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The Radical 'Burbs

Tracing the surprising roots of social experimentation

Suburban Alchemy: 1960s New Towns and the Transformation of the American Dream, by Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 333 pages, $27.95

One of the most idealistic manifestos of the 1960s took the unlikely form of an intra-office corporate memorandum. "For many years," the mortgage banker James Rouse wrote in 1963, "I have lived uncomfortably with the belief that most planning and architectural design suffers for lack of real and basic purpose."

Rouse felt ready to fill that gap. "The ultimate purpose, it seems to me, must be the improvement of mankind," he wrote. "There really can be no other end purpose of planning except to develop better people....An inspired, concerned and loving society will dignify man; will find the ways to develop his talent; will put the fruits of his labor and intellect to effective use; will achieve brotherhood; eliminate bigotry and intolerance; will care for the indigent, the delinquent, the sick, the aged; seek the truth and communicate it; respect differences among man."

Prior to this, Rouse was best known for having built some of the country's first enclosed shopping malls. Within a few years, he was better known as the father of Columbia, Maryland, a social experiment on par, in its way, with Robert Owen's New Harmony or Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm. His memo does not appear in Suburban Alchemy, Nicholas Dagen Bloom's informative account of what became known as the new towns movement. But Columbia does. Founded in 1966, Columbia is, if nothing else, one of the most resilient utopias of the '60s: It thrives today, with nearly 90,000 residents, many of whom are unfamiliar with the founding ideals of their town—and in some cases don't know that it had founding ideals to begin with.

American suburbia came into its own in the 1940s and '50s, as policy makers and entrepreneurs joined forces to make the suburbs a viable alternative to city and country life. As millions moved to the new communities, intellectuals complained that the emerging landscape combined too-tightly controlled residential districts with uncontrolled commercial sprawl, fostering a culture that was simultaneously conformist and disengaged. The same critique persists in only somewhat altered form today.

But in the 1960s, something odd happened. The critique was taken to heart not just by dissident philosophers and left-leaning planners but by private, profit-seeking developers. In Bloom's words, these businessmen "brought comprehensive planning back into contemporary suburbia. They fused older suburban community builder traditions with modernist styles and their own original ideas. Unique master plans, unconventional architecture, village and town centers, and landscape design gave definition to their suburban landscapes."

Bloom discusses three such communities: Columbia; Reston, Virginia; and Irvine, California. Though he rightly stresses these towns' ties to the suburban critique of the '50s, their roots go back further. Reston in particular owes a debt to the radical writer Ebenezer Howard, whose Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902) called for suburban towns that would contain and be sustained by both agriculture and industry, with the land held in common by the residents. More moderate variations on this idea were soon built in England and elsewhere in Europe, while Lewis Mumford and his cohorts advanced similar proposals on the western side of the Atlantic.

In America the first tangible result was Radburn, an idealistic effort to build a self-sufficient garden city within two square miles of New Jersey. Whether or not that plan had a chance of succeeding, the project was doomed: It was launched in 1928, and the stock market crash of the next year crippled it before it got far off the ground. The community is still there, with about 3,100 people governed by the private Radburn Association. But it stopped dreaming of meeting all its own residential, commercial, and industrial needs long ago.

In 1961 Robert E. Simon Jr.—a real estate broker and the son of one of the original Radburn investors—bought the land on which he would build Reston, a town he named after his initials. Reston is a private community, not unlike a condominium—except it has a population of 60,000. It is divided into villages, which are in turn divided into cluster associations (and contain condos, apartment buildings, and noncluster houses as well). Between them, these constitute a system of government that is part homeowners association and part community land trust. Residents whose property does not meet local standards can be penalized: The Reston Association has the legal authority, by voluntary covenant, to tow away cars, cut lawns, or otherwise compel errant homeowners to conform, and then to charge them for the work it has done. The same body is responsible for maintaining Reston's 1,000-plus acres of open space, which include lakes, parks, and nature trails.

As Reston was launched, the Rouse Company was secretly accumulating land in nearby Howard County, Maryland. As the natives realized that a single buyer was acquiring all this property, conspiracy theories started to circulate. Some worried that the Russians were trying to get a foothold near Washington, D.C. Some fretted that the Department of Agriculture was planning to use the county as a biological testing dump cum swamp. A few knew the truth: that James W. Rouse planned to build the "inspired, concerned and loving society" he had outlined in his memorandum of 1963. The result was Columbia.

Rouse's town is governed, like Reston, by a private (though elected) association; it is divided, like Reston, into villages; it is seen, like Reston, as one of the more successful new towns of the 1960s. But there are many differences as well. Some, though important, aren't very obvious: Columbia "taxes" its residents based on the assessed value of their property, while most Restonians pay a fixed unit fee. Some, though obvious, aren't very important: Rouse maintained a foothold in his city until his death in 1996, and Simon was squeezed out of office much earlier, but neither town has ever clutched tightly to one man's vision. And some differences get to the heart of the two communities' respective ideals. Rouse hoped for a new age of tolerance, for example, so he didn't make room for churches or synagogues in his town. Instead, he built generic "interfaith centers" that Columbians of all religions could share.

Reston, too, was built with liberal social ideals in mind. Its founder, after all, is a lifelong Democrat whose parents voted for the Socialist stalwart Norman Thomas. That said, Simon says he doesn't understand why such a fuss was made over his project. "I looked at what we were doing as logical and with ample precedent rather than as social change," he told me in an interview last year. "I was really astonished at all the attention it got." Some of the local real estate brokers warned potential buyers away from Reston on the grounds that it was "communist," Simon reports. "It was the black thing, of course—the integration," he says. "And the townhouses. There were no townhouses in the boonies until Reston."

Pairing integration with townhouses may sound strange, but it reflects Reston's unusual reputation. Like Columbia, it was integrated at a time when that was controversial, especially in the South. (It also advertised itself as a community open to racially mixed couples even though Virginia still had miscegenation laws on the books.) But it was best known for its distinctive design, while Columbia got more attention for its social experiments.

Visiting Reston's Lake Anne Village Center feels like stepping through a time warp, back to the modern architecture of the late '60s and early '70s. There is a small facsimile of a European-style plaza, surrounded by shops and, upstairs from the stores, homes. More homes, including a high-rise, line the shores of a man-made lake, its artifice revealed by a fountain in the middle of the water. There's a pleasant tinge of the surreal to the place: It somehow feels archaic and futuristic at the same time.

Columbia, by contrast, feels like an enormous office park; it may be the blandest-looking social experiment since the Soviets tried their hand at public housing. True to his roots, Rouse gave his town an enclosed shopping mall in lieu of a downtown. A mall, of course, is not that far removed from a shopping plaza. But you will not find a used book shop, a Baptist church, an art gallery, or a local annex to the town community center at the Columbia mall. And you will not find a Nordstrom's, a Body Shop, or a Sears in Lake Anne Village.

Differences aside, the new towns had a legacy larger than the individual suburbs themselves. In the early days, they inspired similar projects, most not nearly as successful. For the most part, these lie outside the scope of Suburban Alchemy, and while Bloom's reasons for excluding them are understandable, they still add up to a tale worth telling. General Electric briefly planned to build 20 such towns around the country, and it seriously considered acquiring Reston as part of the project. It changed its corporate mind when one executive blackballed the purchase on the grounds that Reston was integrated. This scuttled the whole project, since G.E. wasn't about to embark on the P.R. disaster of building 20 exclusively white communities.

With the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1970, the government began underwriting new towns as well. These were built by private entrepreneurs, but the feds offered financing, and with money, naturally, came strings. Simon, fired from Reston in 1968, was briefly associated with one of those projects, a New York community called Riverton. "The relationship with the government was really hideous," he recalls, "because the people administering it were constantly dreaming up things that they thought would be fun." An example: The feds decided that every new town would have to present a budget for the next five years, with the first year broken down into monthly budgets. If any of the items in the budget deviated from the projection by more than 15 percent, the entire forecast had to be done again. The practical result, Simon reports, was that "every developer had to do a five-year projection every month."

Most of the federally financed new towns failed. The most successful was The Woodlands, near Houston. The most infamous was Soul City, launched by the Black Power leader Floyd McKissick in the North Carolina backwoods. A rural town in a depressed area, Soul City never stood a chance of attracting the 55,000 citizens its founder forecast. Today it holds just a handful of residents, unless you include the tenants of the county prison.

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