Arrested Development

How Minnesota philanthropist and developer Henry McKnight's utopian vision of suburbia became a blueprint for modern exurban nightmares

It's this way along much of Pioneer Trail. A little farther east is another development, Enclave II, where two or three older homes were recently torn down to make way for a handful of "twinhomes" starting at $699,000. The houses have fancy wooden doors, pewter-finished fixtures, and stonework; they're being built in twos around Enclave Circle, a cul-de-sac that rings a lawn and gazebo. Between the entrance and the busy road a fountain rises out of a small pond.

According to Evan McKenzie, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois who writes critically about planned communities, one can draw a straight line from McKnight's dream to the marketing plans behind developments like these.

"Americans have this idea that you can get away from ills, from the problems of other people, if you can get a fresh start," explains McKenzie. "This is a deep-seated utopian dream. It's a very powerful drive that developers have learned to tap into. They're no longer selling houses; they're now selling community. Developers are encouraging people subtly to think that they're starting over with a whole new group of people, that they're getting away from a lot of things."

Buyers count on the New Towns' most enduring, and troublesome, legacy--the homeowners' association--to keep the new neighborhood from looking like the old one. Usually established by means of legal covenants that restrict the terms of a property's use, associations do everything from maintaining streets to organizing trash collection to governing what color owners can paint their garages, whether sheds or decks are allowed, and whether one can park a car or a boat in the driveway. Some even dictate whether residents can have pets, guests, or children. One key selling point is that these rules will keep the neighbors' bad taste--or bad luck--from endangering one's own property values.

"Most people's home is their major investment," notes McKenzie. "People are betting on the price of their home going up very, very quickly right now. Often, prices are so high people are relying on variable-rate mortgages or interest-only loans to buy houses. So the only way to increase the amount of equity they have is for the value of the house to go up. The perceived value of those covenants is that they will help to enforce that value. Homeowner associations make this a fungible commodity. You can go from one place to another and believe that the homeowners' association will take care of things."

The rise of these "residential private governments" is the subject of McKenzie's 1994 book Privatopia. In it, he argues that association-controlled developments increasingly do the opposite of what McKnight and the other futurists predicted: Instead of creating mixed and egalitarian communities, they help to entrench class divisions.

The book quotes then-U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who labeled this trend the "secession of the successful": "In many cities and towns, the wealthy have in effect withdrawn their dollars from the support of public spaces and institutions shared by all, and dedicated their savings to their own private services." Adds McKenzie: "Condominiums and the omnipresent residential communities dun their members to undertake work that financially strapped local governments can no longer afford to do well--maintaining roads, mending sidewalks, pruning trees, repairing street lights, cleaning swimming pools, paying for lifeguards and, notably, hiring security guards to protect life and property."

Bell Curve author Charles Murray is also quoted in Privatopia, fretting about associations' influence in creating "a caste society" in which rich Americans will come to view cities as "the internal equivalent of Indian reservations--places of deprivation and dysfunction for which they have no responsibility."

It's no accident that the rise of the association goes hand in glove with the fantasy of starting over. "These are efforts to create instant communities that avoid the kind of randomness that neighborhoods acquire when they develop organically," McKenzie says. "If you have 10 different neighborhoods, you might have one that draws people who mow their lawns and one that draws people who park cars on their lawns and leave refrigerators in the backyard.

"In these neighborhoods there are no old-timers, no norms, they're all newcomers. No one knows anyone," he continues. "Individual buyers are trading away their freedom to do what they want with their property in exchange for assurance that the neighbors can't do whatever they want to do with theirs."


In the 25 years between Henry McKnight's death and Walt Ripplinger's abortive attempt to put up his tepee, Jonathan grew slowly and steadily. Scrapbooks kept at the old brick farmhouse where the association's offices are located suggest that the new town's first decade was as vibrant as hoped. Celebratory photographs from the era abound--pictures of ice-cream socials, three-legged races, and festivals marking each season and every conceivable holiday. There were consciousness-raising groups, values-formation classes, street dances. The Renaissance Festival was born in Jonathan, on land where the developers weren't yet ready to build. (Today Jules Smith owns International Renaissance Festivals, which also operates fairs in Maryland and Ontario.)

"This street partied continuously," recalls Linda Frey, who bought the second-to-last house built in Neighborhood Six. "We were always getting together. The neighbor across the street used to hold big corn feeds." A retired air traffic controller who grew up in Iowa, Frey lived in Whittier and Bloomington before she and her husband moved to Jonathan.

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