All around the country, people in communities of many ages—from colonial Boston to postwar Minneapolis—tell similar, virtuous narratives about how their neighborhoods were built. These narratives, in turn, set powerful assumptions about what an affordable, friendly neighborhood can and should look like. Recently, a columnist in Seattle Magazine laid out his version of the story as he argued that housing just isn't what it used to be. “In a rapidly growing city where the haves have more and the have-nots are being squeezed out, the bungalows offer a lesson we ought to relearn,” he wrote, adding that those early 20th century bungalows “reflect a lack of materialism, housing built not for profit, but for living in.” He wanted his city “to find a way to get back to those values.”
This represents what one might call the “immaculate-conception theory” of development. It holds that unlike the homes constructed today, older housing was built the right way—modestly and without an eye for profit. These older values, in turn, imply the faults of modern buildings: gaudy and wasteful, disruptive to existing communities, and motivated only by money.
The problem with the immaculate-conception theory is that, like parents swearing that they would never have behaved the way their kids do, it is conveniently forgetful about what actually happened in the past. Taking, just as an example, the kind of housing that this theory romanticizes—the early 20th century bungalow boom—a closer look reveals that it was defined not by mass affordability, efficiency, and respect for traditional communities, but something very nearly the opposite.