Your mom lives in a failed socialist experiment. At least she does if she’s out in the ’burbs, where covenants and zoning laws are mostly meant to stop low-class apartment dwellers or commercial businesses from tainting their residential idyll. But those homeowners’ associations are actually following the script of 19th-century socialist utopias.
The first half of D.C. transit activist Benjamin Ross’ new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford, 250 pages, $29.95), is a nuanced catalog of such unintended consequences: slums caused by “unslumming,” the dead zones surrounding those 1950s freeways that were meant to revitalize the city, and the numerous failures of the car-dependent suburbs.
Ross incisively describes the matrix of retail politics, in which big developers or rich NIMBYs court politicians to clear out bureaucratic debris. He compares the city’s role in such planning—which rewards large builders over small ones—to a nightclub bouncer weighing deep pockets against social cachet. “The balding hedge-fund manager with a taste for Champagne gets seated in the VIP section,” Ross writes, “for the same reason the office building is allowed to go up along the interstate.”
Ross isn’t talking to righties and suburbanites with this book. Jane Jacobs trumps Robert Moses, dense cities are better than sprawl, and trains and bikes are better ways to move people than cars. The mixed-use, walking neighborhood is the soul of a city. Portland, then, is the main success story of his new-urbanist model, starting with an ode to former mayor/child molester Neil Goldschmidt, still an undimmed star in city-planning circles. Our myriad tax and zoning revolts are also Ross’ test case for the conservative backlash against city planning. It’s a breezy, dewy history, with clear friends and foes.
while he’s a terrific diagnostician, Ross’ proposed solutions to issues
such as communities broken up by gentrification are a bit diffuse. His
most substantive ideas involve allowing apartment tenants to have a
voice in city-planning issues, and getting rid of anti-residential
zoning restrictions that drive up rents. In the end, Ross is most
compelling as a psychologist of a growing city’s many neuroses. He
raises a lot of interesting issues, but we’re still going to need to
talk about them all next week.
GO: Benjamin Ross speaks at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651, on Monday, May 5. 7:30 pm. Free.