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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 16, 1996|CHRIS GOODRICH

BUILDING THE WORKMAN'S PARADISE The Design of Working Towns by Margaret Crawford (Verso: $59.95 cloth, $18.95 paper; 239 pp.). In 1909, the Russell Sage Foundation bought a farm in Long Island, Queens, to create a "garden city" for urbanites of moderate means. There was only one problem: The project was so well-designed and its costs so high (the foundation insisted it make, fairly quickly, a 3% profit) that Forest Hills attracted the well-off and soon became a wealthy suburb.

This is one of numerous ironic morality tales to be found in "Building the Workman's Paradise," which examines a small but telling sidelight of modern capitalism--the equivocal role of employers in the creation of worker housing. Train-car builder George Pullman assumed he was doing his employees a favor by building a model company town outside Chicago, but the village, however attractive, was also restrictive and expensive; you could buy alcohol only at Pullman's hotel and paid extra for the privilege of living in a dry town.

Torrance, advertised as "America's first industrial garden city," was historically more successful than Pullman, its developers (refugees of Los Angeles' 1910-1911 labor strife) having learned that heavy-handed paternalism wouldn't fly. Copper-mining towns in the Southwest also got planned communities--and good ones, like Tyrone, N.M., although as always the developments were marked with cynicism, skilled workers getting good housing and manual laborers (in this case, mostly Mexicans) getting marginal.

This book is part of an ideologically hard-left publishing program, the Haymarket Series, but Margaret Crawford's volume is blessedly free of political cant, despite dancing constantly around the issue of worker exploitation. Crawford, indeed, is hard-pressed to find it: The most notable aspect of the book is the fact that many architects, city planners and landscape designers truly wanted to build good, affordable worker housing, their frequent failures caused less often by corporate resistance than by recalcitrant materials, economic downturns and ingrained housing preferences.

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