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Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville

4.1 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0743235969
ISBN-10: 0743235967
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Editorial Reviews

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Lloyd Rose

In the 1970s, the federal government approached the challenge of mass-produced housing -- a challenge that had defeated entrepreneurs and housing corporations since the beginning of the century -- in a pragmatic spirit of detente. Under Operation Breakthrough, government and business would meet, with the feds using the expertise of such successful companies as GE and DuPont to crack the problem of providing citizens with roofs above their heads. If you can't call to mind the names of any developments this produced, that's because there weren't any. As Witold Rybczynski notes in his new book, Last Harvest, "It turned out that building affordable and attractive houses was a lot more complicated than putting a man on the moon."

Sound a bit extreme? By the time Rybczynski makes this dry observation, some 200 pages in, he's more than made his case.

Development permeates modern life. In recent months, Washington alone has seen played out such dramas as: a house being built, found to have exceeded legal size limits, and then torn down, at great expense, by the government that made the error in granting the permit; historic preservationists preventing a wheelchair-bound man from adding an exterior ramp to his home in a neighborhood of early 20th-century rowhouses; library supporters arguing over whether the Martin Luther King main branch should remain in its leaky Mies van der Rohe-designed modernist shrine or become part of a commercial and residential building complex a few blocks away. And, meanwhile, Tysons Corner swallows all that approaches. If ever a book was about the way we live now, Late Harvest is it.

Rybczynski focuses on New Daleville -- a housing development in the Pennsylvania countryside, near the Brandywine valley -- beginning with the day in 2003 when a developer he regularly asks to speak to his students at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design mentions another developer's plan for "a small subdivision in southern Chester County. It's nothing special: eighty-six houses on ninety acres of rural land." But it seems that the township doesn't like the plan. "They keep telling him that they want something different, with smaller lots and more open space." A simple enough want, you might think.

But no.

Rybczynski has written several wonderful books exploring the area where the bricks-and-mortar reality of a house merges with the personal, subjective idea of a home. In Home, he investigated the Western meaning and history of that word. The Most Beautiful House in the World told how a simple boat-building shed he was constructing metamorphosed, somewhat to his surprise and a little to his dismay, into a small but full-blown country home. He's a graceful, personable writer, whose considerable erudition is in service to his storyteller's curiosity. How does this begin? What route does it take? And why does it end up where it does rather than where it was headed?

In Late Harvest, Rybczynski takes us on fascinating side trips, including visits to Seaside and Celebration, Fla., two of the pioneering "traditional neighborhood developments" that offered alternatives to conventional suburban planning (big lots, big houses, curvy streets that go nowhere). The idea of the Mythic American Small Town is revisited, and we learn that the United States -- in contrast to Europe, with its attached houses and apartment blocks -- is the home, so to speak, of the single-family house; also that 90 percent of these houses are detached, one of this country's great luxuries that we take as a given. But always he returns to New Daleville, as it slowly rises from a former cornfield.

As the New Daleville development progresses -- often at a stumble -- desire and reality meet, butt heads, try to choke each other, and roll over and over in the mud of compromise. The townspeople would like something with a little character (sidewalks, trees, cul de sacs, non-identical porches), and the developers don't object, but owing to circumstance and expense, they end up using a builder who mass-produces only a certain number of styles for windows, doors, shutters and so on. (As the builder puts it, "Our business is like a hamburger stand. We make hamburgers and cheeseburgers. That's it.")

As a "neo-traditional development," New Daleville gains intimacy and charm from its smaller lots and houses, but it turns out that when people move far away from a city center, theymore space as a trade-off for the longer commute. Picky statutes, miscommunications, personality clashes, occasional incompetence and plain bad luck all make their appearance. Meanwhile, the hot housing market grows cooler and cooler.

And when, after four and a half frustrating years, New Daleville is finally finished, what then? The noisiest critic among the townspeople grumbles, "I know that the houses are not as bad as what is built by most developers around here, but I just wish they were better still." Rybczynski's developer friend philosophically acknowledges, "It's not as good as I hoped it would be, but it's not a tragedy." Rybczynski takes the long view: "Ten years from now, the small lots, the narrow streets, the public park, and the compact cluster of houses on Dr. Wrigley's cornfield will all make sense." Like Rome, the future America won't be built in a day.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

From Booklist

Residential real estate development seems like an unlikely topic for a gripping read, and certainly Rybczynski can't be said to have produced a page-turner. But the author of The Perfect House (2002), among other books, and an architecture critic, most recently for Slate, brings considerable stores of knowledge, curiosity, and writing skill to this readable and at times even suspenseful book about a developer's process of building an exurban subdivision in rural Pennsylvania. In a style that is both digressive (he reviews land development patterns as far back as George Washington's day) and leisurely (including long quotes from sources in the manner of Tracy Kidder), Rybczynski follows the project through its conceptual stages, the politically tricky zoning permits process, and community approvals, to, finally, its finished state as a neotraditional "village" community. Along the way, we learn how land gets developed in the era of the new urbanism and pro- and anti-growth debates, and why so many Americans choose to live in suburbs (as opposed to denser city centers) despite often lengthy commutes. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (April 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743235967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743235969
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,176,425 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"The last harvest" refers to farmers who sell, and jealously covet their right to sell, portions of their farms to developers for housing developments. In his book Rybczynski, as the book's long subtitle makes clear, gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at how one such tract of land became a neo-traditional rural development, New Daleville, Pennsylvania. Rybczynski writes in a level-headed style without any sense of alarm. There is no good guys/bad guys polarity here, just a lot of people trying to make a living (or find a decent and affordable place to live) in unpredictable economic situations without sacrificing the things they value most in community. If Rybczynski has a point of view other than that of an intelligent, informed social observer who has been writing about architecture and urban development for decades, he keeps it well in check. For readers looking for ammunition, this may be a disappointing read.

Many players are introduced--local farmers looking to sell their land, land developers, zoning boards, building contractors, banking and public officials, sanitation specialists, nearby residents, and potential buyers--but no personal profile dominates the story. They merely come in and out of view like passers-by on the much coveted sidewalks of the "village core" in one of the neotraditional garden exurbs Rybczynski describes. This superficiality made the book a little less interesting to me than his earlier books, like CITY LIFE and WAITING FOR THE WEEKEND, in which extensive historical background were provided, and left me craving more data. This kind of information is in the book (like a four page digression into the post-WWII Levittown phenomenon), it's just not as plentiful as this reader wanted.
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Format: Paperback
An impressive piece of work, which I read at two sittings. The review you want to read is Penelope Green's, at the New York Times -- I'll put the link in a comment, as Amazon won't allow outside links in their reviews.

Rybczynski writes a very nice portrait of the contemporary subdivision planning and building process, with the focus on a particular exurb near his home in Philadelphia. In the process, you'll learn a lot about the history of suburban living in America -- and perhaps unlearn some persistent misinformation from urban intellectuals who don't like the suburbs. Highly recommended.

Happy reading--
Peter D. Tillman
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Format: Hardcover
When this book focuses on the story of one development in Chester County (a suburb of Philadelphia), it is quite good. It is a breezy, easy-to-read story of how one developer views the zoning process.

Some of the things I got from this book:

*Chester County's suburbanites want to limit development as much as possible. As the author notes, "New houses mean extra cars, extra traffic at rush hour, more kids in the schools, and in the long run, higher taxes."

*As a result, Chester County's zoning board tends to favor low density development; the size of an average lot in Chester County increased from half an acre in the 1960s to an acre and a half in the 1990s.

*One reason housing prices are so high is that developers have to bribe local residents to get new development approved. For example, the developer profiled in this book had to buy neighbors' support by giving away 12,500 square feet of open space.

*In Chester County, the price of land has become a greater percentage than ever of housing prices, due to (according to the developer profiled in this book) zoning-induced scarcity. In 1976, the cost of a lot represented only 15% of a Chester County house's selling price- today, the cost of land represents 30% of the sale price.

*Contrary to conventional wisdom among property rights types, homeowners' associations and the restrictive covenants they enforce are not a result of free choice among consumers. According to the developer of New Daleville, "all our projects include community associations. The local municipal governments insist on it" so that the associations (rather than municipalities) will be responsible for the costs of street maintenance.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is good summer reading. Not junk, but not too taxing for the beach. Far more interesting than it sounds, it is a peek behind the scenes of the usually opaque world of land deals and zoning variances, with some American history and acrhitectural appreciation through in for good measure. It explains a lot about suburban why subdivisions are usually so grim and lifeless, and provides some hope that the future doesn't have to be just more of the same.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you work in a field related to real estate development, this is a great book to read. The author tracks the development of a small subdivision from initial planning to government permitting to final sales. All the while, he provides insight into the evolution of residential real estate sales in the US, and the varying perspectives of the main characters in the process. This is a great read for urban (and not-so-urban) planners. I highly recommend the book.
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