Suburbia stalks and haunts the housing debate. Nowhere are the suburbs more physically, economically, politically, culturally and ideologically ingrained than America. It’s hard to overstate their significance as a symbol of how this country thinks of itself. The idea of living close, but not too close, to the city is as old as cities themselves, but in America attempts have been made to perfect the suburbs and make them the ideal of human settlement.
Radburn, New Jersey is the apotheosis of suburbia. I visited for the first time in 2012 , but returned yesterday to try to understand more about why it’s so revered by some. Re-reading my post from three years ago, I sound a bit grumpy and I was again as I walked along Radburn’s immaculate, tree-lined streets and pathways which seemed devoid of life. In the back of my mind was also, once again, an awareness that for all its laudable claims, Radburn has been an enclave of privilege and exclusivity. Studying many photos, across several decades, in the local library, I didn’t see one non-white face.
I was all ready to get back to the ‘real life’ of the city, when I passed by a house where a couple were enjoying the sun and I met Bill and Julia. They instantly invited me to join them, offered refreshment and we chatted about Radburn and what it means to them. Bill has lived there for most of his life and Julia for over 30 years, although both of their families were originally from less salubrious parts of New Jersey.
As with any other place, it’s one thing to read about it in a book, another to talk to people who actually live there. Bill and Julia clearly love Radburn and I had no sense that it was just pull up the drawbridge escapism. They value the sense of community that was – and remains – an explicit part of Radburn’s aim and identity. In this sense it seems like the antithesis to the kind of social-isolation and atomisation that is often associated with suburbia. The much-replicated Radburn layout is designed to foster neighbourly exchanges. In an echo of what could be said by people from many urban areas, Julia reflected hat this community spirit is somewhat reduced, particularly as new residents arrive, but don’t stay for long and as Bill eloquently put it ‘People spend more time in their air-conditioned homes and cars’.
It’s possible to view Radburn as an anachronistic exception, but as Bill and Julia testify, some people like living in the suburbs and this doesn’t have to mean monochrome mundanity. What we mustn’t have though, is a situation as currently exists, where the interests of those who live in suburbia are allowed to dominate and denigrate those who don’t.
The Radburn Layout
Julia and Bill