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Domestic Arrangements

Delores Hayden’s Redesigning the American Dream

Eugene McCarraher

Furniture from Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. Via Wikimedia Commons.

After a few months of living deliberately in his shack near Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau decided to visit his friends at Brook Farm. Along with other utopian enthusiasts of Charles Fourier, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller were close to completing a “phalanastery,” a dormitory to house the participants in their experiment in communal living. Apparently hoping for Thoreau’s seal of aesthetic and spiritual approval, they had invited the Yankee Diogenes to inspect their outpost of paradise, and bless what Hawthorne would call, in The Blithedale Romance, their “modern arcadia.” Thoreau was not impressed. After looking over the site, he shrugged, remarking sagely, “Huts, huts are safe,” and ambled back to the pond. (The phalanastery burned to the ground a few months later.) 

Dolores Hayden relates this story in her study of architecture and urban planning, adding a sardonic finish to counter the Polonius of the forest. “Of course,” she observes, Thoreau “went to dine with his mother and sister whenever his hut lost its appeal” (157). Huts might be safe, but even Mr. Different Drummer needed human contact. Still, Thoreau’s abode near Walden Pond is better known than Brook Farm’s phalanstery, and the burden of Hayden’s book is explaining why the hut continues to stand. From the nation’s republican establishment to its present imperial swaying, the little house has held a mortgage on the American imagination, even when the payments prove exorbitant in money, materials, and worry. Enchanted by the vision of a “sacred hut”—a dwelling where virtue can be safely insulated from a vicious world outside—Americans have denied, and continue to deny, the inexorably social nature of housing; separated domestic and political economy in a way that inhibits the flourishing of women; and created patterns of residence and consumption that disfigure the landscape and despoil the environment. Seen as a gargantuan network of housing and labor arrangements, huts are no longer safe—in fact, they’re downright dangerous to a genuinely civilized life. 

A professor of architecture and American studies at Yale, and one of our finest historians of housing and urbanism, Hayden has devoted her entire career to scholarship that doubles as social criticism. In her first book, Seven American Utopias, she traced “communitarian” experiments in architecture that stretched from early nineteenth-century utopian settlements such as Brook Farm and Oneida, through religious groups like the Shakers and the Mormons, to socialist towns like Llano del Rio, California.11xDolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790–1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976). In The Grand Domestic Revolution, she chronicled attempts by architects and activists to design domestic spaces that would allow women and children to flourish more freely than they could in Victorian or suburban houses.22xDolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981). Lucid, informative, and generous in spirit, both of these volumes reflect Hayden’s desire, shared by other feminist academics, to reformulate scholarly accounts of American social and cultural history. With Redesigning the American Dream (first published in 1984, and updated in 2002), Hayden attempts to appeal to an audience broader than academic specialists. It joins a growing literature in the critical history of suburbia.33xSee Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic, 1987); James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993); and Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America and How We Can Take It Back (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). Offering more than wearisome snideness about aluminum siding and pink flamingoes, this literature continues an urbanist tradition represented a generation ago by Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and Paul and Percival Goodman.44xThe Goodman’s Communitas remains a milestone in its fusion of architectural criticism, social commentary, and ecological sensitivity [Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (1947; New York: Columbia University Press, 1989)]. With a keener attention to gender, Hayden most closely resembles the Goodmans, mixing history, illustration, and reform proposals in accessible prose. 

As is so often the case with reformers, Hayden recalls a past from which the present is a declension. Hayden reminds us that the Puritans thought of their godly experiment as a “city on a hill,” while the Quakers called their settlement a “city of brotherly love.” Both communities imagined the common good in collective, not merely private or familial terms, and built their structures so as to harmonize family and other social spaces. Indeed, the town commons and village greens of New England constitute, in Hayden’s judgment, “our first and best planning tradition” (35). This urban ideal of human space did not die with the colonists. It remained vigorous in Walt Whitman, whose big-hearted “Song of the Broad-Axe” extolled a “city of the faithfulest friends”; in Frederick Law Olmsted, whose “Public Parks and the Improvement of Towns” still reads well as a call for a democratic public landscape; and in twentieth-century urbanists like Mumford, who tied urban planning and domestic architecture to “an intensification of collective self-knowledge” in The City in History.55xSee Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad-Axe,” Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. James E. Miller, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959) 141; Frederick Law Olmsted, “Public Parks and the Improvement of Towns,” Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns (Cambridge, MA: American Social Science Association, 1870) 7–9; and Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961) 526. Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is conspicuously absent and surely merited at least an endnote (1961; New York: Vintage, 1992). This urbanist pedigree of architectural criticism aimed at an integration of domestic and economic life that would both beautify the built environment and end the segregation and oppression of women. 

The urbanists were defeated by what Hayden dubs the “dream house” tradition, and the villain here is Thomas Jefferson, whose yeoman ideal of male agricultural proprietorship inscribed the family farm, not the village, at the center of the American spatial imagination. Seen through Hayden’s eyes, the subsequent history of westward dispossession and genocide is the story of the dream house and its triumph, culminating in the metastasis of suburban tracts in the years after World War II. Erected in timber and enveloped in maudlin, the dream house became the ark of individualism, itself a misnomer standing for the male-dominated family. Indeed, far from representing a rational solution to demographic and spatial problems, the contemporary suburban house is the highest stage of individualist ideology: as the developer William Levitt asserted in 1948, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.”66xWilliam Levitt, interview with Eric Larrabee, “The Six Thousand Houses that Levitt Built,” Harper’s Magazine (September 1948): 84. More recently, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer invoked divine favor on our burgeoning houses and sport utility vehicles, the tokens, he told reporters, of “our blessed way of life” [New York Times (8 May 2001): 12]. The persisting enchantment of the dream house tradition in the face of rising prices, accelerating mobility, and changing family and employment patterns is the basis for the current crisis in American housing: a dearth of attractive and affordable residences, for a variety of families, close enough to their workplaces. 

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