Review: Last Harvest by Witold Rybczynski

Witold Rybczynski, author of Home, A Clearing in the Distance, and (my favorite) City Life, has two new books out. Well, it's actually only one book, entitled Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, but it feels like two. As is the case in several of his previous books, Rybczynski alternates between a narrative that acts as the backbone of the book and a series of intellectual asides that, together, form a sort of supportive history to said backbone story. Normally this works well, with the historical details serving to enrich the central story line, but in Last Harvest, the two are separated more severely than in previous books. In short, one is highly engrossing and the other is...not so much.

In Rybczynski's defense, it should be stated at the outset that not even F. Scott Fitzgerald could jazz up the topic: residential suburban development. For those who aren't terribly interested in real estate (or even just this decidedly un-glamorous side of it) the backbone narrative, which tracks the conversion of a piece of farmland in the town of Londonderry in exurban Philadelphia into what is alternately called a "neotraditional neighborhood" and a "traditional neighborhood development" (or TND), is a challenge. There is bureaucracy, there is endless compromise, there is an utter lack of desire on the part of the developer to create the kind of real design guidelines that supposedly make these types of subdivisions -- sorry, communities -- work. About halfway through the book Tim Cassidy, a landscape architect on the Londonderry planning commission, explains to the author: "In reality, anything [the developers] build probably will be mediocre. But if they shoot for mediocre, it will just be terrible!" Near the end, Cassidy explains his opinion of the now-under construction project: "I guess I would have to say it's probably what I expected, because I expected to be disappointed." My sentiments exactly.

Upon deciding to write a book about subdivision development, Rybczynski took a gamble. Had he started tracking a neotraditional development that wound up working, this part of the book might have been more interesting. (For evidence of this, one need look no further than the section of Last Harvest that deals with Vince Graham's Newpoint development in Beaufort, SC.) Unfortunately, he wound up with a dud. But the parts of Last Harvest that track the history of suburban development in the United States wind up not only overshadowing the narrative -- they relegate it to the role of a rather long case study. Indeed, these fascinating asides, collected together, could be sold as a separate book. In them, the author covers everything from the well-planned early garden suburbs (including Chestnut Hill in Philly, where he lives), to Frank Lloyd Wright's prescient Broadacre City plans and the way that the Levitt brothers (of Levittown fame) disseminated those ideas to the masses. The best is probably the section that rather successfully argues that the standard suburban ranch house represents one of the most radical architectural departures in American history. I wouldn't be lying if I told you that Rybczynski makes the history of suburbia almost fun to read.

But even here, there is a hitch. About a third of the way into Last Harvest, Rybczynski's generally objective and academic voice cracks. "For the first time in history," he writes, "urbanization does not mean concentration." This opinion, which rather sneakily passes for observation in the context of the chapter, sets a very subtly pro-exurban development tone for the book. Granted, this is obviously not an anti-exurb book. It was frustrating, nonetheless, to see the definition of urbanity undermined in such a way. Urbanization is a term that describes the process of making an environment urban. There is a reason that the sub- prefix is added to the term to describe the kind of sprawling, decentralized growth like that described in Long Harvest. A suburban environment is, by nature, less than urban. This is not a comment on quality (though many would argue otherwise), but quantity. Urbanization is intrinsically tied to concentration (of many things), and suggesting the contrary is Rybczynski's one misstep in his careful plotting-out of the evolution of the American suburb.

Suburbia is what it is. Long Harvest, then, does an excellent job of helping the reader to understand the suburb for what it is. While by no means arresting, Rybczynski's recounting of the many tedious details of the development and planning process for one small subdivision -- sorry, communi...oh, forget that -- is certainly enlightening for anyone who wants to understand why so many of today's suburban developments look the way they do. Even better, if you can look past some semantic flubbery, it provides a wonderfully engaging history of how they got to their current state. At the very least, that history will give any good urbanist something to chew on. And what else can you ask a good summer book to do?

Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville (Powells.com)



Anonymous said...

I'm about a third of the way through, and I think the book is very well written and the subject is fascinating. You should know that I am an attorney (private practice for 25 years) who just started a small real estate brokerage business. I've also been thinking about getting into development, but the more I read, I'm coming to the realization that I would never want to develop a residential parcel like New Daleville. Too much risk and compromise. I'll let you know what I think when I finish the book.

Brendan said...

What amazed me the most about the development process itself was the amount of time that it took to get things done. I had always (wrongfully) assumed, like I think a lot of non-development people do, that there was little red tape for subdivision construction. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon to hear people talk about subdivisions as "sprouting up like weeds" all over. So to see how much work went into this one small development was eye-opening. It's no wonder that it's such a gamble when you look at it from the long angle...so much can change in the market over the course of 3-4 years.