Tag Archives: suburbs

FROM THE VAULT | Bourgeois Utopias | Robert Fishman

FROM THE VAULT | Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia by Robert Fishman
Review by Dr.  Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

I’ve been an admirer of historian Robert Fishman ever since reading Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1982) in the early 90s but especially after hearing him speak at CNU20 in West Palm Beach, FL in 2012. Given this, I was a naturally excited to read this book when I came across it many years after its publication. However, I have to begrudgingly admit I was mostly underwhelmed by Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (Basic Books, 1987). Partially, this is a matter of timing. When Fishman wrote and published this book in the late 1980s, it seemed like the cumulative apex of suburban expansion and urban decline in the United States. In hindsight, Fishman’s history of suburbia come across as a dated, unconditional surrender to what must have seemed to many people at the time as the inevitable (despite the ‘fall’ mentioned in book’s title). Of course, we now realize there was still a significant part of the story waiting to play out over the subsequent three decades (see New Urbanism/Smart Growth, collapse of the mortgage bond market, and 2008 Financial Crisis).

However, it is not all a matter of timing. Fishman is so determined to fit his subject into the thematic structure began in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century that he tends to cast aside any evidence contrary to his central thesis, especially when it comes to the American experience of suburbia. For example, you will not find the phrases ‘exclusionary zoning’ or ‘restrictive covenants’ anywhere in Bourgeois Utopias, which seems like an odd oversight for a purported history of suburbia. Fishman also oddly ignores ample evidence in the historical record (as well as John Reps’ seminal histories The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States and Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning) that there were, in fact, only a few examples of the modern American suburb type (Llewellyn Park, New Jersey and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside, Illinois being the most obvious 19th century forerunners) before World War II because the regular grid dominated in American land speculation activities until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

Riverside, Illinois (Photo: Wikipedia).

This creates a problem because Fishman has to, more or less, cast aside the narrow, formal definition of suburbia he adopts at the start of the book when discussing early suburbs in London and Manchester, England  for a much looser definition (basically, any single family home with front yard setbacks) when approaching the American experience, especially in Los Angeles. In fact, Fishman’s entire chapter on Los Angeles reads as a regurgitation of Reyner Banham’s arguments in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) so both have the same flaws in underestimating the power of the urban grid. It is also another case in bad timing since Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles was published only a few years later in 1990. Davis’ book has its own flaws but it is an invaluable resource for understanding the historical development of urban form in Los Angeles including the role of water pilfering in that city as well as the insidious role of the automobile industry in the Red Car’s demise.

By far, the best and most compelling part of Bourgeois Utopias is Fishman’s research on early suburbs in England during 18th and 19th century and Olmsted’s mid-19th century plan for Riverside, Illinois (basically, pages 1-148). Indeed, any reader should be able to sense the author’s greater interest in these pre-20th century examples compared to the amalgamated cancer of 20th century suburbanization in the United States, when it seems as if Fishman is trying to ‘run out the clock’ on the book. In fact, if Fishman wasn’t so determined to ambitiously fit this topic into the ‘utopia’ theme, he might have been better served to limit his historical research to these pre-20th century examples. Fishman astutely identifies the changing nature of family related to longer life expectancy during the 18th and 19th century in England as the social origins for suburbia. Fishman briefly mentions life expectancy (which seems far more important than the words given in this book) before devoting most of his time to the evolution of familial relations in the workplace and/or home. Fishman also makes an important, useful distinction between the productive and consumptive suburb that has broader implications than spelled out in the book. It is fascinating research, which alone makes the book worth the effort. In the end, though, there are some good parts (Anglo examples) and some head-scratching parts (American examples) in Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia so the book deserves, at best, only a 3-star rating.

Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia
by Robert Fishman
Basic Books, 1987
Paperback, 272 pages, English
ISBN-10: 0465007473
ISBN-13: 978-0465007479

You can purchase Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia from Amazon here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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The Splenda Housing Market | To Be or Not to Be

To Be or Not to Be: The Splenda Housing Market
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

UrbanLand reports we finally have a ‘real’ housing recovery (see below). Trulia Trends and The Atlantic Cities report housing prices are recovering at a more rapid pace in urban neighborhoods than in the suburbs (see below). However, CNN/Money and AOL Real Estate report McMansions of suburbia are making a comeback (see below) based on recent Census data instead of national homebuilder ‘wish fulfillment’ surveys (see The Outlaw Urbanist January 24, 2013 post, “McMansions Return“). Other media outlets are reporting an explosion in rental apartment construction. What gives?

Welcome to a Splenda Housing Market, where the modus operandi is a saccharine high of easy money, taxpayer-funded bailouts, and manipulated markets!

• The Fed continues to pump easy money into the economy at a rapid rate through its bond-purchasing program called Qualitative Easing (what number are we on now?). Despite what Paul Krugman and the American government tell you (“we only measure inflation on things people don’t want to buy”), there are real inflationary pressures out there, which are transmitted into every facet of the American economy including housing. The evidence lies in the year-to-year increase in housing prices from 2011 to 2012. The appreciation of property values in the Trulia Trends report range from 7.3% in New York to an astounding 33.8% in Las Vegas! This is patently unsustainable and highly suspicious.

• Eager to return to the “good, old days” as quickly as possible, realtors and landlords are shamelessly inflating prices for home/property and monthly rents to a level far above their real value, especially in light of the next item.

• The banks have a huge amount of inventory of foreclosed homes on their books, the majority of which lies vacant and withheld from the housing market. What does it mean? Housing prices never reached their true floor.

• For every home foreclosed, the banks not only get the home but also file an insurance claim on the mortgage debt, usually with AIG (i.e. the American {Insurance} Government). What does it mean? The banks get to have their cake courtesy of dispossessed homeowners and they get to eat it too funded by American taxpayers by double dipping on the value of the home and the mortgage.

• As home/property values continue to appreciate at a steady pace, the banks will systematically release their massive inventory onto the market to capitalize on rising housing prices. What does it mean? The value of your home/property is artificially suppressed as increased inventory enters the market;

• The longer home/property values appreciate and the more inventory released on the market by the banks, then the more the initial gain in the recovery rate of housing prices in urban neighborhoods touted by The Atlantic Cities and others will evaporate. These stable, urban neighborhoods tended to be the last to experience the crashing wave of falling housing prices during the Great Recession, so naturally they are the first to recover their real value. However, this is an ephemeral comeback for urban neighborhoods. The longer the Splenda Housing Market is in effect, then the more attractive becomes cheap land at the periphery of our cities and the ‘old way’ of doing things. Welcome back, suburban sprawl! We hardly could stand you the first time around!

What does it mean for you? The long and short is this: unless you possess the equity at hand to pay cash for a property/home now, then you’re totally screwed. Too bad, suckers. Remember friends: the only reason the shit rolls downhill is because of who is squatting at the top and taking a dump.

Excerpt from June 27, 2013 article, “Housing Recovery Strengthens, but Credit Remains an Issue” by Bendix Anderson on UrbanLand:

“The housing sector is finally helping the U.S. economic recovery, rather than holding it back. But more Americans than ever now spend more than half their income on housing, according to The State of the Nation’s Housing 2013, a report released June 26 by the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard University. “Clearly, we are in a strong housing recovery now,” said Eric Belsky, managing director of JCHS.

Read the full article here: Housing Recovery Strengthens, but Credit Remains an Issue | UrbanLand.

Excerpt from June 25, 2013 article, “Home Prices Rising Faster in Cities than in the Suburbs – Most of All in Gayborhoods”by Jed Kolko on Trulia Trends:

Here’s the punch line: urban neighborhoods had faster price growth in the past year, while suburban neighborhoods had higher population growth. The median asking price per square foot was up 11.3% in urban neighborhoods, versus 10.2% in suburban neighborhoods. (The overall national increase, including urban and suburban neighborhoods, was 10.5%.) But despite faster price growth in cities, the suburbs are where people are moving: suburban neighborhoods had faster population growth than urban neighborhoods did, 0.56% versus 0.31%.”

Read the full article here: Home Prices Rising Faster in Cities than in the Suburbs – Most of All in Gayborhoods | Trulia Trends.

Excerpt from June 5, 2013 article “McMansions Are Making a Comeback” by CNN/Money on AOL Real Estate:

“As the economy recovers, America’s love affair with the oversized McMansion has been reignited. During the past three years, the average size of new homes has grown significantly, according to a Census Bureau report released Monday. In 2012, the median home in the U.S. hit an all-time record of 2,306 square feet, up 8 percent from 2009.”

Read the full CNN/Money article here: McMansions Are Making a Comeback | AOL Real Estate.

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Dog Shits in Suburban Sprawl Hell, Property Values Rise 20%

A True Story about Shit
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Today, I found myself in single-family suburban sprawl hell, somewhere in Northeast Florida, with my dog, Izzy. The reason is unimportant. However, being a dutiful dog, Izzy indicated she needed to go for a walk. (Note: She is 4 years old next month and the cutest dog with the sweetest disposition… but that’s beside the point). So, I hooked her to the leash and started to walk her through a neighborhood, which is the very definition of suburban sprawl. Yes, there was not any street inter-connectivity and we have to retrace our route into this neighborhood, giving us the “pleasure” of seeing the same Mega Mediterranean homes not once but twice. Of course, the homes are only Mega Mediterranean along the front yard facades. Along the side yards, the true nature of the homes as basic wood frame construction with really cheap siding, sitting on 1/4 acre lots, is obvious. Most of the lawns were neatly manicured with St. Augustine grass (by the way, not really a grass… it’s a weed but whatever), as one might expect. In spending about 20 minutes in this neighborhood, I passed about a half of dozen people at 6:00 pm in the evening. None of these people said hello.

In fact, only one person spoke to me. After Izzy had done ‘her business’ (meaning she pooped) in a front yard and I was bending down with my doggy poop bag to pick it up, a woman came rushing out of her house to tell me, “I don’t like dogs pooping in my yard.” I looked at her incredulously and replied, “I’m picking it up.” She said (and I’m not kidding), “I know but I spent a lot on money on this yard and I don’t want it messed up by dogs pooping in it.” As you might expect, I stared in shock at this woman like she was a crazy person. She did not make her political position on urine clear to me. I pointed out, “it’s fertilizer.” She then added, “I know but I have dogs too and I don’t let them poop in my yard.” I’m not sure but this may have been a ‘suburban code’, meaning ‘I make sure my dogs poop in the neighbors’ yards.’ I replied, “Call the police, I’m sure it must be a crime,” turned around and walked back the way we came out of the neighborhood, all the while dutifully carrying my doggy poop bag and carefully navigating through multiple piles of dog shit in the neighborhood common areas. Needless to say, Izzy and I will never be walking in that neighborhood again (not that it was ever likely anyway).

My normal experience in a historic, traditional neighborhood has always been when Izzy poops in someone’s yard, I dutifully pick it up and, if it is noticed, the homeowners usually say, “thank you.” Suburban sprawl breeds intolerance of the stranger and the unfamiliar… and, apparently, acute cases of coprophobia (an irrational fear of feces).

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