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Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930
Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930
Robert M. Fogelson
Yale University Press, 2005
272 pp., $40.00

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Julia Vitullo-Martin


Ambiguous Utopias

The formative history of suburbia.

At a reunion held a few years ago by my husband's family outside Baltimore, my brother-in-law, an architect, suggested we explore Guilford, a section of Northeast Baltimore where their Italian immigrant grandfather had done stonework which he regarded as the finest of his career. An elderly relative wanted no part of the expedition. Yes, grandpa had been very proud of his stone houses, walks, walls, and porter lodges, she recalled. But Guilford prohibited any Italian from moving in. It was "restricted." No Italian, Jewish, or black families need apply. My young, well-educated Italian American in-laws—bankers, professors, lawyers—pondered the unwelcome idea that their hard-working grandfather had treasured having built houses that he himself had been forbidden to buy.

Yet for the decades between the Civil War and the Great Depression—the first heyday of suburban development in America—most upper- and upper-middle-class prime residential developments routinely discriminated in a fashion we now regard as reprehensible. A family's having the money to buy a house wasn't sufficient. It also had to be the right color and ethnicity, and attend the correct church. Deeds carried restrictive covenants that set forth a series of proscriptions that bound both buyer and seller, as well as subsequent owners. In addition to Guilford, Maryland, restrictive covenants governed such famous developments as Forest Hill Gardens and Great Neck Hills in New York, Colony Hills in Massachusetts, Park Ridge in Illinois, Country Club District in Kansas, Palos Verdes in California, and hundreds of others across the country.

Some of the restrictions, particularly in the days before zoning, made eminent sense: no slaughterhouses, for example. No oil refineries, iron foundries, coal yards, hen houses, or reform schools. Some restrictions were a matter of taste, but surely enhanced property values, such as landscaping and set-back requirements. Other restrictions doubtless contributed ...

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