News & Articles

America's Triple Dream

by Rebecca Rugg, Associate Producer

"Plywood has a lifespan of 40 years. Over time, the glue that holds plywood together dries up. Then, walls buckle, split and peel. Panels pop loose. Rooms, doors and windows morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves." - Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times, October 19, 1997 On the page, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit begins with the epigraph above. In the full article, "The Nation; Becoming Unstuck On the Suburbs," famed architecture critic Herbert Muschamp describes how the building materials of the “first ring” suburbs - subdivisions of single family homes built around metropolitan cores from the post-WWII period through the mid-1970s - are wearing out. Along with the literal glue, so too is the social glue of these communities wearing thin. He declares a state of emergency in the suburbs, where what historian Dolores Hayden calls a “Triple Dream,” of house plus land plus community, has long failed to materialize as residents have hoped. Muschamp notes that “some planners believe that the recycling of the “first ring” is the key to determining the way that Americans will live in the next 50 years.” He asserts that the reinvention of the “first ring” is crucial to the health of the cities they border. By extension, the health of the suburbs can also be seen as crucial to the health of the nation as a whole and its life blood, this triple-faceted American Dream. As a city dweller working in a major cultural institution, this interdependence makes sense to me. Since the 1950s and ’60s “white flight” from urban centers, to today’s redevelopment of the urban core as desirable high-end real estate, the lives and fortunes of cities and the people who live in them have long been intertwined with how people live just outside metropolitan zip codes and school districts. Do “first ring” suburbanites come downtown, into cities, to work, eat and see plays? Or, do they commute the other direction, farther out, to work and shop in the second and third rings of development, where some corporations have bypassed the city altogether, opting for convenience of the nearby airport, assigned parking spaces for all employees, gigantic mall, big box strip and hotel? If the latter, what are the implications then for downtown museums, parks and theater districts? In preparation for Steppenwolf’s production of Detroit, I was curious to investigate what seemed at first to be a simple stage direction for the play’s setting in a “first ring” suburb. I wondered when were the suburbs built, and why? What dreams and drives inspired people to move there in the first place? Who lives there now and who doesn’t? Of course, the play itself is a meditation on all these questions and its answers illuminate how community itself is conceived in today’s United States. And it does so in the way that only storytelling can. These questions are especially immediate to Steppenwolf and our audiences as we open a season centrally concerned with the nature of the divide between public and private life. The architecture of “first ring” suburbia in the post-WWII period was made immortal by the TV sitcom. Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, The Dick van Dyke Show and Bewitched (with its interesting difference) dramatized a particular family ideal that can look bizarre from a contemporary perspective. Though suburbia seems to sidle up so naturally to a post-WWII cultural aesthetic, the story of how people live inside or at the edge of cities is as old as cities themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first usage of the word suburb circa 1380, and provides references from Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton! In the U.S., from the 1820s, there is a lively history of ideas surrounding the movement of people to the edges of cities and beyond. Dolores Hayden’s comprehensive Building Suburbia describes several evolving patterns of suburban development in the U.S.: the building of individual estates in borderlands around cities began in 1820, primarily for an affluent elite who wanted and were able to escape the noxious industry of city life. By the 1850s, this impulse had developed into a communitarian ideal of the “picturesque enclave,” in which groups of country homes were built with nearby common space, often featuring natural aspects of the landscape, such as a waterfall, to promote community life. To enshrine the ideal of shared beliefs, developers and residents began limiting access to communities on the basis of ethnicity, race and class. Pricing was the clearest way to ensure an affluent community, but other means to guarantee exclusivity were codified over time. The conflict over segregation in housing is one of the most infamous parts of America’s built history. Redlining mortgages for certain groups along lines of race and class became a common practice in the twentieth century, followed by more formal restrictive local covenants. The fight for federal legislation against housing discrimination and court battles to defend it once it passed are yet another chapter. The story is linked to the shift in class demographics of the suburbs which came in the 1870s with the advance of readily available utilities. Streetcar buildouts grew the city in a hub-and-spoke linear geometry, as housing developers partnered with transportation entrepreneurs to entice working-class city dwellers to buy lots of undeveloped open space at the end of streetcar lines. In 1900, mail order and self-built suburban homes became all the rage and people began to order pre-fabricated homes from Sears Roebuck and other catalog companies, with a dream of erecting them by hand. From the prefab, mail-order home, it was just a short distance to the mid-century developers who essentially took the same idea into mass production and urban scale with what we now call the “first ring” suburbs, which appeared in the mid-1940s, largely as a response to the need for housing returning veterans and their families. The most famous of the early first ring are named for their developer, William Levitt, the “father of modern suburbia,” whose “Levittowns” in Long Island and New Jersey remain today, though their plywood buckles with age. These patterns of suburban development reflect the borderland as the place where across the decades, Americans have played out their dreams for, among other things, community, family, spiritual life and private property. Suburban residents’ “triple dream” of a community, a house and unspoiled land is at odds with increased development and the other American Dream: profit. For developers, lawyers and utility owners, the suburbs were the location of other kinds of ambitions. From the use of plywood that breaks down after 40 years, is the implication that the dream developers were selling need only last until the contract was signed and payment made in full? Mid-century developers often provided no infrastructure for the groups of houses they built—no utility access, no ongoing management of the subdivision and in some cases, no plan for waste or sewage. These failures sometimes led residents to create community out of emergencies - their need for schools, for instance - and to incorporate, to tax themselves to pay for necessary services. Today’s frontline of development is no longer the post-war “first ring,” whose homes are falling into disrepair, although, as Detroit shows us, these neighborhoods remain the site of dreams for many people. Contemporary developments go by many names in the annals of architectural thinking and urban studies. Galactic metropolis, regional city, sprawl city, post-suburb, technoburb, exurb, outer city, shock suburb, outtown, edge city, boomburb, exopolis - these are all terms coined since the 1980s by those trying to describe contemporary patterns of settlement, and trying to solve the suburban state of emergency that Muschamp declared in 1997. The history of the suburbs and the play’s narrative beg the question, what is today’s triple dream? Do “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” still translate in material terms to home plus land plus community? Or, is today’s American Dream composed of other ideals entirely? Safe passage to school, a sustainable environment, internet access for all? How might a better understanding of today’s ideals help create a second chance for the first ring? Sources: Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Herbert Muschamp, "The Nation; Becoming Unstuck On the Suburbs," The New York Times, October 19, 1997.