American Visions of City Escapes

BORDERLAND: ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN SUBURB by John R. Stilgoe, New Haven: Yale University Press, 353 pp., illustrated, $35 WE suburban kids knew we did not live in the city: That was where our parents had ``escaped'' from. But flower beds, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens did not convince us we lived on farms. And the tidy, quaint ``towns'' of films and fiction bore little resemblance to the emerging landscape of housing developments, shopping malls, and expressways surrounding us.

The landscape covered in John Stilgoe's ``Borderland'' - 1820 to 1939 - was more rural and less homogenized than that of mass-produced, postwar suburbs like Levittown. From reconverted farmhouses to full-scale projects like Shaker Heights and Forest Hills Gardens, the borderland experiments of this period reflect a wide range of American attitudes about where - and how - to live. Any dissatisfaction, as Stilgoe demonstrates, echoed the anti-suburban, anti-small-town outlook associated with European modernism and the expatriate Lost Generation of the 1920s.

Commuters, Stilgoe argues, are the spiritual descendants of ``come-outers,'' the immigrants who fled the Old World for the New, and the East Coast for the Western frontier. A secondary meaning of commute, he reminds us, is to mitigate or lessen an evil. Commuters to suburban borderlands hoped, by installing their families in the country, to lessen the ``evil influences'' of city living.

The oft-lamented ``sterility'' of the suburbs and the all-too-fecund problems of the cities that commuters left behind - overcrowded tenements, noise, crime, pollution - nourished a persistent worry: Was America's national strength also its weakness - in Stilgoe's words, an ``unwillingness to succeed in a difficult place, to improve unfavorable conditions rather than flee them?'' Was the United States a nation of pioneers or a nation of quitters?

While Stilgoe's study acknowledges the claims of the anti-suburban faction, his interest and sympathy are largely with the long stream of anti-urban thought and behavior. He traces these as far back as the English idea of retreating to the country from the intrigues of the court, on through the Puritan desire to flee ``Babylon,'' and the longing of 19th-century Americans to get back in touch with nature to cure the ``nervous exhaustion'' of life in the commercial-industrial city. Ironically, as Stilgoe points out, champions of suburban and urban life styles each accused the other of being ``materialistic.''

STILGOE, a professor of ``visual and environmental studies and the history of landscape'' at Harvard and author of ``Common Landscape of America: 1580-1845'' and ``Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene,'' is less concerned with the political, economic, and technological underpinnings of the ``borderland'' phenomenon than with the changes in the landscape and the ways people perceived their surroundings.

He makes excellent use of a cornucopia of sources in attempting to recover a sense of what the borderland looked like and how the early commuters/``come-outers'' saw their environments. The ideal borderland residence, as he shows, is elevated above urban pollution, close enough to the city for easy commuting, and graced by the presence of many trees. Stilgoe also explains how and why activities like botanizing, gardening, do-it-yourself repair work, bird watching, and antique collecting gained special esteem at particular stages.

Stilgoe's research is thorough, his approach original and engaging, and his book a delight to read, filled with illustrations - pictorial and verbal - that help illustrate the phenomenon more clearly and deeply. His chief weakness is his own writing, which sometimes lacks precision and edge. He has a habit of attributing ``confusion'' to the writers he quotes and discusses, when the confusion appears to reside more often in his own diction and syntax. But this is a minor flaw in a book that otherwise does so much to clarify our perceptions of a changing environment.

And change is still afoot. Stilgoe distinguishes both borderland and postwar suburbs from the more recent, as yet undefined look of areas like those around Tysons Corner, Va., or Princeton, N.J., which he intends to examine in a sequel to this book. He also notes that a back-to-the-city movement was in full swing when he began writing ``Borderland,'' but that a return to the suburbs may now be under way. A flight from reality or a dream never quite realized? ``Borderland'' brings into focus a vision at once familiar and difficult to see.

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