Why America?

I’ve spent a long time pondering this question, at a personal and more general level.  Every time I come I wonder why and on each visit I think the spell isn’t going to work, but somehow, it always does.

Yesterday I saw two places that capture the stark contrasts and contradictions.  Rochdale Village in Queens (NYC)  claims to be the second biggest housing co-operative in the world.  Almost 6000 families live in 20 identical 14-storey blocks, arranged around immaculately manicured lawns, tree-shaded paths, playgrounds, allotments, local shops, schools and community facilities.  It’s named after Rochdale in Lancashire and in honour of the weavers who founded the co-operative movement.  The development still refers to itself as a co-op, although it’s owned by the State (not the city) of New York and is part of the Mitchell-Lama programme of non-market rented housing that has been repeatedly attacked by recent US governments and defended by some of the tenants I’ll be meeting in a few days in Washington DC.

The Village was built in the 60’s under the guidance of Robert Moses, the master Modernist planner of New York City who was also responsible for several new bridges, highways that crashed through established communities, hundreds of parks, seaside resorts that were engineered to exclude black people and thousands of public housing apartments, but it also owes a debt to Abraham Kazan of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America who drove the involvement of trade unions in providing decent, affordable housing.  The original population of Rochdale Village was predominantly Jewish families from the tenements of Manhattan: today it is almost entirely African-American.

Moses has been reviled almost as much as Le Corbusier for an approach to city-building that was brutal in method and design.  Walking around Rochdale Village yesterday, it was hard not to think he’s been vindicated.

At another housing extreme, 20-miles east is Levittown, Long Island.  After the Second World War, Abraham Levitt and his sons began to build homes on what had been potato fields.  There were three basic designs capable of being mass-produced at speed.  Eventually they built 17,000, the largest single private property development in the world.  Each home came with a small plot of land and was offered for $60 per month with an option to buy after one year and a list of rules requiring regular lawn mowing and against fences and black people.  Levitt said he could solve a housing problem or a ‘race problem’, but not both.  Kenneth Jackson wrote a brilliant book ‘Crabgrass Frontier’ about the history and social significance of the American suburb and Levittown is a quintessential example of low-density, car-dependent, strip-mall living.  Over the years Levitt’s uniform designs have been customised to express personal tastes that would give Grayson Perry a field-day.  I remember a very similar process in Dagenham after the Right to Buy, but I’m worried now that I might be sounding like a Stalinist.

But it’s the people who make America most interesting.  The mix of liberal-minded openness and conservative reserve is tricky.  My Long Island cab driver ranted about socialists (one in particular), but even after I told him Barack and I were comrades, he went out of his way to help me.  He told me that America is great because you can do anything.  I asked if he liked being a cab driver and he replied ‘it’s all I can do’.  Later I asked directions from a Levittown resident who insisted on me having a cold beer, but then asked ‘why are you walking?’ as though I had outraged public decency.

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