"Despite the skeptics and the professional critics and the communists, we believe in Levittown, in its honesty and goodness. What's more, we believe most of the (residents) feel like we do."
-- Abraham, William and Alfred Levitt, 1948. From "Levittown: The First 50 Years," by Margaret Lundrigan Ferrer and Tova Navarra.
The Levitts were defending their creation -- Levittown, the post-World War II subdivision they built in a Long Island potato field. But in reality they defended not a place, but a concept. Levittown is synonymous with suburbia, with the American Dream of owning a nice house in a quiet neighborhood with a good school nearby.
Levittown was the prototype, the first planned, mass-produced American suburb. What happened there was repeated on the outskirts of virtually every American city. New York City had its Levittown; Buffalo, its Cheektowaga.
The postwar explosion of the suburbs was spurred by the GI Bill, which gave low-interest housing loans to veterans. It was fueled by massive federal highway subsidies that made the car king and transportation easy. It was necessitated by the postwar economic boom and the needs of young, growing urban families for more space.
It was an idea waiting to happen, and when it did, people -- or, at least, the white middle class -- came with a headlong abandon not seen since the California gold rush.
The explosion of the suburbs is the demographic story of the American half-century. In 1950, 70 percent of people who didn't live out in the country lived in a city. By 1990, more people lived in suburbs than in cities and rural areas combined. Call it an exodus, call it a migration, the suburbs became -- and remain -- the American community of choice.
In many ways, the promise of the suburbs still delivers 50 years later. One can be king (or queen) of one's own castle, with a lawn and a garden, on a quiet, virtually crime-free street, with a good school nearby and kids for your kids to play with.
Jim and Madonna Sheridan have all of that. They live in a four-bedroom home on a tree-lined street in Amherst, near Sheridan Drive. There is a swing and a slide in the yard. The elementary school two of their three children attend is a half-block away. Like many suburbanites with kids, the promise of good schools sealed the suburban deal.
"We knew it was a good school," said Mrs. Sheridan. "And we wanted a big back yard for the kids."
But it's not all green grass and lemonade.
Jim Sheridan, 55, remembers an Amherst of roadside farm stands and two-lane roads. Now he shops at a grocery store 15 minutes away, because of the crowds at the mega-store closer to their home. Mrs. Sheridan has grown tired of afternoon treks to Maple Ridge Theaters to secure tickets for the perennially sold-out Saturday night show.
"We go to movies and restaurants in the city," said Mrs. Sheridan, "because it's less crowded than out here."
The three-mile drive to their daughter's dance class in Williamsville takes 20 minutes.
"It's like a city out here," she said.
The congestion -- and what it spawns -- is getting worse.
Some 50 years after the suburbs were created, the seams of the dream are more apparent than ever. It's not just what soon became obvious to Ozzie-and-Harriet America: traffic jams, conformity, dependence on the automobile, little racial and economic diversity and strip mall aesthetics. Over the past decade, more insidious aspects of suburbia bubbled to the surface, capsulized by what is now a household word: sprawl.
Technically, sprawl means low-density, automobile-dependent development beyond the edge of service and employment areas. In other words, neighborhoods and shopping plazas springing up in what used to be called the country.
With sprawl has come a new set of suburban negatives. A growing consensus believes it moves jobs and prosperity farther from decaying inner cities; increases commute time; undercuts the value of older, smaller homes in "inner ring" suburbs closer to the city; gobbles up farmland, and increases taxes with the need for new infrastructure -- roads, sewers, lights, schools, police and other services.
The word was barely heard 10 years ago, but sprawl has become a big issue in the late '90s.
Presidential candidate Al Gore is talking about sprawl and its quality-of-life consequences -- long commutes and overstuffed thruways. He conjures up the antithesis of the suburban dream -- parents arriving home "too late to read a child a bedtime story."
Across the country, governors and legislators search for an antidote to the creeping disease. Portland was the first, drawing a growth boundary 20 years ago -- an outer ring past which new development was discouraged. In recent years, Maryland adopted "smart growth" laws, which encourage development closer to cities with zoning changes and incentives for developers. Eleven other states have followed.
To the Sheridans, sprawl isn't just a concept.
"You can drive for miles, and still not get to anything you'd call country," said Jim Sheridan, who moved to Amherst more than 30 years ago. "It wasn't that long ago we had vegetable stands on Millersport Highway."
Amherst has become what author Joel Garreau calls an "edge city": a self-contained commercial/residential town, barely dependent on the city it developed from.
Garreau says "edge cities" such as Amherst are not a bad thing. More jobs and prosperity in the suburbs, he says, translates into more money spent in the city.
Others disagree. Urban planner David Rusk says suburban growth sucks life, jobs and tax base out of cities and further isolates inner-city poor.
Rusk and others say there's another problem: Building subdivisions of larger, pricier houses in what was once farmland undercuts the value of older homes closer to the city.
Property values in Buffalo's older, inner-ring suburbs have dropped in the past decade. Cheektowaga saw a 17 percent drop in housing prices in the '90s, according to the Board of Realtors. Even once-desirable Amherst took a 20 percent hit in property values, as more-distant Clarence replaced it as the upscale address of choice. What 10 years ago was Clarence farmland is now subdivisions of $300,000 homes, with bucolic names like Meadow Lakes and Loch Lea.
"Ten years ago, those type of subdivisions were in Amherst," said Peter Hunt of Hunt Realty.
And 10 years from now, said Hunt, the region will sprawl to even more-distant Newstead, Akron and Alden.
The sprawl was predictable, the result of a desire for bigger houses and more land. Fifty years ago, a two-bedroom Cape Cod on a 60-by-100-foot lot was a spacious leap up from a city apartment. Now a five-bedroom new build on a half-acre in Clarence is an equivalent jump from a cramped, 50-year-old Cape.
To the Sheridans and countless others, sprawl makes parts of the suburban dream elusive: Space and serenity, without traffic jams, long lines and strip mall aesthetics.
"Sometimes we talk about how nice it would be to live in the country," said Mrs. Sheridan. "But then you realize it's not going to stay country. (The suburbs) keep spreading and spreading."
Place: Transit Road, Clarence.
Time: 5 o'clock on a recent weekday afternoon.
Site: Ground zero for rapid sprawl in Erie County.
The vehicles are bumper-to-bumper for miles, from the intersection of Main Street north past Maple Road. On either side of the street is a succession of strip malls and plazas, filled with Burger Kings, Targets and Red Lobsters.
Michael Chameli peers out the door of Hector's Hardware, on Transit near Maple.
"When we opened (in 1986)," says Chameli, the store owner, "you could see the deer in that field across Transit Road."
The deer are gone, and so are the fields, replaced by a Wegmans supermarket, a bagel shop, a video palace and Target.
Take me home, country road, indeed.
Chameli bought a house in Clarence nine years ago because he wanted to be in the country. Now the congestion he escaped is catching up to him.
"It's getting ridiculous out here," he said. "But I can't complain. I came out here, so I guess other people can, too."
As people move outward, taxes -- and land prices -- go up. Depending on one's perspective, farmers are either forced out or cash in. They sell the old spread, and more subdivisions sprout where corn once grew.
Meanwhile, the first "settlers" in the outer-ring suburb grow disenchanted as others move in and congestion and strip malls follow.
Spoth's Farm Market has been on Transit Road for 50 years. Owner Ed Spoth Sr. sold the 55 acres behind the market a few years ago. What used to be a cornfield is now Highland Farms -- though "farms" is a misnomer. The only crop is rows of new $200,000 houses on treeless streets.
"My father complained about taxes the last few years he owned the land," said Dave Spoth. "Why hold on when you're paying upwards of $15,000 a year? Especially when the carrot at the end of the stick (offers to buy) kept getting bigger."
More people and more traffic have been good for the Spoths' business. But Ed Spoth Jr. said the drive to Lockport that once took 10 minutes now takes 20.
He expects that the current widening of Transit's northern section should clear up the congestion.
But others say it's a vicious cycle. Wider roads make travel quicker, which makes an area more appealing, which attracts more people, which brings congestion.
"Widening roads to relieve congestion," said Kevin Gaughan, a regionalism advocate and founder of the Chautauqua Conference on Regional Governance, "is like adding fuel to try to extinguish a fire."
And it doesn't solve the larger problem.
"The real problem is not congestion in the outer suburbs," said Gaughan. "It's how we re-establish congestion closer to the city. Widening outer suburban roads just points an arrow away from the place development needs to happen."
The idea is to fill open spaces in cities and existing suburbs instead of constantly spreading out. In Portland, the growth boundary has made demand for city housing so great that new developments are squeezing out slums -- the opposite of the trend in most American cities.
Not everybody sees sprawl as bad. For all the farmland being gobbled up -- the high estimate is 1.4 million acres a year -- America is still 95 percent undeveloped. And realtor Peter Hunt notes that Buffalo doesn't have nearly the sprawl problem of Chicago or other large cities.
"You can still get downtown from Clarence in 30 minutes," said Hunt. "In these (larger cities), it takes people 60 or even 90 minutes."
Yet even some confirmed capitalists see sprawl's downside.
In Atlanta, which "boasts" the nation's longest average commute, Bell South is spending $750 million to relocate employees closer to downtown and mass transit. Reason: Too many work hours lost in daylong traffic jams.
"If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy. ... That is their attitude, not ours. ... We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two."
-- William Levitt, quoted in David Halberstam's book "The '50s."
Largely lost in the sprawl debate is the fact that suburbia began -- and predominantly remains -- a white dream. At the beginning, in Levittown and elsewhere, it was by design. Levitt restricted purchase of his houses to whites only (even though many of the workers who built the houses were black).
Official barriers against minorities soon fell, but less obvious ones remained. Banks practiced redlining -- not making mortgage loans to blacks in certain neighborhoods. Realtors steered minority home-shoppers away from white neighborhoods. Federal statistics in 1990 showed that blacks were still twice as likely to be rejected for mortgages as whites of similar income.
The very nature of the suburbs was exclusive: Those who couldn't afford a car or a mortgage need not apply. There was little low-income or public housing. It all ensured that America's subdivisions retained their pale complexion.
Though more black professionals are now moving to the 'burbs, and older suburbs are becoming more racially mixed, suburbia remains largely a white, middle-class dream. Buffalo's suburbs, according to the 1990 census, were 97 percent white.
"Developers don't consider the social and racial consequences of their actions, nor should they," said Gaughan. "But the rest of us have to. Otherwise sprawl will continue to divide us by race, class and social standing."
In some places, that's exactly the point.
In some St. Louis suburbs, zoning restrictions limit entire townships to upper-income residents. Gated communities in many American suburbs keep out the unwanted.
At the other extreme, Minneapolis -- thanks largely to progressive legislator Myron Orfield -- requires any new suburban development to include lower-income housing.
The overriding question is what America's suburbs will look like 50 years from now. Will it be a vast sprawling network, its outer edge far removed from the central city? Or will advances in technology render cities further obsolete as business centers, and free future suburbs from any proximity to cities?
That's what author and cultural commentator Robert D. Kaplan envisions.
"The United States will become increasingly a network of vast suburban blotches separated by empty space," Kaplan writes in "An Empire Wilderness."
For lovers of old city buildings, street energy and interaction, it's an eerie thought.
For lovers of country roads and farms, it may be just as frightening.
Ed Spoth Jr. has watched the world outside his farm market change from a two-lane road cutting through the fields to a traffic jam surrounded by shopping plazas.
What does he think Clarence will look like in 10 years?
"I think it will look a lot like Amherst does now."
"I hope to be retired and living somewhere else by then."
Maybe a nice, quiet place in the country. If he can find one.