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Whatever Happened to the American Suburb?


Urban problems come to suburban sprawl.

On a recent weekday afternoon, I found myself stuck in traffic on a stretch of Long Island's Hempstead Turnpike. Cars and trucks inched past half-deserted shopping centers and empty lots overgrown by weeds -- the familiar landscape of American car culture and its attendant low-density sprawl.

On the side streets, quiet reigned; kids played in front of pretty, cookie-cutter homes. It had the slightly shabby but tidy look of countless suburbs in Long Island, in New York State, or in America at large.

But if most suburbs look similar to this one, it's because this was the first. This is Levittown.

The town, built by William Levitt, his brother Alfred, and his father Abraham, is where the American dream was conceived: In rejecting the teeming urban tenements of Brooklyn and Queens, the Levitts can be said to have given birth to the modern suburb when they built Levittown on what had once been potato fields.

Now, Levittown's history is both a point of pride and a burden.

It's difficult to recognize the old Levittown today: The 17,447 single-story Cape Cod and ranch homes -- the 2 types built after World War II, from 1947 to 1951, for GIs and their families -- have been remodeled, expanded, and dormered beyond recognition. Still, several of the town's original features remain, including 7 village greens, 9 pools, a community center, 2 libraries, several schools, and a post office.

Like suburbs everywhere, Levittown now has much in common with the overcrowded, noisy, and blighted tenements it was meant to replace. Increases in foreclosures and unemployment brought about the recession are besieging the once-idyllic planned community.

Our postindustrial economy is glaringly ill-suited for suburbia's low-density sprawl and a workforce made essentially immobile by the scarcity of suburban public transit. Visiting such benighted communities, one is almost grateful that the 60 years of cheap credit, cheap gas, cheap land, and cheap goodsthat made the modern suburb possible are finally over.

"It's changed a lot here," Bill Mullan Jr., a local architect and builder, told me as we sat at a restaurant just off of Hempstead Turnpike. "There's a lot of concrete now. There used to be a lot of empty lots. The number of cars is out of control, and the roads are bigger."

Gone are the mom-and-pop businesses and department stores such as JC Penney (JCP), Sears (SHLD), and Woolworth's. They've been replaced by the ubiquitous Wal-Marts (WMT), Targets (TGT), and mini-malls.
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