Sunday, September 26, 2004

Why Some People Are Heading Back to the City

I had an interesting conversation last Wednesday with a woman who just might be an unwitting poster girl for the back-to-the-city trend.

At a wine-and-cheese party at a City Line Avenue hotel, I wound up talking with a couple of older women who live in Levittown. One of them, an energetic 74-year-old, told me that she enjoys getting out and going places. "I hop on the train and go into Philadelphia all the time," she said. "I take the Phlash bus around town. I like to visit the museums and go to the shops."

Without my asking why, she explained, "I come into Philadelphia because there's no place to go in Levittown."

In that sentence she captured the central flaw with the Auto Age suburb--it was designed as a new urban form, but without all the necessary urban functions. The people who built places like Levittown all over America had a certain model of suburban life in mind. That model can be summed up with the phrase "a good place to raise your kids." The ample yards and quiet residential streets of these large subdivisions guaranteed families ample space for their children to play without having to walk to a park or schoolyard. Schools were located near the center of neighborhoods to put them in easy walking (or bus) distance of all the students. Shopping centers on the edges of the developments provided most basic needs--and some extra ones, if they were large enough.

All this was just fine as long as the parents were working and the children young. The model did not work so well once the children reached adolescence or the parents retired, and the reason why turned out to be the same for both retirees and children: There were few diversions these people could easily reach, especially without a car. No corner taverns or eateries. No art galleries or promenades. No place to be in public, casually interacting or simply sharing experiences with one's fellow citizens.

If that Levittowner's comment can be taken as an example, there is still a need even in our privatized Auto Age suburban landscape for public places that serve recreational, cultural and entertainment functions. Many older interwar suburbs have such places in their central business districts, and their siting makes them reachable by a variety of means. Retrofitting such places into our newer suburbs seems a bit more difficult, but that hasn't stopped towns like Schaumburg, Ill., from trying. The movement of empty-nesters back into in-town neighborhoods is one way some Americans are trying to reconnect to the communal realm; it's quite likely that as the decades pass, our newer suburbs will, like Schaumburg, attempt to construct this realm in their midst from scratch.

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