Nation's driveways lead to the soul of America

July 17, 1992|By Patricia Leigh Brown | Patricia Leigh Brown,New York Times News Service

Searching for the nation's spirit? Look beyond politics. Look to the place where rolled newspapers dwell, snow blowers roar, free throws soar heavenward and teen-agers tryst. To the sticky fingerprint of the American soul, to that national asphalt welcome mat, the driveway.

Will the circle be unbroken? Don't bet on it. The circle driveway, symbol of bygone gentility, is now being wedged into smaller and smaller plots of land, shimmying into position like hips into a girdle.

Like the push-button door chime, it is ubiquitous. Obsessed with making an entrance, Americans are increasingly worshiping at the high altar of concrete.

Driveways encapsulate American aspirations; just ask anyone who has ever stood at the foot of a serpentine drive lined with metal sensors and closed-circuit cameras, stared off into the vanishing point and dreamed. They are mini-Champs-Elysees, roads to Tara. Driveways represent the place where public and private meet.

Their delicate choreography possesses a sociology of its own, from the circle to the U, from the L to the T. What do your tires encounter when they arrive? Heat waves emanating from the blacktop? Or the pebbly crunch of exclusivity?

Aesthetically, the driveway has long been considered a necessary evil, a worm in the apple of paradise. "Architects don't like driveways because they're not vertical," said Paul Webster, a spokesman for the National Asphalt Pavement Association in Maryland. "The driveway is not given respect. It's not a sexy item."

But as garages become ad hoc places to store junk instead of cars, their function is gradually being usurped by driveways.

Today's driveways are display cases, Bert Parks daises, places to show off many of the country's 143,864,000 privately owned automobiles, all jockeying for position, up from 88,775,294 in 1970, according to the Transportation Department. Not to mention snowmobiles, outboard-motor boats and tricycles.

To John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard College, the driveway has become more than a private road. "You meet people in the driveway," he observes. "It has become an outdoor foyer."

No statistics exist on the outdoor foyer's growing primacy, but those in the know say that as car ownership rises and house plots shrink, the ratio of driveway to land is growing. That is partly because the new standard 2,100-square-foot house of ten comes without a basement or an attic.

To meet storage needs, garages have gotten bigger, said Ghopal Ahluwalia, research director for the National Association of Home Builders.

In 1971, 39 percent of homeowners had two-car garages; by last year, 71 percent did. To accommodate more cars and bigger garages, he said, driveways have gotten larger and wider. The U-shaped driveway, in particular, has become a sought-after fixture.

It's the American way. As Peter Cooper -- an East Hampton, N.Y., landscape designer who maintains that driveways should be "an interesting experience" -- puts it, "You can never have enough driveway."

They might seem innocuous, but driveways are a hotbed of legal wrangling as the rights of owners vie with those of passers-by.

In Queens later this month, court proceedings will begin against John Vasilis, 66, a retired contractor, who has refused to remove the driveway he built in violation of a historic-district ordinance.

He said he needed a driveway because he was in poor health, because he was concerned by the many car break-ins on public streets and because "you can't find a parking space around here."

Wayne Hyatt, a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Hyatt & Rhoads, said some community associations even outlaw basketball hoops, those all-American symbols of outdoor recreation, or require that they be mounted on a clear backboard, with poles compatible with the house color, "so it doesn't look like the NBA."

To Bernard Beck, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., the use of driveways as recreation centers says a lot about suburban life.

"The driveway is not really a driveway anymore," he said. "It's become home to suburban friendships, what you might call a courtyard. We're increasingly dependent on the automobile. Having a place to store cars is part of building up a suburban stockade."

"The most important space in America is not the church or the school or the state capital," said Paul Groth, a professor of historical geography at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It's the parking space. That's how we know our place in the universe. The bigger your driveway, the more guests you can have."

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