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The Film That Launched America's Debate About the Suburbs

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An aerial view of Greenbelt, Maryland.
An aerial view of Greenbelt, Maryland.

The city is over. That's an argument we've heard before. We're hearing it again now, an apparent backlash against the past decade's trend toward new urbanism, with its live/work city lofts, mixed uses, and rooftop gardens.

For over a decade, this trend has brought young urban professionals and retirees alike back to the city with its compact streets and walkable spaces. But now the suburbs—and the people who promote them—are fighting back. The National Association of Realtors, a group that represents agents who sell property, claims that Millennials are clamoring to buy homes. People 34 and younger, the NAR says, have accounted for 32 percent of homebuyers since June 2014. Millennials, says The Atlantic, are "yearning for the suburbs," looking for "little boxes on the hillside" just like the ones in which they grew up. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 66 percent of respondents born after 1977 want to live the suburban life. A Nielsen survey, by contrast, found that 62 percent of Millennials surveyed preferred to live in "the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers," rather than in the suburbs. This propaganda war between city and suburbs is not new. It has been a part of American's economic engine for 80 years.

The suburbs were first pushed on the masses during the 1930s. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration to spur homeownership and lift the country from the Great Depression, inadvertently spawning the suburb. The all-out suburban blitz occurred in 1939, in large part due to The New Yorker architecture critic and urban planner Lewis Mumford. In his later years, Mumford would become a harsh critic of urban sprawl, calling the suburbs an "asylum for the preservation of illusion." But long before he turned against the suburbs, Mumford championed them. He shared the ideology of the "Houser" and "Communitarian" social movements, which fought for community-building and housing rights for urban workers who lived in crowded apartments and tenement houses. Mumford, with his Houser cohorts Clarence Stein, Catherine Bauer Wurster, and Pare Loretz, helped spearhead the country's effort for a mass migration from the city to small town America with the 1939 urban planning documentary The City.

The film, though not directly commissioned by FDR, was certainly a product of his administration: the script was based on an eleven-page outline by "FDR's filmmaker," documentarian Pare Loretz, and the original concept for the film was that of the Housing Act of 1937's co-author, the housing advocate and urban planner Catherine Bauer Wurster. Bauer Wurster formulated many of her urban planning ideas in 1920s Paris. It was there that her attachment to French modern domestic architecture, such as the work of Le Corbusier, grew. It was the kind of architecture that aimed to bolster community and centralize convenience and amenities. While in Europe, Bauer Wurster also worked alongside the likes of architects Walter Gropius, Ernst May, and other Modernists who all believed in the planning virtues of light and air—two qualities America's urban housing options severely lacked. Later, during Bauer Wurster's time in advertising at publishing house Harcourt Brace, she encountered Mumford. That meeting launched a friendship that ultimately turned into a lengthy romantic affair. Bauer Wurster's relationship with Mumford led to introductions to Clarence Stein, an architect and co-founder of the Regional Planning Association, and the rest of the Houser community.

An aerial view of Greenbelt, Maryland, under construction. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The film project began in earnest when Clarence Stein launched a non-profit production company called Civic Films in 1938. The company came on the heels of the country's first official study of urban life, which FDR commissioned to examine the social and economic collapses resulting from the Depression. Civic Films, a part of the American Institute of Planners, aimed to remedy the Depression's ills. The idea was to leverage the sorry state of American housing to produce a film on the urban condition and then release it to the masses at the 1939 New York World's Fair. After all, the 1939 fair proclaimed to be "the everyman's fair," a tagline that was surely not lost on Stein. Stein had been a witness to England's success using documentary filmmaking to galvanize public support for urban planning, and now it was America's turn.

Part social plea, part "Houser" propagandist film, The City warned of the dangers of industrialized city dwelling, such as those famously documented by photojournalist Jacob Riis a few decades earlier, and extolled the virtues of suburbanization and well-planned communities.

The City's staged look at a pastoral New England community before the Industrial Revolution.

The film was divided into three parts. The first part used staged footage to take a nostalgic look back at a pastoral New England community prior to the Industrial Revolution. The sun shone bright, birds chirped, and people took pride and satisfaction in their meaningful work. The second part of the film used real urban footage to show the harsh realities of life in 1939: a cacophony of steam, train whistles, clacking typewriters, and overcrowding. The third and final part of The City, once again staged, showed an idyllic suburban vision for the future. That vision was rooted in a Garden City—a master-planned community designed for low-income and working class residents, first conceived by English utopian thinker Ebenezer Howard. These Garden Cities lay just a few miles outside the grittier downtown or "central city," as Howard referred to it. Howard believed that truly livable cities should be built around a greenbelt and should be entirely self-contained communities that featured schools, libraries, jobs, and housing all within their lush boundaries.

A Garden City was to be circular in form and 1,000 acres in area, built near the center of a 6,000-acre plot. Six boulevards, each measuring 120 feet wide, were to crisscross the city, radiating from the center outward. In the center would be a beautiful circular garden of five and a half acres. Civic buildings would have lush patches of land around the garden, and surrounding that core space would be what Howard called the "Crystal Palace," a 145-acre public park, accessible to all. Each Garden City would sit off from the central city so that it might enjoy all the delights of suburban life with undeniable access to the center. The distance, Howard noted, "from any town to the heart of Central City is only three and a quarter miles, and this could be readily covered in five minutes." (The outer acres would hold factories, lumberyards, dairies, warehouses, and other industrial buildings.) Residents of the cities would be served, and connected to other cities, by a system of high-speed railways and electric tramways. No stopping, no waiting. Technology would serve man, not overtake it, as it had in America's urban cores.

The City aimed to make urban areas look overcrowded and grim.

The City's utopian third act was set in the real Garden City of Greenbelt, Maryland, founded in 1937 and located 30 miles south of Baltimore. Clarence Stein, inspired by Ebeneezer Howard, thought up Garden City and its design. In fact, Stein had helped build three 'greenbelt' towns, including Greenbelt, Maryland, as part of a government initiative throughout the 1930s. (A fourth city, Greenbrook, New Jersey, had been planned, but was stymied by legal challenges.)

Homes in Greenbelt were grouped in superblocks with a system of interior walkways for residents to travel from their homes to the town center without ever crossing a major street. Pedestrian and automobile traffic were deliberately separated on curvilinear streets that wound through the community. Greenbelt's schools, shops, recreation, and community buildings were grouped at the center of the town. The city's careful plan sought to force community and generate interaction among neighbors. The concept was so popular that Greenbelt actually drew 5,700 applicants for its mere 885 residences.

The film's third act focused on a real garden city, Greenbelt, Maryland.

To emphasize Greenbelt's enviable qualities, Stein requested that the film's end sequence be extended, and it was. The urban planners behind the film fought for a revised treatment to the congested city sequence, too. Where the film's director had originally wanted a comical 'Laurel and Hardy-style' approach to traffic congestion and urban grime, Stein and his colleagues demanded a straightforward look at city life. The harsh depiction that resulted was likely part of Stein's attempt to reignite the embers of his Garden City movement in America.

The City and America's housing advocates claimed that the suburbs invited community and convenience. But as Mumford, originally a suburbia advocate, and other planning critics ultimately came to believe that the suburbs bred alienation, uniformity, and distance. Still, the film's strong messaging, visceral imagery, and plea for reform set America on the move. It would be 30 years before Mumford admitted changing his mind. In 1961, he published the influential and National Book Award-winning The City in History, critiquing the suburb as an "asylum for the preservation of illusion" and arguing that "the absurd belief that space and rapid locomotion are the chief ingredients of a good life has been fostered by the agents of mass suburbia."

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]