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Photograph by Joe Niem

Model Living: Throw out the welcome mat. No, really, throw it out--Harmon Leon's in the 'hood.

New Urbanism, Mon Amour!

They're cropping up all over the Santa Clara Valley: the preplanned, prefab communities that promise to take suburban life back to the future. Is this heaven or what?

By Harmon Leon

PICTURE PARADISE. A new planned community with Fourth of July parades and school bake sales, spaghetti dinners and fireflies caught in jars. You sit back on your front-porch swing viewing your hopscotch-and-tag neighborhood as pies cool on open windowsills. Why, it's a special place for families, situated in a time of innocence. It's small-town living, conveniently located right outside the heart of the city, where lemonade stands are set up on every corner, and your smiling neighbor brings over freshly cooked beef stroganoff to welcome you to the neighborhood ("Hi, neighbor! Welcome to the neighborhood!").

Are you done vomiting? Then wipe your chin and grab your camera, because this utopia has arrived in San Jose in the guise of Evergreen Village, where The Truman Show has come to life to enshrine us in a Starbucks of residential living. Welcome, my friends, to the world of New Urbanism.

What the Hell (Why Am I Swearing?) Is New Urbanism?

New urbanism! The term sounds like something lifted out of Aldous Huxley's (note my literary reference) Brave New World--a futuristic hybrid of communal life where the promised jet packs of tomorrow scoot people from one place to another.

On the contraire, mon frère, this terminology refers to the architectural movement that spawns preplanned communities, nostalgic yet functional, directly reactionary to the post-World War II suburban sprawl that's produced a lifestyle dependent on the automobile. Briefly and in short (not to mention in summary), the principle of new urbanism is to erect fabricated "small towns" with an increased density of friendly residential neighborhoods, schools right down the block and happy residents harmoniously living, working and playing, all within walking (or skipping) radius of their home.

Again, that's in theory. Like returning to the womb, new urbanites find themselves seeking the simpler life that has deteriorated within the alienating suburban growth and erosion of inner cities. This residential Disneyfication sounds like it should produce an aw-shucks neighborly interaction among town folk, restoring a lost feeling of "community." Or better yet, it conjures up the image of an isolated yuppie biodome devoid of "bad elements," crime and, of course, the pesky poor.

How the Hell (Am I Swearing Again?) Did New Urbanism Begin?

Baby new urbanism was given birth by Miami-based architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who won recognition in the early '80s for their Florida coastal development knighted Seaside. This husband-and-wife architect team (now, doesn't that have zany sitcom possibilities? What's Paul Reiser up to these days?) attempted to re-create the scale, form and nostalgic feel of a 19th-century rural Southern town. You might be familiar with Seaside; it was the surreal artificial setting for the movie The Truman Show, parodied as Seahaven, the brightly lit suburbia whose daily toothy-white grinning routine imprisons protagonist Truman.

The Truman Show reflects the utopian ideals of new urbanism; there is no crime, no bad weather, probably no swearing, everyone has money, the homes all feel the same, people chat over picket fences, and your neighbors are cut from an identical cookie-cutter mold. Duany and Plater-Zyberk believed they were building a community that encouraged the kind of conviviality that The Truman Show portrays as menacing and kinda creepy. Duany and Plater-Zyberk's cunning scheme went perfectly to plan until it was discovered that Seaside's local housewives were actually being replaced by robots--murderous robots!! No wait, that would be the plot of the movie The Stepford Wives. My apologies.

Photograph by Joe Niem

The Surreal Life: Carefully designed and regulated, new urbanist communities such as Evergreen Village attempt to address the problem of suburban isolation with higher density and communal spaces.

I Will Now Shop For a Goddamn (Stop Swearing) New Urbanism Home

I, Mister "Big and Clever," will travel into the heart of the beast that is New Urbanism. In order to come to my "conclusion," I will practice something called having an "open mind." With my newfound "open-mindedness," I drive down 101 and head toward the foothills, passing the aforementioned suburban sprawl with its sterile strip malls, onward to Evergreen Village.

"Nestled along the foothills with the prestige of a San Jose address is the Classics at Evergreen Hills, a master plan community with old-fashioned charm."

Yes, isolated from the "sprawl," there it stands: Evergreen Village Square. By damn, if it doesn't look not unlike the town square in the movie Back to the Future. Except it seems as if it were built last week. The place could be described as "cute," if you weren't as cynical and jaded as I am; "cute" just doesn't fly with me. Wait, that's not being very "open-minded." I take that back.

A large fountain sits directly in the center square ("a self-contained small-town atmosphere with a central hub to encourage strolling, people watching and neighborhood interaction"), surrounded by a park that looks like the perfect location for the Evergreen Village Fourth of July bake sale.

Surrounding the park is a bunch of quaint businesses with minimal practical appeal, along with the large, upscale Lunardi's Market. This leaves pedestrian Evergreen Village residents with the shopping and dining options of Quiznos Subs, a haircutting place, a health club, a coffee shop and ice cream store, all of which are almost entirely empty. If new urbanism's point is to react against the suburban automobile culture, then most of the Evergreen Village citizens must work at Lunardi's Market and dine on Quiznos subs. Those with "jobs" at "other places" or those who fancy something to eat that isn't a Quiznos sub will find themselves having to use their "automobile" to drive there.

Though, "open-mindedly," I'm beginning to be hyp-no-tized by the appeal of new urbanism. I imagine living here, letting the days drift by, sitting at an outdoor table at Peet's Coffee sipping mochas in a Valium-induced haze pondering what exciting new meatloaf recipe I'll prepare for dinner for my adoring family (the little ones are a handful!).

There are no weirdos or bad people here. You won't run across Stinky McNasty sitting in a hovel or on a park bench with his belly hanging out, drinking a Forty next to his shopping cart filled with baby-doll heads. New urbanism wants to restore the lost feeling of community, and I can "open-mindedly" say I think that has mostly to do with white people with lots of money.

Taking an outdoor table at Quiznos Subs (a quick shoutout to their delicious toasted sub sandwiches!), I nudge up to an older couple who would look perfectly cast in an antacid commercial. After biting into my delicious toasted sub sandwich (another big shoutout) I turn to them and point to the central square.

"You know, I enjoy this small-town atmosphere with central hub to encourage strolling, people watching and neighborhood interaction!" I state with a piece of luncheon meat dangling between my teeth. Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that I came to Evergreen Village wearing a black T-shirt that reads, "KILL 'EM ALL, LET GOD SORT 'EM OUT!" The antacid couple look up at me, my stocking cap and dark shades, as I tap my fingers that have fake tattoos scrawled in marker across the knuckles reading H-A-T-E and H-A-T-E. The antacid couple act like they don't hear me, so I repeat myself again, but louder.

"I sure do enjoy this small-town atmosphere with central hub to encourage strolling, people watching and neighborhood interaction!"

They look at me again like I'm speaking a foreign language. I get right to my point.

"I'm your new neighbor," I proudly proclaim, extending my onion-dripping hand. "I'm moving into the neighborhood, neighbor!" Even though they don't appear to be finished with lunch, they depart in a hurry. Bah, they surely won't be invited to any of my potluck dinners. To hell with our future chats over a picket fence!

Photograph by Joe Niem

The Deals Go Round: Many families move out of urban settings in search of better schools, only to find themselves far from culture.

Hello, We Are the Middle Class!

I am in a foreign land. The streets here are clean and safe for middle-class consumption. There's no graffiti. The thought of skateboarders doing Ollie Backside Grabs off the fountain ledge would be laughable (skateboarding, most likely, is a crime). Not to mention panhandlers, who, I imagine, would be dramatically run out of a new urbanism town (right before being given a beauty makeover and a pat on the back, with a hearty wish of "good luck!").

Though the activity of "strolling" is stressed as a new urbanism selling point, there is a large void of "strollers" around the supposed central square magnet of strolling. People simply drive up in their cars, do what they need to do, then drive off. Perhaps all the great "strolling" is to be take place later at the big community stroll-off.

Right now (2pm, Saturday) all potential strollers must be off doing other community-building activities. I conclude that, if appointed emperor of Evergreen Village (besides going "mad with power"), I'd hire actors to portray elderly but wise citizens who would always be on hand to fix a kite or give wise, elderly advice from a park bench, adding to the self-induced small-town charm Evergreen keeps stressing.

Since no one is "strolling," I've decided to "stroll" through the numerous, identical neighborhoods that each feel sterile and artificial in their own unique way.

"Can you spare some change?" I confront a man, whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of these words within the small-town, charmed Evergreen Village community limits. "Any penny will help!" I add, sticking out my hand. The man makes some excuse about not having any change, so I throw in the sarcastic "Well, have a nice day!"

I stroll on, noticing how Evergreen's houses scream, "Hello, we are the middle class!" The whole place looks like it was put up overnight. It's like a new car, with that new-car smell, even though the development has been around for four years. Everything seems to be immaculately in its right place. In abidance with the architectural rules of new urbanism, neighborhoods are within walking distance to the town square, with narrow streets to reduce the influx of cars. It's like walking in the cartoon world of The Flintstones, where the background repeats itself after every three houses and a tree.

Passing the houses on Bouquet Park Lane, situated right on top of each other (starting at the $700,000 range), I take in the socialist quality of the homesteads--all different, yet exactly the same. I bet residents often make the mistake of coming home late at night and accidentally walking into the wrong house, for no one house is bigger than the other, and each is equally spaced apart, with small but well-groomed yards. Although the neighborhood is currently weirdly empty of people, I can imagine it when it's really kicking: bathrobed Evergreen Village residents coming to their doors to pick up the morning paper symmetrically placed on their doorsteps by Jimmy the local paperboy, who greets them with a smile and friendly ring from the bell on his new 10-speed bike.

But where is the small-town community interaction as boasted? One would be led to believe that a big block-party limbo contest would be taking place, with hot-dogs being cooked on the grill by a guy in a clean, white chef's hat and his neighbors breaking into spontaneous laughter.

In order to continue my anthropo-logical romp (of the proportions of Jane Goodall and that stuff she did with the apes), I venture into a Evergreen Village real estate office. My trusty girlfriend is by my side (she was also with me at Quiznos subs, but I forgot to mention it). The best way to describe how she is dressed is "ultraslutty." Her belly shirt and thick clown makeup are also for anthropological-romp purposes. I want to further test new urbanism's philosophy of welcoming diversity to their harmonious community. The real estate office, like the ice cream store and coffee shop, is also empty. I see the back of someone's head on the phone. I yell out using hip-hop lingo of my own creation.

"Yo, dawg!"

A well-groomed woman swings her chair around and comes over and stands by a miniature model of the entire Evergreen Village community. She could be described as "snippy." I put out my knuckles with H-A-T-E, so we can touch fists, gesturing even more wildly than white-boy rapper Eminem, as I point to the small houses in the miniature Evergreen Village.

"I want to use my bling-bling to move into a crib in your 'hood!" I state.

"You can take a look at the model next door," she sneers, looking at my "Kill 'Em All" T-shirt, clearly not wanting to speak to me any further. She gives me the big chill treatment and hands me a price list like it was a stinky turd.

"Ain't cha gonna give me a sales spiel?" I ask, wanting her to elaborate on the joys of new urbanism living.

"No! Just look at the models and let me know if you have any questions." She abruptly ends our interaction and goes back into her office.

"Come on, baby, let's go eyeball the place," I tell my faux-slutty girlfriend as I give her a loud slurping French kiss in the middle of the sales office. My point in doing so is to stress the viewpoints of Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for The New York Times, who uses such words as "controversial" when describing new urbanism: "Should we be optimistic that a solution will be found in the compact communities of the so-called New Urbanists? Appealing to what are essentially nonurban ideas of harmony and conflict avoidance they are as likely to increase social isolation as to overcome it."

My man Muschamp ironically envisions problems with these ideal Disney-topias, isolated from surrounding areas and motivated by the naive belief that a good development design can suddenly create fabricated community building.

"Imagine being stuck in some suburban community planned by the New Urbanism. Talk about isolation: the buildings are close together but disconnected from anything larger than market research."

With a philosophy that partly plays on inner-city fears, new urbanist residents might be more concerned about their safety than with being a part of the weekly community three-legged race. Also pointed out is the eventual reality of sharing your cramped new urbanism block with low-income families (ideally, new urbanism espouses a mix of income levels, side by side). In these largely upper-class, very condensed communities, the prospect to some is "scary."

Over the Edge

The idyllic cultural diversity new urbanism strives for is also undercut by the fact that these houses aren't cheap, and thus the price range protects them against "bad people," enabling the "strolling" and "neighborhood interaction" (if there really happened to be any) to go unhindered. And that's why, much to the horror of the real estate agent, I'm French-kissing my faux-slutty girlfriend. To point a mirror at this fact. Or something like that.

We go next door and enter the model house. For showing purposes, it's decorated in new urbanist dream style. This involves a great deal of wicker and what appears to be the result of a long stopover at the Pottery Barn. Another couple, who look not unlike those who work in the high-tech industry, are also going from room to room and discussing the merits of the house.

"Hey, you could be our new neighbor," I offer with a snort of laughter. "Huh, neighbor?"

The woman part of the high-tech couple makes an unhappy face.

"Yup, neighbors from the neighborhood," I once again stress. The man part of the high-tech couple sort of half smiles. I pull my faux-slutty girlfriend closer, once again planting her with a loud slurping French kiss. By the time we finish, the high-tech couple has left the room. Noticing that we're now alone in the new urbanism house, we enter one of the wicker-filled bedrooms and contemplate partaking in a new urbanism sex act on the new urbanism model bed. Things come to a grinding halt when I suddenly spot a sign by the light switch that reads, "Premises Under Video Surveillance." CAUGHT ON TAPE! Articles of clothing are quickly adjusted back into place.

As we run for the door, Muschamp once again comes to mind in an article he wrote for Architecture Review (a publication I read often and frequently). Idealistic new urbanites overestimate their positive environmental plans since these more compact cities lead to a new set of problems. The new urbanist design theory relies "too much on esthetic solutions to the social problems created by urban sprawl." People looking for the simpler, purer, good old days will be naive to the fact that the progression of society creates of new set of social ills. I can see the appeal of this place for raising small children, but once the children were old enough to know they were living in a sterile cultural void, then what?

It would be like the '70s Matt Dillon movie Over the Edge (nice obscure reference!), where a middle-class family moves into this quiet, idyllic, preplanned suburban community that's a virtual cultural wasteland. There's nothing to do. There's nowhere to go in their bland little preplanned community designed with conformity in mind. In the end, the alienated teenagers rebel by locking all the parents and grownups in the high school and setting it ablaze. Now that's a movie ending!

Strolling (very quickly) to the central core of Evergreen Village, we run across another house for sale. It doesn't look much different from the last place, but they, too, are having an open house. This time, there's a perky real estate agent in a tie to enthusiastically answer any and every question about new urbanism living, boasting that this is the new, hot, up-and-coming area in the South Bay.

"Almost of the people living here are young professionals," he enthusiastically states.

"That's good," I grunt in reply. "Right now, I live in Oakland. I just want to make sure I wont be living next to any of ... them," I slur. "You know who I mean? THEEEEEM!"

The guy in the tie is not sure which ambiguous minority group I'm referring to, so I repeat once again.

"You know ... THEM ... THE CANADIANS," I stress and nod before moving on to the backyard that is almost the size of a carpet sample and about one inch away from the next identical house on either side. The only thing separating the properties is the legendary aforementioned picket fence, low enough to see the goings-on in the next yard.

Since this might be my new home, I poke my head over the fence and take on the role of the fabled wacky next-door neighbor as seen on many a sitcom, including the Tim Allen vehicle Home Improvement.

"Hi, neighbor!" I bark to a man next door doing yard work. I point to one of his gardening tools. "Hey, I might want to borrow some of those when I move in," I exclaim with a cheesy grin. "See ya, neighbor!"

The man doing yard work gives me an I-won't-partake-in-your-potluck-dinners look. I turn to the perky agent.

"How is this area for noise?" I ask.

"You'll find it's very quiet here," he confirms in a perky sort of way.

"Yeah, but what about my noise? I like to mix a lot of hip-hop music late at night."

The man in the tie explains the walls are very soundproof. He explains there's also an apartment in back I can rent out. I tell him I'd like to use it as a crash pad for my homies visiting from the 'hood. I also tell him how I'm going to decorate my front lawn with old furniture and how, being a political activist, I'm going to picket Peet's Coffee due to their well-known and utterly inhumane animal testing of coffee on Russian monkeys. He doesn't have a problem with any of this. Maybe I was all wrong about new urbanism? Maybe it is an ideal, harmonious utopia for all walks of life; yes, all walks of life who can come up with his asking price of $838,000.

Realistically, the pricing level would keep out such riffraff as myself. But since all the residents here don't work and dine at Quiznos, the illusive dream of a self-contained, self-sufficient, walking utopia is shattered by the fact that anyone who lives here has to drive a distance to work or even to dine on something that isn't a sub.

In "open-minded" summary, new urbanism isn't really changing how people live--it's merely another suburban subdivision masquerading as a small town. I came here looking for weird, but all I found so far is a sterile, manufactured sense of beyond normal. Normal we grew accustomed to from our favorite family TV shows. It's an American dream. It's sheltered. It's something that would make you go mad.

Harmon Leon is the author of 'The Harmon Chronicles' and the upcoming book 'Scam America.'

Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Main Street USA: Ideally, new urbanism negates the need for driving, locating shops and restaurants within a five-minute walk from home.

Hometown Disney

THREE CHEERS for the most notorious new urbanism development: the Disney-owned Celebration, Florida! Unveiled in 1994, this $2.5 billion project nestled on 4,900 acres a mere five miles south of Walt Disney World may just be corporate branding's finest hour. These folks live in Disney town! Celebration represents Walt Disney's dream of harnessing the power of his "imagineers" to fashion a futuristic city where crime, pollution and deviance are replaced by community, cleanliness and uniformity. This Disney fantasy sets the tone for new urbanism--a sterile reality that, contrary to our bleary nostalgia, never really existed in the American landscape and can now only be captured through artificial means.

Read with me from Celebration's propaganda:

"Celebration is a place where memories of a lifetime are made, it's more than a home; it's a community rich with old-fashioned appeal and an eye on the future. Homes are a blend of traditional southeastern exteriors with welcoming front porches and interiors that enhance today's lifestyles."

Think of the Magic Kingdom but without rides, where every day is filled with potluck dinners--or better yet, Main Street U.S.A. come to life on a suburban scale, where one might joyfully expect a jubilant fireworks display at dusk. (Personally, I'm disappointed Disney didn't go with the direction of Tomorrowland, where every inhabitant would be entitled to their very own robot maid--not to mention jet-pack landing pad.)

Read with me again:

"Imagine how great it would have been . . . to live 50 years ago with all the neat gear you have today. Morning coffee on your front porch. An afternoon stroll to Market Street. Family evenings in the neighborhood park."

It's been stressed that beneath the small-town façade of new urbanism lies a hidden mechanism of social control. Now read a comment made by a planned community citizen and decide:

"I live in a community with rules, by choice, because I like rules that ensure I won't have a neighbor who will drive me crazy with his lifestyle." [Sue Holland, writing about Celebration for MousePlanet.com]

Disney's Celebration citizens have many rules and conditions that dictate how their homes and yards must look in order to maintain the appearance of the "perfect suburb," specifying what people can and cannot do on their own damn property. You won't find cars up on concrete blocks, or any other forms of personal expression, in these neighborhoods; it would be clearly against the rules.

Harmon Leon

Photograph by Joe Niem

Row, Row, Row: Evergreen Village's sameness translates to safety to some, insanity-inducing dullness to others.

Village News

Designed by the San Ramon-based Dahlin Group, and built by Shapell Industries, the 865-acre development known as Evergreen Village features an average of four to five single-family homes per acre. These one- and two-story homes range from 1,823 square feet to 2,763 square feet, have three to four bedrooms, two to three baths, two- and three-car garages, and sell for $617,000 to $726,000. As of July of this year, the median sale price for a home in California was $383,320.

Photograph by Joe Niem

Lawn Jockeying: New urbanism's communal spaces spur neighborly interaction; i.e., borrowing of yard maintenance implements.

Blurbing the Suburbs

MUCH OF the credit for Evergreen's neighborhood trajectory goes to Patricia Sausedo, southern district councilmember from 1981 to 1992. In the process of the city's approval of the Evergreen Specific Plan, Sausedo urged residents to accept denser housing. Sausedo's new urbanist message: "Development does not have to be a negative experience for the community."

Evergreen, Sausedo says, "was the beginning of new urban smart growth in San Jose. There's no question that Evergreen turned the corner of smart growth planning in San Jose." Sausedo speaks highly of the ability of businesses, neighborhoods, government types and nonprofits to collaborate in a single direction to revamp the place.

Michael Van Every, land acquisition/development manager for Citation Homes Central, one of the project's two master builders, lauds Evergreen as "one of the last places that you can find a new single family home." Evergreen's allotment of 5,000-plus-square-foot homes, new schools and stores rivals other cash-infused neighborhoods, Van Every asserts. "The reality is it's one of the upscale neighborhoods in San Jose parallel to Willow Glen, the Rose Garden ... or Los Gatos," he says. "It became a neighborhood to be proud of."

In response to criticism of new urbanism, many new urbanists might simply say, "If you don't want to live this way, don't." Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism and previous chair of the San Francisco-based Congress for the New Urbanism, once said in an interview, "This movement is not going to succeed by anybody putting a gun to anybody else's head saying, 'You must live this way.' It's simply a question of offering choices. And what you don't have today out in the suburbs is choices. You have basically one dominant form of living--it's a single family house on a cul-de-sac--for a fairly limited range of incomes, which is increasingly not affordable to ... the broad spectrum of society."

Allie Gottlieb

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From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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