If you were born anytime in the past 65 years, there’s a 50-50 chance you grew up in suburbia
By David Cohea,
For those of you who were born anytime in the past 65 years, there’s a 50-50 chance you grew up in suburbia. Pretty amazing, when you consider that suburbs didn’t really exist in America until 1947. For better and for worse, suburbia is the heartland of the American dream, where home ownership and consumer culture combine into a massive smorgasbord of middle-class comfort.
Coming off the uncertainties of the Great Depression and World War II, the 1950s offered brighter promises for millions of veterans returning home. Thanks to the GI Bill, which allowed them to get an education and a home loan, these young Americans found a way into an economy that was starting to soar.
And where was the consumer dreamland to be found? In the suburbs — housing communities outside cities that had become overpopulated and underbuilt.
In 1947, the firm of Levitt & Sons Inc. began work in New York on a planned community that would eventually hold more than 17,000 homes. Using construction methods learned in the military, the firm figured out a way to manufacture a home in just 27 steps, using partially skilled labor and cutting out much of the middleman costs. Levittown was soon producing 30 houses a day, each sold for about $8,000 to a homeowner earning between $80 and $100 a week.
Similar developments sprouted across the country, and over the next 30 years, some 60 million people relocated from cities out to the suburbs.
Gas was cheap in the 1950s, so auto sales boomed as homeowners commuted into the cities to work. Consumer goods for all of those houses also took off, and factories that had been churning out B-24 bombers soon began building refrigerators and TV sets. Shopping malls popped up, flush with a bounty of affordable goods.
Filled with excitement about their future, young couples began having babies with a vengeance. During the baby-boom generation, 75.8 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964.
In the ’burbs, dreams were repeated in endless rows of nearly identical houses, with each competing to look exactly like what you saw advertised on TV. Every house had a family room with a TV and stereo, and in every backyard there was a hammock, grill and some form of pool. In the kitchen, Mom was queen with her large fridge stocked with frozen TV dinners and a pantry spilling over with canned vegetables and boxed food. The variation of salads, desserts and dinners that quivered in Jell-O was astonishing.
There were downsides. Women who had entered the workforce en masse while the men were fighting overseas found themselves out of work again. And while it was true that women became queens in their domestic domains, they still found themselves isolated from the community in homes that had become too self-sufficient. Suburbs were also almost exclusively white, with many using restrictive homeowners’ policies to keep it that way. The American dream grew to look a certain way, and the desire to “keep up with the Joneses” drove suburban culture toward a narrow, even paranoid, uniformity. Trapped in this homogeneity, suburban life down the decades became increasingly isolated, both from larger civic life (especially in gated communities) as well as individually, as homes grew to massive zero-lot-line castles of consumer indulgence. Lewis Mumford called suburban life “an asylum for the preservation of illusion.”
Still, many of us were minted in those suburbs, and most of us still live in some form of them. For better or worse, the look of vintage suburbia has taken permanent residence in our memories.
Last one in the pool is a rotten egg!
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