Rethinking the American Dream

The American Dream is an awfully broad thing – probably best described by taking phraseology from the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Somehow, during the past 200+ years of American history, that dream got far more specific and universal, meaning home ownership.  Not only did that mean home ownership in terms of property ownership, but the various rules and regulations covering zoning, transportation, housing finance, and the like have resulted in a dream framed by a specific kind of home ownership – the detached, single family home, a nice yard and a white picket fence.

It’s worth noting that this specific conception of the American Dream is a relatively recent one, and it’s one that coincides with some specific policies from the Interstate Highway System to VA home loans, as well as some specific historical moments – most notably, the baby boom.

Given the relative turmoil of the past year coming on top of longer trends of reinvestment in American central cities and walkable places, it’s a fitting time to re-think this particular notion of the American Dream.  Considering the role that housing finance specifically played in our near economic collapse (and current malaise), the relentless pursuit of home ownership is no longer the ultimate goal.

With that, there are several takes on what the new Dream should be.  First, Carol Colletta, CEO of CEOs for Cities:

Signs of the new American good life are everywhere. Young adults, with their pursuit of 24/7 lifestyles, led the way back to the city. By 2000, they were 33 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods close to the center of town. The interest in cycling has exploded, with commensurate responses by municipal governments in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and, just recently, Boston, to make cycling easier and safer. Similarly, the local food movement has gained a foothold with the mainstream, with farmers markets popping up in the most unlikely places. More Americans are choosing dense condo living than ever before. Households without a nuclear family inside are now the majority, just as “non-traditional” students now dominate college enrollment. Suburbs are being remade with the addition of commercial uses and public space to introduce new vitality into these places. Zipcar has made the idea of Americans sharing their assets almost normal.

Perhaps the biggest upset of all is that Americans have reduced their driving for the first time since World War II.

The problem is this: These remain only disconnected signals. To date, Americans are unable to see the new pattern that is developing.  There is not yet a compelling narrative about this emerging good life into which Americans can project their own lives—certainly nothing with enough power to counter the stories we tell ourselves about what is “normal.”

Carol wants to try and define a “new normal” for the American dream, one that’s urban, diverse, etc.

Aaron Renn chimes in:

I’m not sure I’d personally say “replacing” the American dream. I’m not anti-suburb. Nor do I think people were conned into moving there. Do I think there are huge subsidies to encourage suburban migration that ought to be cut off? Yes I do and I’ve written about them here. But I have to respect that there are those who have made a fully legitimate choice to live that lifestyle.

But there are plenty of others who made that choice by default, without careful consideration. If given an alternative vision about how they could achieve their personal aspirations in an urban environment, they might be open to being convinced – particularly if there is as much Madison Ave. behind it as there was behind suburbanization for the last 60 years.

Renn concludes by noting this:

Again, I’d say that I don’t personally think we need to have just one definition of the good life. In an every more diverse society, we need ever more diverse ways of living to meet people’s aspirations in life. But right now we’ve only got one version of “normal” and that’s the suburbs. If nothing else, to renew our cities we need to put out a credible alternative vision of “the good life” in an urban context.

I think it’s true – there is no comparable urban version of the old American Dream of a detached suburban house with a driveway and a garage.  But part of what makes urban spaces great is that there is no such single definition.  Looking at urbanism through the lens of walkability, ‘urban’ can be anything and everything from an old streetcar suburb of primarily detached houses to Midtown Manhattan.  Similarly, a more abstract criteria like ownership should not be the primary concern, as the recent policy changes of the Obama administration indicate.

My rhetorical question is this – is it even possible to come up with an urban American Dream?  The variations in urbanism are what make it great.  It’s important that we hang on to that diversity within our urban areas, while at the same time realizing that multiple different kinds of urbanism fit into a more sustainable world.

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3 Responses to “Rethinking the American Dream”

  1. Christopher Says:

    There was a serious overcrowding problem, couple with low quality housing — the infamous cold water flat, well before the baby boom. Which is why of course, building public housing began in the 1920s and 30s. Although it accelerated after the war, when a suddenly there was a return of 20-something men, now forced to live with their new wives all to often in their parents already cramped apartments.

    Not to say that we didn’t over do the policy issues in terms of suburbanization, but the problem of housing had been percolating all the way through the 20th century. It was only made even more clear after the War and with the post war economic boon where we could suddenly focus on those things that we had forgotten about just trying to survive the 1930s.

    There’s an interesting slideshow up at Slate right now of the economically built Forest Hills section of Queens. Influenced by the anti-urban Garden Cities movement — and promoted by the anti-urbanist children of the City Beautiful movement (the son of Olmstead was the landscape architect).

    It’s really a for-runner to some of the intelligent ideas of New Urbanism — traditional architecture, strict visual planning codes, walkable, transit oriented, with a mix of higher buildings near the transit hub and townhouses and single family detached homes. It was also intentionally mixed income, and built with cast concrete in order to save costs. It’s a model for a new a kind of surbanism that is now over 100 years old, but that we forgot until the 1980s.

  2. Alex Block Says:

    Without a doubt, there was a serious need for more housing – but I think the combination of the emergence of zoning and other legal strictures made the form of that growth fairly homogenous.

    It’s not that these things created the suburbs, but I think they did standardize things a great deal. It’s the standardization of having one american dream that I was trying to question. Why only one?

    Great points about other suburbs and the Garden Cities. To me, most of those places still fall within my broad definition of ‘urban.’

  3. Garden Variety Links « city block Says:

    […] in the comments of my post on the American Dream, mentioned this great photo gallery over on Slate from Witold Rybczynski of Forest Hills Gardens, […]

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