It's A Wonderful Life, the modest 1946 film which
has become an American icon, offers rival images of the mid-20th
Century American suburb. In one scene,
George and Mary Bailey drive the immigrant Martini family from its miserable
shack in Potter's Field to a new ranch-style house in the Bailey Park
development. "I own my own
home!" shouts Mr. Martini, as Mary Bailey presents the family with
welcoming gifts of salt, wine, and bread.
In the next scene, the meanspirited monopoly capitalist, Mr. Potter,
hears one of his aides describe Bailey Park as a collection of "the
prettiest little houses you ever saw."
Later in the film, of course, the angel Clarence places George Bailey in a world in which he had
never been born. Bedford Falls has now become Pottersville, a community of
vice, alcoholism, hypocrisy, mental disorder, and dysfunctional families:
portent of a suburban nightmare.
Ever since, it seems, these rival images of the
American suburb have clashed in our popular culture. The positive view of suburban life took firmest root in the new
medium of television. During the late
1950's, this genre found a kind of pop perfection with the Anderson family in
Knows Best (1954-60), the Stone family in The Donna Reed Show
(1958-66), and the indomitable Cleavers in Leave It To Beaver (1957-63). In all of these TV families, we saw
professional fathers married to homemaking mothers raising their children to
moral maturity in safe, modern suburban communities. Behind the canned laughs, a warm domesticity permeated these
fictional homes; the minor crises of the children's lives were invariably
resolved in family-strengthening ways.
The dark vision of suburbia came to television
somewhat later, first appearing as science fiction. The common theme was the supposed suburban fear of
difference. One episode of The
Twilight Zone, for example, showed paranoid suburbanites tracking down
a presumed space alien in their midst.
The first true "reality show" on television, the 1973 PBS
documentary An American Family, placed cameras in and about the Loud family
suburban home, expecting to record scenes of familial growth and
solidarity. Instead, as the nation
watched, the family fell apart, with the son "coming out" as a
homosexual and the parents turning to divorce.
Hollywood films cast the suburbs in still darker
shades. Stifling suburban conformity
and the terror lurking underneath have been common themes. An example is Poltergeist
where the domestic calm of the Freeling family is torn apart by ferocious
demons, the denizens of an old Indian burial ground under the family's suburban
The real fate of the Loud
family on television would be replicated in a series of films. Most recently,
(1999)--in one critic's words--"savagely deconstructs the notion of
wholesome family values in the heartland of American suburbia."
"Suburbia as Fascism" is another recurrent
Hollywood theme. In The
Stepford Wives (from 1975), a malevolent husband moves his family from
the normalcy of the city out to a suburb where unhappy housewives are
transformed into "domesticated and subservient robot replicants." Gary Ross's
this theme to perfection. He shows two
contemporary teenagers from a broken home who are magically transported into a
1950's black-and-white television sit-com.
As these newcomers expose the TV town to modern art, dirty books, and
pre-marital sex, color appears. As one
critic puts it, "Pleasantville cleverly satirizes
those who preach the virtues of…family values."
The same battle over the meaning of suburbia has
taken place in words. Early promoters
showed a populist exuberance. Declaring
in 1948 that "children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of this
country as is Wall Street and the railroads," President Harry Truman urged
passage of a bill to provide "a decent home and suitable living
environment for every American family." Bill Levitt, the architect of the famed
Levittown developments who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1950,
declared: "For Sale: A New Way of Life." The Saturday Evening Post of that era saw the suburban surge
"motivated by emotions as strong and deep as those which sent the pioneer
wagons rolling westward a century ago." Contemporary historian Michael Johns sees
the suburbs of the 1950's as joining together "the classic American forces
of cultural assimilation, economic mobility, and ownership of property."
Suburbia's critics were again legion. Lewis Mumford castigated suburban life as
"a multitude of uniform houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances,
on uniform roads…inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the
same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same
tasteless pre-fabricated foods." William Whyte, author of
Organization Man, stressed how "people's friendships, even their
most intimate ones," were predetermined by suburbia's physical layout,
denying authentic human bonds. Another critic described the new suburbs as
hyper-superficial, "a sorority house with kids." Feminists would condemn this era as "a foul
time for women and girls." Later critics such as James Howard Kunstler
would label "the American automobile utopia known as the suburbs" as
"the favorite place of
conservative Republicans,…their natural habitat…where they spawn and
replicate… It is inherently unsuited to be the dwelling place of civilization
(or of a restored civic virtue)."
Few suburban critics, though, have surpassed the
vitriol of John Keats, author of The Crack in the Picture Window:
Apple Drive, like most developments, is a jail
of the soul, a wasteland of look-alike boxes stuffed with look-alike
neighbors. Here there are no facilities
for human life, other than bedrooms and bathrooms. Here is a place that lacks the advantages of
both city and country but retains the disadvantages of each. Each suburban family is somehow a broken
home, consisting of a father who appears as an overnight guest, a put-upon
housewife with too much to do, and children necessarily brought up in a kind of
My Goodness! Such a nightmare! And yet, positive images of 1950's suburbia haunt our society, to
this day. Leave It To Beaver, as
example, was not a very successful show when it originally aired from 1957 to
1963; it never climbed higher than 18th in the Nielsen ratings. Since 1968, though, the show has enjoyed a
boisterous syndication; never more so than now. Dozens of LITB websites--yes, they have their
own moniker--compete today to sell memorabilia. Beaver conventions are held.
Whole books, written by frenzied academics, have sought to destroy
"the Beaver myth": books such
as Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were and Joanne
Meyerwitz's Not June Cleaver, which blasts "the mythic images of
cultural icons--June Cleaver, Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson." Stephen Talbot, who as a child-actor played
the part of "Gilbert" on Leave It To Beaver (his signature
line was "Gee, Beav, I don't know") reported in 1997 that he had
spent his entire adult life "trying to conceal my 'Leave It To Beaver'
past….[T]he series has become inescapable."
Beyond the sad humor, such
powerful passions and sharp ideological conflict do suggest that the
controversy over images of suburbia may be more important than we usually
think. Perhaps it is no coincidence
that the most pointed debate between "capitalist" and
"communist" during the Cold War was in fact over the meaning of
suburban life. The famed "Kitchen
Debate," held July 24, 1959, between then U.S. Vice President Richard
Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev started in a model American suburban
home on exhibit in Communist Moscow.
Nixon pointed to a built-in control panel for a washing machine, and labeled
it "the newest model,…the kind which is built in thousands of units for
direct installation in [American] houses," to support our homemakers. Khruschev sneered that the Soviets did not
have "this capitalist attitude toward women." Nixon retorted: "I think that this
attitude toward women is universal.
What we want to do is make easier the life of our housewives."
Census 2000 reports that the
majority of Americans--over 150 million-- now live in suburbs or suburb-like
environments. Even in cities, the rise
of "urban malls," casual dress, minimarts, and McDonald's restaurants
testifies to the suburbanization of all American life. We are now a suburban people; or, in the
title of one recent book, Suburban Nation.
On a more immediate note,
contemporary scholarly accounts of the suburbs usually point to three nations
as classic examples of modern suburban cultures: The United States; Great
Britain; and Australia. Is it just a coincidence, again, that these
are also the three--indeed, the only three--nations with combat
forces now fighting in Iraq? Might
"suburbia" actually be a concept that embodies not only geography and
housing design, but coherent and potent shared values as well? The United Nations failed to
act in Iraq. Might future historians
characterize the Iraq War as The Suburban Nations on the
march? On a more speculative note,
might these future historians also see this event--in some unexpected way--as a
stark manifestation of what Newsweek magazine recently called
"the globalization of American family values"?
THE SUBURB AS MYTH
How then do we sort out the
truth about the suburbs, in the 1950's and also today? Let us examine more closely some of the
prevailing myths about suburbia:
Myth #1: The suburbs of the 1950's were patriarchal,
resting on exaggerated gender differences.
This is surely false, the result of looking backward from today's narrow
feminist worldview. Indeed, observers
at the time were struck instead by the growing "domestication of the
American Male." In 1954, Life
magazine concluded that "not since pioneer days, when men built their own
log cabins, have they been so personally involved in their homes." In contrast to their fathers, these
"new suburban men" constructed backyard patios, entertained business
associates in their homes as hosts and bartenders, bought modern time-saving
gadgets for the kitchen, tended babies so their wives might go shopping or to
club meetings, helped with the marketing, cared for the lawn, and often
outnumbered the mothers at school on Parents Day. Even those fathers grilling hamburgers on the backyard barbeque
represented a new turn by men to domestic tasks. Suburban man, one study concluded, "can afford to orient himself more toward the enjoyment of life in family
activities." McCalls magazine offered its own
explanation, also in 1954:
Had Ed been a father twenty
five years ago, he would have had little time to play and work along with his
children. Husbands and fathers were
respected then, but they weren't friends and companions to their families. Today, the chores as well as the
companionship make Ed part of his family.
He and Carol have centered their lives almost completely around their
children and their home.
Women, too, were taking on
new roles during the supposedly rigid 1950's.
A comparison of language in The Ladies Home Journal of that
decade with language from the 1890-1920 period showed the disappearance of
references to femininity and delicacy, replaced in the '50's by a stress on
male-female companionship. Similarly,
the view of women as subordinate to men completely vanished. (On the other hand, and importantly, there
was no shift by the 1950's towards more acceptance of working mothers.). A recent scholarly analysis of the
ubiquitous Tupperware Party system of the 1950's sees it as a form of
"non-radical feminism": "Undermining the postwar image of the
housebound, passive, and privatized suburban consumer, Tupperware embodied
consumption as a liberating and celebratory form." Indeed, the main worry of psychiatrists in
the 1950's was that "the sexes in this country are losing their
identity." Patriarchy had
vanished; so-called "sexual ambiguity" was the problem.
Myth #2: Suburbia in the
1950's contained a homogeneous population. It
is true that the practice of "red-lining" kept African-Americans out
of most of the postwar suburbs. And it
is also true that the suburbs tended to segregate persons by income, age, and
social class: these were middle-class creations by new, young
families. Yet, in another sense, the
postwar suburbs were a great experiment in pulling diverse people
together. This new generation of white
ethnics had left their segregated urban ghettoes--Polish, Italian, Jewish,
Swedish, Greek--to coalesce into Americans.
This suburbia represented the greatest mixing of Protestants,
Catholics, and Jews ever recorded in our history. Coming after the challenges of The Great Depression and World War
II, this was a period--in Philip Roth's words--of "fierce
Americanization," a time of nation-building resting on a common devotion
to family creation and "an overall cultural coherence."
Myth #3: The suburbs
generated a new wave of mental illness. Again, not
true. In his careful study of one
locale, Herbert Gans found "no more mental illness, at least of the kind
that surfaces into statistics, in Levittown than in other [suburban]
communities, and certainly less than in the cities." Indeed, surveys showed suburbanites to be
happy people. Over 80 percent rated
their marriages as "above average."
Another survey found two out of three labelling their marriage as
"extraordinarily happy" or "decidedly happier than
average." It's like the so-called Lake Wobegon effect
in school testing: all suburban
marriages were above average.
Myth #4: The suburbs of the 1950's were highly conformist. This is probably true.
But as Michael Johns correctly asks:
"[w]hy would anyone not follow the rules, accept the
codes, and buy the entire package of suburban life?" Unlike their parents, the typical suburban
couple owned a house in a neighborhood that guarded property values. They enjoyed a rising income and a summer
vacation. Their children were healthy;
the schools safe. They had confidence
in a government that guaranteed mortgages, put veterans through college, built
schools and sewer systems, and vaccinated the kids. Moreover, "everyone understood that a cold war was being
fought against an enemy whose way of life…was a threat to their
own." Looking from a different angle, Herbert Gans
found so-called suburban "conformity" to represent an
"accelerated social life" resting on more neighboring, greater
friendliness, and enhanced readiness to provide mutual aid: hardly
bad things. The Levittowners made
little use of their backyards, focusing instead on the social life of the
sidewalks and streets. Rejecting
Whyte's claim about the dominant role of propinquity in shaping friendships,
Gans found Levittowners choosing instead personally "compatible"--not
adjacent--neighbors with whom to socialize.
Myth #5: The suburbs represented the last stand of
the traditional family. This new suburbia was indeed
intensely familistic and child-centered.
The 1950's embodied a true culture of marriage, where all the signals
pointed toward family-building. As one
woman put it, the "current of the mainstream was so strong that you only
had to step off the bank and float downsteam into marriage and
motherhood." The proportion of American adults who were
married rose to near an historic high; the average age for first marriage fell
to 22 for men; 20 for women.
David Riesman found that young adults "moved to the suburbs for the
benefit of the children,…for the sake of a better family life." Children were, indeed, everywhere: products
of the famous Baby Boom. Female college
graduates defied the laws of sociology: their fertility more than doubled. Dennis Brogan reported that "[y]ou can
find in people of my [older] generation either wonder and pleasure at the
acceptance of the four-child family by their only child, or an irritated
bewilderment at such indecently large families."
Yet it is also true that the
suburban family was, in a sense, as new as it was traditional. Compared to families in the old ethnic
neighborhoods, these homes rested on greater intimacy, companionship, and
inward focus. Compared to farm
families, the suburban family was a far less functional and a more
emotion-driven, child-centered entity.
A mere ten percent of suburban mothers with preschool children worked,
even part time: well below the figures for city and farm. Compared to both urban and rural family
structures, the suburban family was also more connected to voluntary
social, civic and religious groups: Tocquevillians all.
Myth #6: The suburbs created a spiritual vacuum. In truth, the 1950's witnessed the greatest surge in church
membership and church building in American history. Compared to the 1930's, the proportion of the population
attending church or synagogue weekly nearly doubled. It is true that many questioned the significance of this. "There has been a revival of
religion," Brogan noted, "but that ambiguous term does not imply a
revival of the sense of sin."
Elting Morison doubted that higher church attendance meant a "daily
search for divine guidance" in one's life or building a true personal
relationship with God; more likely, he thought, it exhibited growing
recognition "of the need for explicit and shared values." Gans said that the Levittowners believed in
the value of church and school, not as transforming institutions,
but as places "to support the home and its values." All the same, the new Revised Standard
Version of the Bible topped the bestseller list in 1952; indeed, it was the top
selling book for the whole decade of the 1950's. A new sense of religiosity spread through American society:
"In God We Trust" went on the currency; "under God" into
the Pledge of Allegiance.
In short, the suburbs of the
1950's were more complex and more interesting places than the myths
would have them be. Herbert Gans is
right in chiding most of suburbia's critics as cosmopolitans projecting
"the alienation they experience in American society onto
suburbanites." In attacking the
suburbs, they were--in truth--attacking the middle-class, American
virtues of family, faith, and responsibility. Michael Johns actually sees America reaching
its peak--its Moment of Grace--as an urban society in this oft-derided
decade. It was
…the moment when the
American city of factories, downtown shopping, and well defined neighborhoods,
vitalized by a culture of urbane song, dress, and manners, achieved its
consummate expression; when new suburbs relied on cities for jobs and
manufactured goods; and when the residents of those suburbs epitomized the
nearly dogmatic optimism of the time and belonged to a dense network of groups
It is important to note, as
well, that the suburban boom was also a product of public policy. During the 1930's, the Federal government
had favored the subsistence homestead of house, garden, and chicken coop on three
to five acres. After World War II,
suburban developments gained preference and it was federally guaranteed FHA and
VA loans that fueled suburbia's spread.
Meanwhile, Federal funds also built the freeways that bound these new
communities to central cities.
And yet, this
achievement--this "moment of Grace"--did not last: shortly after
1960, central city and suburb both went into a period of crisis. For suburbia, the cause--at least in
part--was the internal weakness of the new suburban family model.
To begin with, this family
system rested on the concept of marriage as "companionship in leisure time
activities, not on merging every aspect of married life." The new home would be devoted to
psychological intimacy, love, and democracy, with the family resting on
"the mutual affection, the sympathetic understanding, and the comradeship
of its members."
This also meant accepting
the home-without-material-function as a positive good. For the prior hundred years, the family had
been shedding its historic functions: the making of clothes, the processing of
food, and the crafting of soap, candles, and other commodities went to the
factories; education and child protection went to governments. The suburban home would complete this
abdication of useful tasks. Architects
concluded that housing "inherited from the family farm" should be
replaced by modern, flexible designs.
"The goal of home construction" would be "a frictionless
family life." Sheds, storage
cellars, attics, work rooms, loom and sewing rooms, parlors, and large kitchens
must all go. The "companionship
family," the Federal Housing Administration concluded, needed "space
and facilities for nurturing," not for work: it wanted ambiguous spaces
such as "the family room."
The great divorce of home and workplace must be made final, and
complete. Accordingly, government backed mortgages
would be denied to any residence that contained space for an office, productive
shop, separate apartment, or small business.
Lawns would be allowed, and encouraged.
But large vegetable gardens were questionable. Modest animal husbandry, such as a rabbit hutch or chicken coop,
There were other fragile
aspects to the suburban family. Herbert
Gans shows that suburbs like Levittown were built with small children in mind,
and that most children were satisfied there.
But he also acknowledges that adolescents had no respectable and nearby
place to go, "nothing to do."
The bedrooms were too small for adolescent use; the shopping malls too
far away; there were few low-rent shopping areas that could survive on the
marginal purchases of adolescents. Moreover, although women were generally
happy in suburbia, there was a minority who reported "boredom" and
"loneliness," the result of the husband's absence during the day and
separation from extended kin.
Indeed, the suburbs were
also too modern, too bound up with a complete break from the past. Fashion dictated that the modern living room
not be cluttered up by old furniture and other family heirlooms. Meanwhile, the faith in progress and
boundless optimism of the suburbanites also led to a curious disrespect for
nature and the broader environment.
And then, the suburbs began
to change. Some of these alterations
were benign, or even positive, relative to the family. The age segregation found in the post war
era inevitably gave way to a greater mixing of the generations. Fair housing laws opened the suburbs to
minorities, as well. Offices,
distribution centers, and even factories left the downtowns, settling in the
suburban "edge cities." The
classic commute from suburb to downtown was frequently replaced by the
Other changes, however,
reflected a diminished commitment to family life. Between 1960 and 1977, marital fertility in America fell 40
percent, a change concentrated in the suburbs.
And while divorce remained less common there than in the cities, it
nonetheless climbed. Federally guaranteed mortgages, once
funneled by law and custom overwhelmingly toward young, newly married couples,
were partially redirected, to the benefit of divorced and never-married
Home architecture changed,
as well. Suburbs of the 1950's were
front yard and sidewalk oriented; by the 1980's, sidewalks had disappeared,
huge three-car garages dominated the front yards, and household life reoriented
toward the back. In new suburbs such as
Naperville, Illinois, one analyst noted, "it seems much more possible
[now] not to know your neighbors."
Inside homes, the living and dining rooms were shrinking, becoming
"vestigial spaces" alongside the front hall and reflecting a retreat
from home entertainment. Meanwhile, master
bedrooms swelled in size while bathrooms increased in number and
luxury: by the 1990's, one bath per bedroom was the construction norm. John
Keats's snobbish sneer in 1960 toward
the suburb--"Here there are no facilities for human life other than
bedrooms and bathrooms"--actually seemed to be coming true.
The largest change--indeed
the one driving most of the others--was the rapid emergence of the suburban
working mother. Where only 10 percent
of suburban mothers of preschoolers worked in 1960, about 75 percent did by
1990, part- and full-time. Changes in
policy (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), in ideology (the new feminism),
in culture (the diminished status of homemaking), and in economics (market
adjustments to a two income norm) lay behind this development. For suburban neighborhoods, this meant a
great emptying during the daylight hours: fathers to their workplace, just as
before; mothers now to their workplaces as well; and the children to the
daycare center, the all-day kindergarten, or the school and after-school
program. The suburban home and
way-of-life had been designed around the full-time mother and homemaker: she
was the linchpin of the system, the nucleus of the suburban
nuclear family. With her gone, an eery
silence ensued over the expensive daylight ghost towns of late 20th
century suburbia. The nights, in
Nicholas Lemann's words, meant being "stressed out in suburbia."
Working mothers, of course,
had less time and inclination toward children: one perhaps; sometimes two. As the number of bedrooms rose in the
average suburban home, the number of children shrank, and even those left
reported a new sense of disorder. In
his comprehensive study of American youth, Francis Ianni found many suburban
adolescents confused by their "early emancipation" from family life,
due to mother's employment and--sometimes--divorce. These youth complained that "there was nothing to do and
frequently expressed resentment at being abandoned by parents." The researcher voiced concern about these
"sullen and often disruptive bands of youngsters involuntarily liberated
from parental guidance and supervision….To some extent, these peer groups are
the suburban equivalents of the urban street gangs."
Curiously, the diminished
nature of suburban family life even accounts for the newest charge leveled
against the suburbs: "suburban sprawl." Anti-sprawl activists denounce the over-zealous development of
new subdivisions and malls, and blame it on over population, the dreaded result
of suburban fertility. In fact, the
real problem is almost the reverse. It
is true that the overall American population grew from 179 million in 1960 to
281 million in 2000, an increase of 57 percent. Yet the number of households, requiring separate shelter,
grew by 100 percent, from 52.8 million in 1960 to 105 million in
2000. Why the discrepancy? Simply put: the retreat from family
living. In 1960, 75 percent of all
American households were "married couple households" and average
household size was 3.4 persons. By
2000, though, married couples comprised only about 50 percent of households and
average household size had fallen to 2.5.
All the growth was in the never-married, divorced, and "childless
cohabitating" categories. Indeed,
if the suburban family model of 1960 could be magically imposed on the American
populace of 2003, the U.S.A. would actually need 28 million fewer
dwelling units than it now has. Put
another way, marriage and larger families actually prove to be more
environment-friendly than singles and childless couples. Why?
Larger families--on a per capita basis--use less land,
building materials, fuel, food, and supplies; they are more efficient. This January, the leading environmental
journal Nature calculated that if the projected average household size
of developed nations for 2015 was the same as it had been in 1985, 415
million fewer housing units would be needed worldwide. Again, family breakdown, not too many
people, seems to be the primary cause of modern suburban sprawl.
The key question follows:
Can the suburbs be renewed as vital centers for family living? I believe they can, but only if we consciously
guide them toward healing the great divorce between home and work, bringing both
parents back in the home for child-centered ends.
This is why the so-called
New Urbanism is a step in the right direction, but only a step. This movement among architects and urban
planners calls for more diverse neighborhoods designed to accommodate
pedestrians as well as autos. The
return of sidewalks, small front lots, large front porches, and garages on
alleys are parts of their scheme.
Well-defined and easily accessible community centers and public spaces,
they argue, should also guide suburban design.
Small shopping districts should be in walking distance, and cater to the
needs of adults, children and adolescents; the latter, in particular, should
have "honorable gathering places."
Architecture and landscaping should boisterously incorporate local
history and building practices and show ecological sensitivity.
These are all worthy ideas,
but they remain incomplete. They aim at
renewed "community," understood as block, neighborhood, and
polis. But the New Urbanists say little
about families, except to note, accept, and even praise their new
diversity. This probably reflects the origin
of the New Urbanism on the cultural and environmental left, where "family
values" in any traditional sense hold little sway.
For 21st Century
families, the deeper need is refunctionalized homes. Family life will broadly thrive again,
whether in "old" suburbs or "new urbanist" ones, only when
both parents are relodged in homes that are beehives of daily
activity. "Productive homes,"
not "companionate homes," are the imperative need. Only this will start to heal
the breach between work and home caused by the urban-industrial revolution, a
divide that the "gawky" but "healthy and happy" suburbs of
the 1950's were decidedly unable to bridge.
In practice, what would this
mean? Some of the specifics are already
We can see home schools, where families are
reclaiming the vital education function from the state and regrounding parents
(mostly mothers at this point) and children in their homes and neighborhoods;
And we can see the 'wired'
the web and the modern computer make it possible to renew the family home as a
place of commerce and the professions.
And yet, government
regulations still maintain large barriers to the progress of this broad
pro-family revolution. FHA underwriting
rules sharply restrict the kinds of work that can be done in homes. Zoning laws, a relatively recent product
from the 1920's, remain implicitly tied to the weak "companionship
model" of family life. In most
places, it is nearly impossible to operate a business (with visiting customers)
or a preschool or a professional office out of one's home.
Even worse, it turns out,
are the Neighborhood or Homeowner Associations, a new kind of informal
governance that has recorded rapid growth at the same time as suburban family
life has declined. A product of the
1960's, Homeowner Associations now embrace 50 million Americans. Using restrictive covenants and
liens-on-homes to enforce their wills, these Associations are--in analyst
Spencer MacCallum's words--far more "arbitrary, unresponsive, and
dictatorial" than Zoning Boards in their control over the lives of
residents. Commonly prohibiting everything
from home offices to swing sets and picket fences, Homeowner Associations--in
one critic's words--provide neither liberty, nor justice, nor domestic
The iron grip of state
boards governing the professions of law, accounting, medicine, dentistry, and
so on also limit the prospects for family renewal. Once practiced out of homes, these professions reorganized on
industrial models in the 20th Century: massive professional schools
have replaced apprenticeships just as mass clinics have displaced the
office-in-the-home, changes aided and abetted by state regulation. With modest exceptions, modern technologies
of learning, communication, research, and practice no longer make this
What is the solution? In one word: Liberty. We need to tear back the web of regulations
that prevent families from being full, rich, and productive. Specifically:
At the Federal level, we
should abolish FHA and other public underwriting rules that limit the creation
of home offices, home schools, and home businesses.
At the state level, we
should abolish those regulations of the professions--medicine, law, dentistry,
accounting, and so on--
which favor giant institutions and prohibit decentralized learning such as
apprenticeships; standardized exams alone should determine competence and
At the local level, zoning
laws should be loosened or even abolished, to allow the flourishing of home
gardens, modest animal husbandry, home offices and businesses, and home
schools. In place of zoning, the more
flexible "nuisance laws" of the early 20th Century should
be restored as guardians of neighborhood tranquility.
At the neighborhood or
"development" level, "restrictive covenants" that bind
families to the failed "companionship" lifestyle should be loosened,
if possible; Homeowners Associations in new developments should be discouraged.
And at the cultural level,
we should look to the creation of intentional family-centered communities by
religious peoples. Co-believers might
create towns and communities built around worship, mutual obligation, and the
rearing of children, living environments that could encourage the productive
home and spiritual vitality.
From this new birth of
freedom, we can even imagine the lonely contemporary American suburbs reborn,
with small shops where ghostly living rooms once stood; with lawyers, doctors,
and dentists again working out of home offices, assisted by able young
apprentices; with productive gardens and modest animal life; and with the
midday laughter of homeschooled children where only silence had prevailed. This is an environment where the great
breach between home and work might heal, and where marriage and the child-rich
family, embedded in real community, might flourish again in this, "The