It must have seemed a good idea at the time. A brand new town dreamt up by Jane Jacobs’ acolytes, utilizing what is called Traditional Neighborhood Design. A town with none of the defects of conventional suburbs: big lots, wide streets, rambling homes, restrictions on businesses, strip malls.
And so New Town, Missouri, was born. New Town lies thirty miles northwest of downtown St. Louis in a previously undeveloped floodplain. The town was designed by the same masterminds who brought us the world’s first New Urbanism development, Seaside, Florida (setting for the film The Truman Show, which is set in a town that is in reality the set of a reality television show). Envisioned as a viable alternative to urban decline and soulless sprawl, New Urbanism has been lauded by those on the Left and the Right.
What you end up with, however, is not a town in the traditional sense, but a hybrid, part Deer Creek Estates, part stage set of The Music Man. A suburban town, or subtown, if you like. Yes, the streets are narrower, the building lots smaller and the houses are undeniably quaint. But that is as close to Mayberry RFD as you get.
Besides pretty little homes built around a pretty little pond, a non-denominational church, a few boutique shops, spas, and a sports bar, New Town has little to distinguish it from other exurban subdivisions.
Perhaps I am biased, but having grown up in a small city in southern Illinois, I expect a town to have a barber shop and a filling station. A grade school would be helpful too, as would a library, post office, bank, hardware store, supermarket, pharmacy, and at least one bus stop. New Town has none of these. Your most basic purchases — nails, buttons, curtains — require driving to the nearest Walmart. But then New Town’s residents are used to driving. With no industry and few businesses on site, nearly all residents are commuters who drive to nearby St. Charles or St. Louis for work.
New Town’s residential restrictions make most high-class subdivision covenants look modest. An architectural supervisor must sign off on every species of shrub a resident wishes to plant in his yard, or which of the pre-approved thirty-two colors a resident may paint his home. And don’t even think about hanging a clothesline in your backyard or using a gas-powered lawnmower. Paint your front door without the approval of the residential standards committee and you can expect a visit from the local deputy.
It goes without saying that New Town’s traditional neighborhood design does not allow for “dirty” businesses, like an auto parts store or a car repair shop. And even though the town was designed to be walkable, on the beautiful Sunday afternoon we visited we were the only pedestrians. It is no wonder that, outside of a sterile bubble, New Town is the cleanest place on earth. Nor are there any ugly tombstones to mar the perfectly manicured landscape. Nor, for that matter, is there a mortuary. You see, not only is there no litter in New Town, there are no reminders of death. New Town is all about fun!
BUT IF NEW TOWN is missing the essentials, it has plenty of middle class extras. An amphitheater for productions of the children’s theater group anchors the town’s entertainment district. There’s a 50-foot-tall Washington Monument-like obelisk and a man-made sledding hill. Despite the absence of a local government, there is a fine new town hall (for wedding receptions) and a faux post office that contains post office boxes (mailboxes are verboten).
But then that’s the problem with New Town. It was master planned down to the last blade of grass, and built all in one swipe. It was not allowed to grow organically like a real town. It has been zoned and sanitized and restricted into blandness. Unlike the similarly named Newton, Missouri, a small burg near the Iowa border, where ten percent of the population is below the poverty line, nearly all New Town residents are white and upper middle class. The whole thing cannot help but feel phony and contrived, like one of those Potemkin villages the Russians supposedly built for visiting dignitaries.
New Urbanists will counter that New Town is no different from many other small cities and towns whose cores and main streets used to be lined with stores and shops, but were decimated by the arrival of the retail giants. In other words, what we have here is the New Small Town in the post-Walmart era. Which is to say, a place where people sleep, but do not work or live or shop. A commuterville. A bedroom community.
That’s fine if that’s what you want. Just don’t think you’re fooling anyone by calling it a town.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator Online.