Build and Be Damned

Every motorist is aware of the monotonous new communities, the clusters of little pastel houses, which have mushroomed up overnight within a thirty-mile radius of most American cities. Have they been planned with forethought or simply with a rich profit in mind? Robert Moses, who puts the question, is an authority on parks, highways, housing, and municipal and state planning. In his thirty years of participation in New York's city and state governments, he has served every governor since Al Smith and both Mayors La Guardia and O'Dwyer. He has recently completed a report for the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on its needed public improvement.
More
1

As the recent Census shows the continuing trend to suburbs from the city, and from suburbs to near-by country, we pause in our busy rounds to contemplate the horrors being perpetrated by uncontrolled boom building. It looks as if we may have a short breathing spell due to defense preparations and temporary slackening of demand for home construction, in the course of which the rage to subdivide may be studied, recent bad and indifferent projects analyzed, and steps taken to save what is left of the landscape and to stop destructive practices which in many cases amount to sheer vandalism.

Let us begin at the beginning with the countryside as God and Nature gave it to us. Historically every populous community is the result of the breaking of big holdings into smaller and yet smaller pieces—whether the original lands belong to Indians, pirates, colonial governments and companies, patroons, manorial landlords, grantees through royal patents, railroads, prospectors, churches, grubstakers, ranchers, farmers, or plain squatters.

The idea of control, in the public interest, of size of lots, streets, sewers, drains, landscaping, was at first regarded as a nightmare of madmen and then, after bitter recriminations and litigation, was reluctantly and grudgingly accepted by more progressive communities. It is still fought by stalwart conservatives as an outrageous and essentially unconstitutional exercise of the police power by busybeaver bureaucrats intent on expanding swollen civil service forces.

Our overbuilt cities with their congestion, their trend to high office buildings and apartments, their complete indifference to the most elementary principles of civilian defense, their slums representing past neglect and greed, can to a considerable extent be rebuilt on better principles if we are smart enough to look the facts in the eye and brush off the Babbitts who hold that wherever the dirt flies there is progress. On the other hand, cities can not be revolutionized and turned into garden villages or green belts. In the suburbs and near-by country, however, we still have a chance to do the right thing without stultifying compromises.

Subdivision of old family estates, farms, and other large holdings is brought about by owners; by what is known in the trade as "heirs and assasins"; by lawyers, trustees, bankers; and last but not least by auctioneers, promoters, and developers operating under the title of realtors. Change in the heart of cities is, of course, inevitable and there is no use beefing about it, but the process can be orderly, gradual, and conservative instead of devastating. We must accept with a sigh of regret the extinction of roomy old mansions well set back from Main Street where the Magnificent Ambersons and their counterparts rejoiced in shaded lawns and iron deer, and in their place the substitution of Daisy's Diner and Lizzie's Lubritorium.

To young couples with one or two small children fed up with life in a city sardine can or goldfish bowl, often with elderly in-laws, any house or apartment of their own in any subdivision looks like Heaven—and it is this craving for a home and bit of ground that the shrewd realtor counts on for quick sales and a big return on very little equity.

Let me say in passing, and without invidious implications, that you do not make a professional man out of every real-estate agent merely by calling him a realtor, and that state licensing does not automatically produce professional standards or restrain fly-by-night promoters. Land speculation began when the pastoral age ended, and only honest regulation will control it. As Secretary of State of New York some years ago, I had charge of real-estate licensing, and I speak therefore with some knowledge on this subject.

The sentimental interest of estate owners, as distinguished from developers, in the preservation of the scenery is, I regret to say, often pretty thin stuff. As head of the park systems of the City and State of New York, a lot of woozy drip has been poured on me by these folks. They love the land if it doesn't cost them anything and until they decide to sell and move away. The big estate owners were the bitterest opponents of the state park and parkway program on Long Island. They said they would fight to the death to keep their ancestral acres intact and to exclude the riffraff from town, but they sold to developers who in most cases literally hacked the estates to pieces.

One of our leading philanthropists, long since gone to his reward, begged me to save a point of unique unspoiled beauty jutting out into the ocean, and within a month sold his holdings there to a ruthless developer whose aim was to blow down the dunes, tear out shrubs which had taken root after ages of conflict with wind and storm, and rebuild the point in his own image. My philanthropist friend explained that his hard-boiled brother had forced the sale. The same developer chopped down eleven hundred stunted white oaks on state land to make way for a power line. In this case, however, we made his agents apologize publicly and pay a heavy fine which went toward replanting, but it will take thirty years to repair the damage.

We have in our state park system a beautiful unspoiled salt meadow with a beach, a brackish creek, and sand dunes overrun by beach plum, cedar grass, bayberry, and stunted pines, and with a forested ridge running into it. We sought to protect it by zoning. The neighbors, who professed to love it, tried by every means to break down the restrictions and to fill, level, and minutely split it up. When we condemned more of it, they based their claims in court on what they would have made if their subdivision plans had succeeded.

The typical real-estate subdivision brochure contains distorted maps, claims that distant places are within easy commuting range, and pictures kitchens replete with shining gadgets, living rooms which look like Hitler's Chancellery, and gardens reminiscent of Marie Antoinette and the Tuileries. These folders, which aim to create a romantic atmosphere, are labeled Rocky Mountain View, American Venice, Marmaduke Manor, Phoenix Park, Pacific Shores, Aztec Village, Wampum City, Quahog Beach, Casabianca, or Capri. Their streets are named after fruits, Presidents, ballplayers, movie stars, Indians, Eskimos, departed local celebrities, Scotch clans, and Riviera resorts. There are usually guarded references to a magnificent community clubhouse where good old Crestfallen Manor still stands, and to murmuring hemlocks, vast expanses of sandy beach on salt or fresh water, and so forth.

Soon the frontage on main roads burgeons with new landmarks impishly called Snak Shak, Tumble Inn, St. Bernard Dog Wagon, Machine Shoppe, and filling stations entitled "Oil Well and All's Well." On closer examination the lots turn out to average less than four thousand square feet; the streets are narrow and are laid out in gridiron patterns; the houses are mere cabins; and what was once a pleasant bit of nature has been ruthlessly leveled and ripped up to make a subdivider's holiday. Building lots in such subdivisions represent about 5 per cent of the entire cost. An extra one thousand square feet would therefore add little to the price.

The tumult and the shouting cease. The developer and his drums depart. There remain for bewildered taxpayers and frightened local officials staggering problems of sewage, water supply, drainage, lighting, garbage, transportation, schools, playgrounds, fire and police protection, health, hospitals, in the slums of tomorrow.

2

NOW let me make it quite clear that this type of fly-by-night subdivision by promoters whose aim is to dig up the scenery, stake out and sell lots, make the landscape unrecognizable, and then run for their lives is not the universal pattern. There are many honorable exceptions representing intelligent, responsible, and farsighted planning by private developers, life insurance companies, and cooperative organizations, who intend to live with their subdivisions, to control them and at least see them through to the point where a well-rounded and self-contained community is firmly established. These people preserve topography and planting, stake out lots large enough for privacy and for the exercise of ingenuity in landscaping, place restrictions on permitted types of houses, and establish wide streets for main traffic, dead-end streets and drives for safety, adequate utilities, playgrounds, schools, and community meeting places. And such people welcome high zoning standards established and policed by honest local officials with pride in their work.

On the subject of zoning, it is a regrettable fact that many of our cities and suburbs are without zoning laws, restrictions, and administrative machinery, or have systems so manifestly and hopelessly weak and apologetic that they are mere gestures. Most states do not license and properly control real-estate brokers, and building codes are nonexistent, inadequate, or honored in the breach, all of which come to the same thing. The same weakness appears in regulating billboards. Local legislation to control them is generally feeble and the destruction or blotting out of scenery by indiscriminate outdoor advertisers goes on apace.

The FHA, as our most successful government stimulant to subdivision and large scale home building on open land, has done a good deal but not enough to establish standards, and many new villages have been built with huge FHA guarantees on the basis of plans which should never have been approved, in order to keep down rents and prices, where a little more official intelligence and firmness would have saved the countryside and produced much better living conditions at very little if any additional cost. Nevertheless it must be said that FHA projects are immeasurably superior to most of those built with ordinary local loans.

Other bright spots are afforded by the better types of garden apartments, not involving large acreage but consisting of low buildings on a coverage of 20 per cent or less, and garden light industrial plants of unornamented modern design, surrounded by lawns, landscaping, and play areas.

If, instead of hiring half-baked revolutionary planners to fill our college undergraduates with ingenious schemes to disperse populations, split up big cities into little ones, go underground or into distant places to escape bombs and congestion, abandon large urban areas in favor of roadside villages, we were to publish reliable, simply written, common-sense information to control the building boom, what a country this would be! We most need a series of informative primers or catalogues describing twenty or more attractive subdivisions, explaining in terms understandable by laymen ground plans, utilities, lot sizes and costs, treatment of existing topography, preservation and enhancement of natural scenery, with sketches of large, medium, and small houses. These brochures should also include standard zoning specifications for counties, towns, and villages, needed road transportation, recreation and school facilities, and evidence of the wisdom of adequate investment in subdivision from the long-range community view.

In the old days good carpenters in the country and suburbs were their own architects as well as builders and borrowed largely from standard catalogues of housing plans. Many of their works are laughed at today as outmoded, but they are not obsolescent. They have worn well physically and aesthetically, and they reflect something of the spaciousness, the elbowroom, the gracious living, and the respect for nature which are so lacking today. No doubt this was due to high individual and group standards.

Water cannot rise above its own level and no building boom can produce anything better than the ambition and pride of the community call for. If we permit the cheapest speculators to aim their schemes at the lowest common denominator, we shall certainly wreck most of the countryside before the next big boom subsides. If local people have no lively interest in their place of birth or adoption, how can carpetbaggers who have no roots or attachments be expected to preserve its natural beauties and maintain its traditions? A community must have leadership and conscience to resist the ruthless modern developer. These are commodities no outsider can supply. The most we as public officials can do is to hold the mirror up to nature, point the moral, and hope for the best.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In