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Today’s suburbs are more racially and economically diverse than many American cities, yet cliches of suburbia continue to abound in American culture. The suburbs are painted as homogenous, insular communities — “little boxes” with white picket fences.
In her new book, City Lab Senior Editor Amanda Kolson Hurley aims to eradicate those stereotypes as she explores the surprising histories of six suburban communities, among them: Greenbelt, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia.
So, what happens when we rethink who and what the suburbs are for? We’ll discuss with the author of “Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City.”
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Amanda Kolson Hurley Author, "Radical Suburbs" ; @amandakhurley
Excerpt from "Radical Suburbs"
“Boys on bikes whizz past a gleaming-white Modernist building. The path dips below a road and they emerge on the other side, into a park where tall trees shield rows of houses. Welcome to Greenbelt, Maryland, the most potent symbol of the path not taken in suburban development in the United States.
A first-time visitor today might describe Greenbelt as ‘cute’ or ‘sweet.’ In its small Art Deco downtown are whitewashed buildings with gracefully rounded corners, housing a movie theater, nail salon, grocery store, and restaurants. Time has whittled its ambitions down to a historical footnote. On a closer look, the place is a bit uncanny, a postcard from a future that failed to materialize.”
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Today's suburbs are more racially and economically diverse than many American cities, yet clichés of suburbia continue to abound in American culture. The suburbs are often painted as homogonous, insular communities, little box houses with white picket fences. Well, in her new book, CityLab Senior Editor Amanda Kolson Hurley aims to do away with those stereotypes as she explores the sometimes surprising and radical histories of six suburban communities. Among them, our own Greenbelt, Maryland and Reston, Virginia.
KOJO NNAMDISo, what happens when we rethink who and what the suburbs are for? Amanda Kolson Hurley joins us in studio. As I mentioned, she's a senior editor for CityLab and author of the new book, "Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City." Amanda, thank you so much for joining us.
AMANDA KOLSON HURLEYThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIFor listeners who are not familiar, can you briefly provide a summary of your new book, "Radical Suburbs"?
HURLEYSure. Well, I think you just recapitulated the kind of, you know, stereotypes of suburbia. And in my book, I dig into the history of American suburbs and find that there's actually a long tradition of people founding experimental communities outside of cities. You know, people who adhered to progressive values and wanted to kind of build experimental new types of communities. And this goes all the way back to the early 19th Century.
HURLEYAnd, really, the argument of my book is that we've sort of let our conception of the suburbs or of suburban ways of living -- and, you know, what suburbs have to look like -- we've let that become pretty narrow. And there's no reason it has to be narrow. And, historically, there were all sorts of ways to be a suburbanite, all sorts of ways that suburbs could look. And that in those histories, there are actually some really pretty good ideas for the suburbs of the future.
NNAMDIWere there specific suburban stereotypes that you were hoping to reexamine?
HURLEY(laugh) Well, yeah, I think some of the ones that you just mentioned, I mean, the homogeneity. I think sometimes people assume that, you know, the suburbs are really for a certain type of person, a person who is usually white and middle class, often married with children. And, you know, often a certain frame of mind is, I think, also assumed of maybe someone who just likes to kind of conform with, you know, conventional ideas, or someone who's really preoccupied with keeping up with the Joneses.
HURLEYAnd I certainly found examples where that is not the case (laugh) in these suburbs where, you know, people were committed to kind of, you know, very strikingly egalitarian ideals. Yeah. And...
NNAMDIYou talk about suburbs in a lot of places actually growing more diverse. What are the reasons behind that phenomenon?
HURLEYWell, I mean, I think there are a few reasons. America, overall, is becoming a more diverse country. We've see that immigrants to the United States, they used to often -- their first stop would be in a city, and then they might, after a while, move out to a suburban community. And, increasingly, I think immigrants often just go straight to a suburb of a city. And then I think, also, you know, the kind of gentrification phenomenon in cities like DC, you know, also means that urban real estate is quite expensive.
HURLEYAnd, you know, people are often moving out or, you know, choosing to leave, whether it's sort of, you know, a push or pull factor, you know. So, increasingly, we see cities like DC, maybe, in some cases, becoming less diverse or less, having a growing white community. And then suburbs, you know, maybe the share of white people in suburbs decreasing.
NNAMDIYour book focuses on six suburban communities, two of which are right here in this region, Greenbelt, Maryland and Reston, Virginia. Let's start with Greenbelt. Can you talk about the history of that community and why it was once considered so radical?
HURLEY(laugh) Yeah. So, Greenbelt, it's fascinating, because I think a lot of people, even in this region, might sort of have a little inkling that, oh, yeah, Greenbelt, that was sort of a planned community. But they don't really know the history, and it is pretty extraordinary. So, Greenbelt was this demonstration town built by the federal government in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. And the original idea of the government planners was to build, you know, dozens of these type of communities around American cities.
HURLEYThey really thought that this was sort of the answer to urban problems of that time, specifically kind of crowding and bad housing conditions in cities. They thought if we could build these very modern, rationally planned satellite cities around -- or satellite towns around big cities, that would solve our problem. And so they took some, you know, New Deal funding, and unfortunately (laugh) for them, the number of cities that they could build got whittled down from something like 25 originally in the plan, to four and then to three.
HURLEYBut one of them was Greenbelt, and, you know, it was this -- you know, if you go there today, you go to historic Greenbelt, you can see it has this quite striking, very modern architecture for the time, king of influenced by, you know, by European architecture of the early 20th Century. Instead of having single-family homes, it's rows of attached houses and apartments, midrise apartment buildings. And it's all kind of very artfully arranged in this half-moon shape with this downtown with shops and a community center that used to be an elementary school, you know, right at the heart of it.
HURLEYAnd it was all very, very carefully planned, with a lot of green space. And that was thought to be very healthful for children at the time. So, that all seems -- you know, maybe it seems, you know, charming now, but at the time, it was really very progressive.
NNAMDIWell, still, this cooperative community, radical in some ways, was decidedly not so radical in others. Greenbelt was not an integrated community. How did that play out, exactly?
HURLEYThat's right. I mean, so, on the one hand, it was very progressive and surprising by today's suburban standards, because it was essentially public housing, right. Because the federal government owned the site, and they decided who go to live there. And there was actually an income cap, so they really wanted that housing to be for people who did not have a lot of money. And if you made too much money, you were not allowed to live there. So, in that way, it seems quite progressive.
HURLEYBut, on the other hand, only white families were rented to. They just thought that integrating it was sort of a bridge too far, you know, for 1937 Prince George's County, Maryland. So, there was a plan to have a separate, I think, African American community on or near the site, and that got dropped. So, yeah, it sort of presents this kind of double face of, you know, New Deal progressivism, I guess.
NNAMDIWell, we got a Tweet from R.A. Scientist, who writes: I hope she discusses how suburbia excluded black and brown residents early on. And that's what we're talking about specifically now, in terms of Greenbelt. How would you describe Greenbelt today? Did those exclusionary practices have a lasting effect on the community?
HURLEYOh, that's a good question. Well, I mean, Greenbelt today is like a lot of DC area suburbs. It's very diverse. You know, there's a large African American population. There are communities of people with roots in Africa and Central America. And Greenbelt itself is much bigger than that historic Greenbelt area that the federal government initially founded. So, yeah, I mean, I think -- however, I mean, I think the historic part of Greenbelt does skew still a little bit -- at least a little bit wider than the other areas of the town. So, I suppose, you know, that might be a trace effect that lingers from that early segregationist pattern. Yeah.
NNAMDIHow would you describe Greenbelt today?
HURLEY(laugh) Greenbelt as a whole, or historic Greenbelt?
HURLEYHistoric Greenbelt, I find it a tantalizing vision of a suburban future that never happened. I guess I would put it like that.
NNAMDICould you read an excerpt about Greenbelt from the book?
HURLEYSure. I'd be happy to.
NNAMDIThe book is called "Radical Suburbs."
HURLEYBoys on bikes whizz past a gleaming-white, Modernist building. The path dips below a road and they emerge on the other side, into a park where tall trees shield rows of houses. Welcome to Greenbelt, Maryland, the most potent symbol of the path not taken in suburban development in the United States.
HURLEYA first-time visitor today might describe Greenbelt as 'cute' or 'sweet.' In its small Art Deco downtown are whitewashed buildings with gracefully rounded corners, housing a movie theater, nail salon, grocery store and restaurants. Time has whittled its ambitions down to a historical footnote. On a closer look, the place is a bit uncanny, a postcard from a future that failed to materialize.
NNAMDIAmanda Kolson Hurley, reading from her book. It's called "Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City." What do you mean by a future that failed to materialize? What happened to Greenbelt?
HURLEYWell, you know, I think the vision that the planners had was that this was going to be a model for a smarter, better, more egalitarian way to build suburbs, for cities to expand, right. It was, you know, going to be inclusive of people with low incomes. It was going to be very efficient, because people lived in kind of smaller houses and had a lot of shared space rather than everybody having their own house with their own kind of lot and yard. But, you know, that model just didn't take off.
HURLEYAnd I think, you know, there's a number of factors you can point to, but I think, you know, the big one is that after the Second World War, not long after Greenbelt was completed, you had homebuilders like the Levitts, say, who were famous for building the Levittowns, who were able to kind of use these mass production techniques and apply them to building very large suburbs of single-family homes very fast, you know. And then they were able to sell them at a pretty cheap price. And that was the model, as well, that the federal government really backed.
HURLEYAt that point, they really backed away from the government being involved in this kind of town-building and, you know, also in subsidizing housing like that. And they really wanted the private market to take over and to take the lead on that. And so that was the model that prevailed.
NNAMDIHere's Sara in Columbia, Maryland. Sara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAHi. (clears throat) Actually, I'm out in the northern suburbs -- mid Montgomery County suburbs. And I've lived in this area for a half a century or so, and I've seen quite a lot of changes. I mean, Georgia Avenue used to be one lane in each direction, and now it's four, at some point. And when I was helping with my children's international program about a decade ago at our local elementary school, you were talking about diversity. Well, at that time, we had 30 different countries represented by the families that lived in my neighborhood.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Was that neighborhood in Silver Spring, or in Columbia?
SARANeither. It's out in Brookville-Olney-Ashton area.
SARAAnd that's one of the reasons I moved back to the Washington area after college, is because there was so much diversity. When I was growing up in this area, I had friends from five different countries in my crowd of friends. And when I was out in Pennsylvania, it was all WASP and all white and no diversity. And I didn't like that, and I came back to this area because of the diversity here.
SARAI will tell you, though, that I have seen some major changes since I was a baby. And there was a country club neighborhood built that, in its covenants, said no Jews or blacks are allowed to live here. That's all changed in the last 50 years, and everyone and anyone is allowed to live in that community now. So, yeah, in the last 50 years, I've seen a lot of changes, but I definitely came back here because of the diversity. I wanted to raise my family where it was diverse.
NNAMDISara, thank you very much for your call. Sara's calling from Columbia, Maryland. And Columbia will come up after we take this short break, and we start talking about Reston, Virginia. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Amanda Kolson Hurley. She is a senior editor for CityLab. We're talking about her new book. It's called, "Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City." First, let's go out to Prince Georges County, where EW awaits us. EW, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EWThank you for taking my call, Kojo. (clears throat) I've seen a new trend, and I must say I've probably been a resident of the county all of my life, with one exception of moving away. When I was growing up, you had malls like Landover Mall, White Flint. And those malls have become antiquated. Then we went to the outdoor town center, where you can walk around. What I've seen lately is shopping centers being insulated, with housing built around it, like at Glen Arden Woodmore, The Wegmans. You got some maybe close to a couple thousand residents that live within walking distance. They've built townhouses around it. And I've seen that also off of South Dakota, over by that Costco you're probably familiar with, Kojo.
EWSo, I’m thinking, is that a new trend? That's more of a question. Is that something that's been done in the past, and they're just bringing it back? Or is that something that's new? I'd like for your author to be able to answer that.
HURLEYThat's a great question. I think that's definitely a trend that we're seeing now. Actually, Columbia came up earlier in the show, and Columbia is a place where they're adding a lot of apartments, you know, in and around the mall sites in downtown Columbia. You know, we also see that in places like White Flint, Brockville Pike. You know, they're adding apartments to, you know, what had been just kind of a strip mall, you know, and pretty tall apartment buildings. I mean, a pretty intensive development.
HURLEYSo, that's definitely a trend right now. Is it new? I mean, I think at that scale it's new, but, I mean, you can trace it back to places like Reston. That's actually a good segue to Reston.
NNAMDIWhat was the idea behind Reston?
HURLEYWell, the idea behind Reston, I think the quickest and easiest way to sum it up, is sort of that it would be an anti-suburb. (laugh) So, it was developed by Bob Simon, Robert E. Simon, who was a pretty interesting person. He was born into this real estate developer family in New York. And his formative experience was taking a bicycle trip around Europe as a young man. And biking around and seeing these plazas where people were sitting out and, you know, having their coffee and talking to their neighbors and seeing how people were so comfortable. They lived kind of right on top of each other.
HURLEYBut, you know, they were comfortable, and there was such a sense of community there. And he was really inspired by this, and so he -- actually, his family owned a share of Carnegie Hall in New York. And he sold that to raise the capital to build this new town, this kind of new type of suburb that wasn't really a suburb in Northern Virginia. And people thought he was nuts. (laugh) It was way out by Dulles Airport. There was really nothing out there but, you know, farmland, at the time. And people thought this was a huge gamble. And, you know, he kind of said, wait and see. This area's going to grow. And he was right. It was a good bet.
NNAMDIColumbia, Maryland follows a similar model. What's the connection between Reston and Columbia?
HURLEYWell, Reston and Columbia were built and imagined by different people, but they were a few years apart. Reston came a couple of years before Columbia. And I know that the men were kind of aware of the plans and the goings on, you know, of the other one in each place. But they were separate developments, but, you know, they definitely share a lot of commonalities. I think both Bob Simon and Reston and Jim Rouse and Columbia were really dissatisfied by the suburban development that they saw taking place around them. They thought it was soulless. They thought it was ugly. You know, it was not respectful of nature. And they really thought that they could do it better and create communities that really nurtured people and kind of nurtured people, you know, through every stage of their life.
NNAMDIBut unlike Greenbelt, Reston was integrated from the start.
HURLEYYes, as was Columbia. Yes.
NNAMDIWhat effect did integration have on that suburban Virginia community?
HURLEYWell, I mean, it was very interesting to read about as I did my research, in that Bob Simon was from New York. And he always claimed later that he didn't put a lot of thought (laugh) into Reston being integrated. He just said, well, you know, the idea that it wouldn't be. It just kind of never occurred to me, of course it would be open to whoever wanted to move there. But, you know, this was 1965. It was before, you know, the Loving case. I mean, so, it was definitely not typical for Virginia at the time.
HURLEYAnd so, you know, apparently, realtors in Northern Virginia and other parts of Northern Virginia would kind of sometimes tell homebuyers, well, you know, there's Reston, but, you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you don't want to live there. I mean, that's what they would tell white homebuyers, kind of. So, there was definitely -- you know, it was definitely not an automatic step to take, at that time.
NNAMDICould you read another excerpt from “Radical Suburbs” about Reston?
HURLEYSure. Carrying on the vision of Greenbelt, Reston anticipated the rediscovery of walkable urbanism and mixed-use development by decades. After an early and close brush with failure, it has grown and prospered. But now its residents are engaged in a bitter fight over its future. The question it faces, and that more and more suburbs will face in coming years, is one of identity. Should Reston remain a suburb, or become a city?
NNAMDISo glad you mentioned that, because that battle is reflected in the call we're getting from Julia in Reston, Virginia. Julia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JULIETTEThank you for taking my call. My name actually is Juliette, and my last name is Rossant. My father, James Rossant, of the firm Conklin Rossant was the master planner of Reston. And he also designed all the architecture of Lake Anne, which is the original Village Center. And so I did not grow up here. I grew up in New York City, where many of the ideas of what Reston was to become came from. The suburb where my father grew up right outside New York City was a walkable green suburb. And even though Reston's really forward-thinking, it also harkened to the past of -- there's a word my father used a lot, that I think is important to raise in this conversation, which is loitering.
JULIETTEIn fact, loitering was against the law, and he intentionally added: loitering is something you could do in Reston. And that was created by having pathways, these little village centers -- which Greenbelt had, as well -- where the people who lived here had to get out of their cars, had to walk around, bicycle and encounter each other. And...
NNAMDIThat seems to be changing. Julia, we don't have a great deal of time left, so I'd like to get your response to this, because at the time that Amanda was writing this book, some Reston residents had been fighting a proposal to raise the density cap from 13 to 15 people per acre. How do you feel about that?
JULIETTEI'm actually very against it. I live in Reston, right next to the golf course, another large green area. I don't want to see Reston become just another Arlington, really dense. It should be preserved, and why not? We need this kind of suburbs around. This actually physically and mentally makes you a happier, calmer person. When I moved with my five-year-old from DC here, he himself described how much happier he was in a place where...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Okay. So, you're against the increase of density. As I said, we don't have a great deal of time left, but there's one more passage from the book I'd like you to read.
HURLEYOh, sure. And that was great to hear from the original architect's daughter, by the way. I just love the architecture at Lake Anne. Okay. Today, segregation by race and class is turning the hinterlands of many cities into patchwork quilts of white and brown, have and have not. Affluent whites often sort themselves into the neighborhoods with the best public schools and the highest, most stable property values.
HURLEYSurrounding these neighborhoods is a force field that prevents change, exclusionary zoning. By banishing lower-cost housing from the area, incumbent homeowners push less advantaged people -- who are often not white -- to neighborhoods with worse schools, worse access to jobs, fewer parks and stores and services.
NNAMDISo, what would happen if exclusionary zoning laws were amended?
HURLEYWell, you know, I think a lot of benefits could be seen, you know, by a lot of people -- by all of us, really -- if that were to happen. I think that -- I live in Montgomery County, and, you know, there I see there's some momentum now to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units, which is sort of, you know, a basement or a garage apartment or a backyard cottage on your property. And I think that's a great idea.
HURLEYI think that that is sort of, you know, an organic and kind of small-scale source of more affordable housing that can let, you know, existing homeowners -- it can help them, you know, say, supplement their social security, if they're older. If they can take on a tenant that way, and then obviously provide more affordable housing to people who need it, because our urban areas are growing.
NNAMDIBut our last caller said she doesn't want Reston to be like Arlington. And Tom Sherwood, our resident analyst on the Politics hour, Tweets: both Tyson's Corner and Crystal City National Landing are trying to remake themselves into urban centers. When do we stop calling them suburban?
HURLEY(laugh) That's a great question, yeah, and it's one that's sort of bedeviled me as I worked on this project. And then people say, well, you know, how do you define suburban, or what is the line between suburban and urban? I mean, honestly, I think we're kind of moving toward what -- and it's a big mouthful of jargon, but academics call it polycentric urbanism, right.
HURLEYBut it's this idea that, you know, you don't really have, you know, this city like a bullseye, kind of ringed by low-density suburbs. But, you know, you really have -- it's more like a kind of constellation of different kind of urban centers or urban nodes around a region like the Washington region, you know, connected by roads and by houses and suburban communities. So, I think we're kind of heading toward that model, like it or not.
HURLEYBut, I mean, I can certainly sympathize with Juliette's concern about, you know, wanting to have that connection to nature. I think that's one reason that a lot of people are drawn to a suburban setting. And I think it's important to find a way to preserve that, you know, even amid further development. Yeah.
NNAMDIAmanda Kolson Hurley. She is a senior editor for CityLab and author of the new book, "Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City. Amanda Kolson Hurley, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIToday's show on suburbia was produced by Julie Depenbrock, and our conversation on DC's international film festival was produced by Mark Gunnery. Coming up tomorrow, we'll get a preview on this weekend's national antiracist book festival, the first event of its kind to feature writers focused on combating racism with policy. Plus, we'll look at local sports leagues' policies regarding gender and team sports, and we'll examine how transgender athletes are navigating them. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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