Last Harvest

by Witold Rybczynski

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Last Harvest

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Canadian architect and professor Witold Rybczynski took the trouble to meet all principals of a residential development in a rural area in Pennsylvania and to attend many of the numerous meetings that were necessary to complete the project. The long and somewhat satirical subtitle of Last Harvest suggests the various elements contained at least summarily therein. The result is a brief historical survey of American real estate development interwoven into an account of the many complications involved in one project. He withholds his own judgments but strives to portray the viewpoints of the various people involved in the process.

The author begins with a prologue describing Chestnut Hill, the distinguished neighborhood in Philadelphia in which Rybczynski and his wife live. New Daleville is very different, but it resembles Chestnut Hill in two ways. New Daleville is home for commuters, although as a twenty-first century development it is an hour and a half by car from Philadelphia, whereas Chestnut Hill has long since been absorbed by the city. Also, it is much more modest; it is “a real estate development designed to look the way it does.”

In New Daleville, the emanation of a cornfield in Londonderry, Pennsylvania, the forces of real estate, land development, and residential architecture combine to design a traditional neighborhood development (TND). What makes it an unusual TND is that it is a relatively small and modest development of 125 houses on small lots intended to radiate much neighborhood appeal, although in a rural location an hour and a half from Philadelphia, the work area for many of the eventual residents. It also will be relatively isolated from the rest of Londonderry. Characteristically, people who live in such locations desire lots much larger than those in New Daleville’s one-eighth of an acre. The roads in this development will be twenty-four feet wide, designed to emphasize closeness and encourage walkability. Where will residents walk? The town will have a center, but no one supposes that a community of perhaps four hundred people will generate very many commercial establishments. There will, however, be ample natural and recreational spaces. The plan guarantees that half of the land will remain unbuilt.

The question of lot size has in recent years tended to make allies of environmentalists and developers. The former object to huge housing lots depleting natural resources, and the latter desire higher, and thus more profitable, population densities. “Smart growth,” as it is called, challenges typical suburban families’ fondness for large lots and raises other contentious issues such as subsidized mass transit and regional governments. Smart growth may not work in all areas, but the developers hope that it will in New Daleville.

Readers who have been wondering why new developments take so long to emerge will receive some answers from this book. Residential development once consisted of an engineer to devise a subdivision plan, local approval that often was not difficult to acquire, and the building of houses. The same company would be responsible for both development and building. In most states, land development regulations have evolved in recent years. In a populous state like Pennsylvania, ascertaining suitable land for development and receiving permission to use it can be an arduous process. Development concentrates on obtaining land, getting permits, and establishing roads and infrastructure; builders work on the construction of houses.

Joe Duckworth, a former pupil of the author, is the Realtor who has instigated the New Daleville project. Among the men who will deal with various details of the project is Tom Comitta, a town planner whose specialty is convincing town committees. The first meeting with Londonderry’s board...

(This entire section contains 1737 words.)

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of supervisors produces no action because the country planning commission has yet to discuss a newly proposed “neotraditional ordinance.” Comitta attempts to explain the ordinance, which suggests the possibility of limiting dependence on cars. In the process, he learns that the residentswant to use cars, although they do not want to see the addition of many more of them.

The proponents of New Daleville must negotiate with zoning boards torn between contradictory values. The local residents who serve on zoning boards desire the maintenance and increase of property values, but their neighbors also want them to limit development. This project must come to fruition in the context of a town undergoing a search for a more satisfactory zoning arrangement. The promoters of New Daleville are inevitably involved in the internal affairs of the town from which permission must be obtained.

Duckworth’s son Jason has the task of writing architectural plans for the project, which will not be able to provide simulations of farmhouses with very many colonial-style details. Still, he must achieve attractive and consistent homes at a nominal price. Tim Cassidy leads the discussion on the design of individual houses, but because he is also a member of the Londonderry planning commission, he wants the local people to have some say in the matter. Dave Della Porta, a financial planner whose base is in Philadelphia but has been frequently employed by Joe Duckworth, disagrees. He is not eager for such participation and thinks that design should be left with the builders, but Cassidy has a Ph.D. in architecture, and he will not concede all control of design to the builders. These men work together, but their specialties make them see the project from different angles, and their disagreements are often vigorous.

As the project continues, complications develop. The town must have its say on traffic lights and the width of roads. An expensive problem for developers is sewage treatment. The project will have a network of sewer pipes that will connect to a treatment facility. The treated wastewater must be either sprayed on a restricted area and allowed to sink into the ground or, in an innovation developed in the 1980’s, dripped into the ground through perforated plastic pipes. Since it is treated, at least some of it could be discharged into a stream. The county, however, recommends on-site disposal. The method agreed upon, drip irrigation, requires a larger area than that planned by Bob Heuser, whose job is the laying out of streets, lots, and open spaces, so he must revise his plan.

These men are all focused on the present task; Rybczynski periodically examines the construction of New Daleville as a historian of urban planning and development. An early chapter introduces “America’s first mega-developer,” the man for whom Pennsylvania was named, William Penn, who received thirty million acres from King Charles II. The author traces the difference between a suburb and an exurb by citing a 1902 book by H. G. Wells, Anticipations, and the lectures of Frank Lloyd Wright and a community he planned in 1923 in California. The question of why people live in houses Rybczynski answers by pointing out that “rural people have always lived in houses” but that urban houses, as opposed to workplaces that served extended families, servants, and other employees, first became the norm in the Netherlands, “Europe’s first republic,” in the seventeenth century. Cultural links soon brought the urban house to the British Isles. The subsequent history of urban living has established that the simplest answer to the question of why people live in houses is that the house is what people have learned to want.

In the 1940’s, a firm called Levitt & Sons took advantage of standardization, mass production, and technical innovation to build new towns in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. These Levittowns have drawn sharp (although undeserved, in Rybczynski’s view) rebukes. These developments have not turned into the “instant slums” predicted by Lewis Mumford, and they have outlasted criticisms that appeared in books of the 1950’s such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956).

Even the “precut” house, its major parts assembled in factories and shipped to the building site where they can be quickly assembled, is not new. Sears, Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and other companies offered mail-order houses. Between 1900 and 1940, individuals built more than 250,000 houses using kits including precut lumber and trim, cabinetry, and nails. Builders like the Levitts made precut houses available to people without the skill or opportunity to construct their own dwellings.

Real estate developers face many bumps in their road, and by the time that the New Daleville houses could be sold, in early 2006, faltering housing sales led to a reduction of prices. The author interviews a couple who are among the early buyers, Scott and Meghan Andress. They have been married five years and have a fifteen-month-old daughter. Both work for consulting firms. Their needs seem typical of many young families. They consider Londonderry to be part of a good school district. The commute to work will be slightly longer, but there is a good supermarket not far away. The reduced price attracted them. They seem to be canny buyers who visited the site once a day for two weeks before they made up their minds. They do not mind the small lot because they both work and do not want to spend too much of their time maintaining it. They seem to subscribe to the developers’ notion that buyers are people who want to live in a true neighborhood and meet their neighbors face to face.

The house they have chosen is a “simple box” with light gray vinyl siding and a deep front porch, porches now being a feature that buyers consider attractive. The Andresses examine the features of the house carefully, note any variations from what they have been promised, and obtain promises that a few details will be changed to suit them. There is a problem with the water supply, and their moving day has to be postponed for several weeks. When they move in, they are one of only four families in New Daleville, but more will come. On their first night, they enjoy sitting on their porch.

The developers and builders will not get rich off this community, but they will make some money. Although Rybczynski finds the houses more alike than different, “individuality will creep in.” It will take two or three years to sell all the houses. The owners can be expected to introduce whatever modifications fashion dictates in the future. The author does not pronounce New Daleville a success but views it as a valid expression of how entrepreneurs and home owners have influenced, and will continue to influence, the course of American life.

Bibliography

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Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 46.

Business Week, May 21, 2007, p. 106.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 24.

Los Angeles Times, April 15, 2007, p. R5.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (July 29, 2007): 19.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 92 (April 20, 2007): W4.

The Washington Post, May 6, 2007, p. BW09.