BRAINERD, Minn.—I grew up on the farm that was homesteaded by my great-great grandparents. When I was a kid, we tore down and replaced the house they had built, and that others had subsequently added on to. The saying “if those walls could only speak,” has extra meaning for me, because we found many things within those walls—old newspapers, letters, trinkets long forgotten. My parents still live there.
In fourth and fifth grade, I attended Lowell Elementary. This is the grade school my mother attended, as well as the one my grandmother attended. Fridays during lunch I would walk to my grandmother’s house for pizza and Norwegian cookies. It was with great pride that I sent both of my kids to this same school. Many Fridays I would go there and have lunch with my kids, thinking of my grandmother.
This past weekend my youngest and I were biking past the cemetery and I suggested we stop. We visited one of the family plots—my mom’s side—and I shared with my daughter (again) what I knew about them. We’ve often done the same thing when we’re in the neighboring city near the place where my Marohn ancestors are buried. Those are moments I value.
Up the street from where I live today is the Franklin Arts Center. When I was a teenager it was known as Franklin Junior High. I’ve shown my daughters, on multiple occasions, the exact spot where I met their mother on my way to geometry class. I’m sure they will tell the story to their kids someday.
But when they do, there is a big part of me that hopes it will be as a visitor to this town, and not a resident.
I love this place. I have deep, deep ties in this area and I care about it immensely. And not just the place, but the people. My neighbors—some of them relatives, but many not—may be called deplorables by some, but I experience them as beautiful people.
Still, I spend a great deal of time wondering if I should have left and not come back. And more importantly, while my children will ultimately determine their own paths in life, I wonder: should I nudge them to consider a life far away from here?
We’re currently having a national conversation about immigration. The backdrop to that dialogue is that nearly every one of us—admittedly with some obvious and notable exceptions—either came to this country as an immigrant or is a descendant of someone who did.
I don’t want to debate immigration policy circa 2018, but I do want to point out something important: The act of being an immigrant requires one to leave one place and travel to another. To the extent that we have an aspirational national identity (and I’m perhaps one of the naïve few remaining who believe that we do), it’s the embodiment of a restless spirit, of the notion—Go West, Young Man—that a better life can be forged by moving over the next ridge, onto the next state, or across the continent.
In the past week, I’ve had two different people contact me for advice. The first person wanted to know what to do as the city they were living in became unaffordable, and grew even more so by the day. What should they do to make their place a strong town, to bring the cost of housing back in line with what they and their neighbors could afford?
The second person lives in the quintessential suburb, a place that has no chance of aging well and even less chance of voluntarily changing course. This person wanted to know how to convince those around them that they were in a Ponzi scheme, that things weren’t going to end pleasantly, that they needed a revolution in how they do things and it should have started yesterday.
I would never discourage someone who loves a place and wants to stick around and pour their heart and soul into making it work; I would be a hypocrite of the worst kind if I did. But with both of these people, I asked the same question: Have you thought about moving?
I interviewed New Urbanist Andres Duany on the Strong Towns podcast back in 2016. That conversation infuriated many listeners because of Duany’s suggestion that millennials need to stop complaining about gentrified cities being so expensive and move to—in his words, “pioneer”—someplace that isn’t so expensive, and then do the work to make it great. Here’s a quote from that interview:
Who’s really complaining about gentrifying are the new, young people who want to come in. But my feeling is: Hey, somebody else did the job, somebody else pioneered. Why don’t you go to Buffalo? Why don’t you go to Detroit? Instead of inheriting the work of others, do the work yourself.
I think if Brooklyn is over-gentrified, those people should go to Detroit and to Buffalo and to Troy and should go to the great small towns of America and get to work on them. People should, like proper Americans, move on.
My family is primarily of Norwegian descent. Most Norwegians came to the United States, not because of opportunity, but because of disasters—crop failures, blights, poor harvests—that caused poverty and starvation. They left places that were experiencing hardship and moved to places where there were better opportunities.
Pause and take a deep breath. I’m not excusing modern hardships and I’m not wishing them away. I’m here, after all, working to make my place better, despite the many challenges. All I’m saying is that sometimes you might need to move. And that’s okay.
I feel like living in a place is a little like a marriage. There are times, especially early on, when it’s bliss, but there are way more times when it’s simply a lot of work. Marriage—or some form of binding two people together—isn’t an institution that has been around for all of recorded history because it is easy. Rather, it’s endured because a committed relationship provides benefits—security, support, hopefully love and fulfillment—that are worth the effort.
Incremental developer Monte Anderson has said that we should all find a place that suits us and stay there. Focus on it and work to make it better. He’s saying, essentially, marry a place; stick with it through good times and bad, even after the bliss evolves into ongoing hard work.
I agree, but being born in a specific place is a little like an arranged marriage. And like any marriage, if it’s really not working out, it’s okay to leave. If it’s not the right place for you, if the opportunity for you is not there, then go someplace else.
I drew the ire of Steve Shultis, a founding member of Strong Towns and the author of the blog Rational Urbanism, when I suggested to students at a university near his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, that Memphis, Detroit and Buffalo were exciting places, that if those students wanted to make the world a better place while improving their place in it, those three cities were not only affordable but dripping with opportunity.
Steve was upset with me for not encouraging people to stay where they were, to make the Springfields of the world— which also need them—better places.
Just like a marriage, you need to choose your town freely. Sometimes you need to move out of a town that needs you, to find a place you need back. And that’s okay.
Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by Planetizen. In October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.
This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.
My mother’s family settled in Oklahoma in 1889, in that great moment of pioneering pandemonium known as the Oklahoma Land Rush. They settled in the southwest part of the state along the Red River near a small farming community called Hess. Poor farmers from Texas and Tennessee, they came—like so many others—looking for good land to raise their crops, a house to call their home, and a community in which they could put down roots and raise a family, thankful for all that God had provided.
It was, perhaps, not the most ambitious vision of the good life, but it was their vision, and they set to the task with fervor. From their dugout they eventually built a house, and with their neighbors they helped to build the Baptist church, a local grocery and dry goods store, and a clubhouse for the ladies’ quilting club.
Today, if you were to drive through Hess, you might be tempted to call it nowhere—as if a place of so little global importance was not worthy of being called a place at all. But the value of a place, a home, a people, is not determined by its importance in world affairs or the global economy. Rather, it is in deep-seated affection that all true places have their origin—affection for the land, for the people, for the buildings and the memories they contain.
These kinds of affections are particular to each place. They cannot be manufactured or synthesized. Rather, they must be nurtured over generations, through the communal stories that make up our common life.
Today, America has almost entirely forgotten itself—shedding like a snake its local affections and destroying its best-loved places in the never-ending quest for “progress.” Amidst our sprawling modern life, we have lost the American Story. But in these times, the small places—our towns, our villages, our hamlets—offer a glimmer of hope. For inasmuch as they have participated in and suffered at the hands of the Great American Story, every small town preserves in part those local affections that arise from its own particular story.
From Plymouth, Massachusetts, settled by the Mayflower pilgrims escaping religious persecution, to Princeville, North Carolina, established following the Civil War by Americans newly freed from the shackles of slavery, every American small town has a story. And because these places have such stories, they are more genuine places than nearly anywhere else built in America today.
If we are to renew our culture and our nation, if we are to—as the Charter of the New Urbanism suggests— “dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment,” then such reclamation must start with the small towns that still preserve the seed of local community within them. For as the poet and author Wendell Berry says, in this cause “the common denominator is the local community. Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.”
Ryan Terry is principal and managing partner with R + T Studio, a real estate development and consulting firm in Bryan/College Station, Texas.
The small state of Vermont usually makes the national news for producing progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and legalizing same-sex marriage.
But recently Vermont made the news for a different reason. Republican Governor Phil Scott (yes there are still Republicans in New England) signed a bill into law that will grant remote workers up to $10,000 to move to the state. According to the New York Times, the program will run for three years, with allocations of $125,000 for 2019 and 2021, and $250,000 in 2020.
Vermont is a very rural state and outside of the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and the capital, Montpelier, even what isn’t rural is still post-industrial. Towns like Springfield, Newport, and Rutland aren’t strictly mill towns or gateway cities like the kind found in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but there are similarities. Like other rural and post-industrial areas, young people are leaving, and while there are some people moving in, they are frequently middle-aged or retired.
And even where there are signs of life, there aren’t exactly many jobs available. Making artisanal cheese or opening a nanobrewery don’t require a large labor force.
By offering to compensate people for their moving expenses, the state hopes to attract people who are already employed and enjoy the Green Mountain landscape. They hope that the beauty and outdoor lifestyle will beckon the create class, so they won’t have to go through the expense and hassle of trying to lure a factory or some other industry.
The beauty of Vermont has certainly been attractive in the past. The influence of the Rockefeller and Billings families, for example, helped preserve Woodstock as a quintessential New England village, allowing them a brisk tourist trade, even if locals can no longer afford to live in town. The “sweeping mountain vistas reminiscent of their beloved Austria” brought the Von Trapp family to Stowe. Local legend has it that Thomas Watson, Jr. of IBM liked the skiing so much he had a facility located in Essex Junction, near Burlington, so as to shoehorn in some skiing around actual work.
Unfortunately, Vermont is not alone in offering deals for warm bodies. Buffalo, N.Y. will sell people houses for $1 if they agree to stay for at least five years. Numerous small towns throughout Italy, many of them just as picturesque as Vermont, if not more so, offer free homes and even castelli or other deals in order to get them occupied, maintained, and economically vibrant again.
Even if Vermont’s relocation program can outcompete the others and attract remote workers, the state’s leaders will still have to come up with ways to be more attractive for its own high school and college graduates.
If the state is willing to spend $500,000 over three years as part of a reimbursement program, perhaps they could offer a similar amount to promote entrepreneurship, reimbursing young people up to $10,000 to start a business.
One important thing the state could do is overhaul its approach to transportation. Currently, public transit is an afterthought because in the conventional thinking the state is too sparsely populated to make it work.
As a result, Vermont must balance the construction of ugly roads and parking lots against the preservation of the natural beauty that attracts the tourists. It would do no good to pave paradise to put up a parking lot.
Transportation in Vermont consists of two Amtrak services, the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter trains, and an intercity bus service known as Vermont Translines. Extending the New York City-based Ethan Allen Express from Rutland up to Burlington would not only make Burlington and the college town of Middlebury accessible by rail, it would likely make the service that much more financially viable. Further improvements would come from rerouting it so it could stop at Bennington and Manchester.
Another improvement Vermont could make is getting some kind of rail connection to Boston. This could be best be done with a route paralleling Vermont’s State Route 103 to Rutland and then sharing the track with the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington. This would bring tourists to Ludlow and Killington, connect entrepreneurs in Burlington and Boston, and make it much easier for me to visit my family in Rutland.
While plans have been floated for building a commuter rail network using diesel multiple units, the state could also get more bang for the bucks it spends on bus service. The bus network has three routes in the southwest of the state, and is expensive, slow, and only runs once a day. Considering the way younger people drive less and are buying fewer cars, making it easier to live in the state without a car would help attract them.
There are many steps Vermont can and should take to ensure that its $10,000 gamble doesn’t turn out to be a gimmick.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
My home city of Cleveland was lucky to get poor at just the right time.
Poverty is the great preserver. The reason we have such architectural wonders as Venice, Italy, and Charleston, S.C., is that they too timed their poverty well. Had Venice remained rich in the 19th century, it would almost certainly have been rebuilt, like Paris and Vienna, in the latest style. To visualize what might have happened to a Charleston that became wealthy after World War II, think of Atlanta.
Cleveland was also a rich city at the right time. From the late 19th century up into the 1930s, Cleveland had the money to build. And we built well. On weekdays, when commercial interiors are open, I can take visitors on an architectural walking tour of downtown Cleveland that makes their eyes pop. The Old Arcade, one of the few surviving edifices of the wrought iron construction of the 1870s and ’80s, suggests the framework of a Zeppelin, with the addition of acres of polished brass. One bank interior mirrors the Parthenon, another the Pantheon. Some interiors offer splendid historical murals in a style suggesting N.C. Wyeth; the artist who painted those in the Cleveland Trust building and the Old Post Office went down on the Titanic.
We still have these treasures because just when American architecture turned to crap (thank you Mies van der Rohe) in the 1950s and ’60s, Cleveland’s economy also started downhill. We didn’t have the money to rip down what was old and good and replace it with new and bad.
It wasn’t just St. Francis who was befriended by Lady Poverty. So was Cleveland.
We did suffer along the way, as downtown Cleveland kept its buildings but lost its people. When I was a boy in the 1950s, downtown sidewalks were so crowded with well-dressed people it was sometimes hard for my mother and I to make our way. By the 1970s and ‘80s, if Ohio had tumbleweeds they would have been blowing down Euclid Avenue. With the people went the life of the city. The great department stores—Higbees, Halles, Sterling Linders—failed and closed, although their buildings still stand. Beggars took over. Those sidewalks, a living city’s arteries, were otherwise empty. “Seedy” was one of the more generous adjectives applied to Cleveland.
But we are seedy no longer. Downtown Cleveland is coming back to life. The disfiguring post-war facades that lined Euclid have come down, revealing the wonderful 19th-century buildings beneath. Old department stores, office buildings, and warehouses are being turned into apartments at a frenetic pace, with Millennials lined up to move in. The restaurant scene is lively (Cleveland’s motto is “Fat as we are, we’ll fit you in.”)
Cleveland is becoming a tourist destination, not just for our architectural splendor, but also because of our inherited cultural wealth. Our art museum is one of the best in the world, as are both the Cleveland Orchestra and its venue, Severance Hall. We have at least three baroque orchestras; one of them, Apollo’s Fire, is building a fine reputation not only here but in Europe. My modest downtown church (we’ve been in the same building since 1890), St. James’ Anglican Catholic Church, hears Haydn and Mozart masses.
So can we now count Cleveland among New Urbanist success stories? Not really. New Urbanism has so far not had much impact there. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer Cleveland.
One urbanist offering we need is streetcars. As with so many American cities, downtown Cleveland’s decline began when the city ripped out its streetcars—the last ones ran in 1954—and replaced them with buses. People like riding streetcars; no one likes riding a bus. With the streetcars gone, they drove their cars to go shopping instead, which pulled the stores out into the suburbs. Across the country, cities are drawing middle-class people with disposable income to the city center by bringing back the streetcars. Cleveland should too.
But what Cleveland needs more than the New Urbanism is the Old Urbanism. Cleveland did not once become the country’s sixth-largest city and a wealthy place because it had busy sidewalks, tree-lined boulevards, craft breweries, and streetcars—although it did have all those. Cleveland became rich by making things.
Decades ago, George Will wrote a column in praise of Cleveland. In it, he told the story of an Easterner who visited our city in the late 19th century and complained to a Clevelander about the smoke. The Clevelander replied, “Smoke means business, business means money, and money is the principal thing.” He was right.
Today, as you drive over the new Innerbelt bridge that carries I-90 through Cleveland, you may detect an unfamiliar smell. It is the smell of steel being made. Unlike Pittsburgh and many other “Rust Belt” cities, Cleveland has not lost its heavy industry. We still make steel—really make steel, from iron ore, coke, and limestone—not just melt scrap. Watching a long ore freighter maneuver up the Cuyahoga (which means “crooked river”) is as much of a thrill today as it was when I was ten. “The Flats,” the industrial zone that lines the river for miles, still makes steel, refines oil, and does other things that pay skilled workers good wages. Even today, over half the foreign-born in Cuyahoga county come from Europe, where they acquired the heavy-industry skills that quickly get them jobs here.
But if Cleveland is still alive as a place that makes things, it is among the walking wounded. We make a great deal less than we did in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The vast blue-collar middle class that lived a comfortable life on one income is now small. As with the rest of the Rust Belt, free trade struck its dagger into our back. We have witnessed whole factories torn down and re-erected in China.
Beyond Cleveland’s downtown, we are a city of abandoned factories: Warner & Swazey machine tools, which employed 5000 people in World War II; Richman Brothers Suits; the Ford engine foundry, now an empty lot; the list is endless. Some of the industrial buildings closer to the urban core are being repurposed and thus saved. But where are the jobs? Gone to people in other countries.
I fear the downtown revival Cleveland is now enjoying is a hot-house plant. Bingen-am-Rhein may prosper though tourism, but tourism does not bring in money in the industrial quantities a city like Cleveland needs. If we are to again become a rich city, we must make more things. The New Urbanism, if it is to be sustained, needs the Old Urbanism.
The old cities were above all places where people worked. Can we bring it back? Of course we can. We industrialized this country under tariff protection and we can re-industrialize under tariff protection. When President Trump slapped tariffs on foreign steel, Cleveland cheered. In nearby Lorain, Ohio, another steel center, a steel company announced it would reopen a shuttered mill, hire hundreds of people, and was prepared to fill all domestic orders. We can make everything America needs in America—and much of it in Cleveland. China has a plan to make everything it needs by 2025. Why can’t America have the same plan? After all, we already did it once.
Most New Urbanists are members of the coastal elite, which means most of them look on President Trump with loathing. Which is ironic, because their New Urbanism depends on President Trump’s trade policies. The elites of both political parties are in the free–trade camp, for reasons perhaps not unrelated to Wall Street’s ability to fill the coffers of politicians who favor free trade. (On the other side there’s no money, just jobs.)
But without the Old Urbanism, where cities grew and prospered by making things, there is not likely to be much New Urbanism, at least not for very long. Baristas and personal trainers can’t afford the nice new apartments being built in the Halle building on Euclid Avenue. New Urbanism will either build on a revival of American manufacturing or it will be building on sand.
William S. Lind is the author of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.
For 23 years I have been driving country roads, photographing the ruins of rural America for a documentary I call “Lost Americana.” As population decline claims town after town, I’ve been talking to those who remain. Whether it’s in the place I’m photographing or in the cities where I’m showing my photos, all conversations lead to the same question: “How do you stop it?” The simple answer is, you can’t.
If you are already feverishly typing your reply about how your farm town is alive and well, chances are you’re probably not as rural as you think. That or you’re one of the lucky few who have a secondary economy that is keeping your area stable.
I don’t claim to be an expert in rural economics, nor am I a tenured professor with a team of undergrads working on a study about rural life. I am, however, in touch enough to know that there’s a dairy farm crisis for milk producers, corn prices have been down the last few years, and farmers from coast to coast are worried about the effects of a looming trade war. I’ve talked to enough folks in rural towns from South Carolina to North Dakota, New York to Kansas, and beyond, to know that it’s not a cliché that young people are dreaming to get out. And that’s if the town still has young people. In a good number of rural counties, residents over 60 are 30 percent to 40 percent of the population.
So who am I? I’m just a photojournalist from Chicago who started taking photos of old barns to make pretty pictures. But then the journalist inside me started asking questions like “Why are all these farmsteads abandoned?” and “What’s with the vacant storefronts in all these towns?” That was almost 25 years ago. Today America is on its third economic upswing, even as the places I visit have continued to fade away.
In fact, rural America has significantly faded away. This is not something I take joy in writing about. From college through early adulthood, I opted to spend my spring breaks driving around Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, while my friends went to Cancun. I skipped backpacking in Europe and opted to hit up small towns from Dalhart, Texas, to Bowman, North Dakota. Typically one family vacation a year involves me taking my kids on a week-long road trip across rural America as I document it in photos. From the Soda Fountain in Chugwater, Wyoming to Comer’s General Store in Union Grove, North Carolina, and all the rolling hills and endless horizons along the way, I want them to be able to remember what rural America was like, even as vast parts of it have slowly vanished.
It is sad for our country that this is happening. It’s even sadder that it has barely been talked about.
From the pilgrims to the beginning of the 20th century, America was an agricultural country. Westward expansion saw thousands of towns rise from the ground on the prairies of the Midwest and in the Great Plains, just like the crops their residents would plant.
Agriculture would see its heyday during the first half of the 20th century, boasting a peak average workforce of over 30 million farmers from 1900 to 1940. Norman Rockwell images come to mind when most think of rural America from the 1940s through the 1960s: red barns, families with several children helping on the farm, small schools, parades honoring the local veterans, all in the town square where everyone knows each other.
The 1960s began an exodus of residents from rural to urban areas. Had it been focused in just one time and geographical location, it would probably have been regarded as the largest migration in world history. That peak of 30 million farmers shrunk to 15 million, as smaller rural towns in the Great Plains states started to disappear. Danzig, North Dakota (peak population 100) lost its post office in 1955, and its entire population soon after. Today the town is all private property, and Main Street leads to the driveway of a nearby farmer.
In the simplest of terms, “it’s the economy,” but not the economy of the country as a whole, which is seeing record-low unemployment rates and all-time highs on the stock market. This is about the economy of agriculture and how it has changed over the last half of the 20th century.
With the focus on manufacturing, almost no one has taken notice of the slow decline in the number of people working on farms. The number of farmers in the U.S. began to rapidly decline after World War II, as agriculture shed almost 40 percent of its workforce decade to decade, before bottoming out in 1990. Broken evenly by state, the loss of farm labor was about 12,000 workers per year. Meanwhile, companies like Bethlehem Steel were making national news in 1983 as planned layoffs of 10,000 workers in New York and Pennsylvania loomed. Both states theoretically had been losing that number yearly in farm labor since 1950, but this slow attrition went largely unnoticed.
The growth rural agricultural areas saw around the turn of the 20th century began to slow and then tapered off. The overall population of the country shifted from 60/40 percent rural/urban in 1900 to 80/20 percent urban/rural by 2000. In 2015, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census reported that the overall rural population in the country had declined. Which leads us to the term “rural.”
At its core, “rural” just defines an area where people live based on their proximity to other people. Chicago was at one point a rural town on the prairie but grew to be (temporarily) the second largest city in the United States. New Jersey, despite plenty of farms and dairies, doesn’t have a single rural county. Almost two thirds of the over 3,000 counties in America are defined as rural, making up 97 percent of the land, while only accounting for 19 percent of the total population. One person’s “rural” may vary greatly from another’s.
For example, Grundy County in Illinois is surrounded by farmland. The largest town, Morris, has 14,000 residents, many of whom would consider themselves rural. However, according to the USDA and U.S. Census, they are considered a metro county because of their proximity to Joliet (150,000 residents) and the greater Chicago area. Yet 200 miles southwest to Lee County, Iowa, which has similar fields and the towns of Keokuk and Fort Madison (about 11,000 residents each) is considered a non-metro county, or rural county. Both counties may feel rural, but their closeness to resources place them apart.
If Lee County appears more rural than Grundy, then Logan County in North Dakota, could make both feel like a mini version of Chicago. With 787 residents in its largest town, Napoleon, residents of Logan County face over an hour’s drive to any town with a population greater than 2,500. While residents of all three counties may consider themselves rural, the economic opportunities set the population of all three apart. Much is made today of America’s rural/urban divide; more often overlooked is this rural/rural divide.
To really understand the decline of rural American farm towns, look no further than why these towns originally sprang up. Settlements around the world exist for the purpose of commerce, and farm communities are no different. Even as America spread out and train tracks connected small towns dotting the landscape, getting around was nothing like it is today. You shopped and worked in the town you lived in. Train depots and grain elevators made sure the crops and livestock went out and the commercial items came in.
Many rural residents today drive 25 to 50 miles each week to get groceries and supplies, but even by the 1950s traveling to the next town to get groceries wasn’t something most people did. 30 percent of rural households didn’t even have a car.
During the first half of the 20th century there were a record six million farms in America that averaged between 150-200 acres. Even a town like Danzig, North Dakota with its two grain elevators, could have been the hub for over a hundred local farmers. Talking to farmers today it’s not uncommon for Midwestern and Great Plains farmers to work over 2,000 acres. A former cotton farmer in Texas told me that almost all of the agricultural land in their county is now managed by just four farms.
As farm technologies and logistics improved, so did efficiency. In 1930, it took 15-20 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat; five hours by 1960; and under three hours today. Improved irrigation and fertilizer, along with the beginnings of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, meant farmers could produce more and ship more quickly and easily. A typical farm even in the 1950s would have required five farmers, but by 1970 that was down to around three per farm. Today, it’s just over one.
As farm work became increasingly less available, many who relied on it moved away, becoming one less customer at local businesses, and removing one or two children from a local school.
Keokuk, Iowa lost 6-10% of its population each decade from 1970-2010. The Danzigs of the plains—towns under 500 people—started to disappear too.
As people moved, the stores, schools, and even churches closed. The good folks from Danzig moved to Napoleon, their children moved to Bismarck. The people in Keokuk and Fort Madison made their way to Des Moines.
Little did I know that when I started, the 1990s in many ways would turned out to be a pivotal decade for small farm towns and rural America, almost the beginning of the end. Just over a century since millions of people rushed onto the Great Plains, the ’90s would mark the beginning of a time when the quantity, size, and labor of farms in America would flatline.
I still see hope in things like the restoration of a Masonic Temple being converted to a home in Adams, Tennessee; the converted gas station that is the Cottage Café in Amboy, Minnesota; or the Historic Society of Jefferson County, Nebraska trying to preserve the school in Steele City. But the Main Streets that are vacant in Ruby, South Carolina; Turin, New York; Revere, Missouri, and so many other places leave me to fear that most of our small farm towns will be gone by mid-century.
It’s a hard truth and I hope I’m wrong, but for every person claiming their farm town is still going strong, there are 20 others telling me how they miss the farm town they grew up in, but had to leave, as there was nothing left.
Vincent David Johnson is a Chicago based photojournalist, filmmaker, and the person behind the Lost Americana documentary project. When he’s not working on Michigan Ave, chances are you can find him in rural America checking out a town you’re not going to see on a travel show.
Like a signal from the past, Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria—On the Art of Building, completed in 1452—transmitted urban-planning concepts of classical antiquity to the Renaissance scholars of 15th century. Today, Alberti’s impact on the field of architecture remains well known, but his abiding influence on traditional urban planning patterns is less appreciated.
In form and substance, Alberti’s work remains inseparable from the work of Vitruvius, the Roman architect whose writings encapsulated the maxims and mysteries of ancient building. For almost five hundred years, Alberti and Vitruvius reigned among the most influential texts in modern European architecture. On the surface, Alberti followed Vitruvius’ structure by dividing his material into ten chapters, mirroring the ancient Ten Books of Architecture. More substantially, his work laid out urban ideas and patterns that Vitruvius had once articulated, concepts which had been largely forgotten by the 15th century.
Alberti was inseparable from the time and places that shaped him. Born in Genoa on Valentine’s Day 1404, his early years were marked by a mixture of privilege and hardship. His father was a merchant from a wealthy Florentine family; in the classic fashion of Florence, he had been exiled from the city since 1393, when political enemies had come to power. Meanwhile, the plague was ravaging Europe. Alberti’s mother, about whom little is known, died during an outbreak in Genoa around 1406, when Alberti was just two years old. The young Alberti grew up with his merchant father, moving frequently, living in Venice and then Padua, and often traveling throughout northern Italy. Alberti was fortunate to receive a first-rate secondary education, shaped by classical studies, at a boarding school in Padua, but shortly after entering university, his father died. Because his parents had never married, family members used his illegitimacy as a pretext to steal his inheritance.
Despite the tragedy and transience of his youth, and the sudden loss of his patrimony, Alberti found many ways to excel. The great Swiss historian of the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, described the young Alberti’s talents and the insatiable curiosity that drove him:
He learned music without a master, and yet his compositions were admired by professional judges. Under the pressure of poverty, he studied both civil and canonical law for many years, till exhaustion brought on a severe illness. In his twenty-fourth year, finding his memory for words weakened, but his sense of facts unimpaired, he set to work at physics and mathematics. And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars, and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities of their craft.
He was, one might say, a sort of John the Baptist figure for the Renaissance man that would soon become a cliché of Italian masters and strivers alike. He presaged all the essential characteristics: exceptionally well read, he delved into a broad range of arts and sciences with the confidence of an explorer; and he was endlessly intoxicated by the possibilities presented when the secrets of the past were crossed with the boundless potential of the present.
Alberti’s early studies had exposed him to the works of antiquity, and his ties to Florence had placed him, as a young adult, within the orbit of Cosimo di Medici’s passion for rediscovering the classics. The writings of the past had been preserved by Byzantine and Muslim scholars; and to a lesser extent by the cloistered monks of Western Europe. All at once, these texts were being recovered and reinterpreted by the scholars of 15th-century mercantile Italy. Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari relates that, early in his career, Alberti distinguished himself in a variety of fields. He studied law and religion, and he painted; but most especially, he made a name for himself in Florence as a writer and an architect.
In 1443, at the age of 38 or 39, Alberti moved to Rome, where he became active in a dizzying period of new construction, spearheaded by Pope Nicholas V in an ambitious project to remake the city. About the same time, Alberti began work on De re aedificatoria, a project that would continue for much of the next decade. In 2009, Pietro Roccasecca, a scholar today at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, described Alberti’s work in as intended “not only to update [Vitruvius], but also to go deeper and to put the internal logic of antique architecture to a critical test….Each page is proof of a deep knowledge of philosophical, scientific and historical texts, but he is also just as well acquainted with poetry, literature and rhetoric.”
Strictly speaking, Alberti’s De re aedificatoria is a milestone in the canon of European architecture. But a sizable portion also deals directly with the allied arts of urban planning. Specifically, Alberti provides insights about how planning was practiced in ancient times, as well as his own interpretation of these practices for the 15th century. Sections on site plans and street design remain particularly meaningful, as do discussions about the variety of urban buildings, their arrangement, and their interplay. Much has been written about the continuing influence of Alberti on Western architecture, and about how he served as a vessel for ancient knowledge; but far less attention has been paid to his impact on planning.
Like Vitruvius, Alberti wrote for the scholars and professionals of a confident, ascendant society. Expansion was expected, and his writing was directed at those with the power to shape the terms of growth. Alberti’s approach is fundamentally empirical, a point frequently obscured by his tendency to meander through anecdotes of questionable value from the ancient writers. Also beneath the surface, despite its primary objective to be a definitive text on classical architecture, Alberti’s actual project presents the building blocks of an entire, viable city in the classical tradition. Alberti lays out the most fundamental components of a city’s military, political, and economic viability; he describes the construction methods of defensive walls, towers, and other components of fortification; he articulates a series of organizing principles for neighborhood patterns and street dimensions within those walls; and, only within this broader context, he covers the architecture of various monuments, public and private buildings, and open-air spaces.
[A] city ought to be so placed as to have all sufficient necessaries within its own territory (as far as the condition of human affairs will permit) without being obliged to seek them abroad; and that the circuit of its confines ought to be fortified, that no enemy can easily make an irruption upon them, though at the same time they may send out armies into the countries of their neighbors, whatever the enemy can do to prevent it; which is a situation that they tell us will enable a city not only to defend its liberty, but also to enlarge the bounds of its dominion.
Here Alberti devotes a portion of text to the literal perimeter of urbanism: strategies and methods for defensive walls. Walls (and their associated features, like gates, towers, and moats) remained the norm in the early Renaissance, before advances in artillery (as well as statecraft) began to render them obsolete. Yet the relative permanence of city walls—resulting from the prohibitive labor and expense that go into their construction—means that in the days of their functionality they formed a hard limit to the amount of buildable land within them. As a result, land use efficiency was prioritized in walled cities; and cities that expected to grow were required to account for this in determining the reservation of raw land within the perimeter of newly constructed defenses.
Moving within the city walls, some of the most interesting planning concepts addressed in De re aedificatoria come where Alberti ventures into a mixture of practical and aesthetic theories, drawn from the texts of ancient writers, about large-scale town planning. Addressing the possible variations of street width and curvature, he writes:
Such should be the ways out of the city: short, straight, and secure. When they come to the town, if the city is noble and powerful, the streets should be straight and broad, which carries an air of greatness and majesty; but if it is only a small town or a fortification, it will be better, and as safe, not for the streets to run straight to the gates; but to have them wind about sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, near the wall, and especially under the towers upon the wall; and within the heart of the town, it will be handsomer not to have them straight, but winding about several ways, backwards and forwards, like the course of a river. For thus, besides that by appearing so much the longer, they will add to the idea of the greatness of the town, they will likewise conduce very much to beauty and convenience and be a greater security against all accidents and emergencies. Moreover, this winding of the streets will make the passenger at every step discover a new structure, and the front and door of every house will directly face the middle of the street; and whereas in larger towns even too much breadth is unhandsome and unhealthy, in a small one it will be both healthy and pleasant, to have such an open view from every house by means of the turn of the street.
Thus, Alberti presages a concept that would be addressed more thoroughly by later major writers on the art of urban planning, including Camillo Sitte and Raymond Unwin, namely, that irregularity, in certain settings, is both more beautiful and more effective at creating a compelling sense of place than the use of formal, geometric dimensions. Yet on this point Alberti is no zealot. He reserves a prominent place for the formal street: as an avenue into the center of a principal city, designed to showcase the grandeur of its surroundings, and to emphasize the importance of its approach. Thus, he offers a fine-tuned analysis, in a usefully concise passage, crediting the benefits and reciting the drawbacks of competing street typologies in different hypothetical settings. As he does throughout the text, he grounds his conclusions in a combination of logic and the primary sources of ancient writers.
Later, Alberti returns to the layout of neighborhoods to emphasize the importance of physical planning. “The principal ornament of the city,” he writes, “will arise from the disposition of the streets, squares, and public edifices, and their being all laid out and contrived beautifully and conveniently, according to their several uses; for without order, there can be nothing handsome, convenient, or pleasing.” In the same chapter, he also advocates for the concentration of similar merchants in convenient parts of the city; and the segregation of nuisances to the outskirts (with attention paid to the direction of prevailing winds, to minimize the city’s exposure to noxious fumes). Thus, we see that Alberti manifested an early call for rationality as a vital component of urban planning, and not just adherence the micropolitics of incremental growth. He writes that a “city is not built wholly for the sake of shelter … besides mere civil conveniences there may be handsome spaces left for squares, courses for chariots, gardens, places to take the air in, for swimming, and the like, both for ornament and recreation.”
In Alberti’s time, bridges were central features of the built environment in many time-worn Mediterranean cities. Among the bridges in Italy that remain familiar today, and that Alberti would certainly have also known, is the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; ancient bridges like the Ponte Rotto and the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome; and the countless unnamed bridges that form the latticework of walkways that skip over the capillary canals of Venice. In a thread similar to his advice about the layout of neighborhoods, Alberti provides basic instructions for the placement of bridges, recommending that they “ought to be at the very heart of the city” and built to be “durable.”
Alberti proceeds to describe several key points about bridge construction, including the ideal materials for the structural components of distinct types of bridges in various settings; a treatment of paving stones and elements of ornamentation; and an extensive discussion of Caesar’s approach to building bridges in the course of his military campaigns.
Keeping with his focus on the details of city-building, Alberti offers salient diversions throughout De re aedificatoria about Western roadbuilding practices from antiquity through his own time. He describes the separation of cartways (that is, the streets) from raised sidewalks: a pattern that was as familiar in the stone thoroughfares of classical Pompeii as it is in the asphalt and concrete canyons of modern cities. Further to this point, he provides instructions about the selection and cobbling of paving stones to provide traction. Alberti also provides a fascinating description of one of history’s earliest divided highways, in his own time, linking central Rome to its ancient seaport at Ostia Antica:
As there is a great concourse of people and great quantities of merchandise brought thither from Egypt, Africa, Libya, Spain, Germany, and the [Mediterranean] islands, the road is made double, and in the middle of it is a row of stones standing up a foot high … to direct the passengers to go on one side and return on the other, so to avoid the inconvenience of meeting one another.
Elsewhere in the text, he addresses topics as varied as the construction methods for both covered and open sewers, and the benefits of each approach; the construction of aqueducts and smaller water mains; the provisions that should be included in the blocks near seaports; and the social importance of parks and squares. Recalling the Appian Way and its extended highway network, he relates:
[The ancient Romans] paved their highways for above a hundred miles round their capital with extreme hard stones, raising solid causeways under them with huge stones all the way. The Appian Way was paved from Rome quite to Brindisi. In many places along their highways we see rocks demolished, mountains levelled, valleys raised, hills cut through, with incredible expense and miraculous labor; works of great use and glory.
Like Vitruvius, Alberti asks the patient reader to suffer a generous serving of pseudoscience. When discussing a process for site selection, for example, he makes frequent detours into the effects of environmental factors on the physical and mental development of inhabitants – as if these purported correlations were as factual and self-evident as the laws of Euclidean geometry. Elsewhere, he discusses phenomena like vapors and spirits, and their effects on civilization, with a similar credulous factuality. To see such material in a more favorable light, we may concede that the lessons contained in these snippets of folk wisdom often display a sliver of truth, because a bright line between acknowledging the maxims of distilled experience and blindly adhering to baseless superstitions is not always easy discernible. And irrespective of their ultimate veracity, these examples illuminate some of the notions that in fact shaped the work of architects and builders in early Renaissance Europe.
Undoubtedly, De re aedificatoria is primarily a book on architecture. (And it is worth recalling that comprehensive urban planning, as a distinct pursuit, rather than a challenge at the intersection of the traditional social arts, is historically a late development.) But Alberti’s decision to build on the work of Vitruvius, combined with his context of architectural instruction in an overall framework of urban viability, mean that his text still speaks to several important aspects of urban planning. Today, as builders in the developing world face the greatest wave of urbanization in world history— and as cities in the developed world struggle to make space for continued growth—Alberti’s work remains a guidebook for those who value the traditions of both classical and post-Renaissance European architecture. It is worth remembering that such architecture was not usually built in a vacuum, but, instead, in communication with an urban environment. And although the importance of things like city walls and the bounty of a fertile, adjacent countryside have been diminished by changes in statecraft and advances in technology, the urban patterns that Alberti described continue to complement a tradition of building that we have inherited from the ancient past. To read Alberti today is to discover an essential link in that long and living tradition.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
(Author’s Note: The 1755 Leone Edition of De re aedificatoria, quoted in this essay, is itself a translation from the 1452 Latin into English. The 1755 text contains conventions of capitalization and punctuation that are not consistent with today’s standard American and/or Commonwealth English. In addition, the translation contains several idiosyncratic spellings of proper names that differ from today’s standard usage. Keeping in mind that the 1755 text is itself a translation, and therefore not the original language of Alberti, to the greatest extent possible, I have updated the language in these quotations to conform to the conventions of standard American English.)
Today’s home builders are “[r]eactionary, obstinate, restrictive, frightened of change, un-imaginative, profit-bent only…” and “the building industry is turning out thousands of cracker boxes…” for the masses in need of housing, who are “desperate and house-ignorant, clamoring solely for a roof over their heads, unmindful of their fearful destiny: the sickening realization a few years hence that they have mortgaged their incomes for houses which are ten to thirty years out of date—both in plan and materials.”
So observed the midcentury American journalist Elizabeth Gordon about the housing market in 1947. It’s hard to imagine such pointed and powerful prose would be published in a mainstream publication today, with what was once derided as middlebrow criticism—journalism for the aspirational if not elite classes—having largely given way to the pressures of clickbait and social media hits. What’s more astounding is that this was not published in the newspapers where Gordon started her career—the New York World, New York Journal, or even the onetime proud Times competitor, the New York Herald Tribune. In fact, she was railing against the architectural and homebuilding establishment from the editorial pages of House Beautiful.
A magazine founded to straddle the void between professional architectural periodicals and ladies’ journals, the original House Beautiful presented architecture and decor in serious but accessible fashion, and Gordon was an editor with unsparing and eloquent opinions about the inadequacy of both mainstream and elite notions of design. She unfortunately became best known for the International modernism she was inveterately against rather than the many broader varieties of innovation she was assiduously for.
This is the story told in Monica Penick’s invaluable new book, Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home.
“Tastemaker” is a term that a term that Penick borrows from a 1949 book by Russell Lyne, best known as the author of the Harper’s essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, and Middlebrow.” His attention was to the process by which “taste became everybody’s business and not just the business of a cultured few,” a quest that had been Gordon’s for several years by the point of that book’s publication, amidst her pivotal two-decade tenure as editor of House Beautiful.
Holding a seemingly middlebrow viewpoint at an avowedly middlebrow magazine in midcentury is not, I needn’t tell you, the best theoretical place for your historical reputation. Seemingly quaint middlebrow stances are constantly and rightly being revalued upwards, however, once until we’ve had time enough to see what the world looks like without their example. “Great Classics” collections seem fusty and narrow until they’re cleared off of shelves and replaced with DVD collections. A more mainstream modernism might have seemed temporarily unadventurous—but by the age of the McMansion seems far less so.
Penick shows that, despite her reactionary reputation, Gordon was an advocate for modern design. Indeed, the editor who abominated Corbusier and Mies also featured homes by Cliff May, Emil Schindlin, and Alfred Browning, and content by Quincy Jones, William Wurster, and numerous other exceptional architects and designers, including the grand old wizard himself, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Of course, magazines have always trafficked in things—from policy proposals to couture to homes—that the average reader will never directly influence nor possess. And yet this is no bar to their relative success. Consider the magazine of ideas that can demonstrate its stamp on a few laws, the fashion magazine that propels a designer into only a handful of closets, or the architecture magazine that might help find a new buyer for Jennifer Aniston’s villa—all are generally counted successes, although that impressionable proportion of their small readerships is generally so miniscule that this type of journalism was almost destined to be bespoke from the start.
The more penumbral realm of publishing influence, short of direct cash-on-the-barrelhead sales of some idea or thing, is harder to quantify and yet likely more interesting. It is this phenomenon, as exemplified by Gordon and House Beautiful, that Penick adeptly uncovers for us in Tastemaker.
Gordon ascended to the editorship of House Beautiful in 1941, so features on making the most of limited wartime resources naturally followed. But it was the anticipated postwar boom that animated much of her energies. Thus Gordon’s work at House Beautiful aimed to provide both aspirational and practical advice.
House Beautiful’s variant of the case-study house, from an age in which shelter magazines seemed to sponsor as many new designs as toy catalogs did, was the “Pace Setter,” of which several are masterpieces. The plans themselves were no more available to her average reader than home ideas in other architecture magazines—and yet Gordon was on an indefatigable quest to ensure that elements in their design or their principles and ideas might be. As Penick writes, “While architectural journals of the same period covered new construction methods and structural technologies, House Beautiful frequently focused on new systems or products that could easily be placed in existing homes.”
Cliff May’s “Ranch House Classic” was the first Pace Setter House published. It had been featured in other magazines but Gordon’s aim was not simply flattering photographs but a comprehensive examination, one designed obviously to inspire admiration but also to explain, with 15 articles, 55 photos, and six drawings.
The issue stressed the home’s “modesty” somewhat unconvincingly, a description more than mildly askew from a design far too impressive to be cheap. And yet the issue’s main aim is not veneration for an architect’s caprices but a practical explanation of the viability of things like its features in other homes, not merely in this one. It largely turned its back on the street but boasted a generally open plan otherwise, centered around a garden courtyard. It integrated plenty of climate control innovations, sky shades and wind shutters, encouraged as readily adaptable. The involvement of the House Beautiful staff with these home’s design was often considerable. Their color stylist William Manker devised a 64-color paint scheme and the staff selected a fabric design of 24 variations. These were presented as readily achievable, and the magazine encouraged a “color-coordinated group of home fabrics” sold by Celanese.
Homes you might not be able to live in whose features you could easily adopt in part became a mainstay of House Beautiful, particularly in its subsequent attention to the increasingly evident disregard of new suburban housing for its actual climatic situation. The Cape Cod was a northeastern vernacular home, the ranch home southwestern: they were not designed to be as casually strewn (as they increasingly were in the postwar era) without modifications for the country’s varied temperatures. In 1949 House Beautiful launched a “Climate Control Project,” with 15 home prototypes for different American climates, encouraging a range of solutions, trellises, canopies, trees, plantings, white roofs, “wet” walls, and more. Emil Schmidlin’s Oregon Pace Setter House, the magazine’s second, was designed to demonstrate climate adaptability, with “solar windows” glazing designed to capture winter heat and exclude summer sun, a roof overhang and a retractable canvas awning, schemes for cross-ventilation, and more. There were some journalistic deceits: felt stood in for snow in one photo, but the dedication to preparing for winter was genuine even if the season itself was not.
House Beautiful engaged in a forceful advocacy not merely of particular architects and designers but of other products, linking these propositions in ways uncommon in other publications. It ran literal seals of approval next to favored products, one a “Better Your Home, Better Your Living.” There are elements of vintage 1950s didacticism, with blurb endorsements from Arthur Schlesinger and Ralph Barton Perry.
Gordon cycled through a variety of labels for her preferred ethos, updated as any magazine’s wares must necessarily regularly be. She offered “A New Look”, “The American Style”, “The Next American House”, “Naturalism” and multiple other monikers for this corpus of advocacy. It’s difficult to simply encapsulate her preferred style, which argued for material honesty and the embrace of technological advances but wasn’t averse to ornament. It was against superfluity but also against abstraction, for reminiscence but against nostalgia. Approved chair styles ranged from Shaker to Dunbar Club. Its claims were occasionally national but never nativist, actively encouraging Scandinavian and Japanese elements. In short, like most styles, it’s difficult to describe but easy to understand when seen.
It is unfortunate and ironic that the one incident perhaps most clearly recalled from Gordon’s illustrious career of constant arguments for good design was a vitriolic argument against design she hated—namely the perceived excesses of the International Style. Her 1953 editorial, “The Threat to the Next America” (note it’s not merely the present one) was a jeremiad against the paladins of the International Style, directed against leading architects Corbusier, Mies, Gropius, and their peers. It was a fulmination in just about all possible senses, with portions bolded and those that were not frequently as scorching:
“They are all trying to sell the idea that ‘less is more,’ both as a criterion for design, and as a basis for judgment of the good life. They are promoting unlivability, stripped-down emptiness, lack of storage space, and therefore lack of possessions.” Gordon continued by charging that “These arbiters make such a consistent attack on comfort, convenience, and functional values that it becomes, in reality, an attack on reason itself.”
Gordon explicitly connected the Miesian apothegm with “a cultural dictatorship” and “A social threat of regulation and total control.” The road to serfdom was also seemingly the road to the Seagram building.
The editorial prompted a broad range of objections and resignations. Architectural Forum published a thinly-veiled rejoinder “Who can really declare his or her preferences represent ‘free taste’ but yours are part of a conspiracy to subvert the nation?” One mordant response: “Here Lies House Beautiful, scared to death by a chromium chair.” The magazine’s architecture critic resigned, and other contributors announced an end to their work for the magazine. Eighty-five percent of letters were approving, however, none speaking more loudly than one telegram.
Surprised and delighted. Did not know you had it in you. From now on at your service. Sending you the latest from my standpoint
The message was from none but the most prominent dissenter from the modern mainstream: If Gordon had alienated many elites, she had now won over Frank Lloyd Wright, whose association with the magazine was to continue closely until his death.
Wright, never a man to leave a good spat unused, or failing that to invent one, had taken umbrage over Gordon’s invocations of a theory of “Naturalism” without granting sufficient heed to his own conception of Organic architecture years earlier, but subsequent to 1953 became an enthusiastic contributor, with his work repeatedly featured in House Beautiful. Gordon drew an even closer link, hiring John DeKoeven Hill, a former Wright apprentice at Taliesin as her new architecture editor; Hill soon took on a strong role in an in-house design studio (and later designed a Pace Setter himself). This studio designed not merely sets for the magazine but exhibitions elsewhere, including Wright’s interiors for his 1953 Usonian House installation on the future site of the Guggenheim Museum.
The magazine unearths one of Wright’s more intriguing failed collaborations, a step towards populism beyond any Usonian dreams—a program, in Gordon’s words, “to have Frank Lloyd Wright design furnishings for the general homemaker, rather than for special clients.” Gordon arranged for manufacturers to produce Wright-designed fabrics, carpets, furniture, paints, and wallpapers. The line is fantastic, particularly its Heritage-Henredon furniture, yet suffered from calamitous problems of advertisement. Intended as a coherent ensemble, department stores generally broke up the components and displayed them on entirely different floors.
Gordon shared one great enthusiasm with Wright, for Japan, which she visited on numerous occasions and whose seeming harmony of design she continually sought to promote, including in two large issues. Dr. Soetsu Yanagi, head of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, provided Gordon with a sense of “shibui” that stuck:
In what must have been a semi-prepared lecture (he had “notes” for Gordon), he outlined six key points or “elements of beauty” central to shibusa (the noun form of the more commonplace adjective “shibui”): simplicity, or plainness; integral quality (“beauty of a thing—not on a thing”); modest or humility; tranquility; naturalness; and yugen, roughly translated as “the look of freedom… that comes when a craftsman has mastered his technique”
This concept captivated Gordon, who had long been searching for some ordering principle between American materialist clutter and Bauhaus austerity; she devoted an issue arguing for the concept, with a variety of Japanese contributors and Ezra Stoller photos of Japanese objects that Gordon had purchased. She subsequently produced a Shibui line of products, which, unlike the Wright line, proved a great success.
Penick’s Tastemaker is well-timed, amidst a wave of monographs looking at the forgotten middle of American midcentury design. A clear theme of these recent architectural histories has been ways in which many embraced some modern elements while rejecting modernism at large. Tastemaker is a great help in filling in some idea of just what ideas the consumer might have brought to home purchasing—and what they then might have bought from shops to fill these homes out. The concept of a few builders filling out suburbia in a uniform way is a myth. There were thousands of big developers, but a few tastemakers such as Gordon made an indelible mark on the postwar American home.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.
PHOENIX, Ariz.—For a building completed in 1929, the Arizona Biltmore resort hardly reads as “traditional architecture.” The prominent construction medium of gray sandstone blocks expresses a modern edginess. The front entrance is oddly asymmetric, with a geometric tower over the front door flanked on one side by a gable and on the other by an enclosed arcade. Traditional elements such as columns and vaults are certainly present but with unexpected configurations and details, and the silhouette is decidedly avant-garde.
But the more I explored the hotel, the more I became convinced that despite the aggressively stylized detailing, the Phoenix landmark is filled with traditional design elements—largely because of the use of human-scale doors and hallways and the entire layout’s dependence on terminating views. The Biltmore is an example of the vibrancy and potential within traditional design elements, demonstrating that the boundaries of traditional architecture are far broader than the Neoclassical, Federalist, or other “types” we often associate with the term.
Traditional architecture attempts to make sense of a space using shapes and materials that invoke symbols and forms that are already embedded with meaning for the people who will use the space. It differs from truly modern architecture in appealing to a shared sense of meaning—it believes in culture, in other words, and knows that limits in its ability to communicate are directly shaped by the limits of the culture’s collective imagination.
Modern architecture, on the other hand, tries for various reasons to break with symbols that already have cultural meaning. These reasons could include an overt rejection of tradition; a desire to express the architect’s personal philosophy in code; or an attempt to elicit a particular emotional response (usually an unpleasant one) disconnected from actual rational content. For example, modern architects may use oppressive spaces and shapes to communicate, without words, the philosophical view that every individual is completely cut off from every other, and that no experience can be truly shared. This is different from the emotional response one has in a cathedral; there, the architectural elements that lead to emotional responses are directly connected to the building’s purpose—glorifying God through a space—rather than existing solely to elicit a response.
Phoenix’s Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Resort was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his former student Albert Chase McArthur in 1928. McArthur served as primary architect, but the resort demonstrates Wright’s signature quirkiness in spades. Though Wright, used to having complete control over his architectural projects, ended up in conflict with McArthur over the design of the resort, it is not hard to see Wright’s influence on the final product. For example, the primary building medium is fabricated sandstone blocks made from sand found on the building site (a Wright standby), each bearing an imprint of an Art-Deco design based on the palm trees that fringe the Phoenix skyline.
The Biltmore, like Wright’s other buildings, does not bring “classical” architecture to mind. It consists almost entirely of elaborately etched concrete blocks, stacked in walls of unexpected angles that give the whole place a maze-like feeling. In keeping with Wright’s commitment to what he called “organic architecture,” the buildings incorporate colors, shapes, and designs from various Native American traditions. The ceilings are almost all lower than expected, with the exception of the main hotel, which has a high-ceilinged but pleasantly narrow lobby, creating a space that has more in common with a medieval nave than a shopping mall.
The hotel was built in 1928, long before air conditioning made it possible to live in Phoenix year-round with any degree of comfort. Like Wright did with his nearby Arizona winter residence at Taliesin West, the Biltmore closed up in April every year and did not reopen until October. Awareness of this geographic reality is evident throughout the design: The low ceilings and thick concrete brick walls make the interior spaces feel cave-like, cool and moist from the interior water features. A design that would feel absolutely stifling in Michigan or Wisconsin—gray walls, small interiors and windows—is a blessed relief in Arizona, no matter what time of year it is.
Where I found the design of the Biltmore to most strongly invoke traditional architecture is in its dynamic between mass and negative space. In the resort, there are many long, surprisingly narrow halls (both indoor and outdoor) with unexpected angles that give a sense of being in a much larger complex than the Biltmore actually is. As I walked around the resort, the patterns reminded me of places with a very different aesthetic, such as small towns in Northern France: the curved or angled streets, the endlessly terminating views, the difficulty of understanding just how big a place is—and eventually, not caring how big it is and simply enjoying it. Contrast this with the experience of looking down a 30-mile, six-lane artery that runs through the middle of town, or an unadorned hallway that runs directly down the middle of a office-park building and ends at right angles to a wall of the same color as itself; these views make the viewer feel lost or subsumed in a massive, impersonal project, rather than underscoring his role as an active, intelligent, and imaginative participant in the landscape.
The sense of space that results from the elements that make up terminating views—slightly narrow streets, doorways, and buildings built on slight angles or curves—is simultaneously cozy and full of possibilities. There is something inescapably traditional about a graciously terminating view—not, to clarify, the view terminating at some inexplicable angle in the slab wall of a Brutalist heap. When well designed, a line of sight is not snapped off at the end but eases its way to the termination along a curve in the street or a series of stacked obtuse angles.
Such a space acknowledges that our experience must be moderated by reasonable limitations (the termination of the view), but it leads up to those limits by way of curves or welcoming, open angles that cause us to want to peek our heads around the corner and explore in another direction, where ideally we’ll find another gracious terminating view. The limits imposed by these kinds of spaces are realistic—much more realistic than the endless corridors of modern office complexes—but charitable. They indicate that much more lies within our limits that we perhaps perceive right away, and invite us to explore within them.
I was surprised to find these traditional architectural elements at play within the Biltmore resort. The concrete-block walls ease visitors gently around curves to unveil an unexpected new vista—a hidden, classically geometric garden, a swimming pool, a café veiled by oleander.
The point made by the space is that tradition can exist side-by-side with innovation, using technologically advanced materials in unexpected geography like the Arizona desert. Creativity in architecture doesn’t have to mean abandoning traditional elements and proportions, or the traditional narrative about the human participant in the space. The presence of the Biltmore in the midst of a city like Phoenix should be a reminder that beautiful, well-designed places are not restricted to a certain time or place, and a challenge to architects to find fresh ways to incorporate traditional elements into their spaces.
Jane Scharl writes from Phoenix, Arizona.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Many Americans claim they want a strong local community, but few really want to work for it. Everyone at one point or another has a desire for human contact, friendship, sharing experiences, or just being in the thick of things. The realization that real community was largely lacking in the United States—and the revelation that bad urban design played a role in its decline—is one of the central starting points for the New Urbanism movement.
But it’s also worth looking at this issue as it manifests in the “back-to-the-city” movement, the recent demographic trend that has turned once declining urban places into hot real-estate markets. Is the phenomenon of city revitalization fulfilling its promise of better and stronger community ties, as people are lured to places like Brooklyn and Astoria (or Cambridge and Alameda)?
To older residents of these places, many of whom were “first-wave” gentrifiers back in the 1980s or earlier, newcomers to these neighborhoods are secretive, uncommunicative, and never shop at locally-owned stores. The apartment buildings of newer residents are just people warehouses whose occupants will be dispersed within a year or two.
There is some truth to this kind of criticism, even if it is not a new kind of argument. As far back as the 1960s, no less than Jane Jacobs expressed similar concerns about residents of new Greenwich Village apartment buildings in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—even though both she and her husband were newcomers there.
I have lived in my current apartment for three years and still barely know my neighbors. When I first moved to Boston in 2012, I moved six times in three years and some of my friends have experienced a similar lack of stability. While we do enjoy local restaurants when we can, it is true that my friends and I tend to shop at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or pharmacies and convenience stores like CVS—brands we recognize—rather than independent, local places. One of my current roommates even got his groceries through Amazon Fresh for a while.
One of the concepts from sociology that has come to influence how urbanists think about community is the “third place.” These are spaces and places that are neither homes nor workplaces, where people can gather: churches, libraries, bars, parks, cafes—even sidewalks and street corners. Knowing or at least recognizing people you see at the store or on the bus can build trust and social ties. Even such weak ties can be good for spreading important information or just doing simple favors like watching children, holding spare keys, and so on. A lot of young people aren’t making these ties and becoming an integral part of their communities and neighborhoods. Older residents assume this is because we’re internet-obsessed troglodytes who prefer using our dollars to further line Jeff Bezos’ pockets—and apparently we are just too lazy to show up to community meetings and shop at local stores.
This sort of argument, which I have heard from many quarters in six years of living in Boston, is just laughable. Many older people bought their houses at rock bottom prices in the 1970s and ‘80s, and reaped massive increases in equity—and their student loans were much smaller or nonexistent. They have the money and leisure time to shop at expensive local stores and go to community meetings. The problem is not young people who are supposedly disinterested in community, but our elders who are intent on keeping us out—and using their success and relative wealth to justify their stance.
Many neighborhood institutions simply don’t accommodate the needs of newcomers. Often, local stores offer a bewildering and changing array of hours, always arranging to be open when most people are at work or commuting to and from there. It’s not just local retailers, either. Branch libraries around here tend to be open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Unsurprisingly, librarians and small retailers are quick to complain about their lack of patronage. It’s perplexing that business owners in a place like Boston still think it’s the 1950s.
Longstanding neighborhood organizations don’t seem to recognize these issues. They are ostensibly supposed to represent local interests, especially ones that have an official or semi-official character within the city government, like making recommendations to municipal zoning and licensing boards.
In reality, neighborhood associations often seem devoted to sealing the area off from outside influence, especially new residents. There is an association in my Cambridge neighborhood. They have a website that has not been updated in over a year and similarly dormant social media accounts. Thus one cannot attend a meeting unless one already attends meetings. This is closer to the behavior of an unelected, unaccountable cabal rather than a group interested in being truly representative.
How can these associations claim to care about community when they refuse to allow all residents to participate in it?
Community requires social trust. People who refuse to see new neighbors as anything but a threat are preventing such trust from ever developing. Viewing all change as bad is also counterproductive, especially with how quickly yesterday’s disastrous project by a greedy developer from out-of-town can turn into a beloved town center. (In West Los Angeles, for example, a mall called the Westside Pavillion was fought for years and now people are worried about its closure changing the character of the neighborhood, according to the Los Angeles Times.)
Some people seem to want to preserve their neighborhoods in aspic, or maybe amber, given the property prices these days. But thy forget that not only are communities are constantly changing—they exist for far longer than a single human lifespan.
Communities require love and care and must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next. The attitude of hostility to newcomers, of excluding them from neighborhood life, will ensure that a sense of place dies with the current occupants. Young people will never develop an attachment to the place if they are not included in civic life or are driven out by rising rents; they will certainly never be able to raise families in places where housing is prohibitively expensive.
In the life of a community, even lifelong residents are ultimately temporary inhabitants. Their stories and traditions are more important than the buildings. If the sense of place they have created over the years is to survive and adapt to new realities, it must find a way to integrate and involve the next generation.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
SAVANNAH, Ga.—Unlike the 20th-century experiment that reinvented much of America’s built environment as suburban sprawl, colonial-era experiments in city design have proven to be both highly adaptable and enduringly beautiful.
Thus it is no accident that leading urbanists have flocked this week to Savannah, Georgia, for the annual Congress for the New Urbanism, to collaborate on how to recover a tradition of human-scale cities that may have once seemed a quaint province of historic preservationists.
Of course, Savannah is indeed quaint, and preservation efforts have made walking down its intact antebellum streets somewhat like going back in time. Shaded by live oaks and Spanish moss, the city’s famous series of public squares break up the street grid every few blocks and are perhaps its signature feature. Remarkably, these public spaces were there from the beginning, when the first sections of the city were laid out in the 1730s.
The Englishman James Oglethorpe, a leading innovator of his day who was in conversation with leading lights such as philosopher George Berkeley and American founder John Adams, is today celebrated for coming up with the unique grid-and-square system, which allowed the city to expand over subsequent decades—and in fact, centuries—while maintaining both a rational and beautiful urban-design framework.
It was a plan that drew on Enlightenment-era confidence in reason, though it was not an entirely secular one: The series of squares allowed for multiple church buildings, for example, to sit in prominent locations. (Catholics were initially excluded from the new colony, but one of America’s oldest Jewish congregations was formed in Savannah in 1735.) This pluralistic approach was in contrast to many of the settlements in New England, where there was little toleration of those outside the reigning Congregationalist regime.
The physical form of Oglethorpe’s plan was made up largely of 60-foot-wide lots, grouped into “tithings” of ten, and allowed for a wide variety of uses, from large single-family detached homes to sets of three slim rowhouses. All these residential rows were backed by “lanes,” the Savannah parlance for an alley, which Savannah College of Art and Design Professor Robin Williams explained have through centuries of technological change provided a utilitarian space for hiding infrastructure—stables, sewers, electric and telephone poles. (And against the original vision of founder Oglethorpe, they also were long a corridor where slaves were hidden from the front of the community.) Closer to the squares and in between residential sections are “trust” lots, or places dedicated to civic or public uses.
Notre Dame School of Architecture Professor Philip Bess argued at one Savannah CNU session that the city’s design has many virtues, but is not perfect. The wards, the groupings of small lots around squares that measure only 600 feet square and a bit over 10 acres, “are arguably too small,“ with the result that open space may actually appear too often as one moves through the urban fabric. Still, Bess laments that Savannah “never become a model” for American cities, “but it should have.” He pointed out that Chicago’s grid, for example, lacks any system of public neighborhood spaces, and suffers for it when it comes to the placement of prominent civic and religious buildings.
Bess’ Notre Dame graduate students have thus embarked on a project to design a new railroad suburb for Chicago inspired by Savannah. The new model takes the advantages of the Savannah approach—easily replicable mixed-use neighborhoods that plug in to the existing order, allowing for straightforward and incremental city expansion over time—while correcting for what Bess sees as the minor deficiencies of design monotony and somewhat of an imbalance between public and private realms.
An attempt to recreate all the charm and livability of a place like Savannah overnight would be futile, but many New Urbanists believe that the basic DNA created by Oglethorpe and others holds lessons for those who seek to create communities that are both sustainable and beautiful. The emphasis on high-quality public spaces that make moderate density livable, for example, is a lesson that can be applied to any number of new and existing neighborhoods.
There is increasing demand for the kind of traditional urbanism seen in Savannah in real estate markets—with the result that unless the market and regulatory authorities create more Savannahs, only the most wealthy among us will be able to live in such places.
This wasn’t always the case. Savannah’s economic success over the last few decades has led to a new problem of balancing increasing tourism with the needs of existing residents. To remind the Congress how much things have changed, local activist Vaughnette Goode Walker read a passage from the March 1990 issue of The Atlantic, in which a travel writer reported that “Savannah doesn’t know how good it is. That’s why it’s so fun to visit.”
Today Savannah knows how good it is. New Urbanists know, too. And increasing numbers of Americans want to live in a place inspired by its simple but captivating design.
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.