Tag Archives: suburbia

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.


Racist Real Estate Text Books of an Earlier Era

Stanley McMichael. Ugh. Though if you want a vintage encapsulation of how subdividers worked in the 1930s-50s and probably after through racist real estate text books, hurrah. This is an extremely detailed nuts and bolts handbook for developers creating subdivisions with occasional chapters by other experts in the field. It contains check-lists for getting things through planning, sample contracts and deeds, detailed explanations of how and what to build and what creates value. It opens like this however:

‘POSSESSION AND USE of land, since the very dawn of human history, has been the most interesting and important business pursuit of mankind. Biblical history, the oldest written record of human events, is replete with real estate transactions and there is scarcely a book in the Old Testament in which reference is not made to land and its possession.

Adam was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions. Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred, for God banished them from the Garden of Eden. Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal docket than any other phase of human behavior. [7]

From Adam it moves along to other old testament figures, then jumps quickly to George Washington before reaching the builders of today. Both extraordinary and vomitous, I confess. But the reason for it is because for all of its focus on the how-to of subdividing and development, this book recognises that ‘The place for social control of land to start is through the subdivider himself‘. Which is why we should care about it, and read rubbish like this. And this is essentially a manual for building a divided, unequal and bigoted society really, representing the leading theory of the time as pushed by the National Real Estate Board, the Federal Housing Adminstration and multiple others in the field.

First you have to split people up by class

The subdivider knows that “birds of a feather flock together.” It is a wise assumption and consequently there must be a variety of allotment properties, possessing definite social grades and distinctions to fit into community life. The location and character of the land to be subdivided usually suggest the class of buyers that will be most readily attracted and accommodated. [21]

and develop accordingly:

While expensive pavements, curbs, and sidewalks go well with the higher classes of development they are not so necessary in most allotments where workingmen aim to make their homes.

Of course it celebrates the suburbs, you develop low density for automobiles, separate residential from commercial. They are designing neighborhoods for people whose top 3 out of 4 reasons for buying a home they believe are about status:

Among the motives that cause buyers to acquire subdivision property are:

(1) Desire to own a home
(2) Desire to “put up a front”
(3) Ambition to outshine his neighbors by living in a better district
(4) Imitation-a “follow the leader” impulse, caused by seeing his friends move into better neighborhoods

Thus the primary goals of such an individual when choosing his (and it is of course, a him)subdivision are protection

The purchaser who buys a lot-particularly for a home-reasonably expects certain benefits to accrue, among which are these: that the restrictions will establish a district in which future improvements will conform to minimum standards as to cost, character, and location thereof; that he will be protected against the possibility of undesirable neighbors; that the restrictions are designed to accomplish the complete and economic use of the tract …

A protection which is far more important than any other larger sense of public feeling or obligation, thus quite a lot of time is spent in looking at how best to protect him, and you have to really appreciate the candour and honesty of the old days:

zoning restrictions, to be valid, must be substantially related to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. They must operate uniformly for the general public welfare; they cannot be created for the benefit of any particular group, nor discriminate against another. Furthermore, “since the police power cannot be invoked by purely esthetic considerations, zoning ordinances merely seeking to promote or protect the beautiful, or to preserve the appearance of the neighborhood, are unauthorized.”

Deed restrictions, on the other hand, may be imposed in any manner and for any purpose that will best serve the desire of the subdivider and of the lot owners. In contrast to zoning ordinances, such restrictions need not necessarily promote public health, safety, morals, or general welfare of the public-they may be intended to create a particular character of neighborhood desirable only to the subdivider or the tract owners, and may be based upon “purely esthetic considerations.” They may be uneconomic, discriminatory, and utterly unsuited for the character of community development which should be sought; but they are, nevertheless, valid contract obligations which may be enforced [181]

The book has three chapters devoted to restrictions, a full chapter to race restrictions. Can they still be enforced? McMichael writes:

Chief Justice Vinson, who wrote the decisions covering the two cases, declared that the application of restrictive clauses to the sale of real estate violates the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but he further definitely specified that it “erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.” This means, it is generally conceded, that two persons can make a contract that will be binding between them but it cannot be enforced against all comers. [202]


‘That the entry of non-Caucasians into districts where distinctly Caucasian residents live tends to depress real estate values is agreed to by practically all real estate subdividers and students of city life and growth. Infiltration at the outset may be slow, but once the trend is established, values start to drop, until properties can be purchased at discounts of from 50 to 75 per cent.’

yet non-Caucasians are going to keep moving into cities, McMichael asks the key question,

‘What remedy will solve this tremendous problem and protect the interests of subdividers, as well as the owners of property in selective sections of our great cities? [204]’

He quotes the full address of the president of the California Real Estate Association stating their reasons for pushing an amendment to the constitution giving owners the ‘right’ to discriminate, grandfathered of course. Then gives another little gem from Glendale real estate expert, which is worth quoting in full as McMichael does

The president of a real estate board can arrange for a meeting of a small group of persons interested in helping to solve this problem locally. To this meeting invite persons representing each of such groups as: the real estate board, real estate brokers not members of [208] the board, the local lending agencies, the chamber of commerce, the merchants association, and the planning commission. At this meeting the problem can be discussed and a general planning committee can be appointed to work out a long-range plan whereby certain portions of the community will be designated, and agreed upon by those interested, as most suitable for the residence of nonwhites, a location where they and their children would be more likely to be contented and happy than in an all-white neighborhood.
After this general committee makes a careful study of the problem, it should report its findings with recommendations to the original group, who, in turn, should report back to their various groups, each reporting suggestions or recommendations as to what can be done by his organization to help further the general plan. Part of the program should be to develop a “sales talk” setting forth the advantages which would accrue to the nonwhites by having their own neighborhoods apart from the all-white sections.

In cities where certain races predominate in some neighborhoods, especially when it appears that the residents are more contented among people of their own race, the program should cover that situation as well as the general segregation of whites and nonwhites.

The value of real estate depends upon its salability, or marketability. Marketability depends largely upon desirability. Maximum desirability of residential property depends importantly upon the neighbors being harmonious. For this reason, racial segregations are often advisable because persons of the same race have a tendency to possess similar tastes, traits and tendencies which encourage the harmonious relationships so important in making a neighborhood a desirable place in which to live.

there are some humerous moments of course, when you suddenly realise that hot-dog stands could cause ruin to residential property values, but really this is just a long explanation of so much of what is wrong with America, complete with sample residential restrictions and articles of incorporation for Homeowner Associations, their best bets for keeping undesirables out.

[McMichael, Stanley L. 1949. Real Estate Subdivisions. Prentice-Hall.]