Suburbs, Status, and Sprawl

Suburbs, Status, and Sprawl

The neighbors of Our Lady of Mercy church were aghast. The archdiocese wanted to build an assisted-living home for thirty senior citizens on the church’s eleven-acre property in an expensive Washington, D.C., suburb.

The aggrieved residents quickly collected money to hire a zoning lawyer, and two evenings of hearings were filled with bitter protests against maltreatment at the hands of the power structure. But the arguments ordinarily used to keep apartments out of single-family areas lacked credibility. Disabled seniors were unlikely to party noisily into the night. And traffic congestion was not a problem; nurses’ aides and kitchen staff arrive for the morning shift before the lawyers and lobbyists of the neighborhood pull out of their driveways.

So the neighbors’ attorney fell back on an esthetic argument—the proposed building had an “institutional character” that didn’t fit into its surroundings. This reasoning, backed up by the volume of complaints, seemed to make headway. But toward the end of the second night of hearings, a simple question was asked: Aren’t some single-family houses in this neighborhood bigger than what the church wants to build?

So ended one small skirmish in the development wars that have become a staple of local politics across the country. “Slow-growth” homeowners are well established as a major political force in upscale suburbs and gentrifying city neighborhoods. Vigilant to protect against the intrusion of lower-income and lower-prestige neighbors, townhouse residents fight apartments while single-family householders combat townhouses. As the years pass, almost anything that might be built near someone’s house has become an object of wrath; the New York Times recently described how schools, ball fields, and even a nature path have come under attack in the New York suburbs. Although frequently disparaged as NIMBYs—for “Not In My Back Yard”—the homeowner groups present themselves as innocent victims of oppression by greedy developers. Improbable as the K Street lawyers who live around Our Lady of Mercy may be in the role of wretched of the earth, the pseudo-Marxist contraposition of developers to “the people” has become an unconscious assumption of discussion about land use. Transparently self-interested propaganda by developers and their friends serves only to reinforce the NIMBYs’ image as suffering victims, and rare efforts at serious analysis, such as Mike Davis’s lacerating account of Los Angeles homeowner associations in City of Quartz, make little impression.

Long after suburbs had been scorned in folk song as the setting of “boxes made of ticky-tacky,” their land use remained a subject of serious study only by those directly involved. The no-growth movement drew scant attention from students of politics. Organized homeowners largely kept out of state and national politics, hobbled by the mixing of Democrats and Republicans a...