Suburban dream: have a McMansion 12 miles from Times Square

A profile of Hasbrouch Heights, New Jersey in the New York Times highlights the variety of housing styles available in close proximity to Manhattan:

A mile-and-a-half square atop a hill, Hasbrouck Heights is hardly the boondocks. Times Square is 12 miles east, and the Manhattan skyline is visible from some streets. On the northern end, Interstate 80 swipes past and Route 46 cuts through. Route 17, with office buildings, hotels and chain restaurants, runs down the town’s eastern edge, and Teterboro Airport is just on the other side.

Driving through Hasbrouck Heights on Route 17 offers little inkling of the residential community up the hill or beyond the cliff to the west. Bordered primarily by Hackensack and the boroughs of Lodi, Wood-Ridge and Teterboro, Hasbrouck Heights has an eclectic housing stock of Capes, Victorians, ranches, split-levels, boxy contemporaries, Tudors, McMansions and colonials of all stripes, many on 50-foot-wide lots. The architectural variety, spanning the late 1800s to the current decade, is evident on nearly every block.

“With the new construction, builders have done a good job adding style and character,” said Susan LeConte, the president and chief executive of LeConte Realty, in Hasbrouck Heights. “The homes are not cookie-cutter.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This kind of real estate profile, a staple in many newspapers, tend to be very positive about each community or neighborhood highlighted. This profile is no exception: it has the feeling of a small town (bikes can stay unlocked!), there is a little noise from a nearby airport but not too much, and residents can commute to New York City. If this is not an advertisement for the American Dream – single-family home in a quiet suburb not too far from the big city – then I do not know what is. (Thinking more about these profiles: it would be funny to follow them with the opposite perspective of each community.)
  2. The paragraph on different housing architecture is interesting in two ways. How would a suburban community end up with an “eclectic housing stock”? Perhaps development took place in fits and starts. Perhaps the community has a mix of housing needs (with McMansions sitting on the more expensive end). Perhaps the community is more open to different kinds of development.
  3. The second interesting part of the housing paragraph is that the mix of architectural styles only hints at two more modern styles: “boxy contemporaries” and McMansions. Neither descriptions are endearing. Boxy and sleek homes are not preferred by many. McMansions are often viewed as taking up too much space and having poor design. Does this hint that home styles have hit a dead end in recent decades? Would more buyers prefer an older, more established style that they can then update to fit their own needs?
  4. For all the density and glamour of Manhattan, there are plenty of McMansions in the New York City region (including famously in New Jersey and elsewhere).

A famous author mowing the lawn, giving purpose to caring for the suburban yard

As I raked most of the remaining leaves this weekend, I pondered again the task of taking care of the lawn. Should I continue to help uphold the class status of the neighborhood or let the leaves break down naturally and nourish the grass?

But, if a famous author also took the time to care for his lawn, perhaps so could I. From a recent Facebook post:

ChurchillTolkienMowingthelawn

Caring for a lawn (or garden or field or yard) may just be part of the human tendency to want to cultivate the land around us. Maybe the motivation matters here: if I am more interested in raking because of the property values, this is worse than wanting to get some fresh air and participate in the changing of seasons. Maybe the quotidian tasks give the brain and body a chance to to relax and recharge. Maybe the truly inspired parts of life often follow everyday tasks. Maybe only people who keep fairly regular journals can figure this stuff out (and notice how much Tolkien did not comment on).

All that said, I would guess the average American suburban homeowner would feel better about mowing the lawn or raking leaves or caring for their landscaping if they could connect it to a purpose larger than just wanting the lawn to keep up appearances.

Two criticisms of “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall”

I enjoyed watching “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall” from The Atlantic. In a little over five minutes, the video presents a short history of the shopping mall and its impact. The connection between malls and suburbs is hard to argue; few other institutions or settings better exemplify post-World War II suburban life.

At the same time, I had two quick critiques of the ideas in the video.

  1. The overarching narrative of the video suggests malls are part of a larger mistaken American project. Early in the video, James Fallows says, “After World War II, there was this misguided ideal of the suburban goal for American life with people moving away from cities.” Later in the video, I believe it Fallows saying, “The dream of modern life is not a mall-centric, car-centric dream anymore.” These are both contestable statements. As of today, a good portion of Americans still appear to like suburban life (or at least dislike the alternatives more). Perhaps we have reached peak suburbia but this does not necessarily mean the American Dream has significantly shifted to more urban or denser communities. Furthermore, the dream of suburban life has deeper roots than just the post-war era and will likely hold on for decades more.
  2. Are all malls dead? Many are in trouble. Yet, there are two big caveats to this. A number of malls are pursuing redevelopment projects ranging from adding restaurants to public facilities to residential units. Depending on the particular project, the mall footprint may still be prominent or the shopping element may never disappear even as the use of space changes. A second caveat is that shopping malls in wealthier areas may just survive and even thrive as rival malls close down. Americans still like to shop, they still drive a lot, and they occasionally like to venture into spaces where other people are there.

 

Going without a car in Tempe, Arizona

Is it possible to not own a car in Tempe? A new apartment project hopes the answer is yes:

The 1,000-person rental community, which broke ground this month in Tempe, won’t allow residents to park cars on site or in the surrounding area as a term of their leases. The founders say it will be the first of its kind in the U.S.

The neighborhood’s scale will be modest, with mostly three-story buildings. In place of parking spaces, the development known as Culdesac Tempe will feature significantly more retail and open spaces than are typical for its size. It will include a market hall for food vendors, coffee shop, plazas, communal fire pits and a building that residents can rent to host events.

The site is next to a light rail that connects residents to a grocery store, Arizona State University, downtown Phoenix and the airport. There will also be designated spots for ride-sharing and an on-site car-sharing service for residents traveling to other neighborhoods…

The Phoenix area might seem an unlikely spot for such an experiment, but Tempe is something of an outlier among its neighbors. The 190,000-person college town has a median age of less than 30 years old, and younger people are less interested in driving than they were in the past.

A suburban community in a sprawling region might not be the location I would first think of in embarking on this new idea. At the same time, the last paragraph cited above suggests Tempe is a unique place.

I wonder if a residential development would attract only certain kinds of residents and whether that is desirable in the long-run either for the developers or the community. The hint in the article is that this might especially appeal to younger adults. It might also appeal to older adults who want a car-free lifestyle, perhaps those who for environmental reasons do not like car ownership or those who cannot drive. There could be a market for such housing. Additionally, what kind of community or culture in the building might arise if many people come primarily because of not knowing a car? This could be interesting to explore down the road.

Going further, it would be worth knowing whether this is a viable concept in different kinds of places and different kinds of housing. It probably makes the most sense with denser housing (multi-unit apartment buildings) but could it work with rowhouses or townhomes built near a mass transit stop or hub?

The long-lasting consequences of the original conditions in Levittown

When subdivisions or communities are built, conditions at their starting point can have long-lasting effects. See Levittown.

Levittown was built on rules. No fences around the yards. Grass had to be maintained and trimmed. Clothes could only be hung to dry in the backyard on weekdays. Only white people could live there. Though these rules no longer apply, their mere existence has continued to shape and permeate the town’s culture today, particularly for Levittown’s teens, who speak about traditions and customs and the deep-rootedness of certain conservative mentalities…

Today, the museum features a model Levitt kitchen, bedroom, and living room from the 1950s and a sports memorabilia collection. Paul Manton, the president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum, says the school kids learn about the farmland, Levitt’s mass-production techniques, and suburban expansion. When I ask about the whites-only restriction, he says, “We don’t talk too much about the deeds and restrictions because it’s a small part of Levittown, really.” His response parallels the one Kushner, the writer, heard at the museum. “Levitt was the largest real estate developer in the country, but each state you went to had those kinds of restrictions,” Manton continues. “Levitt himself was personally opposed to it. He was a progressive man. He would hire large numbers of black workers and he had a black sales manager.”…

The layouts were more or less uniform, which provides a familiar comfort still today. Things can get tricky if the design veers off course. “My front door opens to our living room in front of the stairs and I remember my friends getting lost and not knowing where anything was,” says Jacqueline Testamark, a senior at Division Avenue…

When Bill Griffith’s family moved to Levittown in 1952, it was “an old white world.” By the early ’60s, he started to feel suffocated and broke several Levittown molds. Most teens ride their bikes within the town limits. Griffith rode his to Walt Whitman’s birthplace an hour away. He didn’t learn one piece of Levittown history in school, he says. “I grew up in a time when we were being handed myths and legends. History was full of blank spaces or made-up stories.”

The character of a suburb can last for a long time, particularly if later decisions reinforce earlier conditions and choices. Some quick thoughts in reaction to the conditions in Levittown discussed above:

  1. The legacy of no blacks in the community is a long-lasting one. According to the Census, the Levittown CDP is less than 2% black (though the community is nearly 15% Latino).
  2. It would be hard to change either lot sizes or significantly increase the footprints of the original homes. And because Levittown was all roughly built at the same time, it does not offer the level of variation in housing stock that many suburbs might offer.
  3. In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans noted that teenagers are limited in Levittown and similar suburbs because so much driving is required and many of the social activities are geared around raising children in the home. This may still be the case in many suburbs as teenagers need rides and spaces friendly toward teenagers and young adults can be hard to find.

Going further, this article suggests continuity marks Levittown. Would it be possible to find signs of change or significant alterations from the original conditions? The Levittown of today could be more similar to the original Levittown but communities can follow significantly different paths given certain decisions and social forces.

Looking for stories of millennials and young adults who want to and enjoy living in suburban homes

The suburbs are indeed changing – such is the premise of Curbed‘s “The Suburbs Issue.” And the lead story seems to fit into this argument: the suburbs are changing in that millennials are not so sure about buying a large suburban home. Here is the conclusion from that story:

Scocca concludes that the dream of having a big house built just for you was “never a very good dream anyway,” and that might be true, and maybe it’s not even a revelation. Houses have always been a location where we can project our hopes, dreams, and fears. No matter how much we try to rationalize the process of owning a house, the relationship is always a bit foggy, tinted by human emotion. It doesn’t seem possible to live somewhere for any meaningful length of time without imbuing it with your own nebulous ego. Over the past few months, I kept returning to this quote from novelist Helen Oyeyemi: “I think that houses, or at least the home part of them, are so much constructed that they’re simultaneously magical and haunted anyway.” Houses are not homes, and homes are not necessarily houses. Perhaps the real American dream is to find a sense of stability, safety, and acceptance. Maybe this is a downsized version of our parents’ American dream, or perhaps it’s just more honest, taking into account all the different stories we’re fed from the outside, and all the private stories we tell ourselves behind closed doors.

There is much truth here: homeownership in the suburbs is not such an obvious path for many young Americans due to financial insecurity, watching what happened to older generations, and different priorities about what they want to get out of life. Just because Americans prioritized suburban homeownership in the last one hundred years (and propped it up through policies and cultural ideology) does not necessarily mean this will continue in the future.

At the same time, is an article like this in a long line of suburban critiques that now stretch back roughly a century? Some of the same concerns are present: what makes a home (the happy suburban facade or the difficulties many people still face even when it looks like they have the American Dream), whether the suburbs are financially possible (beyond just homes, driving is expensive and giving children all sorts of advantages is encouraged), environmental effects (using more land, driving, building individual homes), and a lack of excitement or vibrant community in the suburbs.

All of this leads me to wondering about the millennials who are still moving to suburbs by their choice. Surely they exist. Surveys suggest many millennials want to own a home in the suburbs at some point. The homeownership rate recently increased, driven by millennial’s purchases. The population of millennials in big cities recently declined. Empirical data could settle whether millennials are not settling in the suburbs at the same rate as previous generations or might be doing so at a delayed rate (which would fit with other findings regarding emerging adulthood).

Is finding these suburban millennials not a priority because it reinforces the suburban ideology? If millennials do largely settle in suburbs, would this be viewed as a failure of American society on multiple levels? Would settling in denser suburban areas be enough to make amends for decades of urban sprawl and “the ghastly tragedy of the suburbs“? Or, might slight changes among millennials be an acknowledgement that reversing long-standing narratives about the good life – the American Dream – could take decades (just as it took time to develop suburbia as the ideal on a mass scale)? What if, in the end, Americans like suburbs for multiple reasons?

Naperville gaining a reputation for racist incidents?

A recent controversy involving race at a Naperville Buffalo Wild Wings leads to considering evidence for and against the idea that Naperville has more racism than other suburbs:

The city, which census figures show is nearly three-quarters white, has also faced concerns about diversity and inclusion. After Naperville resident and state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray said the city had a legacy of white supremacist policies, the city convened a public Naperville Neighbors United discussion, where organizers said the city had work to do in areas like building minority representation among city leaders

Kevin Mumford, a University of Illinois professor who has studied race relations, said racism could be on an upswing in suburbs such as Naperville because of events in Chicago and nationally. African-Americans in high-profile positions in Chicago, such as the new mayor and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union who were highly visible during the recent teachers strike, can cause “status anxiety” among white residents across income levels. That can be exacerbated by Trump supporters who feel a strong anti-Trump sentiment in Illinois, he said…

“I know about Naperville,” tweeted pop singer Richard Marx, who grew up in north suburban Highland Park. “And, disgusting as this is, it’s not terribly surprising.”…

Naperville has a problem with racism, but it’s no worse than in any neighboring suburb, Sullivan said. Instead, she suggested Naperville residents are more willing to confront it. Residents shared the video of the gas station confrontation and the essay from the former Naperville resident because they wanted to talk about them, she said.

The two sides presented in the article put it this way: is Naperville more racist than other suburban communities or does it just get more attention because of its status and the willingness of community members to talk about the issue? Figuring that out would require deeper knowledge of how race and ethnicity has played out in Naperville as well as insights into how race and ethnicity is treated across a variety of American suburbs, including suburbs similar in characteristics to Naperville.

No suburb wants this reputation, particularly one with lots of accolades, wealth, and a vibrant downtown. And Naperville leaders would likely point to some significant demographic changes in the community in recent decades plus efforts to encourage interaction between groups in the community as well as with local government. At the same time, communities can acquire a status or reputation through repeated events. Similarly, what leaders say is happening in a community does not always match day-to-day realities of what residents and visitors experience.

(UPDATE 11/6/19 at 10:48 AM: The character of suburban communities can change through different decisions and reactions to both internal and external social forces. In recent years, Naperville has become home to political protests, a change that would have been difficult to forecast for a traditionally conservative community.)