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Book Review : Suburbs Lose Out to the Technoburbs

September 10, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia by Robert Fishman (Basic Books: $19.95, 226 pages)

"It's a Wonderful Life," Frank Capra's 1946 masterpiece, is virtually an iconography of American social and material ideology--including, as Robert Fishman points out in "Bourgeois Utopias," the peculiar function of real estate development, suburban tract housing and the long-term mortgage in fashioning the American dream.

Jimmy Stewart's courageous, self-sacrificing George Bailey puts the resources of his family's modest building-and-loan society to the task of providing cozy bungalows for the wretched rent-slaves of Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter, a despicable banker and slumlord. And so the suburb becomes the symbol of salvation.

"The film does much to explain American housing policy in the succeeding decades," Fishman observes. "In the golden age of housing, new tract houses could be purchased for monthly payments that were less than the prevailing rents in the central city. George Bailey had finally vanquished Mr. Potter."

"Bourgeois Utopias" is Fishman's history of suburbia as an embodiment of social and religious dogma, as an instrument of class and race segregation, as an expression of the most profound aspirations of American civilization. Ultimately, the book is a treatise on the future: Suburbia, Fishman argues, has been replaced by what the author dubs "the techno-city and its technoburbs," a vast sprawl of "shopping malls, industrial parks, campus-like office complexes, hospitals, schools, and a full range of housing types."

"Bourgeois Utopias" is a book of impressive ambition that succeeds in exploring and explaining the most subtle concepts of social and architectural history, the tools and techniques of urban planning, and the interplay between art, religion and commerce. Fishman is a history professor with a head for business and finance, and his sources are marvelously diverse--Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson, E. M. Forster and H. G. Wells, Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, and even a sampling of 18th-Century real estate advertisements that are not so very different from those of our own age: "A very valuable estate, suitable for a Merchant or any genteel Family, in a most delightful and healthful situation at Layton, near Wealthamstow, in Essex, about five miles from Town. . . ."

Invention of Suburb

Fishman explains the invention of the suburb as an expression of the religious and social ideals of the Evangelical movement that arose within the 18th-Century Church of England--the city was a profane place, suitable for commerce but not for women and children; the home was a shrine, a refuge, a place where the soul would be nurtured amid the pleasures of family and nature. "This contradiction between the city and the Evangelical ideal of the family provided the final impetus for the unprecedented separation of the citizen's home from the city that is the essence of the suburban idea," Fishman suggests. What's more, the mock-Palladian suburban "villa," with its pretensions toward the manorial estate, allowed "a merchant to be an aristocrat on weekends."

The suburb as a goal of 19th-Century urban planning was specifically adapted to the American continent by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of both Central Park and the archetypal Chicago suburb of Riverside, and the suburb as an expression of the Evangelical ideal found its own propagandist in Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe: The "renovation" of American life, Beecher insisted, "could only take place in the context of a truly spiritualized American home."

By the mid-1920s, when Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. carried on his father's vision in the design of Palos Verdes, the suburb had become the focus of not only the American dream, but also the American notions of finance, transportation, urban planning, and social reform:

"Every man a homeowner; every man a potential customer for a building lot, a house, and a mortgage," Fishman observes. "No longer for leisured aristocrats or even for a bourgeois elite, the villa home gave to all classes the opportunity for leisure, family life and union with nature."

Insightful Discussions

Los Angeles, of course, is both the apotheosis and the graveyard of suburbia, and Fishman devotes a substantial portion of "Bourgeois Utopias" to a well-informed and insightful discussion of how the culture of the automobile and the culture of real estate speculation combined to create, at first, "the suburban ideal," and later, a suburban nightmare. "Los Angeles, which had set out to eliminate the congestion of the older industrial city, wound up creating its own novel form: decentralized congestion," he observes.

Fishman has seen the future, and it is not Los Angeles. Rather, Silicon Valley and its progeny are the models for what Fishman calls the techno-city and the technoburb, which is not a suburb at all because it is oriented to no central city at all. "The techno-city is truly multicentered, along the pattern that Los Angeles first created," he writes. "For most Americans, the real center of their lives is neither an urban nor a rural nor even a suburban area, but rather the technoburb, the boundaries of which are defined by the locations they can conveniently reach in their cars. . . . The old central cities have become increasingly marginal, while the technoburb has emerged as the focus of American life."

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