Book Review: Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb

Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb By James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan 2004
 The book illustrates the role landscapes play in constituting class divisions in Bedford Town, which is an affluent suburb in Westchester County, New York. The authors explore the way people produce their identities in and through places, especially home places such as houses, gardens and home communities, through a study of Bedford town and its desire to preserve its own historical character as against and in contrast to an outside world, which in turn resulted in Bedford’s privileged landscape.

Bedford was a community of farmers dominated by a few families, some of whom trace their roots back to the first white settlers in 1680’s which in turn constituted a small local elite living in large estates. In the decades following the Great Depression and World War II, many of these large estates declined and some were subdivided. By the 1960’s Bedford had developed into a classic upper class American version of a picturesque English landscape. Over the years, with the Wall Street boom, new mansions were added to the landscape, residential zoning requiring 4 acre plot sizes in much of the town made sure that the landscapes never changed from the time of the traditional estates. In the 1980’s the rich and the famous like wealthy New Yorkers and West Coast actors flocked to Bedford which made the long term residents proud and worried at the same time for the newcomers may bring unwanted changes to the landscape. The residents of Bedford are extraordinarily vigilant and at times aggressive in protecting the quality of the landscape. Conservationists protect its brooks, ponds and forests with zeal. The anti development sentiment of the old elites argued that any new building will rob them of a view, increase traffic congestion, or destroy the towns rural character and history. This sentiment set in motion by the old Bedford elite in the 1920’s has become so successful that it is difficult to build anything in Bedford at present. Such a desire to protect local history and appreciate landscapes can lead to exclusion and reaffirmation of class identities based on wealth, taste, length of residence and genealogy. For instance people from similar social and regional backgrounds develop common sensibilities, shared taste is mobilized as the basis of group belonging and equally as the basis of group distinction or exclusion (to establish the status of some and to exclude others) Like an iron gate or a dirt driveway make reference to history that is valued by some and rejected by others. Thus landscape tastes play an important role in constituting peoples identities that promote distinction and exclusion.
The local residents were also concerned in keeping the landscapes unspoiled by the Latino labor to maintain its aesthetic. The labor responsible for the beautiful gardens in Bedford lived in miserable conditions of slum housing in close by Mount Kisco. They were dealt with much aversion and treated as servants of the privileged whites. Bedford’s beautiful landscapes are based on the exclusion of its negative externalities – the Latino laborers. Thus the authors argue that such a high degree of attention on the part of the suburban residents to the visual and material aspects of place and place based identity leads to an aestheticization of exclusion.
The authors principally highlight this class distinction between an old elite class, a new upper middle class and a working class, which is primarily based on the fears and insecurities of the local residents regarding their place and sense of a community.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb

  1. Who would not want to live in an aesthetic community? Who would not want to retire in a peaceful place, free of crimes and drugs? However, such places are difficult to find. It would take some time of searching and investigation to find a place to enjoy your retirement years.


  2. That's right, Mattie! Especially the elder ones, they wanted to live in a peaceful environment and enjoy their remaining years in their life. I would certainly prefer a worry-free life rather than making myself anxious everytime something is up, when I get old of course


  3. Seems like a good book to look into to get a better insight of american housing practices these days. Maybe I can learn something about how one class's furniture preference paints a picture about the class they're in.


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