The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

8 July 2005

Creeping suburbia

I live in a city of six hundred square miles, in the heart of a metropolitan area of a million souls and more. So urban sprawl to me is more or less an everyday thing: while my particular neighborhood dates back nearly sixty years, I don't have to go very far to see the bulldozers at work.

While reading up on Bucks County, a place I have visited only once before, a place almost exactly the same size as Oklahoma City, I hit upon this piece, which says that Bucks is suffering mightily from sprawl issues of its own. This afternoon, I took some time to take a look for myself.

The first Levittown, of course, was on Long Island, New York; William Levitt then turned his attention to Bucks County, where, said Reader's Digest in 1952, wondrous things would happen:

Four thousand homes will be completed by the end of 1952; in the next two years 12,000 more. In ten short years it is expected to be the size of Norfolk, Va., one of the 50 largest cities in the country. Its creators, Levitt & Sons, have singlehandedly built a metropolis overnight.

Which turned out to be hype, mostly; Levitt built for a population of 70,000, and with the subsequent decline in family size and the constraints of local government — Levittown has no government of its own and is partitioned among four Bucks municipalities — the population is currently around 55,000 or so.

Both Levittowns (and a third, in New Jersey, which no longer bears the name) were derided for their lack of variety: "Little boxes," sang Malvina Reynolds, "made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same."

Lewis Mumford's criticisms were less lyrical but no less pointed:

It is a one-class community on a great scale, too congested for effective variety and too spread out for social relationships.... Mechanically, it is admirably done. Socially, the design is backward.

Half a century later, do these criticisms still apply? Yes and no. The houses, after years of customization, don't quite look "just the same" anymore. And of course, the prices have risen from Levitt's original $10,000 price point. But fans of "diversity," presumably either ethnic or socioeconomic, will be no more pleased with the 21st-century version than they were before.

During my 50-mile trek through the southeastern half of Bucks County, I decided I wasn't going to be too alarmist about things. Yes, I'd be despondent if everything looked like Street Road, but then again I'd hate for every street back home to look like May Avenue. And while Bucks County has doubled in population since 1960, the rate of growth has slowed considerably.

Still, I'm persuaded that only part of suburban growth is due to people who are hell-bent on living in the suburbs; the trick is to get people back into the central cities if possible. And the city of Philadelphia, alas, isn't booming at all.

Posted at 3:58 PM to World Tour '05