Tag Archives: Manchester

Bourgeois Utopias

utopiasRobert Fishman (1989)

Cited in everything really, finally got around to reading this and it was both better and worse than I was expecting. It takes the origins of the suburbs back further than I realised, to Georgian London. But first the main thesis on the suburb:

Its power derived ultimately from the capacity of suburban design to express a complex and compelling vision of the modern family freed from the corruption of the city, restored to harmony with natured, endowed with wealth and independence yet protected by a close-knit, stable community…Where other modern utopias have been collectivist, suburbia has built its vision of community on the primacy of private property and the individual family. Suburbia has founded its hopes for community stability on the shifting sands of land speculation and based its reconciliation of man and nature on teh capacity to exclude the urban world of work which is the ultimate source of its wealth’ [x].

Here it is suburbia and suburban spaces as bourgeois utopias, but what I found most fascinating were its earlier religious origins in Clapham, and on class fears in Manchester.

Originally, settlements on the urban fringe were, as the original definition of suburb meant until the mid-18th century, ‘a place of inferior, debased, and especially licentious habits of life’ [6]. Pretty awesome. The wealthy lived in the centre of town, and the bourgeois merchants and artisans lived where they worked — often above their shops, warehouses or workshops, with their employees living above them in the garrets. It is hard to imagine now, especially the ways in which the very rich and desperately poor lived immediately next to each other. One of the key insights of this book for me was the following:

English society was still something of a caste society in the sense that social distance was so marked that the privileged felt no need to protect themselves further from the poor by physical distance. That the richest bankers in London lived literally surrounded by poor families did not in the least diminish the bankers’ status. One might even say that in a caste society the rich need the constant and close presence of the poor to remind them of their privileges’ [32].

It is so interesting to remember that this relentless desire to segregate by race and class so clear in today’s society is a new thing, and taking this further, is partly driven by the fear and social unease emerging from revolution and ideas of equality — and the need to be protected from the poor.

It is also driven by changing ideals of the family, a move to the nuclear family, more intense care and love lavished on children more likely to survive and as enjoined by evangelical religion. Or so said the ‘Clapham Sect’ led by the Thornton family and preacher William Wilberforce, and joined by their fellow religionists in building homes facing Clapham Common. This created the ideal of ‘houses in a park’ as opposed to the aristocratic rows and crescents of say Bath, and developed by architect John Nash in his design for Park Village alongside Regent’s Park.

It is Manchester, however, that suburbia really took form as merchants abandoned the city for homes and communities in the outskirts, fundamentally changing the urban structure, however piecemeal. Fishman writes:

The older urban form involved the frequent and intimate contact of the middle and working classes. This closeness was precisely what the Manchester bourgeoisie had come to fear. they sought the most complete separation possible while maintaining the all-important contact with the information sources at the core’ [82].

Thus Manchester comes to be described as the town where the distance is greatest between rich and poor — and this by the time Engels is describing it in 1848. Here it is more clearly about both fears and ideals — and what I like about Fishman is that he never forgets it is also always about money: ‘The rush to suburbanize could never have occurred without a structure of land speculation and building that permitted and encouraged it’ [84].

Because of the money involved, some insurance against the hazards of speculation were required, and one of these appeared to have been homogeneity, a way of preserving land from ‘less desirable neighbors or uses’ [86].

It’s interesting how he compares these examples to the US and to France. France, of course, never experienced such flight of the wealthy to the suburbs because during this period Haussmann transformed Paris to build grand new boulevards and rid it of its poor, making the city a haven for the middle classes as the country was for England. the US of course, took it up wholesale, with Olmstead learning from Nash and the designers of Manchester’s neighbourhoods.

But it is interesting that Fishman never applies the insight of class separation to the US, consistently writing about all ‘Americans’ having access to the suburbs through government financing when in fact it was only white Americans. Thus there is whole dynamic around race fear that he is missing in his description of L.A., even though he cites Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson, published two years earlier.

Still, this one of the earlier books on the subject, and does a good job of describing some of the more interesting cultural components forming the pull of the suburbs.

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