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What five failed utopias can teach us today

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Catch up on the best moments so far from Curbed’s podcast, “Nice Try!”

A large 19th century brick mansion with mansard roofs surrounded by autumnal foliage
The Oneida Community Mansion House was specifically designed for the alternative living habits of a 19th century “free love” utopia.
Courtesy Oneida Community Mansion House

Nice Try!, the Curbed podcast on the perpetual search for utopian living, has now explored five failed attempts at utopias, from the bloody beginnings of Jamestown to Oneida, an upstate New York commune turned silverware brand. There won’t be a new episode this week due to the Fourth of July holiday, but the series will resume July 11 and the season’s final episode airs July 18. Until then, there’s no better time to catch up on previous episodes. Here are five of our favorite moments from the series so far.

Episode 1: Jamestown, Utopia for Whom?

The saga of Jamestown is often told as a love story between John Smith, a British colonist, and Pocahontas, the daughter of a Powhatan chief, like in this painting from the Works Progress Administration. The real story is far more complicated.
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There are many tellings of America’s beginnings, but Jamestown—whose story you might have seen in Disney’s Pocahontas—is one of the most fascinating, troubling, and misunderstood. The series’s first episode begins in 1607, when the British established the colony. Things quickly went awry.

“[George] Percy says that first they ate dogs, they ate cats, they ate rats, they ate vermin, they ate any living thing that was in the fort. Then they ate the leather off their shoes. They boiled their belts and sucked them. Then it got to the point where he says they licked the blood off the faces of their dying men.” —Kathleen Donegan, professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America

Episode 2: Chandigarh, the Modernist Utopia

The Legislative Assembly building in Chandigarh, a city designed in mid-20th century to represent a newly democratic India.
AFP/Getty Images

Architects have a longstanding obsession with designing cities from scratch. If done right, is it possible to design a more democratic society? The second episode in the series explores the ambitions, and realities, of Chandigarh, a city in India designed by local architects and Le Corbusier. But a humble timber chair might be the city’s most enduring legacy. These designs, which fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auctions, are also finding new life and new interpretations for everyday use in the city today.

“Now this [revival] sounds like a fantastic narrative of modernism to me versus the narrative that ‘Oh no, these are fetishized objects of Eurocentric provenance, which are disinherited and abused by the post-colonial subject and therefore must be recovered and returned back to the hallowed institutions of the West and sold at their ‘proper prices’ so that Kim Kardashian— and I have nothing against Kim Kardashian or whoever that was—can sit in them.” —Vikram Prakash, professor of architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle

Episode 3: Utopia in our Backyard

While there were numerous post-war developers of suburbia, the most infamous is William Levitt, whose cookie-cutter Levittowns defined an era.
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American housing policy has long promoted a nation of happy suburban homeowners, and developers raced to fill the need—for some buyers. Episode 3 of Nice Try! dissects the work of William Levitt and Morris Milgram, two men who built suburban subdivisions outside of Philadelphia guided by dramatically different moral compasses.

“I call it ‘The Bubble’ because when we moved outside of this community that was when we were hit with the racism. Outside we were known as ‘Checkerboard Square,’ black and white. Well, that was fine because we knew that what we were doing was wonderful. We were proud of who we were.” —Joyce Hadley, resident of Concord Park, a Philadelphia suburb developed by Milgram

Episode 4: Utopia, LLC

The Oneida Community began as a “free love” utopia, but after its leader became a fugitive and fled, things became rocky.
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In the late 1800s, John Humphrey Noyes established a commune in upstate New York with radical beliefs on love, sex, and family. While the Oneida Community thrived for some years, the group eventually descended into chaos before ultimately rebranding as a silverware company. Episode 4 uncovers why.

“If you could rid yourself of all your attachments and your selfishness and sort of connect equally with all other humans you would get this sort of clean circuitry going that would do away with all illness and all sickness and eventually death. And sex was a part of this.”—Ellen Wayland Smith, author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to Well-Set Table

Episode 5: Architecture in a Fascist Utopia

Tempelhof Airport, in Berlin, was once intended to be the Third Reich’s gateway to the world.
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Architect Norman Foster once called Tempelhof “the mother of all airports” for its innovative design, which has a dark backstory that involves Hitler and the Third Reich’s aspirations as a global superpower. Episode 5 sleuths how it came to be and what happened to the monumental city that was supposed to be built around it.

“That’s a weird thing about Tempelhof, because you do have this unchanging rigid structure next to this field which is always changing and which is like so alive and organic. People are doing some different weird thing every time you come back, and it makes it so interesting.” —Luisa Beck, reporter and Berlin resident

Listen to Nice Try! Utopian on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app, and subscribe for free to get each new episode automatically every Thursday.