Life in the suburban paradise

Newsletters are the hallmark of suburbia, the reminder that you have moved out of the city and into its middle classes.

They might feature a section called Environmental Update, which informs residents that “the wetlands area will be reclaimed this spring and wild flowers planted… .with every effort made to eradicate poison ivy.” Similarly, understanding the interest residents have in their individual yards is shared in the newsletter’s feature “Maintaining Your Garden”. One issue featuring gardening advice, also suggests that a “‘Lawn of the Month’ committee might be fun if neighbors are interested”. Perhaps more than any other aspect of Harbor Town’s suburban qualities is the sense of dedication residents have to engender a sense of community.

 

Much like a new subdivision neighborhood in the 1950s, which experienced the excitement of starting a neighborhood from the ground up, the newsletters and postings on a community board in the neighborhood’s sales/ neighborhood center are indicative of this enthusiasm. Residents leave notes about “canine courtesy rules” or announce a meeting to get involved in lobbying the city to honor its service commitments: (“Now is the time to get involved, if you are concerned about the completion of Island Drive!”). Related to this are more conscious attempts that encourage a sense of community action. The Homeowners Association is interesting from this respect because, unlike many others, it offers equal inclusion and participation to renters so that “everyone in the community has a vote”. The Association, with elected officers, also organizes a Neighborhood Watch program of citizen patrols, and has in the past sponsored a speaker series by the Memphis Police Department on security issues and self defense. Finally, judging solely from announcements in the newsletter, social events are used to foster community spirit, by endorsing such activities as a Mardi Gras parade (“Search your attic for outrageous carnival costumes, and bring a devilishly delicious desert to share!”), or a Christmas tree lighting (Please join us at Christmas Tree Park on Sunday at 6:00 PM…. entertainment will be furnished by the Maria Montessori School children who will lead us in caroling. Coffee, hot chocolate and cookies will be served by a surprise master of ceremonies!) Conceivably some of the activities will be short-lived. The participation of residents in trying out new activities in the early stages of the neighborhood will possibly lead to the establishment of certain traditions at the expense of others. Accordingly, some of the events described by the developer as ongoing activities, as though they had been long-standing traditions, is a situation which is sometime contradicted by the announcements of the newsletter. For example. despite the developers’ marketing description of a “popular Saturday morning Coffee Club which meets each week in the gazebo of Settlers Point Park”, the newsletter reports in one of its issues that: “Due to low participation we will no longer be hosting the coffee club …we thank the 6 to 8 residents who did enjoy the coffee and New York Times..” Yet, in short, all of these activities suggest the optimistic verve of a new Suburb which is fueled by the desire to become part of an eventually-established community. In order to attract the types of people needed to begin this momentum, the developers knew that they would have to be creative in their marketing efforts.

 

Since Harbor Town would be an exception to the development trend of Memphis, one of the strategies used by Henry Turley’s marketing team, was to target prospective homebuyers from out-of-town. They reasoned that these buyers would not have the pre-conceived notions or biases against downtown that Memphians had held. Since it was difficult to convince real estate agents of the sales potential of the island, the developers had to be aggressive in providing video tape “info-mercials”, tours of the site and flexible open-house hours just to get suburban realtors to bring their clients in to look at the neighborhood. Since a large part of the development effort was to be focused on families with children, the developer had to anticipate their needs. A poor reputation for public schools in the central city would be an insurmountable objection for such families, so the developer wanted to provide an on-site school as an alternative. The agreement with the Montessori school to locate in the neighborhood and to begin operating early in the process was, therefore, a critical part of this effort. But other, blunter strategies were included to ensure that families would even look. For example, homebuyers were offered a lot price concession of $1,200 per child, and alterations in the lot’s features, such as providing a backyard fence in areas near streets or water, were sometimes negotiated or installed free of charge.  Both of these strategies seemed to be successful. Twenty-five percent of Harbor Town’s current homeowners were relocated from another area of the country, and thirty-two percent reported to have at least one child under 18 years as of 1994.

 

Nevertheless, according to Urban Land Institute researchers, “the developer underestimated the appeal to families with children… .the private school and the special promotions to families [were] factors, but it was the project’s design that ultimately proved most important.”17 Additionally, surveys taken by the developer in early 1994 revealed Harbor Town’s homeowners to be a diverse middle-class population, with 16% of respondents described as executives, 18% of respondents were classified as professional, and 21% of respondents were reported to be employed in medical occupations. The age distribution showed a strong segment of “family raising” ages represented in adults, in that 63% of adults among homeowners over 18, were between the ages of 18 and 45.18 The development of Harbor Town was a radical departure from the trend in depreciation which Downtown Memphis as a living environment had faced. The fact that housing was developed at all next to downtown was it first contribution. But the additional benefits that will accompany this development because of the middle class family, home-owning community that has been achieved, holds the promise a revival of a city culture which had all but disappeared. As a “suburb within downtown”, Harbor Town fulfills in physical, design, and social terms the kind of new middle class family communities that any city would desire to have.


June 18, 2018

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