Suburban Dreams or Nightmares?

The “lakeside villas” at New Mark Commons in Rockville, Maryland.

This Wednesday, May 16, I’ll be leading a tour of 20th-century planned communities for the American Institute of Architects’ annual convention.  We’ll start with 1930s Greenbelt (one of a handful developed by the federal government to demonstrate how communities could be intentionally planned, not just haphazardly developed) and then visit two other nationally significant planned communities, both in Rockville:  1960s-70s New Mark Commons and 2000s King Farm.  I’ll be joined by Dr. Elizabeth Milnarik, Dr. Isabel Gournay, and Jim Wasilak (Rockville’s Chief of Planning).  By the end of the day, participants will have a nice overview of “community making” in the 20th century, all very different responses by some of the best minds of their times.

I love sharing Rockville with anyone who’s interested but unfortunately, this tour is limited to members of the AIA.  But you can easily explore these neighborhoods yourself and if you want more details, Greenbelt has a museum in one of the original residences and Dr. Isabel Gournay at the University of Maryland has written a scholarly essay on King Farm (and Woodley Gardens) in Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area , edited by Richard Longstreth (2010).  If you’d like a guided tour, suggest it to Peerless Rockville and perhaps they’ll put one together in the near future.

New Mark Commons and King Farm are hailed as idealistic suburban communities, but it wasn’t true of all neighborhoods in Rockville.  In 1956, John Keats criticized the monotony and isolation of the suburbs around Washington, DC in his popular novel, The Crack in the Picture Window.  He follows the lives of Mary and John Drone, a young family trying to get established.  They move up from a small old apartment in northern Virginia and move to a new house in suburban Maryland, supposedly based on Rockville’s Twinbrook neighborhood:

[John Drone counted his blessings and said,] “Great.  I have a wife and two swell kids, a new split level with everything in it, a new car with all the extras, and I got myself not one but three jobs.  I’m meeting all my payments, every month.”

As for Mary’s life, the first few weeks were spent in the charming exhilaration which new surroundings always bring.  Gaily, she explored the cellar bedroom which had been added to her domain.  She liked the little thrill of going up two steps to the living room, and then up another two into the bedrooms.  She was as happy as a squirrel in a new, three-ring cage.  This light mood persisted through nearly two months, until at last there came that day when her new world suddenly became only too familiar.

It was the day she stood looking out her picture window and for the first time became completely aware of the picture window across the treeless street.  For a horrid moment she stood there, staring.  The she ran to her door and tore it open, looking up and down the block.  And everywhere she looked, she saw houses exactly like her own, row on row of them, the same, the same, the same…

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