At the end of Hollywood’s remake of The Scarlet Letter, Demi Moore, playing Hester, rides out of town with Dimmesdale to start their new life together as happy adulterers in the Carolinas.  They must have been planning to take the Indian version of the Interstate Highway System to get there, because Salem in the 17th century was a very small island of civilization surrounded by a very large sea of forest.  The only way to get to the Carolinas or any other place on the East Coast was by boat.  The same was true roughly a hundred years later, when Ben Franklin traveled by boat from Boston to New York and then on to Philadelphia.

Hollywood is correct, however, in seeing the forest as a refuge for adulterers; it was also a refuge for every other form of sinful and antisocial behavior at the time.  Those, like Huck Finn’s Pap, who wished to wallow in the mire of human passion and become, in Huck’s words, “all mud,” could do so very easily by “lighting out for the territories.”  By 1848, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was busy trying to turn the world upside down by making the forest good and the city bad; Hawthorne’s vision of that forest, however, was essentially the same as that of his Puritan forebears.  The forest was the realm of the devil, a fact brought out most clearly in his tale “Young Goodman Brown,” where the entire village of Salem meets outside of town to celebrate a combination of a sexual orgy and a witches’ Sabbat.

Some things never change.  By the end of the 20th century, the forest was still the refuge of adulterers, but, unlike 16th-century Salem, the residents of the town did not have to slink off furtively to the woods to celebrate the Black Sabbath: They lived there already, in antisettlements known as suburbs.

In October 1947, the first families began to move into a recently completed housing development on what was once 4,000 acres of potato farm in the town of Hempstead, New York, on Long Island.  Hempstead was known as, among other things, the setting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.  The new development was named Levittown, after the corporation of Levitt and Sons, rather than after some advertising formula based on evocation of the English countryside with an archaic e tacked onto the end of the names.

Levittown was a new kind of suburb.  It was not connected to a train line, and it was not built with the wealthy in mind.  It bespoke the democratization of themes that the wealthy had appropriated in their flight from the increasingly ethnic cities in the period following World War I, when the WASP elite abandoned Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square in favor of the Main Line and Chestnut Hill, both of which were connected to the center of the city by rail lines.  While Levittown was, in many ways, another version of worker housing of the sort that the federal government had erected during the war, it was also a hybrid.  Now that the war was over, the government could devolve its agencies into private ones that would serve government interests more effectively than central planning, as the debacle in public housing would soon show.  The new suburbs were subsidized worker housing for 16 million returning G.I.’s.  The success of the war effort had convinced government technocrats that they could engineer man to an extent hitherto unimagined if they could control his environment, and controlling housing, as Louis Wirth and his colleagues knew, was the key to controlling that environment.  As Wirth’s colleague Robert Merton announced in 1948, six months after Levittown had opened and a few months before Park Forest, Chicago’s Levittown, would open, it was time to “change the actual institutional and social conditions.”  In 1941, Levitt and Sons was able to work out the bugs involved in the mass production of homes, including how to pour hundreds of foundations in a single day, after they received a government grant to build 2,350 war-worker homes in Norfolk, Virginia.  William Levitt’s stint with the Seabees from 1943 to 1945 allowed him to refine the techniques of mass production in housing.  Putting what they learned during the war into practice after it was over, the Levitts built 2,250 homes in suburban Roslyn in 1946.  Between when they completed the more expensive homes in Roslyn and when the first tenants moved into the biggest private housing project in American history, the Levitts had done for the house what Henry Ford had done for the automobile, by taking advantage of uniform techniques and materials and the vast economies of scale that they provided.

The Levitts could not have accomplished what they did without massive government support.  The main instrument of support for suburban development was the Federal Housing Authority.  Created as part of the National Housing Act on June 27, 1934, to protect homeowners from losing their homes when their partially amortized loans had to be renewed during an economic downturn, the FHA soon began to use its financial clout as a tool for social engineering, as Gunnar Myrdal had predicted.  “No agency of the United States government,” writes Kenneth T. Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, “has had a more pervasive and powerful impact on the American people over the past half-century than the FHA.”  That influence derived from the sheer bulk of money it loaned—over $119 billion over the next 40 years—as well as the guidelines it imposed on those who took the money.  These aspects of FHA policy would largely determine how Americans were going to live for the rest of the century, and they would do so without the heavy-handedness of the urban housing authorities and the violent reaction it provoked.  Beefed up by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the G.I. Bill), the FHA, in combination with the Veteran’s Administration, not only provided the wherewithal to help the 16 million soldiers returning from World War II buy a home but determined, to a large extent, what kind of home they would buy and where it would be located.  “Decentralization is taking place,” a senior FHA official told the 1939 convention of the American Institute of Planners.  “It is not a policy, it is a reality—and it is [as] impossible for us to change this trend as it is to change the desire of birds to migrate to a more suitable location.”  Devotees of the Enlightenment always describe their policies as if they were immutable natural processes, because that absolves them of responsibility.  The simple fact, however, is that the government created housing patterns through its housing policies just as inexorably as birds hatch from eggs.  The government also promoted change through the federal tax code, which encouraged businesses to abandon old buildings by providing greater tax benefits for the construction of new buildings.

What the years in uniform began, the suburbs completed.  The Army had standardized life for millions of men, who returned to civilian life with their ethnic identities weakened (unless they were part of the WASP elite) and their sense of being Americans enforced.  The suburbs simply continued this process.  Many of the early anecdotes about Levittown and Park Forest mention the ubiquitous mud and the privations as similar to Army life.  The returning soldiers were living in a different kind of barracks, but the same interethnic ambiance prevailed in both places.  The war had prepared Catholic ethnics to be settled in camps far from their traditional neighborhoods; now, after the war, these same ethnics were being driven into settlements that would complete the job of Americanizing them by “integrating” them into communities with no ethnic character and no local culture other than that created for them by the corporations who built the developments.

In creating the suburbs, the FHA also brought about the demise of city neighborhoods, “by stripping them of much of their middle-class constituency.”  Being middle class would come to mean living in the suburbs, which was the opposite of lower class, which would come to mean “ethnic” and urban.  The purpose of the suburbs was to facilitate the choice of class (in this instance, the middle class) over ethnicity.  Early chroniclers of the suburbs noticed this principle in action.  In The Organization Man, William O. Whyte writes that the new arrivals in Levittown, Pennsylvania, had achieved “emancipation” from “Polish Renaissance” furniture. 

Emancipation in the area of housing was another word for control.  “Ethnics,” according to Arnold R. Hirsch in Making the Second Ghetto, “sought stability rather than mobility.  The trek to the suburbs, for them, would be a forced march made at great sacrifice; it would represent the end rather than the fulfillment of a dream.”  The fact that many of them made the trek nonetheless shows how powerful the cultural engines driving that change really were.

Gradually, the more perceptive analysts of the postwar suburbs began to see them as instruments of social engineering.  In The City in History, Lewis Mumford writes that

The ultimate outcome of the suburb’s alienation from the city became visible only in the twentieth century, with the extension of the democratic ideal through the instrumentalities of manifolding and mass production. . . . [A] new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age-group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis.  Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.

Just as the custodians of the first housing projects in Philadelphia would inspect each unit and berate certain tenants for their poor housekeeping skills, the Levitts micromanaged Levittown at the beginning, making sure that residents mowed their lawns properly (fining them if they did not), forbidding fences, and allowing outdoor clothes-drying only on specially designed racks.  William J. Levitt openly acknowledged that the housing he constructed was supposed to engineer certain behavior.  “No man who owns his own house and lot,” he opined in 1948, “can be a Communist.  He has too much to do.”

Mumford correctly saw that the suburbs were engineered with isolation and alienation in mind.  The technology of suburbia all but guaranteed that:

The end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set: soon, with a little more automation of traffic, mostly in a motor car, traveling even greater distances, under remote control, so that the one-time driver may occupy himself with a television set, having lost even the freedom of the steering wheel.  Every part of this life, indeed, will come through official channels and be under supervision.  Untouched by human hand at one end: untouched by human spirit at the other.

John Updike, who, along with John Cheever, has come to be known as a chronicler of the suburbs, sees them as an alien intrusion and, ultimately, as a punishment for sin.  Updike is both a pornographer and a moralist, roles that do not complement each other.  As a result, the significance of the suburbs gets lost in the parallax shift from one point of view to the other.  In Couples, the suburbs at first encroach upon the long, boozy wife-swapping party that marked the decline of the WASP ruling class after World War II; finally, they replace it.  Piet Hanema, the transplanted Dutch Calvinist from Western Michigan, is a partner in a construction firm that is building “three new ranch houses on Indian Hill”—what used to be an Indian burial ground.  “None of his friends would live in such a home,” Piet tells us; that does not matter, however, because, by the time anyone reaches Hanema’s state of sexual degradation, nothing matters.  As a result, he collaborates with Gallagher, his Irish Catholic partner, who “discretely favored the shoddy” in “this rape of a haven precious to ornamental shy creatures who needed no house.”  Instead of improving nature, builders like Hanema and Gallagher end up “burying the world God made.”

They end up digging their own graves as well.  The sexual preoccupations of the tattered remnant of the WASP ruling class allow the town of Tarbox to be taken over by aliens from the suburbs.  The troubles began, at least in Updike’s view, when “Duty and work yielded as ideals to truth and fun.”  This happened to the generation born in the 1930’s, a generation that was

introduced as adults into an indulgent economy, into a business atmosphere strangely blended of crisp youthful imagery and underlying depersonalization, of successful small-scale gambles carried out against a background of rampant diversification and the ultimate influence of a government whose taxes and commissions and appetite for armaments set limits everywhere, introduced into a nation whose leadership allowed a toothless moralism to dissemble a certain practiced cunning, into a culture where adolescent passions and homosexual philosophies were not quiet yet triumphant, a climate still furtively hedonist, of a country still too overtly threatened from without to be ruthlessly self-abusive, a climate of time between, of standoff and day-by-day.

Couples is set in 1963, one year before that which Time declared the Year of the Pill.  The WASP ruling class’s penchant for contraception and sexual degeneracy, noticed with consternation by Teddy Roosevelt 50 years earlier, found its culmination and denouement in the birth-control pill.  “Welcome to the post-Pill paradise” echoes like some gloomy Wagnerian leitmotif throughout Couples.  The elite class had become, in the words of Freddy Thorne (Tarbox’s abortionist/dentist), “a subversive cell,” anti-Christian in its orientation.  The wife-swappers of Tarbox were just like the early Christians in the catacombs, Freddy tells us, “Only they were trying to break out of hedonism.  We’re trying to break back into it.”

As with the Pill, their success proved to be their undoing, something Updike sees in spite of his commitment to what he condemns.  Just as death is the wages of sin, just as Piet’s adultery leads inexorably to abortion and the destruction of their wife-swapping enclave, so the hedonism celebrated by Freddy Thorne leads to the destruction of community:

Each year there were more commuters, more young families with VW buses and Cezanne prints moving into developments miles distant from the heart of historical Tarbox.  Each year, in town meeting, more self-assured young men rose to speak, and silent were the voices dominant when Piet and Angela moved to town—droning Yankee druggists, paranoid clammers, potbellied selectmen ponderously fending off antagonism their fathers had incurred.

The new town moderator is “a rabbit-eared associate professor [of] sociology,” who, as “a maestro of parliamentary procedure,” gets the town to approve the funding 

of new schools and new highways, sewer bonds and zoning bylaws all . . . greased by federal grants.  Each modernization and restriction presented itself as part of the national necessity, the overarching honor of an imperial nation.  The last opponents, the phlegmatic penny-pinchers and choleric naysayers who had absurdly blocked the building of this new school for a decade, had died or ceased to attend, leaving the business of the town to be carried forward in an edifice whose glass roof leaked and whose adjustable partitions had ceased to adjust.

Piet Hanema did not approve; what he failed to see was the connection between sprawl and his sins.

Naomi West, writing in the November 1997 issue of George, says that “baby boomers are fed up with car-crazy urban sprawl.  Boomers want to go home again, to the neighborhoods of their youth.  And . . . they really want a politician who will lead them there.”  West even ascribes a spiritual dimension to the repudiation of suburbia and finds her generation 

longing for local environmentalism, neighbor-wide beauty and identity.  Ask any baby boomers about their suburban childhood, and they’re likely to tell you that where the Jack in the Box now stands there used to be a field with cows in it.  That’s an elegy, and an astute politician will speak to that sense of loss.  

West pins her hopes on “an astute politician like Bill Clinton,” and, once again, design bumps into harsh political realities caused by ignoring more basic moral realities.  Can a president who promotes sodomy and abortion lead us back to the urban ideals of the 1920’s?  Can a cohort of intellectuals who fear returning to the 1950’s in sexual matters be serious about restoring the neighborhoods that were predicated on those sexual mores?

In his film The Ice Storm, a chronicle of wife-swapping in the suburbs that takes place ten years after Updike’s Couples, Ang Lee makes a visually compelling point about the Wohnmaschinen that huddle like isolated tepees in the bare November woods outside New Canaan, Connecticut.  Adultery existed long before sprawl, but homes like this, along with the cars and the isolation they spawn, make adultery more accessible and more feasible.  When last I was in New Canaan, the people were talking about Promise Keepers rallies, not wife-swapping.  The former is no doubt related to the latter (and a sign of hope as well), because the relationship between design and morals is a two-way street.  At the heart of family life is sexuality and its laws, which is to say morality as the guardian of love and the good.  If this is so, then no long-term change in the way we live physically can take place without a change in the way we live spiritually.  If the New Urbanists want to go back to houses and neighborhoods as they existed in the 1920’s, they would do well to look at how the people who lived in those houses viewed family life, marital vows, and the moral law.