There are some terrific books on the subject of suburban sprawl, including Christopher Leinberger’s “The Option of Urbanism,” and Leslie Gallagher’s “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.”
We can now add “Dead End, Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” by Benjamin Ross. A transit advocate and environmental activists, Ross headed up Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit for 15 years.
Ross covers early ground other authors have not, at least from what I have seen. I’m enjoying his first chapter on the “Strange Birth of Suburbia.”
In the 1830s and 1840s, residents of cities became fed up with living and working in filthy places. Some fled the slums for a better way. Influenced by Charles Fourier, the French idea maker, reformists built what they thought were ideal and progressive communities beyond the choking cities.
Practicality never reached high enough, leading to compromises. In 1852, Marcus Spring, a businessman, refigured the paradigm and established Raritan Bay Union. The author notes, “From Raritan Bay Union sprang a settlement that laid down a pattern for the suburbs to come.”
A year later, Alexander Jackson Davis helped design Llewlyn Park, a new community in South Orange, New Jersey and one of the first planned subdivisions. Land was cheap, the landscape lush, and the views remarkable. Homes were set back from the road, and the lots subdivided. Neighborhood associations required conformity and prevented commercial development.
Amelia Peck, Davis’s biographer, called him the “most influential and innovative figure in nineteenth-century American architecture.” Influenced by Gothic Revival and Italianate styles, many know him for Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York. The son of a bookseller, he grew up in New Jersey and New York.
An interesting side story is the source of his creative inspiration. Peck writes that Davis was sent from New York to Alexandria in 1818 to learn the printing trade at the Alexandria Gazette. His half-brother Samuel was the newspaper’s editor. Davis learned typesetting, a skill that taught him precision.
Of the influences on his development, Peck continues:
… the experiences offered by the sophisticated southern city, the sights of nearby Washington (which was being rebuilt after the destruction caused by the War of 1812), his exploration of literature, his sketching, and his fascination with acting in amateur dramatic performances. Drama became a longtime interest and a future asset to his work..”
She also notes the Davis recalled his “mind was formed for Architecture at Utica and Auburn, while at school; and at Alexandria, and Washington, D.C.”
Davis returned to New York in 1823 where he began his prolific career.
Note: Photo is the St Paul’s Episcopal Church on S. Pitt Street. It was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1818.