Landscapes of Privilege: Aesthetics and Affluence in an American Suburb

Landscapes of Privilege: Aesthetics and Affluence in an American Suburb

Landscapes of Privilege: Aesthetics and Affluence in an American Suburb

Landscapes of Privilege: Aesthetics and Affluence in an American Suburb

Synopsis

James and Nancy Duncan look at how the aesthetics of physical landscapes are fully enmeshed in producing the American class system. Focusing on an archetypal upper class American suburb-Bedford in Westchester County, NY-they show how the physical presentation of a place carries with it a range of markers of inclusion and exclusion.

Excerpt

One morning in 1993 we were sitting in the archives in the Bedford Town Hall leafing through the correspondence on a zoning controversy. An elderly gentleman walked into the room and said with a faint smile on his face, "So you're back, are you? What are you finding we've done wrong this time?" We recognized him as J. Halstead Park, a descendant of the first white settlers in Bedford-an affluent suburb not far from New York City-and former chairman of the local historical society. We had interviewed him in the early 1970s for an article in which we argued that there were social divides in Bedford between an old WASP elite, a new upper middle class, and an old working class, and that landscape tastes played an important role in the performance of these groups' identities. Halstead Park explained to us, "Don Marshall [the town historian] came to dinner one night to discuss what we should do with your article. We decided to bury it. It would have ruffled too many feathers." With that, he wished us a good day, and was gone.

In 1999, the writer Alex Shoumatoff wrote an article for Vanity Fair on the "new" Bedford. He knows the town well, having grown up there, and his perceptive piece, part sociological study and part expose, focuses on the decline over the past two decades of an old Anglo Bedford upper class, of which his family (as Russian aristocracy) are well entrenched honorary members, and the rise of a new, more ethnically heterogeneous, ultra-wealthy elite. His article attracted a lot of letters to the editor in various local newspapers. One paper, the Record Review, published some interviews with long-term residents about Shoumatoff's portrayal of the town (Lynch 1999b). Among those who felt aggrieved was Jim Renwick, a member of the Town Board whose family is descended from the first settlers. He dismissed the article as "trite, because it was about money, a very shallow subject."

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, Bedford was a farming community dominated by a few families, some of whom trace their roots back to the first white settlers in 1680. In the 1870s, it began its long, slow transition into the affluent outer suburb that it is today. Since that time, there has been a tension between various social groups in town with differing claims to status, based upon wealth, education, taste, length of residence, and genealogy. We had touched on this tension in our article in the early 1970s when the old Bedford patrician elite was still a force to be reckoned with. Halstead Park "buried" our piece, not because he thought we were wrong, but because he believed that such status . . .

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