307.7680974813, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway, by Witold Rybczynski (2007).
Are you enamored of excessively long titles, of the sort that were hugely in fashion in, let’s say, the 18th century? Or do you find them aggravating? And more to the point, why are publishers saddling books with titles too large to fit on the cover, when the book doesn’t necessarily deliver?
This is not the first book of Rybczynski’s that I’ve read, nor, I’m sure, will it be the last. I’m a big fan of his writing, which I find down to earth and appealing in its pragmatic but fascinating focus on the little things that often escape our notice– like, say, the history of the screwdriver, which I had never before considered but found intriguing in the 620s.
When I came across this volume by Rybczynski that traces the development of a single plot of land in Pennsylvania from corn field to new subdivision, I was doubly interested– the subject reminded me of Tracy Kidder’s excellent book House and also I’m increasingly concerned about the way that development is proceeding in my lovely little semi-rural, highly walkable city of roughly 75,000 (i.e., without any apparent planning). I decided that a little education on the development process was in order, and that Rybczynski was just the author to do it.
And I’m glad that I did, despite the fact that I felt like I was constantly fighting against Rybczynski’s pragmatism. You see, the development that he writes about is something known as “neotraditional,” a kind of development that’s engineered to deliver spanking-new houses in brand-new subdivisions that are supposed to feel, in some elusive way, like old-fashioned neighborhoods. I’m someone with strongly held and (I thought) carefully considered opinions on the futility of social engineering through architecture, whether that be the failed 1960s attempts to build the office building of the future (Brutalism, anyone?) or the even more disastrous housing projects like Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green. I have a long-standing attachment to old houses and an equally long-standing distrust of almost everything built after the 1930s (which I try not to inflict upon my friends, many of whom prefer more modern architecture).
In a nutshell, Rybczynski’s argument is that development will happen regardless, so better to try to create a neotraditional neighborhood than to build yet another swath of McMansions, each perched like a ludicrous gaudy crown on their own out-of-scale plot of land.
And so we end in a near-stalemate: my pragmatism, which is probably equal to Rybczynski’s, against my distaste for houses (and barren new treeless neighborhoods) that are utterly lacking in history. When you throw in the second subtitle, though, promising a history of everything and an explanation of the human urge for houses, the balance shifts to the negative. Thought-provoking? Yes. Irritating? Also, unfortunately, yes.