighbors’ peeled eyes, helped make it the most ubiquitous of horticultural practices on Long Island. Whether these residents were white or black, however, their memories downplayed the landscaping contributions of builders and developers. Early Levittowners recalled a “sea of dirt” or mud that surged with rain, an uneven respreading of the topsoil, and scrawny, “inexpensive” shrubbery and trees. Residents later remarked little about any lawn damage from roaming children or dogs, or the neglect of lawn care by a neighbor next door. Instead, whether they were Levittowners or lived in African American Ronek Park, their recollections revolved around a joint if rival pursuit of horticultural handiwork. “Everyone” took up the mowing and watering and often the fertilizing and weed killing. As with Levittowners, Eugene Burnett remember “a kind of competition goin’ with that” that made Ronek Park yards into “some of the most beautiful lawns I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Caught up in the lawn-making enthusiasm, even Robert Murphy tried to plant one outside his Crystal Brook home. Yet for large lot owners, the dynamic was less intensely communal – the Murphy’s lawn was not even visible from the road. For denizens of Old Field, but also for smaller lots of horticultural hobbyists, lawns drew less investment of emotion or energy than other vegetation they cared about. (77)

Three pieces of this stand out to me:

  1. The pressure to maintain a nice lawn was present in the early post-war mass suburbs. It may have been present in earlier suburbs but fewer Americans could access those communities.
  2. It appears some of this pressure was promulgated by Abraham Levitt, part of the company that founded the community. At the same time, the developers of Ronek Park did less to landscape new homes there and the pressure to have a nice lawn also was present there.
  3. There are some hints that social class matters here regarding lawns. Was the lawn an essential part of purchasing a single-family home which offered access to the middle class American Dream? Could a poor lawn reduce or invalidate the success of the new suburban homeowner?

It is hard to imagine images of postwar suburban homes, whether in magazines, film, or television shows, without lush green lawns.

More Prii at which location: Whole Foods on a weekend or an arboretum on Earth Day weekend?

A recent experience at the Morton Arboretum led me to this question regarding where I was more likely to see Toyota Prii:

-The parking lot for Whole Foods on a weekend

-At the arboretum on Earth Day weekend

Since certain lifestyle and consumption choices are tied to other lifestyle patterns (for example: TV shows), connecting Prius owners to these two places may not be that surprising. One study had this to say about small car owners:

Small Car: Prius, Honda Civic, Smart Car
According to a study by researchers at UC Davis, “What type of vehicle do people drive?
The role of attitude and lifestyle in influencing vehicle type choice,” small car drivers are more pro-environmental and prefer higher density neighborhoods than drivers of others types of cars. This isn’t surprising; if you live in a big city, it’s simply easier to park with a small car and if you’re concerned about the environment, you’ll want something that’s more fuel-efficient. Small car drivers, unlike other categories of drivers, don’t necessarily see their cars as a ticket to freedom. They aren’t workaholics or status seekers who try to display wealth. They want to lessen their impact on the earth and have a reliable car—and find a parking spot.

When considering the number of Prii at the arboretum, there were also a large number of vans and SUVs, vehicles less friendly toward the environment. Can a driver claim to be an environmentalist while also driving a large vehicle? Is a Prius a special badge of honor?

True for Chicago and elsewhere: “cities don’t just crop up in random places”

At Instapundit, Gail Heriot explains how Chicago came to be:

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE AND LOUIS JOLLIET: On this day in 1673, a 35-year-old Jesuit priest and a 27-year-old fur trader began their exploration of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, leaving from St. Ignace at the north end of Lake Michigan. From there, they went up the Fox River and then overland (carrying their canoes) to the Wisconsin River, which took them to the Mississippi River. Out of fear of running into the Spanish, they turned back at the Arkansas River. By then, they had confirmed that the Mississippi does indeed run to the Gulf of Mexico.

The route back was different. And this becomes important to the history of the country and especially of the City of Chicago: Friendly Native Americans told them that if they go up the Illinois River and the Des Plaines, rather than the Wisconsin, it would make the trip easier. That’s because the portage distance from the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed was shortest there. The Chicago River, which dumped into Lake Michigan was only a short distance away.

If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago grew into a major city so quickly, this is why: Location, location, location.  In the modern world it’s easy to miss how much topographical issues like that mattered (and in different ways continue to matter).  But cities don’t just crop up in random places.

The locations of major population centers may seem fairly obvious now: a large population has been there for a long time and the city by its own large inertia continues to draw more people. This may be particularly true for cities outside of North America where there may be centuries or millennia of accumulated settlement.

Yet, looking at the founding of major cities in the United States often shows that there are located at places that provided major transportation advantages for people of that time. Even though this might be less obvious now since we do not think much about sea travel and shipping, a number of major coastal cities have protected ports. Inland, many cities are located on key bodies of water, primarily rivers. Even more recently, communities developed around railroad junctions and highway intersections where a lot of traffic converged.
Perhaps in a “perfect world,” major cities would be spread out at fairly even intervals. But, development does not typically work this way: it often follows earlier transportation links or patterns of development.

Walkable + suburban = desirable “surban” places

Homebuyers may still desire to live in the suburbs but they now may want a different kind of suburbia: a walkable, denser, vibrant place.

No longer are McMansions, white picket fences and sprawling square footage topping suburban buyers’ most-wanted list. Instead, proximity to a suburb’s downtown and easy access to restaurants, schools and parks are priorities. For many, walkable suburbs reign supreme…

The shift toward more walkable suburbs started over the past two decades, thanks to planning efforts concentrated on creating mini-downtowns to revive traditional suburban centers, said Kheir Al-Kodmany, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs…

A 2017 study by the National Association of Realtors found that walkers span the generations. Sixty-two percent of millennials and 55 percent of those born before 1944 prefer walkable communities and brief commutes, even if it means living in an apartment or town home. And 53 percent of Americans would give up a home with a large yard in exchange for a home with a smaller yard that’s within walking distance of the community’s amenities, according to the study. That figure is up from 48 percent in 2015…

A 2016 study from realty site Redfin seems to support Dunne’s point. The study took into account more than 1 million home sales between January 2014 and April 2016 and found that homes with higher walk scores tend to have higher sales prices than comparable homes in less walkable areas. One walk score point can increase a home’s price by an average of $3,250. In Chicago, the study found an increase of one walk score point can bump a home’s price by $2,437.

I intentionally cited the broader data from the article (and not just the anecdotes from buyers, realtors, and local suburbs) because there should be an open question involved with this article: do we have a certified trend toward more walkable suburbs? Do we have clear population data showing people moving to walkable suburbs rather than other places? For a variety of reasons, including enhancing local tax bases and environmental concerns, this has indeed been an emphasis in a number of suburbs across the United States in recent decades. But, I would also guess that it is primarily in suburbs that have more traditional downtowns and mass transit options. In the Chicago region, this means the “surban” experience is easier to create in communities founded before World War II and along the major passenger railroad lines.

This possible shift also does not fit easily into the common narrative that suburbs and cities are locked in mortal combat and there are clear winners and losers. What if in the long term Americans want some of both city and suburban life: a little less density, a single-family home with a yard, a smaller town or city where they feel they can influence local government or organizations if need be, and also walkable and not just a bedroom suburb? Arguably, this tension has been behind the American suburbs for over a century: Americans want a mix of urban and country life. A denser suburbia may just be the newest manifestation of this ongoing balance.

We can now look back at “vintage suburbia”

The Daily Herald introduced a new feature this week to examine “vintage suburbia”:

DailyHeraldVintageSuburbia.png

While the article discusses why they called it “Through the Film Magnifier,” I find the word choice “vintage” more interesting. This usually refers to an older item of higher quality. I suspect this would be contentious among critics of the suburbs. Are we really to look to the postwar suburbs as places that are worth celebrating? Communities marked by tract housing, auto dependency, and lifestyles only available to some should be commemorated? Yet, these postwar suburbs did offer new opportunities for millions of Americans to own a home and it was the only home known to millions more born and raised there. And those problematic suburbs continued to grow over the decades, even as the problems of suburbia became clear both to outside observers and many residents.

There are few words that could capture this nuanced past. “Vintage” strikes a more positive tone but other words like “historic” or “storied” or “complicated” may be too drab.

Fight McMansions to slow down the sixth mass extinction

A letter to the editor in the Eugene Weekly links McMansions and broad environmental concerns:

We’re living through the sixth mass extinction. We see this firsthand in Lane County. Oak savannah is the most endangered habitat in the United States…

In this context, a group of neighbors and I are fighting a multi-million dollar “McMansion” development project in our area. “The Vineyards at Gimpl Hill” describes itself as a selection of “gracious estates” for “secure, sophisticated country living … the premier development in Lane County for discerning people.”

This project will destroy or impact 80 acres of prime wildlife habitat home to deer, elk, bears, cougars, wild turkeys, bobcats and a wide variety of other species.

Destroying large areas of habitat and impacting the area with higher traffic and additional access roads is a course of action I cannot support. These ostentatious houses will cost millions, and the developer (Roy Carver) stands to make millions more.

On one hand, 80 acres of land is a drop in the bucket of land in urban areas in the United States. On the other hand, this argument involving McMansions is a common one: McMansions represent the senseless sprawl that is gobbling up land, threatening wildlife, and contributing to our destruction of the environment.

I also suspect that because these homes are larger and more expensive (as well as more profitable, as this letter notes), they tend to get more attention in the same way that McDonald’s and Walmart receive attention for their environmental impact in their own sectors (fast food restaurants and retail stores, respectively). Sprawl over the past century or so in the United States involves a broad range of homes and other buildings, not just the big homes for the wealthy.

It also helps in this case to have a pejorative term for these large homes. They are not just “luxury homes” or places where wealthier people live; they are mass-produced, inferior quality homes that do not deserve the space they are taking up.

Finally, I wonder what the more compelling environmental appeal is to other locals: is it better to refer to (1) massive-scale change like the sixth mass extinction, (2) the loss of local nature (land and animals), or (3) the unnecessary use of land and resources for these larger homes? I suspect each of these could appeal to different people.

Does it matter if Roseanne is set in a real place?

After thinking about whether Roseanne is set in Elgin, Illinois and the inconsistencies of the show’s location, I arrived at a broader question: does a fictional television show really need a location? And a second question follows: does it serve the writers or the viewers better to have a clear location?

To answer the first question, I think the answer is no. As noted in the earlier posts, much of the action in television dramas and sitcoms takes place among a limited number of characters in a limited number of locations. In some shows, the characters hardly ever leave their residence or work. In other shows, character are out and about more but they are often in generic locations that may signal something about a particular city – skyscrapers! lots of traffic! – but do not necessarily depend on a particular location. Think Friends: they are clearly in New York City yet the unique daily life of the city rarely is part of the plot (perhaps outside of the ongoing question of how people with those kinds of jobs can afford apartments like that). Could the show easily be set in Seattle or London or Houston without substantially altering the key relationships between characters and the narrative arcs? Many shows just need enough information to slot into a typical narrative that fits a location: the big city story, the suburban life, small town doings, etc.

To the second question, I think both the writers and viewers could be served well with some idea of where the show is taking place even as this geographic identity may mean little for the show. Our everyday lives are highly impacted by the spaces in which we operate, even if critics would argue suburbanization has rendered all the American suburbs the same or globalization has homogenized experiences within and across cultures. It might be hard to truly invest in a story or narrative arc if it literally could take place anywhere. Having a recognizable place or name at least gives people something to work with in their imaginations, even if the shows do not fully explore their geographic context. The small nods to geography can also serve to help differentiate shows from each other: the New York version is slightly different compared to the Los Angeles or the Chicago version. (Again, we usually do not get a broad palette of American locations but rather easily identifiable locations.) If anything, the restricted number of possible locations helps studios who can make backlots look like many places. (And you can see this on studio tours: we took a tour a few years ago of Warner Bros. where the set for Gilmore Girls, small town Connecticut, Desperate Housewives, suburban everywhere, and the big city were all a short distance from each other. And once you have viewed these sets up close, you see them all over in commercials, shows, and films.)

Coming back to Roseanne: I do not think it really matters that it is modeled on Elgin, Illinois or uses an exterior shot of a home from Evansville, Indiana. It could easily be set outside of Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and dozens of other locations where working-class Americans live. Having a rough approximation of a location outside of Chicago may have helped writers and viewers place the show but it is not terribly consequential for the themes of the show or the characters.