Attached housing, they say, is the wave of the future. This is fine
with me. The homes I grew up in sat separately in nice places, and
I remember their rooms and yards and the wonderful trees
with more than fondness. But when I look from the windows of my row house now, the trees I see, though publicly owned, are just as beautiful. One learns to adjust, especially when there are terrific benefits involved. My daughters are different from me in this respect: They are city kids, brighter and broader in outlook and faster on the uptake than I was at their age.
Learning to like density has been one of the themes of my life--though in truth my close-in city neighborhood is not as populous as it should be, all things considered. (And like everybody else, I wouldn't want to see it change much.) Statistically, my voyage through the American housing dream is not all that unusual, but it is not the mainstream. In the 27 Benjamin Forgey is The Post's architecture critic. years since I graduated to college dorms--my first prolonged, and not unmixed, experience with attached housing--more people have moved in the opposite direction. But the direction I took is becoming the mainstream, more or less. Besides, the choices I made have given a certain edge to my ideas.
The way I see it, attached housing has been the wave of the past, too. Attached housing can be, and has been, anything. It can be, and has been, big or little, miserable or munificent, fancy or plain, round or rectangular, stacked or spread out, good or bad. (The only thing it can- not be, in fact, is detached.) The most important thing about it is: Attached housing is urban. It is the way cities were built and may even be the reason cities were built: the efficiency, security, diversity and stimulation of close living. This obviously accounts for its general bad repute in America. The way we've talked and written about the subject, you would almost think we didn't have any cities to speak of in this country, or that we care to speak of them only in hyperbolic negatives. Cities: those crime-ridden, foul-smelling, rat- infested sink holes of civilization.
When James Fenimore Cooper wrote, "No American who is at all comfortable in life will share his dwelling with another," he may have been simply stating a fact about the snobbishness of the expanding, still-rural nation of his time. But he also was giving voice to our profound anti-urbanism, and he may as well have been making a prescient prediction. The long-term American love affair with the status, convenience and natural setting of the detached, single-family dwelling can hardly be exaggerated, and it did not reach its apotheosis until our own time, in the roomy suburbs of the '50s and '60s. But abundant evidence and common sense suggest that the American Dream, '50s suburban style, was in many ways a distortion of the time-honored values that produced it. With millions of people involved, the dream became more like a nagging headache.
Experts of all kinds-- economists, environmentalists, planners, builders, architects--give lots of sound reasons why the '50s cannot be replayed in the housing business. Mainly these reasons have to do with direct costs (land values, construction prices, infrastructure economics), indirect costs (pollution, energy waste, commuting times) and demographics (changing family structures). In the '50s, of course, common sense and the experts said another thing. Planners of the '50s learned their lessons from the planners of the '20s and '30s, whose main practical contributions to the American housing landscape were the New Deal greenbelt towns--government-sponsored prototype suburbs. Add the ubiquitous automobile and you have a powerful, indeed an irresistible, recipe.
Theodore Liebman, a New York architect with trenchant views and extensive experience in the housing field, believes that though the '50s bedroom suburbs worked-- "Mom at home, dad at work, two children in school, Little Leagues, Brownie troops, bridge clubs, the whole range of volunteer jobs (and of course cheap energy)"--they aged with a growing sense of unreality into "idealistic enclaves of lonely families." A key to this process, in addition to the obvious economic one, was the nationwide dispersal of extended families. These comprised, as Liebman says, "the aunts and grandmothers who were needed even when the mother was at home, and who are needed much more now, with the mothers at work." The changing status and needs of American women is the source of Liebman's refreshingly upbeat (if jargon- tinted) view of the housing future: "People dependency must take the place of the extended family . . . An urban density is required just to manage one's time and arrange the services necessary to keep the family running."
Liebman, like most experts influencing the common sense of today, probably underrates the resiliency of the suburban dream. Value systems die very hard. And one can always find an expert with a contrary view. Frank S. Kristof, a consultant to the U.N. Center for Human Settlements, cautions that, in the United States, "at the appearance of the slightest crack in interest rates or any easing of the availability of mortgage funds, single-family home construction leaps forward." Maybe. But steps are more likely than leaps. Liebman's view is more dynamic and, in the long run, more realistic.
Attached housing really should be treated more as an opportunity and a challenge than as a problem. Detached housing is the problem: if we build the way we used to, when the next boom comes there won't be enough good space even in America to house us all. Perhaps the best way of looking at detached housing is to think of it as unattached, not just physically, but in the basic sense of not being effectively linked to the communal enterprise.
The bigger issues are not how houses look, or how large they are or how their interior spaces are laid out, or how well they're built or even how they're grouped together-- though all of these things are extremely important. The larger issue is how people in houses relate to each other. When this is clearly understood we can focus more upon the main things, upon identity, security, diversity, mixed uses--mingled uses in the winning phrase of the great Jane Jacobs--upon community and commercial services, private places and public spaces. In suburb and city alike, this is the creative challenge.