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.

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.


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.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

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


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In