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LAST HARVESTHow a Cornfield Became New DalevilleBy Witold RybczynskiScribner; 309pp; $27
The Good Lots of detail on how developments get built, along with plenty of historical anecdotes
The Bad A bit too much nitty gritty on the myriad meetings and approvals the protagonist faced
The Bottom Line A richly textured history of development in America-- in many ways a history of America itself
Look closely at U.S. history, and you'll find that the original settlers and pioneers were soon followed by another group with a less savory reputation: real estate developers. What, after all, was the great frontier but a bunch of empty lots just begging to be subdivided and sold to folks looking for a house with a white picket fence?
In fact, much of the history of the U.S. can be seen through the lens of real estate development. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it turns out, had extensive land holdings that they sought to develop. And Washington, D.C., might never have risen out of the swampy banks of the Potomac if a sharp-eyed "land jobber"—as developers were known—hadn't rescued the project by buying the bulk of the lots in the still-unbuilt city for about a fifth of what the government was asking.
In Last Harvest, acclaimed architecture writer Witold Rybczynski paints a nuanced portrait of these men and others who built America, neighborhood by neighborhood. The book tells the saga of a modern-day developer named Joe Duckworth and his five-year quest to turn a Pennsylvania cornfield into a subdivision he would come to name New Daleville, after a nearby hamlet. Along the way, Rybczynski offers a rich history of U.S. development, from the Founding Fathers to the dreamers who conceived the first automobile suburbs in the early part of the last century and on to today's foot soldiers in the movement called New Urbanism.
Duckworth sees his project as part of this trend. Inspired by such New Urbanist towns as Seaside and Celebration in Florida, Duckworth envisions a tidy settlement of homes nestled closely together on small lots, with front porches, sidewalks, and narrow streets. New Urbanism is all the rage in development these days, in part because buyers like the idea but also because it offers the advantage of greater density—meaning higher potential profits for developers. The difficulty Duckworth faces is that his land lies in semirural Chester County on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where the current residents aren't particularly interested in any new neighbors at all, let alone 125 houses crowded onto just 90 acres. For the people already in the area, newcomers only mean extra traffic, higher taxes, and blocked views.
But the force of history and the weight of the law are largely on Duckworth's side. When the value of agricultural land rises high enough, Rybczynski points out, farmers have a powerful incentive to sell out to developers—the "last harvest" of the book's title. And once that occurs, there's not a lot residents can do to stop new building.
That doesn't mean, though, that the locals can't put up plenty of roadblocks in the hope that the developer will tire of the hassles and pull the plug on the project. Indeed, Rybczynski notes that in comparison with the more freewheeling South and West, strict zoning policies of Northeastern states have made the process of getting permits for a subdivision a multiyear ordeal that raises the costs of development—and as a result, home prices. In Duckworth's case, the opposition leads his architects, planners, consultants, and engineers into a dizzying series of planning board meetings, design reviews, and even a field trip to nearby New Urbanist developments to persuade locals that the project won't spell the end of their bucolic lifestyle. Ultimately, the nitty-gritty of these goings-on gets to be a bit much and makes the story drag.
Fortunately, those sections are interspersed with rich anecdotes about current developers and some of their most interesting forebears. There's Thomas Edison's ill-fated attempt to mass-produce all-concrete houses, Frank Lloyd Wright's concept for a low-cost home called the Usonian, and the assembly-line-style production in postwar Levittowns in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Rybczynski also offers cautionary tales of failure among risk-taking developers. The land jobbers who rescued Washington, for instance, saw their U.S. holdings climb to 6 million acres but ended up in debtor's prison.
While Duckworth doesn't appear headed in that direction, he has seen his share of disappointments. New Daleville started selling in early 2006, just as the U.S. housing market was peaking. The first homes are now occupied, but sales have been slow. Duckworth has had to cut prices on his lots even as the builders have offered discounts on the houses. The last harvest, it seems, isn't always as bountiful as generations of developers might like. By David Rocks