Simanaitis Says

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CARS AND THE ‘BURBS

SOME OF those into social engineering delight in disparaging the automobile and its suburban environment. From whatever their view—a luxury midtown loft?—they want to shame us out of the ’burbs and onto public transportation.

I beg to differ.

I offer three interesting books more or less corroborating my point of view—and life style. All three book are listed at www.amazon.com and www.abebooks.com.

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Shopping Centers, Design and Operation, by Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro, Progressive Architecture Library, Reinhold Publishing, 1951.

The oldest of the three books, Baker and Funaro’s describes something we suburbanites take for granted today: the shopping center. The first quarter of the book is a 1951 design manual. Why, how and where to establish a multiple retail venue. What layout: a strip mall, a U, a rectangle?

The rest of the book is illustrative and nostalgic. Details and photos are given of 63 shopping centers, large and small, around the country at the time of the book’s 1951 publication.

The Country Club District of Kansas City, Missouri, started in 1908, is cited as a pioneering integration of homes and stores. Baker and Funaro note that its inspiration was the utopian Garden Cities concept its developers had seen in England (http://goo.gl/lpNyT).

Country Club Plaza was seen as the area’s primary retail venue; 10 smaller neighborhood centers were distributed in subdivisions.

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Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri, is an open layout. Image from Shopping Centers.

How is Country Club Plaza doing today, more than 100 years later? Check out http://goo.gl/PDluZ4.

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City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, by Richard W. Longstreth, MIT Press, 1997.

Richard Longstreth is a professor at George Washington University with a special interest in historic architectural preservation.

City Center to Regional Mall offers the view that Los Angeles did for the shopping center what New York City and Chicago did for the skyscraper. What’s more, the region’s scattered development was ideal for the automobile—and vice versa.

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Design of the Linda Vista Shopping Center, San Diego, California, encouraged people to mingle, c. 1940s. Image from City Center to Regional Mall.

Longstreth writes, “…the trend has generated reactions ranging from advocacy to derision. However the results are viewed, there can be no question that the modern metropolis is very different from that of even a half-century ago and that these changes will have a basic impact for decades to come.”

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Atomic Home: A Guided Tour of the American Dream, by Whitney Matheson, Collectors Press, 2004.

Whitney Matheson’s book celebrates both the nostalgia and cultural history of the ’burbs. She begins with post-World War II America and a real-estate developer named William J. Levitt.

Does “Levittown” ring a bell?

Levitt popularized the concept of prefabrication in home building. Whereas others were putting up three houses a day, his suburban Long Island locale grew at the rate of 30 homes a day.

Matheson observes that, in a single day of 1949, 1400 new home contracts were signed. Eventually, Levittown, New York, had 17,000 homes. Before long, other Levittowns appeared in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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Idealistic? Yes, but I don’t recall New York City’s Lower East Side generating such nostalgic scenes. Image from Atomic Homes.

Reflecting the times, many suburbs of the 1950s were segregated. And their prefabricated construction didn’t foster individuality.

For many, though, suburbia was—and continues to be—a damn sight better than a city ghetto. Even with that daily commute by car. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013

One comment on “CARS AND THE ‘BURBS

  1. carmacarcounselor
    November 6, 2013

    Dennis, you must be familiar with the Streetscape at the Petersen Automotive Museum. It’s theme is the very one Longstreth apparently describes. With plenty of cheap real estate, and Henry Ford’s Model T making cars widely available, a home a few miles from work was a practical proposition. But those developments included no neighborhood stores, so delivery services thrived. But housewives prefer to shop in person, so the two-car family became a near-necessity.

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