Honey Talks About Experiments in urban design at Llano del Rio, the New Deal and Mao’s China

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November 1, 2010 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)

After the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Los Angeles, this city dispersed into formerly agricultural lands, subsidized by taxpayer dollars paid into street and highway development that enabled automobile users to live in the suburbs and to abandon downtown, by city government’s decision not to municipalize the once ubiquitous electric trolley, and by its decision to transport water from the Owens Valley into the San Fernando Valley.

Political realities shaped by the ruling elites’ influence in government meant the planners abandoned their original belief that we needed good public transportation.

I recommend Greg Hise and William Deverell, Eden by Design, which includes the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew design for Los Angeles, to see what Los Angeles could have been. The Chamber of Commerce commissioned this design, and then deposited it in the circular file.

This design envisioned a city connected by parks. The river was to have been accompanied by parks. Vegetation absorbs water. We wouldn’t have needed to channel the river with concrete. Our world-view, however, is that property is a commodity, and the Chamber’s interest lay in real estate development. Los Angeles is notoriously underserved by parks as a result.

Local and state governmental decisions in California’s Central Valley replicate what happened in Los Angeles: loss of rich farmland, low-wage jobs, and houses located far from higher paying manufacturing and technical jobs.

The primary beneficiaries of urban sprawl are highway contractors, real estate developers, farmers able to sell their land at much higher prices, the oil companies, and the automobile manufacturers and all of the auxiliary automobile businesses. The losers are low-wage earners, everyone who has to drive long distances on freeways between home and work, everyone who has to pay higher prices for food and for transportation of food, and also the environment unless we all get cars that don’t depend on fossil fuel.

European and American planning history is rooted in political anarchy and utopianism. (Peter Hall, see “Notes” below.)

In 1898, Sir Ebenezer Howard published Garden Cities of Tomorrow, in which he described a utopian city where people live harmoniously together with the rest of nature. The publication led to the founding of the Garden city movement that realized several Garden Cities in Great Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. He had imagined satellite towns reached by public transportation where people worked near to where they lived.

Inspired by the Utopian novel Looking Backward, Howard’s garden city were to house 32,000 people on a site of 6,000 acres planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and six radial boulevards extending from the center. The garden city would be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, a further garden city would be developed nearby. Howard envisioned a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city of 50,000 people, linked by road and rail. (Arnold, pp 1-5).

He designed Garden Cities to be planned, self-contained, communities surrounded by greenbelts, containing carefully balanced areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. Howard had not taken political reality into consideration. The Garden Cities eventually became typical suburbs.

After the tragic 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and the political aftermath of that event, radical lawyer and former mayoral candidate on the socialist ticket, Job Harriman founded the utopian community of Llano del Rio in the Antelope Valley.

When he was a young lawyer in San Francisco, Harriman visited the Altrurian community at the north end of Santa Rosa, organized as a self-help community started by a Berkeley Unitarian minister Edward Biron Payne. (See, Jack London’s Magic Trail, published on Boryanabooks.) Altruria was based on altruism. It did not survive an economic depression.

Harriman’s urban design drew on Altruria and on Howard’s idea and expanded it to become a working model based on co-operation, organized as a corporation with the workers owning shares in the enterprise. New Llano owned bakeries, a newspaper, orchards, a canning factory, auto repair, a school, and stores. Interestingly, because women in this country still not have the vote when New Llano started, women could take on any job they chose.

As a result of the Los Angeles Times implacable opposition to New Llano and disputes with neighboring ranchers over water, the community moved to Louisiana, where it endured through most of the Great Depression as a self-sufficient enterprise. What Job Harriman had not taken into consideration was the political reality of dissent within utopia. New Llano sank under the weight of lawsuits the co-operative owners brought against each other.

Franklin D. Roosevelt may have elevated planning in the public consciousness without understanding entirely what he meant in his campaign for the Presidency, but his New Deal created communities that grew out of the newly recognized national policy. (Conkin, p. 37). The New Deal idea of planning went beyond the mainstream interpretation of planning.

Planning in this country, long past the recognition of planning as essential to well designed communities in Village of Euclid v. Ambler 272 U.S. 365 (1926)(Land use zoning is within a municipality’s inherent police power), remained essentially zoning; that is, city planners categorized land by use, and by height and set-backs, but did not otherwise interfere in the market for land. Government regulates the private market in the commodity of land, according to this theory of the role of government; that is, government does not create entire communities and it does not provide affordable housing and spacious parks. (See, Robert Fogelson, Fragmented Metropolis, for an excellent understanding of the problems faced by planners in Southern California.)

Ebenezer Howard’s garden city idea was one idea that underpinned the federal government ‘s back-to-the-land sub-policy when the New Deal emphasized the need for wholly new towns in a spacious, rural environment.

In early 1933, Title II, Section 208, of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) created the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, the purpose of which was to decentralize industry from congested cities and enable workers to improve their standards of living through the help of subsistence agriculture. (In 1935 the Supreme Court held that the National Industrial Recovery Act was unconstitutional. In consequence of this decision, the administration transferred Section 208 to the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act,)

Beginning in July 1936, the federal government transplanted selected immigrant Jewish garment workers from the sweatshops and tenements of New York City to rural central New Jersey, 14 miles east of Trenton. In the Jersey Homesteads garment workers sewed in a cooperatively owned factory, worked in a communal farm, shopped in a co-op store, and lived around a commonly held green belt.

The cost of the Jersey Homesteads represented at least three times its actual value. (Conkin, p. 275). Inasmuch as the government dismantled it after only two years, it is impossible to know if that cost could have been amortized.

The Jersey Homesteads faced strong political opposition. By Roosevelt’s second term, an Anti-New Deal coalition had solidified in Congress. On the local level, citizens of Bound Brook successfully enjoined the greenbelt city of Greenbrook and almost succeeded in blocking the whole Resettlement Administration program. A Hearst newspaper reporter circulated a petition to get a similar injunction against the Jersey Homesteads. (Conkin, p. 329)

Defense housing and other military-related communities replaced civilian community building during World War II (Hayden, p. 129). The Housing Act of 1950 encountered the Red Scare, and that meant a very diminished role of government in providing socially owned housing. The federal government aimed its efforts at subsidizing private ownership through federal assisted mortgages and insurance, and through its highway and freeway programs, (Hayden,128, et. Seq. ) and through its massive mortgage interest subsidies to individual property owners.

Twenty years after Tugwell established the Jersey Homesteads, the Chinese made the dispersion of industry the centerpiece of their regional economic planning during the Great Leap Forward in the years from 1958 to 1961, in part because natural resources such as coal and iron-ore deposits were widely spread and easily mined. Small-scale industry tapped those resources without incurring the fossil-fueled transportation costs of countries with centralized industries. (Tabb and Sawyer, p 344).

Because China needed to exploit widely spread natural resources as part of its “The Great Leap Forward,” (1949-1958) Maoist planners designed new towns that conserved energy. Chinese — ostensibly “Communist”– mixed-use communities resemble Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City model for suburbia and may well have drawn on the New Llano community, which was well-known at the time, as did New Deal experiments in suburban housing, especially the Jersey Homesteads, in this country in the late 1930s.

Under a dictatorship – which Communist China was – the plan should have been successful. It faced no opposition from entrenched elites who wanted to enlarge their ownership of private property. Mao led The Great Leap Forward placing primary emphasis on technical advances and strong productive forces in a nominally socialist economy before real communism, or even real socialism, can have a hope of being achieved, according to a Marxian (not Marxist) theory called The Theory of Productive Forces.

The Great Leap Forward ended in catastrophe, and claimed the lives of some 20 to 45 million people from starvation because Mao sacrificed agriculture in his stepped-up program to industrialize China.

Today’s Smart Growth theory is the idea that concentrations of urban development in the centers of cities avoids urban sprawl; and it advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including neighborhood schools, complete streets, and mixed-use development with a range of housing possibilities for people with different incomes.

Smart Growth is an approach, rather than an urban design, aimed at mediating the transportation, life quality and environmental problems caused by urban sprawl. Unless it can overcome the constraints of our world view that property is a commodity, and overcome the political reality that people in this city continue to want to become rich from real estate, Smart Growth is not going to significantly reduce global warming.


Paul K. Conkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program (Cornell 1959)

Mike Davis, City of Quartz

Lionel Rolfe, Nigey Lennon, Paul Greenstein, Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles

Robert Fogelson, Fragmented Metropolis (1967 University of California Press).

David Sidorsky (1977). John Dewey: The Essential Writings. New York: Harper & Row.

Cities of Tomorrow, by Peter Hall, (updated 1996)

Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000) (Vintage Books 2000)

Marxism and the Metropolis: New Perspectives in Urban Political Economy by William K. Tabb, Larry Sawyers, and Larry Sawers (Oxford University Press, New York 1978), pp 343-348


“New Jersey community offers lessons for today’s economy”

By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

http://www.nps.gov/archive/elro/glossary/brains-trust.html. (Retrieved September 26, 2010). “The New Deal witnessed an increased role for intellectuals in government. The Brains Trust, a term coined by James Kieran, a New York Times reporter, refers to the group of academic advisers that FDR gathered to assist him during the 1932 presidential campaign. Initially, the term applied to three Columbia University professors: Raymond Moley, Rexford Guy Tugwell, and Adolph A. Berle, Jr. Within a few months, Basil (”Doc”) O’Connor, Samuel I. Rosenman, and Hugh Johnson would join the group. These men quickly helped FDR develop an economic plan whose programs became the backbone of the New Deal: regulation of bank and stock activity, large scale relief and public works programs for people living in both urban and rural areas.

Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898)

The New Deal in the Suburbs, by Joseph L. Arnold (1971). This a history of the Greenbelt towns. It includes footnotes that reflect FDR’s campaign and writing rhetoric about planning.

http://www.slate.com/id/2130017/. “End the Mortgage-Interest Deduction!” by Jason Furman.

Beverly Lewis is co-producer, director, and writer of American Utopia, a one-hour historical documentary about America’s longest-lived socialist Utopian colony, funded in part by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and broadcast on WLPB-TV in November, 1994.

For more information about American Utopia, call Louisiana Public Broadcasting in Baton Rouge at (504) 767-5660.


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