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March 12, 2000

To the Editor:

In his review of our book "Suburban Nation" (Book Review, Feb. 27), D.J. Waldie condemns our "New Urbanist" suburbs not for those characteristics that distinguish them from their sprawling neighbors--mixed use, inclusive housing stock, walkable streets, et cetera--but for those features that they cannot help but share if they are to exist at all, such as Homeowners Associations and their pesky covenants. In engaging the ubiquitous suburb, New Urbanists are beholden to certain suburban realities that Waldie mistakenly believes to be optional. In the same way that buyers snatched up Levittown and Lakewood to the consternation of architectural critics, buyers now demand HOAs and covenants to the consternation of social critics like Waldie. Rather than dismissing the New Urbanists for their willingness to tangle with the realities of today's suburbs, it would be more productive for Waldie to focus on what makes New Urban communities different: the possibility of living one's life as a pedestrian, much as he does in Lakewood. Does he not realize that, between Lakewood (1953) and today, almost every new community built in America has made life without a car essentially impossible? One would think that, as a non-driver, Waldie would take less interest in supposed "social engineering" and more interest in simple social viability.

Jeff Speck

Miami, Fla.


D.J. Waldie replies:

The most distressing feature of New Urbanism is its eagerness to objectify suburban places into a demonic suburbia. By this erasure of a genuine past, Speck reveals his movement's lack of faith in ordinary people.

In the New Urbanist creed, the character of men and women like my neighbors is replaced by the design of their neighborhood, as if the master architect alone (posthumously in control through covenants and restrictions) could substitute for the lack of character in everyone else. Speck assures us that buyers demand such a totalizing environment, devoid of democratic processes to change it, and he calls this New Urbanist realism.

In reality, Speck's architectural firm builds pleasant suburban neighborhoods for affluent homeowners. These New Urbanists are not giving up their SUVs to become pedestrians. For the rest of us, the authors of "Suburban Nation" have a mingled pity and contempt. That our suburban lives together are a daily effort of community building, with no master architect to guide us, escapes them completely.

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