My ideal home

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As I’ve mentioned previously, growing up in a certain type of city and dwelling creates a state of mind, a deeply-embedded way of being. Because I’ve mostly lived in detached houses with yards and small walk-up apartments with lots of green space, in small and mid-sized cities, that’s what I seek for myself.

Suburban housing developments bore the life out of me. I’m not anti-suburb, but if I were to live in one of my own volition, it’d have to be an exurb or a city which started out as a suburb (e.g., New Rochelle, NY) but has long since developed into an independent city in its own right. I’d also only accept a unique, older house outside a development.

I’m all about Queen Anne Revival, since it has such a neat, unique look, kind of like a haunted house. I also love Tudor Revival, Storybook houses, and Art Nouveau. They’ve so much more character, personality, charm, and history than modern architecture.

While in fantasy I’d love a grand, sprawling estate with countless acres for gardens, walking paths, and horseback riding, in reality I’m more suited to a smaller house if it’s only me. Should I ever find a husband and have kids, an upgrade to a house with more square footage would be in order.

Just because many families in the past lived in fairly small homes and made it work doesn’t mean that’s ideal or will make everyone happy. Non-rich people lived like that because there was often little choice. They didn’t voluntarily seek out two-room tenements of 350 square feet or tiny bungalows of 700 square feet!

I most strongly want to move back to my native city Pittsburgh. It’s a big city with a smalltown feel, and not a giant metropolis like NYC or LA. I also love how it’s very traditionally proletarian and lower-middle-class. Given my upbringing, I’m most comfortable in that environment. There are also lots of other people with Eastern European ancestry, and of course Pittsburgh has a huge Jewish community.

My second choice is Boston, which I’ve probably visited at least a hundred times since I was a small child. I love how historic and friendly Boston is, with so many great museums, schools, bakeries, restaurants, and types of neighborhoods.

My #3 is NYC. Though I love the idea of living in a beautiful, spacious prewar apartment or gorgeous, historic townhouse, I’m more suited in real life to a detached house in a suburbanesque neighborhood like Queens Village, Victorian Flatbush, Marble Hill, or anywhere on Staten Island.

I want a city that’s highly walkable, where I can go almost anywhere on foot and take public transportation the rest of the time. My car would only be necessary for longer trips out of the area.

Though I prefer bigger cities, I wouldn’t mind moving back to Amherst or living in a nearby city like Northampton or Stockbridge. I had a very happy two years in Amherst, and wish I’d attended UMass for four years. (I transferred from community college after getting an associate’s degree.) The Jewish community is quite small, but it’s very active and close-knit, and there are so many lovely little shops.

There’s also an awesome farmers’ market grocery store, Atkins, which sells handmade gifts in addition to all sorts of foods. Nearby horseback riding is also a great big plus.

Other important ingredients of a city are museums, libraries, a variety of schools, parks, interesting and regular communal events, used record stores (like Amherst’s Mystery Train Records), restaurants, bakeries, places to take hikes, within a few hours of a beach, and old cemeteries. I’ve spent countless happy hours graving.

Of course I won’t constantly be using those resources, but it’s nice to know they’re there when I want them.

A wide variety of architecture is also a great plus. The world would be quite boring if everything and everyone were exactly the same.

Yeas and nays of city planning

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Setting itself out as “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” this book said a lot of radical, shocking things for 1961. Today, however, most of them are regarded as just plain common sense and have long been common practice.

The four main arguments are that, to be successful and vibrant, cities need to be mixed-use, have short blocks, be densely-populated, and have buildings in a range of ages.

Other topics are border vacuums, where best to place landmarks like libraries, the most effective layouts and locations of parks, unslumming (now known as gentrification and usually done by outsiders instead of locals), gradual and cataclysmic money, housing projects, the disastrous effect cars have on cities, and city governance.

While this book has become a blueprint for many modern urbanists, full of wonderful ideas which sadly weren’t considered when they were most desperately needed to nip urban decay in the bud when it was still relatively manageable, there are some issues I had with it.

1. It’s inevitably dated. I wish there were a special edition which laid out everything that’s since been widely implemented and the differences between now and then. E.g., kids just don’t play on sidewalks anymore, certain parks are no longer run-down ghost towns, and many cityscapes are now radically different.

2. I love her “eyes on the street” argument about streets being kept safe by constant watching, but modern society doesn’t enable that well. How many housewives gaze out their windows for hours while kids play stoop ball, and how many busybody “public characters” still exist?

3. Women don’t need their husbands’ permission to go somewhere anymore!

4. Mrs. Jacobs writes of a world where most women are housewives and men are the only ones working. Not exactly applicable to 2020 life.

5. After a certain point, the book starts to feel rather repetitive, the same few points made over and over again in different language.

6. She doesn’t give many citations, just her own observations and theories. I’m told many social science books in the Sixties were like this.

7. Not all cities or neighborhoods develop in the same way, and this isn’t a bad thing. E.g., because Manhattan (her most frequent example) was centered deep downtown and then gradually moved upward, the Upper East and West Sides are predominantly residential and academic.

People choose those neighborhoods to raise families or just have a quieter life for themselves, and thus are consciously rejecting the things she praises so highly about her own West Village. They have no interest in listening to saxophones in the middle of the night, fighting through throngs of kids while walking home from work, or living next to an old warehouse occupied by twenty wildly different businesses!

Part of the draw of the outer boroughs, prior to their mass discovery and gentrification, was this slower pace of life, with more green spaces, less density, and a suburbanesque feel. They cared less The Bronx supposedly had no decent restaurants or Brooklyn businesses closed at 8:00! Believe it or not, some people like that.

8. Likewise, there’s not a very diverse pool of cities represented. While I wouldn’t expect every single major city to be discussed, nor constant hopping back and forth between different cities, it would’ve been more balanced had there been a wider range of examples.

Manhattan is far and away the most discussed, with Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and L.A. also frequently mentioned. Every so often, a city like Baltimore or St. Louis makes an appearance.

Cities develop differently depending on the region. A city which started as a frontier town and has much more space to expand is radically different from one which grew up around an agrarian economy or a densely-populated city with little choice but to expand upward.

9. The Upper West Side, which frequently comes in for condemnation as not diverse enough or laid out properly, beautifully revitalized without chopping up its very long blocks!

10. So what if a landmark like a library doesn’t stand out in purpose and appearance? People know where their own libraries are, even if they look similar to nearby buildings!

11. I agree density is a positive force for diversity and vitality, but too much density is a bad thing. Just look at cities like Delhi or Beijing. No one normal enjoys living like that.

12. Even a city with relatively manageable density needs more than a few high-rises to comfortably accommodate everyone. They’re not inherently negative and impersonal.

13. Unslumming is a lovely ideal, but contrary to human nature. People tend to want to move on up as their socioeconomic situation improves instead of happily staying in the old neighborhood and investing beaucoup bucks into fixing up an old rowhouse or upgrading to a larger apartment.

It’s natural to upgrade to new digs reflecting a new status. Why in the world would someone who’s worked very hard to become middle-class voluntarily stay in a tenement, and why would a self-made millionaire want to stay in a strongly proletarian neighborhood?

14. It’s unnecessarily verbose, and could’ve easily been condensed to half its size, at least.

15. What’s the point of moving Central Park’s carousel and Chess and Checkers House to the borders so more people can use them after dark? Who goes to a park at night, no matter where attractions are located?

16. I fail to see why Garden Cities are so awful. They’re the best of both worlds, a suburbanesque neighborhood in a big city.

17. I don’t get her beef with the City Beautiful movement either. Who could object to beautifying cities and increasing quality of life?

18. Likewise, I didn’t get her issue with “too many” parks. The larger the city, the more parks are necessary. People crave green spaces. If you don’t live in a neighborhood, you’re not in a position to authoritatively declare a park is a failure!

19. Not everyone wants to live in Greenwich Village as it was in 1961. The magic formula for one neighborhood would never work for others, and not everyone wants the same thing out of a city.

20. Her vision of an urban Utopia is as much predicated on how people “should” react as urban planners’ “reforms” were. Both unable to understand the wider demographic picture.

21. While I share her dislike of suburbia, at least I understand why so many families were drawn to it in that era. Mrs. Jacobs constantly trots out Greenwich Village as the be-all and end-all of perfection which everyone should aspire to live in.

22. Even in 1961, the famous ballet of Hudson St. was unusual. She’s idealizing a way of life that was well on its way out. Unless something radically changes, bourgeois urbanity just isn’t coming back.

Writing about the postwar exodus to suburbia

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While the dark side of the postwar exodus to suburbia is well-known now, very few people had any reason to see it as anything but wonderful and a dream come true at the time. After all, those in charge of urban renewal and suburban expansion were motivated by noble intentions, wanting to help people.

Like so many other things in life, the serious, inherent problems only became apparent in hindsight, after they’d snowballed and led to many once-great cities’ absolute nadirs several decades later.

There was a severe housing shortage after WWII, with roots in the Depression. People were desperate for bigger homes, particularly as they started families, and wanted to get out of cramped apartments and in-laws’ houses.

The G.I. Bill guaranteed low-interest home loans to veterans, with the best deals on brand-new houses. Many of these guys had never owned their own houses before. The appeal was undeniable.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, many vets also were able to attend college and thus move into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. The cost of living was much better in this era, and more and more people bought cars.

If you own a car, you’re not beholden to public transport and living in the same city as your job. And with your college education, you have improved career prospects with a higher salary.

Many of the early suburban tract houses were rather small by modern standards, under 1,000 feet, but that was positively spacious to guys who’d spent the last few years living in foxholes and huts, and families crammed into too-small apartments.

Their cookie-cutter sameness didn’t bother that many people, who just wanted their own houses regardless of the details. That sameness made them easy and quick to construct, move-in ready, even equipped with kitchen appliances and TVs.

After the war, everyone was eager to resume normal life, and for many, that included accepting a conformist culture where people blended in. Then as now, going along with the crowd was far easier than going against it.

People who chose to remain in cities were viewed as the strange ones, not the ones moving en masse to picture-perfect new suburbs.

Almost exclusively, these new suburbs were settled by couples in their twenties with very young children. It was easy for them to leave a city and start all over again. They didn’t have established careers, homes they’d lived in for years, children in school. Suburbia represented a perfect fresh start at the perfect time in their lives.

Everyone in the neighborhood was therefore a built-in friend, often from the same original city. The kids were roughly the same age and could grow up together, and the adults were from the same generation.

Another huge draw of suburbia was the guaranteed green space. People coming from densely-populated places had never had their own yards, or at most had had rather small, shared yards.

Yes, there are always parks, but as more and more cities went downhill thanks to disastrous urban planning decisions, the parks went downhill as well. Many people avoided them out of fear. And unfortunately, not all cities have a good distribution of green spaces.

Prior to suburban sprawl destroying many precious natural resources, there was also the appeal of living near a real woods and/or body of water, even right across from your own backyard. Cramped urban apartment, spacious detached house in the middle of nature?

As urban decay got worse, so did schools. Even private schools suffered when much of their former base relocated to suburbia. They either had to close or relocate themselves. Though there was still the issue of too-large class sizes in many places (owing to how many kids were being born in this era), there were at least better teachers and school systems.

This wasn’t a one-time move over a few years just after the war ended. People continued hightailing it to suburbia all through the Fifties and into the Sixties, particularly as most cities got worse and worse. Rising crime rates and devastating urban decay made many people afraid.

Some people saw or smelled smoke just a short distance away not long after moving to suburbia, leaving just ahead of the riots which tore many cities apart. Those who hadn’t already left, and had the means to do so, fled in the wake of these riots.

“A Ride on the 6,” 1983, Copyright Alfred Gonzalez

The only people left in cities after the riots were too poor to leave, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely loved city life and wanted to be there more than in a suburb.

Sadly, the great life promised by suburbia wasn’t available to everyone, as we shall see in the next post.

Writing about the post-WWII housing crisis in the U.S.

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This is a story which begins shortly on the heels of the Stock Market crash. Serious problems never arise out of a vacuum or overnight, and this one was no exception.

Since so many banks failed and people lost their entire savings, they often were unable to stay in their homes. Many people also streamed into big cities looking for work, and they needed someplace to live.

Contrary to popular belief, a not insignificant number of people stayed wealthy, which enabled some hotels and luxury apartments in progress to continue construction, and others to be built entirely after the Stock Market crash. These people merrily carried on as though the party of the Roaring Twenties had never ended, or at most slightly scaled back their extravagant lifestyles to avoid looking insensitive.

However, that wasn’t the norm. Many luxury apartments went from miniature mansions to studios and SROs. Townhouses and rowhouses, by then unfashionable as single-family homes, were also divided, and multiple families crammed into detached houses.

And those were the lucky ones. Many more people had no choice but to live in tents, shacks, and cars, or take up squatting.

Since there were far bigger fish to fry during the Depression and WWII, new construction ground to a near-complete standstill, and existing homes fell into disrepair. By the time servicemen began coming back home and starting families, the situation was at crisis levels.

There was such a dearth of housing, many people were seriously pressured, if not outright forced, into letting their apartments be split up for returning GIs and the war refugees.

This desperate situation is depicted in films like The More the Merrier (1943), Standing Room Only (1944), So This is Washington (1943), Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), Apartment for Peggy (1948), Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), and It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947).

Millions of veterans needed to find homes, particularly since many returned with war brides, were already married, or quickly married and began families. This wasn’t an era of casually dating random people for fun well into one’s thirties or indefinitely going steady for 5+ years, moving in together long before considering marriage, matter-of-factly having a couple of kids along the way, and getting married almost as an afterthought.

People had to be married to live together, have sex, and have kids without scandal, and society encouraged settling down and starting a family sooner rather than later. The average marriage age precipitously dropped in this era, as many couples didn’t even wait to finish high school before tying the knot (not always because of pregnancy).

Many couples were engaged within weeks or months of meeting, and engagements usually only lasted a few months. In the pre-Pill era, and with the Comstock Act making it illegal even for married couples to access information about contraception, children often started arriving 40 weeks after the wedding.

Thus, all these growing families needed a place to stay. Some lived with parents, but that created very crowded, awkward living situations. Even if you’re in a massive estate with separate wings, it’s no fun being stuck in your parents’ house when you’re a grown adult, esp. when you have a family of your own.

GIs also had first priority on housing, which meant people moving to cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. with romantic, idealistic daydreams had to wait their turn for a real home. Even GIs often had to accept rented rooms, SROs, or mere huts, shacks, or tents.

GIs who were lucky enough to come back to their own homes often weren’t very happy there. After spending the last few years living in foxholes, huts, tents, and appropriated houses shared with dozens of other guys, they were desperate for room to stretch out. When a spouse and kids are added to the mix, the need for more space multiplies.

Many of the homes which were available for purchase and within their means were in a state of disrepair (broken windows, rats, no heating, bad lighting, busted water pipes, backyards overgrown with weeds), and thus required a great deal of time and money to be made livable again.

Additionally, the Green Revolution put many small farmers out of business when they were unable to afford modern machinery and more land. When enough people leave a rural town, job opportunities dry up, and an exodus to larger cities results.

GIs or not, many people from such towns simply craved a better job market, and weren’t content to resume living in a quiet small town after the experience of seeing the world and meeting such a wide range of people.

The Second Great Migration sent over five million African-Americans to the Northeast, Midwest, and West in search of better jobs, in places without Jim Crow. They needed housing too.

About a million immigrants, half of them war refugees, also entered the U.S. in the early postwar years, and they likewise needed housing.

And then a seemingly perfect solution appeared.

Writing about architectural styles

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Michael Scanlan House, Lanesboro, Minnesota, Copyright McGhiever

Queen Anne Revival: My absolute favorite! This style is instantly recognizable by its very unique look, resembling a haunted house. It also has nothing to do with the original Queen Anne Style of the early 18th century.

Trademarks include asymmetrical façades with elaborate detailing, wraparound and pedimented verandas, columns, front-facing gables, towers of various shapes, fun colors and designs, overhanging eaves, a variety of wall textures, bay and oriel windows, and grand chimneys.

Though it lends itself best to large, sprawling mansions, there are also many Queen Anne townhouses and rowhouses in big cities. They just don’t have the luxury of including every single trademark detail.

It was most popular from 1880–1910.

Home of Henry Leland (founder of Cadillac and Lincoln) in Detroit’s Indian Village, Copyright Quinndetroit

Tudor Revival: My second-favorite! Despite its namesake, it bears far more in common with vernacular Medieval English architecture which had stubbornly insisted on surviving into the Tudor era. It’s instantly recognizable by its distinctive half-timbering (filling in panels between timbers with exposed, nonstructural material called infill).

Other common features include high chimneys, steeply-pitched roofs, dormer windows supported by consoles, overhanging first floors above pillared verandas, and tall, mullioned windows (i.e., decorative, vertical divisions between the two panes).

Though it began appearing as early as the 1840s, it was most popular from about 1890–1940.

Pomander Walk on the Upper West Side, Copyright Sonja Stark

Storybook houses (officially Provincial Revival): These buildings evoke a quaint old European fairytale village, with playfulness and whimsy, uneven roofs, uniquely-shaped doors and windows which aren’t always the same size or shape, cobblestones.

It was most popular in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in California.

Men’s Abbey of St. Étienne Church, Caen, France, Copyright Urban

Gothic: Who isn’t familiar with these quintessentially Medieval buildings! It was so popular, it lasted from the 12th to 17th centuries. Each country developed a different style; e.g., Belarusian, French, Czech, Spanish, Venetian. There are also distinct periods—Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant and Decorated, Late Gothic.

Trademark features include pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, spires, towers, and traceries (windows divided into multi-sized sections by stone bars). These buildings are incredibly well-constructed, meant to last for the ages. We have the Medieval architects of Notre-Dame Cathedral to thank for the relatively minimal damage after the 2019 fire.

Gothic Revival began in the 1740s, and had become the Western world’s most popular style by the mid-19th century. Sadly, it fell from fashion in the early 20th century, derided as out of touch, ugly, and uncool.

Maria Laach Abbey, Glees, Germany, Copyright Goldi64 at German Wikipedia

Romanesque: The forerunner of Gothic, notable for its semicircular arches, thick walls, large towers, sturdy pillars, decorative arcades (i.e., a line of arches supported by columns or pillars), and symmetry. Historians differ on when it arose, but most believe it was the 11th century. Though many humble homes were built in Romanesque, very few survive. Most surviving examples are churches.

Around 1300, it was overtaken by Gothic architecture. In the mid-19th century, Romanesque Revival arose, with simpler windows and arches.

Vienna’s Piarist Monastery, Copyright Sunny R

Baroque: Arose in early 17th century Italy and caught on all across Europe, eventually even coming to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America. Its grand, decorative style was intended to lure people back to the Catholic Church after the Protestant Reformation. I’ll never forget my tenth grade European History AP teacher comparing it to the modern music in Sister Act. “Baroque, think butts in seats.”

Features include twisted columns giving the appearance of motion, grand stairways, gilded cupolas, illusionistic ceiling painting (meant to feel 3D), cartouches, mirrors, and oval or elliptical spaces. Baroque also magnified the basic elements of Renaissance architecture to look even grander.

Baroque began fading around 1750.

Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany, Copyright Mussklprozz

Rococo: Began in 1730s France as a response to the very geometric and formal Louis XIV Style. In contrast, Rococo is very theatrical and ornamental. Though façades tend to be simple, interiors go all out. Many decorations are based on nature (e.g., leaves, birds, flowers, fruits). Like Baroque, it also used illusionistic ceiling paintings.

Many motifs were based on the Far East (e.g., dragons, pagodas, monkeys, Chinese and Japanese people, mythological birds). Warm pastels and asymmetry were also popular.

Rococo lasted till the late 18th century.

Rectory of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Queens, Copyright CaptJayRuffins

Dutch Colonial: Obviously arose in early 17th century Dutch colonies, and lasted till the early 19th century. These homes were single-story, mostly wooden, but sometimes stone if it were available. Ceilings and inside walls were plastered with clay.

Distinguishing characteristics are Gambrel roofs with flared eaves, brick chimneys and half-doors at the end of stepped gables, long verandas on both long sides, double-hung sash windows with shutters swinging outwards.

Dutch Colonial Revival arose in the early 20th century. Though these homes are closely modelled on the simple originals, many have two or three stories, grander details, and main doors on the long side.

Cooper Union Foundation Building, Manhattan, Copyright Ajay Suresh

Italianate: First used in Britain in 1802; became popular in the 1830s. In the U.S., it was most popular from the late 1840s till 1890. Features include pedimented doors and windows, cupolas, imposing cornices, flat or low-pitched roofs, tall first-floor windows, projected eaves supported by corbels, masonry blocks on the corners of walls, and towers. Many humble rowhouses in big cities are also Italianate.

43 Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Beaux-Arts: Arose in 1830s France and was hugely popular from the 1850s till the start of WWII. In the U.S., it was most popular from 1880–1920. Trademarks include flat roofs, symmetry, pedimented and arched doors, arched windows, classical raised and rusticated first floors, grand entries and stairways, sculptural decorations, rich details, and subtle polychromy.

Wuppertal, Germany, Copyright Im Fokus

Bauhaus: Centered in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin from 1919–30; also quite popular in Hungary. Many buildings in Israel are also Bauhaus, built by architects who fled the Nazis. In contrast to many of the previous grandiose styles, Bauhaus was all about functionality, radically simplified forms, rationality, and individuality existing alongside mass production.

Port Sunlight, England

Arts and Crafts: Popular from 1880–1910 in the U.K., and 1890s–1910 in the U.S., where it was known as American Craftsman. Features include wide verandas, pointed window arches, steep roofs, wooden fittings, brick fireplaces, mixed materials, shingle roofs, decorative brackets or exposed rafters under eaves, hand-crafted stone, and square, tapered columns supporting the veranda roof.

24 Rue Félix Faure, Nancy, France, Copyright Zairon

Art Nouveau: Most popular from 1885–1910, arising as a reaction against the prevailing academic art, historicism, and eclecticism of the 19th century. Distinguishing features include asymmetry, plants and flowers, ornamental S curves (whiplash lines), unusual forms, and modern materials like glass, concrete, iron, and ceramics.

Art Nouveau caught on all across Europe, the U.S., Latin America, and several African countries. As with many other architectural schools, it went by different names and took on a slightly different character in each country.

IMCAMA Building, Casablanca, Copyright إيان

Art Deco: Most popular from about 1910–40, influenced by Cubism and Fauvism. It was very bold and bright, also borrowing heavily from the architecture of China, Japan, Persia, India, Egypt, and Mexico. Many materials are expensive and rare.

During the Depression, it was more subdued and took on curving forms and sleeker finishes. In the U.S., it was most commonly used for offices, government buildings, depots, and movie theatres.

Ewing, New Jersey, Copyright Famartin

Cape Cod: Started in 17th century Colonial New England as simple one-story houses, with a large central chimney, little ornamentation, and moderately steep, pitched gabled roofs. The small space above the main floor was usually used for children’s bedrooms.

Cape Cod Revival became the fashion from the 1930s through 1950s, particularly in suburban housing developments. The modern form sometimes places the chimney on the side of the house instead of in the middle.