Urban historian and architect Rybczynski (The Perfect House, 2002, etc.) follows the development of empty farmland in Chester County, Penn., into a compact, walkable exurban community of private houses and public spaces.
It’s a complicated tale, taking the reader on a four-and-a-half-year roller-coaster ride of persuasion, roadblocks, compromises, delays and solutions. The large cast of characters includes real-estate developers, planning commissioners, supervisors, water-authority officials, engineers, architectural designers, landscape architects, house-builders and homebuyers. New Daleville, as the project was called, adhered to the neo-traditional model of development, a movement that began in the 1980s and may be best exemplified by Seaside, Fla., a planned, high-density community designed to create the feeling of a small town. Rybczynski places this movement in historical context, weaving into his narrative mini-essays on land-jobbers in the early days of the country, Frank Lloyd Wright’s urban planning in the 1930s and the building of suburban communities like Levittown in the postwar era. He looks at changes in American taste in homes, why we live where we live, why we buy what we buy and how builders market houses. He also includes a history of single-family housing and reflects on its nearly universal popularity. As the book closes, New Daleville is not finished, but some houses are done and people have begun to move in. Rybczynski gives the reader an up-close view of one of the first families: why they chose New Daleville, how they selected the lot, how they altered the model and what they expect from life in the new community. While ever-larger houses on vast lots are still being built and still appeal to many buyers, neo-traditional development, with its small lots, narrow streets and public parks, makes sense to Rybczynski, and he is persuasive.
An enlightening account of American entrepreneurship, with plenty of architectural and social background.