Cities in crisis: Rehousing the American Dream

April 16 | diezyn

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Anita Hill's reimagining of the American Dream through housing strategies in her book Reimagining Equality. This post furthers that discussion.


Photo courtesy Kevin Bauman.
I live in a Canadian border city. The population is about half a million, but the city is not urban. Rather it is a collection of suburbs with giant malls as the focal-points. Lots and houses are huge with one family per house; public transportation isn't efficient and people drive everywhere; big box chains are nearly the only options for groceries and other necessities. This is a scene that replicates throughout my country and throughout the United States, and one that a group of architects and designers at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC would like to change. Running now until August 13th is the exhibit "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream."

The exhibit "is an exploration of new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis" in an effort to "envision new housing and transportation infrastructures that could catalyze urban transformation, particularly in the country's suburbs." The basis of the project is The Buell Hypothesis:

"Change the dream and you change the city. The private house and the city or suburb in which it is situated share a common destiny. Hence, if you change the narratives guiding suburban housing (such as that of the American Dream) and the priorities they imply — including spatial arrangements, ownership patterns, the balance between public and private interests, and the mixtures of activities and services that any town or city entails — then you begin the process of redirecting suburban sprawl."

These projects take hypothetical place in real communities around the United States — communities where houses and factories were hit hard by foreclosures. Born-again factories, gardening and green space, communal housing, and neighbourhood-centric amenities (as opposed to commercial and residential areas being segregated) are all brought to miniature life in the designs of the architects, designers, and social scientists at the exhibit. Rethinking housing by putting emphasis on green space, communal living, and work/living spaces becoming one in the same.

Rethinking suburbs as self-sufficient urbanized areas where work and life coexist in communal and environmentally-sustainable ways are the best use of the masses of land that have become unfeasible to support after the foreclosure crisis. The nuclear family of the bungalow house is no longer the American family, and with the change in American family must come a change in the American dream.

The best way to experience this exhibit (apart from visiting it) is by watching the videos on the MoMA website. Watch the models come to life with explanations from the designers and architects themselves.

  1. Do you mind me asking, are you from Windsor? The description is bang on.

    I think this is really interesting given that this project is taking shape for real in Detroit. The Detroit Film Theatre is actually featuring a few documentaries this month about urban farming and renewal in the city http://www.dia.org/detroitfilmtheatre/14/DFT.aspx

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    • Very close to Windsor! Fascinating that you guessed it. Thanks very much for pointing me toward that project and thanks for reading and commenting.

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      • I got to school in Windsor so it's definitely familiar territory. This project is very interesting though.

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  2. I was going to mention urban farming in Detroit! I'm fascinated by this development. I think it brings real hope to blighted areas, especially those areas which have been historically "food deserts".

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  3. Um, where is historic preservation in this conversation???? HP must be a part of the conversation for community sustainability.

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    • Hi there, that's a great suggestion for the designers behind the exhibit. This is a review on the exhibit, so I couldn't include every aspect of the discussion. Opening up for comments allows for that, so don't worry if it hasn't been brought up yet — you're the perfect one to bring it up.

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  4. fascinating! just great – i want to watch all of these.

    i live in a city that is wholly embracing (sub)urban sprawl – it's a small city, so this is a (relatively) recent development. the difficult part is that it feels so unstoppable when the entire system of city government is set up to encourage single-use, encourage sprawl (things like zoning laws that make home business illegal, or lack of impact fees, so that developers don't have to pay a cent to get utilities run to new developments outside the current city). and discourage historic preservations, as angie said (or, more accurately, only encourage it in affluent neighborhoods).

    this from someone who has wholly embraced the home part of the american dream, if not the other parts. but owning a home has been a dream of mine for…ever – and it is just as amazing as i always thought. the thing that really strikes me is the number of homeowners i know who don't actually like owning a home (or at least none of the details that come with the concept).

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    • Lady Brett: Just curious. What do you find amazing about owning your home and what are some of the complaints about people who do own their own home and don't like it?

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      • I'm not intending to answer for her, but I identify with where she's coming from, so I'll give MY answer, if you don't mind.

        There was a car commercial a few years ago where some young adults are dancing in their apartment and the downstairs neighbor gets mad, so they get in their VW and go buy tons of giant speakers, and it shows them setting them up, and then dancing and jumping on the floor as hard as they can. And then, just when you're thinking they're the biggest dicks ever, it zooms out and they don't live in an apartment anymore; they bought a house.

        THIS is why I love my house. I can do what I want in it, I can fill all the fixtures with red lightbulbs, I can dig a trench in my yard and not fill it in all winter long, I can mellow-rock-out to Halou all night long with my windows open, and my neighbors love me, because when they asked me to stop hard-rocking-out to Ministry with the windows open, I DID!

        I think people get tired of paying a mortgage (which feels like rent) and not getting any of the benefits of renting. For instance: when my toilet backs up, I have to pay the plumber; when my window screen pops out, I have to shove that rubber bead thingy back in there for like the next three hours; when I get tired of my neighborhood, or my new neighbors, or my tiny, cluttered house, I can't just move…

        Home-owning is rewarding, but definitely not for everyone.

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        • It gets complicated because the point of the exhibit Caroline is reporting on is basically that home-ownership like that — unrestricted and wholly self-fulfilling — WAS the American Dream, but is no longer. We don't have the space, or the money, or the resources, or the financial institutions to support that sort of everyone-gets-exactly-what-they-want lifestyle. The communities we built in that image are sprawling and unsustainable, and the designers and artists participating in the exhibit were tasked with imagining how society could take existing infrastructure and reimagine it in more effective, community-focused ways.

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      • shannon –
        my home is the hobby i've always wanted – i have always and forever loved building, fixing things…handyman work. apartment/rental life (for me they were always the same) was boring to me. the ability to customize my house the way i like is part of it, but the bigger part is that if my sheetrock needs repair i get to repair the sheetrock rather than call someone to do it. it's awesome.

        there are also aspects of space and community which are not exclusive to houses or homeowners, but which have correlated in my life – urban homesteading stuff like growing food and composting and such, and talking with the neighbors, or meeting folks who walk their dogs (or kids with rc cars) by the house while you're gardening.

        anyhow, i think the difference is that there are a lot of folks who own homes because it is what you are "supposed to do", but who don't actually like any of the things that come with it – they'd rather just be able to call a landlord to fix the house problems, and i know quite a few who find a yard to be more of a hassle than an asset. which is a-ok, but it seems to me like a shame that they were culturally shamed into homeownership in the first place.

        also, i've gotten a chance to see another couple of the videos, and this project is fascinating! i *love* the ideas of space and community in these. again, space and community are a lot of what i love about homeownership, and those could (in theory) absolutely be achieved without the ownership part. but not here and now, so…

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  5. I have always wanted something between a dream apartment setup that I've never seen exist & home ownership.
    My basic wants & needs are:
    –little to no shared walls unless I literally know my neighbors or can screen them & set up agreements (I have been victim to every kind of inconsiderate neighbor imaginable & am only 24 years old)
    –garden/ yard/ bonfire space
    –a community of neighbors that actually talk to one another and/or at least could recognize each other elsewhere
    –some sort of fenced-in outdoor area for my dog &/or future children (not necessarily a communal thing in this case vs. the garden/ bonfire space)

    I've never seen anything remotely like this. The closest I've seen is a cul-de-sac back home in WI where at least 4 of the 9 families knew one another, all had their own yard, & occasionally suggested a block party or extended invitations to an existing backyard party to the whole neighborhood. In my mind this is hardly close to the aforementioned situation.

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