Excerpted from The Place We Call Home by Benjamin Genocchio, New York Times, February 12, 2006. An exhibition at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers offers a focused social, cultural and historical survey of Westchester County. It is a big show, with more than 300 exhibits spread around the museum. It is also one of the best-researched and the best-looking shows I have ever seen in this space. Frankly, the museum has never looked better.
Westchester: The American Suburb is the kind of exhibition that you can lose yourself in for hours. In addition to heaps of great archival photographs, there are paintings, memorabilia, old real estate advertisements, portraits of famous residents, a vintage Ford car and three model kitchens complete with retro appliances like a 1950's aqua-green Sunbeam Mixmaster. I remember licking those beaters.
There is also a display of early Tupperware and, for those who feel especially inspired by the sight, the nearby Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville is featuring the story of the original Tupperware Lady, Brownie Wise, on Monday night. (She devised the idea of sending housewives as salespeople into suburban homes all over America.)
The ... exhibition begins with a display of television memorabilia (mostly photographic stills) from beloved postwar situation comedies. Series like &I Love Lucy (during the run of that show, they moved to Connecticut) and The Dick Van Dyke Show helped create the popular image of idyllic suburban existence: a sprawling home, a car and a dizzying range of domestic labor-saving devices, not to mention a television set.
Following sections break down the elements of suburban life, according to punchy themes like ;the domestic idealowning your own home;consumerism;the yard; and ;commuting; Among the more curious exhibits are several old real estate advertisements for housing in Westchester from the late 19th century to the 1960's. There is even a video segment from an episode of;The Dick Van Dyke Show; in which the Petries buy their New Rochelle home.
Of course, commuters had been moving out to Westchester from New York City years before Rob and Laura took the plunge. The first spurt of settlement began in the 1890's after railroad and streetcar track was laid through the region; it spiked again after 1945 as soldiers returned home. It continued right through the 1950's and 1960's, as New York City became less attractive to families.
What drew residents to Westchester County, then as now, was largely the promise of a quiet, countrylike ambience dispersed homes, lots of natural landscape, and a villagelike atmosphere, all within easy commuting distance of New York. The main change to that ambience, beginning in the 1970's, has been the commercial and apartment-housing development. White Plains, a site of both, is now considered a satellite city.
--New York Times
The Hudson River Museum show stresses the basic point that suburbia is not a phenomenon of postwar America and the GI Bill. It has long been a feature of American metropolitan life - as it was of English metropolitan life, whence many of our urban values derived. The show tells us of Washington Irving, who lived in his charming home, Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, and traveled to Manhattan to meet with publishers and friends. Irving's lifestyle has some things in common with that of that other famous writer, Rob Petrie, as Rob commuted from New Rochelle to his Midtown Manhattan job as head writer on "The Alan Brady Show."
All that said, it can't be denied that after World War II suburbanization became a mass phenomenon on an altogether different scale. The historian John Lukacs is fond of pointing out that 1970 was a watershed year in American history, for in that year's U.S. Census, for the first time in history a majority of a nation's people lived neither in cities nor on farms, but in suburbs.When demographers speak of the "urbanized" parts of the country, they mean suburbs as well as central cities. Indeed, several of the municipalities within Westchester County are, officially, cities. And some, like White Plains, are nothing if not "urbanized," by anyone's standard.
Yet we all know there is a profound difference between urban and suburban, between Manhattan or Brooklyn and White Plains, let alone Bedford. But Murray Hill and Park Slope were once similarly, qualitatively, different from the denser parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn, and they in time came to be as much a part of the city as anyplace else.The difference between then and now is pretty obvious: the car.
When suburbanization began, there were no cars. Many Westchester municipalities developed around train stations. Some "railroad suburbs" remain among the most charming places in America. Others have eviscerated their downtowns, to baleful aesthetic effect, obviating any of the purported reasons for the suburb's existence in the first place. In any case, it is hard to accept the thesis that people move to the suburbs today for the same reasons they did a century ago.
Back then, well-off people sought peace, quiet, cleanliness, and comeliness. Many suburbs today are seemingly endless snaking trails of automobiles and the vast infrastructure built to serve the motorized lifestyle - expressways and parking lots, shopping centers and strip malls and bigbox outlets. (The book to read here is Joel Garreau's "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," from 1991.) Without placing a value judgment on this kind of suburbia, one may reasonably inquire whether the older form still exists, or can exist.
Some Westchester communities do care about conserving the old ways. In this regard, we may focus on the differing attitudes toward development of the city of White Plains, which is in lower Westchester, and the town of Bedford, which is in upper Westchester. White Plains, once a charming railroad suburb, has embraced the "edge city" ideal. It is a place of shopping centers and office buildings. Already the county seat of Westchester, it is now also the regional hub of business and commerce. --New York Sun