American Suburban Beginnings

An outstanding essay from New Geography concerning the history of American suburban development.

An excerpt.

This essay is part of a new report from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism called “America’s Housing Crisis.” The report contains several essays about the future of housing from various perspectives. Follow this link to download the full report (pdf).

“…a social revolution was being made, not by storming barricades, but by leaping over them.”

Seven decades ago, the great post- war American suburbanization began. The seminal development was Levittown, built on potato fields in Nassau County, outside New York City. This archetypical development, with its small houses and modest lots, helped launch a suburbanizing trend that has accounted for virtually all of the population growth in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Today’s new houses are at least three times the size of the early Levittown houses, but they reflect the continued preference for suburban communities over the last half century.

This essay examines the great Post-War suburbanization, incubated in Levittown and its revolutionary impact on American civilization. At the same time, there is no doubt that racial exclusion was part of the formula, abetted not only by people, communities and developers, but worst of all by governments themselves, especially the federal government. These regrettable exclusionary policies at the time also characterized virtually every walk of American life.

Yet, for the most part, millions— now including millions of minority households—are better off than they would have been without the great suburbanization. As Professional Builder magazine put it:

At a time when few working people could afford a home, Levitt helped them realize their dream, starting with servicemen and women returning from the war.

Levitt brought mass production techniques to home building, following in the mold of Henry Ford, who made automobiles inexpensive enough for middle-income households. The higher quality detached housing with yards could not have been built at low enough prices without such techniques, nor could it have been offered at such prices without the additional advantage of less expensive urban fringe land.

As home ownership expanded, perhaps the most important result was class mobility. In this period the American middle class expanded as never before and home ownership skyrocketed.

This might seem cause for celebration, but an influential group of planners and intellectuals damned it from the very start. These, whom this essay will refer to as the retro-urbanists, tend to idealize the pre- automobile city, which has largely been replaced not only in the United States but in virtually all high income countries. German academic Thomas Sieverts called these views “criticism rooted in an ideological concept of the city.”

As retro-urbanists have sought to stop or even reverse suburbanization, people stubbornly have continued to choose the suburbs overwhelmingly, not materially moved by the nostalgia so often keenly evident among pundits and planners. So far these efforts have achieved only modest gains, mostly in a handful of states, where the retro-urbanists have had sway, but at great cost to the middle class.

In the meantime, however, the housing affordability represented by Levittown and most of the suburban development since World War II has  had its reward in a “property owning democracy,” which legendary urban planner Peter Hall of University College, London described as a principal objective of public policy.

THE SITUATION IN 1946

The America of 1946 was much different than today. The United States had just emerged from the world’s most destructive war, emerging as the dominant world power and producer (the latter principally because other competitors had experienced massive destruction). Yet, despite this position, Americans in 1946 experienced a far lower standard of living and greater level of poverty than today.

World War II had made it possible, finally, for the nation to emerge from  the Great Depression, which had been characterized by unprecedented levels of unemployment and economic stagnation.

Housing was overcrowded, especially in the cities and living standards were far below present standards.

Michael J. Bennett describes the situation:

“Home was usually a three or four story tenement or apartment house, a two, three or four-decker for as many families or a single-family shotgun house with tiny rooms off a single corridor, so-called because the shotgun could be fired down the corridor without hitting anyone. Only the better-off live in fairly spacious houses on the outskirts of town. Even those houses, however, had small tiny front lawns and were separated from each other by little more than a hedge between gravel or partially paved driveway.”

Bennett goes on to indicate that only the very rich took showers in the morning, “because they were the only ones with showers” and that “Many families had to share toilets and sinks as well as tubs with people living on the same floor.”

The nation’s returning soldiers, in unprecedented numbers, would experience a better America, with better lives. There was also a concern among policymakers that the failure to facilitate opportunities for returning soldiers could result in social upheaval or even revolution in the worst case. Some noted the social disruptions that occurred following World War I, in countries like Russia and Germany. There was great interest in trying to ensure that this did not happen in America.

Just before the end of the war, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, called the “GI Bill of Rights,” which provided assistance to veterans, especially improving access to housing and access to higher education. At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration was aiding home purchases for households not eligible for the “GI Bill.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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