lawns and narrow minds. That is how suburbs often are
depicted in popular culture: places of repressed,
putty-colored respectability where the population is
white; the houses, cookie-cutter; and the housewives,
writer Amanda Kolson Hurley seeks to challenge that view
in her new book, “Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living
on the Fringes of the American City,” released by Belt
Publishing in the spring. Not only are suburbs more
representative than they might get credit for —
“minorities account for 35% of suburban residents, in
line with their share of the total U.S. population,”
she notes early on — in many cases, their roots can
reflect a variety of utopian ideals.
slim, highly accessible volume, Hurley, who lives in a
Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., offers six
intriguing case studies of Northeastern suburbs whose
development was based on more than commercial real
estate interests. They include a religious settlement in
Pennsylvania, a suburb founded by anarchists in New
Jersey and a pair of avant-garde bedroom communities
outside of Boston designed by the acolytes of Bauhaus
founder Walter Gropius.
interview, which has been condensed and edited for
clarity, Hurley talks about what makes these places
unique — and how they might serve as models for
suburban urbanism of the future.
launched your investigation into suburbs?
A: It was
informed by my experience living in a suburb that is not
stereotypical. I lived in a condo rather than a house,
in a diverse neighborhood where people rode the bus a
lot. I had also written a piece about Columbia, Md., and
its 50th anniversary — [it] was conceived not as a
traditional suburb but as a new town that would
accommodate people of different socioeconomic
backgrounds. It ended up being quite diverse.
also a piece I did for Architect magazine about this
100-year-old suburb of Wilmington, Del.: Arden. It was
an experiment, founded by these Georgists who followed
the economic philosophy of a journalist and thinker
named Henry George. He wrote a book called “Progress
and Poverty,” one of the bestselling books of the 19th
century — he was like a TED Talker. The Georgists
wanted to hold land in common and charge a land value
tax, the idea being that land held as a common good was
a better model of assessment than a property tax.
this long-term Arden resident. He’s this confirmed
Georgist. His grandfather helped settle Arden and he’d
been with Henry George on his deathbed. That set me on
the path for this book.
write about Five Fields and Six Moon Hill, 1950s Boston
suburbs that were designed, in part, by women
architects. How did that affect their design?
to me is a fascinating example. It was this
collaborative firm of youngish architects who were
working with Walter Gropius called The Architects
Collective (TAC). Out of the eight partners, two were
women. That would be a good ratio at a lot of
architecture firms even now. In the late 1940s, that was
quite out of the ordinary.
It was a
time in the architects’ lives when they were starting
families and thinking about what an optimal domestic
environment would be — and they were thinking about
how the community could support that. The common area
was really important, where kids could meet up with each
other and have some independence. A lot of the homes
have playrooms, but they are often in the basement
level. These were working architects and midcentury
parents who were not helicopter parents. The idea was
that kids could have their own space.
also cover a suburb of Philadelphia that was an
important site of integration in the mid-1950s —
At that point the racially exclusionary policies of
suburbs like Levittown had been reported and were pretty
well-known. But [Concord Park founder] Morris Milgram,
who was first and foremost a left-wing activist, and
then became a homebuilder (a career he stumbled into
through his father-in-law), wanted to prove that it was
possible to [integrate] and desirable to [integrate] and
that it could be done without subsidy — as a business.
had various partners. They included African American
leaders — there was a retired president of a
historically black college and other prominent African
Americans — as well as prominent white civil rights
activists. They really wanted an integrated community
but were afraid that white people would not move there
unless they could have some confidence they would not
end up as the only white person.
these fears were rooted in racism, and some of them were
of a financial nature — that is, if this was an
all-black neighborhood, property values could decline.
So they adopted a quota. The neighborhood would be 55%
white and 45% black. Of course, this was the ’50s and
so the idea that you could have someone who was neither
black or white didn’t enter anyone’s imagination.
Today, the neighborhood has a much wider spectrum.
reason why the book didn’t include the West Coast?
wanted this to be a short book. It’s a niche topic,
and I just wanted to plant the seed that a different way
of looking at the suburbs is possible. But I would love
to supplement this with other volumes looking at places
in the Midwest and West. California alone has so many
urbanism lessons do these suburbs offer us today?
think there are a few lessons. The main one is thinking
beyond the single-family home. In the book, I talk about
Greenbelt, Md., from the 1930s — this New Deal town.
It was the European model imported to the U.S. It had
apartments and rows of attached homes. It’s a pleasant
place with houses that face these green plazas, and it
feels very open and spacious despite people living in a
dense configuration. The principle is very pertinent to
suburbs and cities today that are looking for housing
types that are more affordable and more suited to
the book will spark some more conversations about that
— the realization that there are different models
available within the history of the suburbs themselves
and they are waiting for us to rediscover them.