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State of Suburbia

John Moe

Angela Kim

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Dolores Hayden
(Courtesy of Dolores Hayden)
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The state of today's suburbs has become far more complicated since Levittown first was founded. With concerns about energy, urban planning and infrastructure, contemporary suburbanites have a lot more on their minds than just buying a home.

To find out where the suburbs stand today, host John Moe spoke with Dolores Hayden, a professor of Architecture, Urbanism and American Studies at Yale University who's written extensively about suburbia.


Dolores Hayden: I think that the Levitt communities were overhyped as ideal communities. In fact, Levitt was making money as fast as he could. He was subdividing farmland for the most part and building identical houses with very little thought about public space or public infrastructure. He built swimming pools that got a certain amount of public press, but after that he did very, very little for these communities, which were urban-scale communities. So there was a great deal of community effort to make these towns into places where people shared a sense of rearing their children and coming to terms with post-war life together.

Moe: There was a phrase in the story we just heard, "carefully planned communities." It sounds like these aren't really all that carefully planned.

Hayden: The Levittowns were not carefully planned communities to my mind. They're following the pattern of "scatteration." Geographers would call the building of clusters of single-family houses in farmers' fields "scatteration," or sometimes they call it Pepperoni Pizza City. You know, it doesn't make any sense. There's a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit somewhere else. And every time this happens, if it's not happening according to a plan that regulates growth, there's more demand for public infrastructure.

Moe: So, what is the lesson of Levittown?

Hayden: I think that the buyer should beware in every case. That the sales pitch will perhaps be an extremely appealing sales pitch, but buyers should really be thinking very hard about just exactly what kind of house they're getting for the money. The Levittown in Long Island, which was the first one Levitt built, in fact they managed to build for 80,000 people without any sewers. So the community was spending the next 15 years or so figuring out how they were going to bail that place out, pretty literally. And the federal government had to come in and provide more grants to support what hadn't been done by the developer in the first place and would have been standard engineering policy had they been in an urban setting. So I think buyers should be very, very careful.

Moe: Where are people moving? Where is the trend right now? Into the cities or out to the suburbs?

Hayden: For the last 30 years I've heard people say that surely, surely people are coming back to the city. They have seen some of the difficulties of suburban life, and they're coming back to the city. And every 10 years, it proves not to be true. You know, some of the fastest-growing places in America are on the suburban fringes. So while you may know people who choose to live in the city, that's not the predominant trend.

Moe: Read the fine print. Caveat emptor. Do an inspection.

Hayden: Every time. Every time.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: So Percussion
    CD: Aimid the Nose (Canteloupe)


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