Suburbs, status, and sprawl
Dissent; New York; Winter 2001; Benjamin Ross;

Volume:
              48
Issue:
              1
Start Page:
              50-55
ISSN:
              00123846
Subject Terms:
              Homeowners associations
              Real estate developments
              Neighborhoods
              Social classes
              Urbanization

Abstract:
"Slow growth" homeowners are well established as a major political force in upscale suburbs and
gentrifying city neighborhoods, vigilant to protect against the intrusion of lower-income and
lower-prestige neighbors. Although frequently disparaged as NIMBYs--for "Not in My Back Yard"--the
homeowner groups present themselves as innocent victims of oppression by greedy developers.

Full Text:
Copyright Dissent Publishing Company, Inc. Winter 2001
 

THE NEIGHBORS of Our Lady of Mercy church were aghast. The archdiocese wanted to build an
assisted-living home for thirty senior citizens on the church's eleven-acre property in an expensive
Washington, D.C., suburb.

The aggrieved residents quickly collected money to hire a zoning lawyer, and two evenings of hearings were
filled with bitter protests against maltreatment at the hands of the power structure. But the arguments
ordinarily used to keep apartments out of single-family areas lacked credibility. Disabled seniors were
unlikely to party noisily into the night. And traffic congestion was not a problem; nurses' aides and kitchen
staff arrive for the morning shift before the lawyers and lobbyists of the neighborhood pull out of their
driveways.

So the neighbors' attorney fell back on an esthetic argument--the proposed building had an "institutional
character" that didn't fit into its surroundings. This reasoning, backed up by the volume of complaints, seemed
to make headway. But toward the end of the second night of hearings, a simple question was asked: Aren't
some single-family houses in this neighborhood bigger than what the church wants to build?

So ended one small skirmish in the development wars that have become a staple of local politics across the
country. "Slow-growth" homeowners are well established as a major political force in upscale suburbs and
gentrifying city neighborhoods. Vigilant to protect against the intrusion of lower-income and lower-prestige
neighbors, townhouse residents fight apartments while single-family householders combat townhouses. As
the years pass, almost anything that might be built near someone's house has become an object of wrath; the
New York Times recently described how schools, ball fields, and even a nature path have come under attack
in the New York suburbs. Although frequently disparaged as NIMBYs--for "Not In My Back Yard"--the
homeowner groups present themselves as innocent victims of oppression by greedy developers. Improbable
as the K Street lawyers who live around Our Lady of Mercy may be in the role of wretched of the earth, the
pseudo-Marxist contraposition of developers to "the people" has become an unconscious assumption of
discussion about land use. Transparently self-interested propaganda by developers and their friends serves
only to reinforce the NIMBYs' image as suffering victims, and rare efforts at serious analysis, such as Mike
Davis's lacerating account of Los Angeles homeowner associations in City of Quartz, make little impression.

Long after suburbs had been scorned in folk song as the setting of "boxes made of ticky-- tacky," their land
use remained a subject of serious study only by those directly involved. The no-growth movement drew scant
attention from students of politics. Organized homeowners largely kept out of state and national politics,
hobbled by the mixing of Democrats and Republicans among their membership and by a localism that Davis
brilliantly compares to the worldview ascribed by Karl Marx to the French peasants of the 1840s. Conflict
with labor was muted, perhaps because the segments of construction affected by growth controls are largely
nonunion. Even occasional appearances on a wider stage, as when California homeowner associations
supported the Proposition 13 tax-cutting referendum of 1978, attracted little notice.

Motivation

A question addressed by almost no one is the motivation of the NIMBYs. The few published discussions of
the issue focus on property values; even Davis's penetrating analysis too often accepts the assertions of angry
homeowners that their objective is to maintain the worth of their homes. But materialistic explanations do not
do justice to the slow-growth movement. This movement aims at advancing status far more than defending
wealth, and to understand it we must lay aside Karl Marx and pick up Thorstein Veblen.

The orientation toward status shows most clearly in the intensity with which single-family zoning is protected
in prestige neighborhoods near suburban transit stations. In some cases, homeowners would reap an
enormous financial windfall if their neighborhoods were rezoned to allow greater density. Yet it is in just
these situations that resistance to development is most intense. In Washington, D.C.'s suburban Montgomery
County, where I live, the wealthy single-family neighborhoods of Chevy Chase have waged a twenty-year
battle to limit the growth of offices, upscale stores, and highrise apartments around the Friendship Heights
subway station. When the county authorized a twenty-story apartment tower inside one nearby village,
municipal boundaries were quickly redrawn to stop the residents of half-- million-dollar condos from voting
in village elections. Over the years, a stream of activists has emerged from Chevy Chase to provide political
and organizational leadership to the antigrowth movement countywide.

In the last two or three years, older suburbs in desirable locations like Chevy Chase have discovered a new
problem. The homes in these communities are sometimes modest in size, having been built when the area was
less expensive. New owners understandably believe that a purchase price running upward of a half-- million
dollars entitles them to a big house. The old structures are torn down and replaced with big new houses that
fill up lots and overshadow neighbors. Local governments have been quick to respond to this crisis with
"anti-- mansionization" rules that protect the existing scale of neighborhoods. Clearly, money is not at stake
here; a mansion next door is not bad for property values. What is threatened, rather, is the image of the
community; big houses scream "nouveau riche" to neighbors who want to put themselves on a higher plane.

A different type of NIMBY can be found in the suburban enclaves of post-sixties radicalism that have grown
up around some cities. Communities like Santa Monica and Berkeley in California, and Takoma Park in the
Washington, D.C., suburbs, are among the most stringent in limiting growth. In these hothouses of
environmental activism, opposition to the automobile rarely extends so far as to support building anything
new close to public transit. As these words are written, owners of restored Victorian houses in Takoma Park
are righteously waging battle to prevent construction of townhouses on an empty lot next to the local subway
station.

Where Chevy Chase projects an aristocratic image--columnist George Will lives next door to one of the
homeowner leaders--the style of Takoma Park is funk. But both types of NIMBYs share the same objective,
that of protecting distinctions that allow them to feel superior to outsiders. For not a few Takoma Park
leftists, their walkable enclave is less an example to be copied than a badge of nobility that distinguishes its
residents from ordinary suburbanites. The critique of a society that creates ticky-tacky boxes has mutated into
a feeling of superiority over the people who live in the boxes.

ALTHOUGH SUBURBAN homeowners have organized civic associations since at least the 1920s, the
slow-growth ideology is a more recent phenomenon. Mike Davis's research dates its appearance in southern
California to 1972. Impressions from other cities point to origins in the seventies as well. Why, after decades
of suburban development, did an antigrowth movement arise then?

The antigrowth politics that emerged in the seventies may be rooted in economic changes that began a few
years earlier. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank describes how in the sixties American capitalism
shifted away from mass marketing toward the promotion of branded products with images tailored to attract
distinct market segments. Advertisers aimed at differentiating a particular brand from what the conformist
masses were buying. In short, the sixties were when consumers began to buy the designer label rather than the
clothing itself.

With housing being such a large part of the economy and so closely tied to its consumers' self-image, this
transition was inevitably reflected in the real estate market. Homeowners sought psychological
differentiation in neighborhoods as in soft drinks, clothing, and automobiles. Big houses with yards were no
longer unambiguous badges of success; the owner risked being classed with the now-reviled suburban
conformists. New distinctions had to be fabricated, even as old-style exclusion of racial and religious
minorities was being suppressed by force of law.

On an overt level, by limiting the number who can live in upscale subdivisions, the anti-- growth movement
satisfies the need of wealthy homeowners to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. When less affluent
areas join in, they can at least share the feeling that someone or something is being kept out. Beyond that, the
arguments used to fight new development allow suburbanites to distinguish themselves from fifties-style
conformists. Stopping growth is almost never advocated for its own sake, but is justified in terms of some
other concern--traffic congestion, preventing crime, saving trees, preserving historic buildings, or whatever
else comes to mind. When, as in one recent local example, angry homeowners rally to preserve an
outstanding specimen of the strip-mall architecture of the 1940s, it is easy to be cynical. But there is more to
this than just a way to keep something from being built. The excuse, whatever it is, gives the neighborhood
the equivalent of a brand identity.

Places like Chevy Chase and Takoma Park are blessed with especially powerful brands. The one
"traditional" and the other "subversive," they are the real estate equivalents of Ralph Lauren and Calvin
Klein. Advertised images differ far more than the houses and the clothes. The diverse population surrounding
the brightly painted wooden Victorians of Takoma Park contrasts sharply with the stone exteriors and
manicured lawns of Chevy Chase, but on the inside you are likely to find the same remodeled kitchen with
open countertops and brightly polished copper pans hanging from the ceiling.

The shine on the copper betrays the kitchen's function as an emblem of status. People who cook regularly in
copper pots don't keep them polished; it's too much work. The glittering pans demonstrate that the "island
kitchen" is a room designed for show, not for use, like our grandparents' parlor with plastic-- covered
furniture where no one was allowed to sit. Just as the ideal of beautiful skin changed from pale to tan when
poor people came in from the fields to work in factories, changing social conditions have reordered the
hierarchy of rooms in the house. When ordinary mothers who stayed home and prepared family meals felt
inferior to rich women who had cooks, the parlor signified middle-class status and the kitchen was hidden in
the back. In today's working-class families, both parents have jobs, and mealtime is a run to McDonald's. The
wife who can stay home to cook for the children has become a symbol of affluence. The kitchen thus moves
to the center of the contemporary house. More often than not, in these middle-class families, the wife who
owns an island kitchen works long hours to pay the remodeling bill, and dinner is ethnic take-out picked up
on the way home. The fancy kitchen sits as unused as grandmother's parlor.

ROOTED AS IT IS in status differentiation, NIMBY politics has developed a distinct style. Whether they
place themselves on the left or right, slow-growth activists affect a similar tone of aggrieved indignation. As
to the fashionable causes of the moment, they insist on purity and bitterly assail any compromise. Aiming to
reinforce the brand image of the locality with matching political signifiers, they care little whether their
engagement will accomplish anything beyond that. But questions of traffic and development that directly
affect real estate bring forth the rankest opportunism. Vertigo-inducing shifts of alliance occur when one
community cuts a deal at the expense of another.

These traits are most visible in the copper-- pot neighborhoods, where strongly branded real estate generates
an intense slow-growth politics. Ideology varies to match the local style: opponents of development in Chevy
Chase led a successful campaign to pass county-wide tax limits, while the most strongly anti-development
member of the Takoma Park City Council is a leftist who advocates massive increases in school spending.
But these differences are labels pasted on similar goals of governance. Chevy Chase Republicans favor
intrusive government regulation of land use, while many Takoma Park leftists support a high-priced country
club's efforts to obstruct construction of mass transit through its golf course. And, ignoring labels altogether,
the NIMBY politicians of Takoma Park and Chevy Chase are close allies at election time.

So What?

Until recent years, the political theater of the slow-growth movement could be observed from the audience, a
distracting spectacle perhaps, but one that did little real harm. However, economic and political trends set in
motion by the continuing spread of suburban sprawl no longer permit a detached view. After fifty years of
metastatic growth, the effects of suburban development have become inescapable, and land use questions are
moving into the center of public debate. Ever-worsening traffic congestion degrades the quality of life in
many suburbs, and new roads, the solution long preferred by development interests and the powerful highway
lobby, are becoming unaffordable. As traffic congestion pushes some to road rage, others choose to leave
their cars at home. The monotony of suburban subdivisions creates a demand for urban public spaces. Interest
is rapidly growing in a return to urban development patterns, with less driving and more reliance on walking
and mass transit.

The issue has begun to emerge out of local politics onto a larger stage. National environmental groups like
the Sierra Club sponsor anti-sprawl campaigns. Oregon's long-established rules limiting the spread of
suburbs have attracted new attention, a less far-reaching program has now been enacted in Maryland, and Al
Gore embraced the issue at the national level.

The essence of the sprawl problem is the creation of new jobs and housing in a spreadout pattern to which
the only practicable access is by automobile. Any solution must induce people to live and work where they
can do errands on foot and walk to mass transit for longer trips. To make walking practical, new
developments must be built with greater density than suburbanites are used to. Governor Parris Glendening
of Maryland has summed these concepts up in the term "smart growth."

Advocates of transit-oriented development argue that denser, pedestrian-friendly areas can be more pleasant
places to live, work, and shop than traditional suburbs. However convincing these arguments may be in the
abstract, decisions about what actually gets built and lived in are made about particular places and not about
categories. Whether these choices are made in the marketplace or by the political system, a multitude of
individuals and organizations participate, and density is just one of many factors they consider. Clearly,
smart growth won't happen unless it can happen in places where people want to live.

This is the point where NIMBY homeowners become part of the sprawl problem. Antigrowth sentiment is
strongest in the most desirable urban and suburban real estate, the copper-pot districts where demand is
greatest and new developments have the best chance of financial success. If densities cannot increase here,
new housing and jobs will be pushed into the outer suburbs, where there are no neighbors to object.
Meanwhile, the minority of the middle class least able to stomach the sprawl environment will move inward,
gentrifying poor urban neighborhoods and depleting the stock of affordable housing.

Sprawl now draws wide attention as a social problem. But its two sides--the encouragement and
subsidization of low-density construction in outer suburbs and the stifling of concentrated growth in existing
communities--are attacked separately. Environmentalists work to stop bad highway and development
projects, while planners and architects design better neighborhoods, and a minority of real estate developers
tries to build them. Rarely do these groups grapple with sprawl development as a whole.

The most sustained attention to the impoverishment of the human environment by suburbanization has come
from the architects and planners of the New Urbanist movement. They advocate, design, and occasionally
build "neo-traditional," mixed-use communities from the ground up. Writers such as Andres Duany and
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, James Howard Kunstler, and Peter Katz show how suburban zoning creates inhuman
environments. By separating land uses, forcing buildings away from the street, and requiring enormous
amounts of subsidized parking, the zoning rules desiccate public spaces and force people into automobiles.
The New Urbanists, experienced in the real-world difficulties of getting something built in the suburbs, are
well aware of the roadblocks suburban homeowners often put in the way of the mixed-use, mixed-income
communities of their theories. But they view opposition to their plans as nothing more than a
misunderstanding of their ideas, a consequence of miseducation if not plain stupidity. And when they fail to
convince, the New Urbanists are inclined to appease their opponents, often yielding to the NIMBYs by
locating their projects in outer suburbs far away from mass transit.

NEW URBANIST ideas have reached real estate developers who, perceiving a market demand for a less
automobile-- dependent life, have begun to redevelop older suburbs into denser, more urban neighborhoods
of stores, offices, and homes. But frequent homeowner opposition has made redevelopment of existing
suburbs difficult and costly. The added expenses reinforce the normal tendency of the real estate market to
concentrate on upper-income sectors, limiting most neo-traditional developments to the high end of the
market. And neo-traditional developers are not always unhappy about the obstructions they face. Federal
Realty Investment Trust, the largest builder of street-front retail centers on the Main Streets of the nation's
suburbs, sees "barriers to entry" as a favorable factor when it makes investment decisions. Zoning rules that
prevent competitors from building similar projects in the vicinity guarantee the profitability of Federal
Realty's developments.

Environmentalists, too, have a mixed record in confronting the obstacles to transit-oriented redevelopment.
With air polluted by increasing automobile traffic and rivers threatened by runoff from lawns and pavement,
national environmental organizations have made the fight against sprawl a major goal. Almost all
environmentalists now say that development should be focused into dense nodes around mass transit stations.
In outer suburbs, where the task is to stop sprawl development, this philosophy expresses itself very
logically in alliances with homeowner groups whose social bases are quite similar to their own. But the
same alliance becomes more problematic in cities and older suburbs, where density must increase if the
sprawl problem is to be addressed. While staffers involved with the issue see NIMBYs as a major obstacle
to building communities that are less automobile dependent, they have trouble translating their organizations'
theoretical commitments into action. Especially at the local level, environmental groups find it hard to
abandon the outlook that sees density as the enemy. Their support for transit-oriented development often
withers when there is a chance that something might actually get built.

Hanging over the discussion of suburban sprawl is the refrain that the fault lies with greedy developers, a
term that is extraordinarily powerful because so rarely examined. The key to decoding this phrase is that the
word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avarice--if
anything, more hostility is directed at nonprofit builders of low-income housing than at the truly greedy. The
adjective functions not to convey meaning but to disguise it, allowing one to criticize the wealthy
entrepreneur who builds new houses when the real target is the ordinary people who will live in them.

Not that the real estate industry is blameless for sprawl. From the beginning of suburbia, developers used
status distinctions as marketing tools. Builders of early subdivisions encouraged the creation of civic
associations to enforce restrictive covenants, and from the forties through the sixties real estate interests
opposed racial integration and public housing in close alliance with homeowner groups. Even today, the
mechanisms of the real estate market make it easier to develop empty land than to redevelop, and lenders
insist on layouts with too much parking and too little access by foot.

But the damage done by sprawl development has set in motion counterforces that are pushing developers
toward more humane patterns of land use. Demand for suburban real estate is now most intense near transit
stations, and buyers flock to New Urbanist projects. Developers are willing to make a profit wherever it can
be made, and as walkable places to live and work are increasingly sought after, builders of traditional
suburbs are retooling to construct "infill" projects in cities and older suburbs. In sunbelt cities such as Dallas
and Atlanta, where sprawl is at its worst, real estate interests are even toning down their long-standing
support for highway transportation and lobbying for expanded mass transit.

In this environment, NIMBYs become the crucial obstacle to smart growth. With infill development banned
from most land near mass transit and made difficult where allowed, the supply of transit-accessible housing
in middle-class neighborhoods falls far short of the growing demand, and prices shoot upward. When
Washington-area suburbanites are polled about housing preferences, they frequently respond that they don't
want to live near a subway station because it's too expensive. Farmland remains usable for house
construction with far fewer restrictions than suburban property, and the resulting price differentials fuel the
continuing spread of subdivisions despite homebuyers' dislike of long commutes.

The automobile-centered model of metropolitan growth is collapsing under the weight of traffic congestion.
Market forces are now sending a belated signal that change is needed. Yet sprawl marches on. The suburban
pattern of land use was created by governmental action through zoning rules and transportation policies, and
without a conscious political choice there can be no reversal of course. The decision to build livable
communities in place of sprawl will not be made until we understand and confront the status-seeking that lies
behind the suburban status quo.

[Author note]
BENJAMIN Ross is president of the Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group in Montgomery County, Maryland. He works
as a consultant on ground water and soil pollution.