Suburban America – The origin story

Suburban American homes and neighbourhoods have been fed to us through countless TV shows such as Desperate Housewives, Modern Family and even The Simpsons. Suburban America is a shiny, conformist space, but what we don’t often hear about is it’s origins. This post will give a brief overview of some of the factors that contributed to the creation and popularity of ‘The Suburbs’.

The suburban sprawl began in the 1950s, with mass movement of people across America. However, this was very different to the Great Migration of the previous years. This movement was one away from cities towards smaller surrounding towns, which would come to be known as the suburbs due to their ‘sub-urban’ placement (which I personally think sounds like a new niche genre of music).

The American suburbs combined the ease of small-town living with all the amenities of the big city, with most suburbs having transport links for working men to travel from their homes to their jobs in the city (Think Don Draper catching the train in Mad Men). This move away from the city was influenced by many things, but the three major factors were; the economic boom in the post-war era, the promise by the American government of suitable homes for veterans, and rising racial tensions.

Image result for move to the suburbs 1950s

During the Great Depression and the Second World War, people didn’t have much to spend their money on due to factories focussing on war-time production rather than that of consumable goods. So, when the war ended in 1945, Americans had a lot of money to spend. This powered a new era of consumerism focussed on the consumption of mass produced goods and big ticket purchases (such as cars and houses). 

By 1946, the mass return of veterans who had been promised cheap homes prompted a small housing crisis. Whilst this may seem unrelated to rising levels of consumerism, it could not be more related. The vital need for land to build cheap homes prompted companies to begin buying land outside of cities. The ‘American Dream’ then changed to include ownership of a new home, with a garden and a car (not to mention the wife and the 2.5 children).

Driving demand for homes prompted the production of cheap and easy to build houses, forcing companies to utilise factory processes much like our friend Ford used in the early 20th Century. Suburban homes were designed smaller than the traditional American home, with smaller gardens and were packed tightly together. These homes were also very similar in design and layout, and the TV was made the centre of the house in most designs. The rate at which homes were built and bought was unprecedented, with 1 in 4 homes standing in 1960, having been built in the 50s. Home ownership levels also increased by almost 20% between 1940 and 1960 – the largest jump in home ownership ever recorded.

Image result for levittown homes

The mass movement towards the suburbs was also triggered by what is referred to as the ‘White Flight’. During the economic slump, American cities were suffering from a lack of investment in infrastructure, which was made worse by the growing population rates within the cities. This led to the decline of the inner-cities, which we can see the effects of today in the amount of inner-city areas (especially those inhabited by people of colour) that have been neglected for so long that have reputations as ‘bad’ areas. This then leads to even less attention being given to these areas since they are seen as lost causes (creating ghettos and areas of severe deprivation).

Back to the past, the city began to be perceived as an area of corruption and decay, with suburbs being advertised as wholesome and safe. The 1950s were the beginning of the civil rights movement which saw riots, police brutality and a lot of aggression pointed towards American people of colour. Due to what can only be described as white America’s fear of people of colour, many white people did not want to live in the cities anymore, so they saw the outward expansion of homes as the perfect opportunity to get out. This is the reason that many suburbs are very white and conformist.

Image result for white flight cities

We also can’t forget to talk about redlining, the reason so many American suburbs are mainly white and so many areas of deprivation are very racially diverse. The Federal Housing Association was set up in 1934 and aimed to set standards of home construction and mortgages. The FHA played an instrumental role in ending the housing crisis through their cooperation with housing development companies.

Whilst this could be seen as a noble cause, the FHA also contributed to institutional racism through redlining. This rated neighbourhoods based on their race and class makeup, people of colour and the working class being seen as too risky for banks to invest in. This meant that those who wished to move from a ‘red’ (AKA bad) neighbourhood to a ‘green’ (good or if we’re calling a spade a spade, white) they would not be able to get loans to buy new homes. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which people of colour are unable to climb out of areas of deprivation, but white people can move into bigger and better homes.

The FHA basically guaranteed that the American suburbs were predominantly or exclusively white areas, and we all know, the less you experience other people the more afraid of them you become. This institutional racism can be traced all the way to the present and the situation America finds itself in now.

Image result for white flight 1950s

The suburbanisation of America was also part of the push towards more ‘traditional’ (AKA sexist and racist) gender roles. Despite American women taking over in factories and other ‘male’ jobs during the war, as soon as the war was over women were encouraged (*forced*) to return to their ‘true roles’ as mothers and wives. For many women, suburban life revolved around their children and their husbands and women (as most still do today) took on the majority or all of the unpaid work. Any women who did not fit into this ‘traditional’ role was the subject of town gossip, something we can still see today in TV shows such as Big Little Lies and Weeds. This deeply entrenched role that women were forced to fit into created a deep sense of unhappiness for many women, which was one of the driving forces for second wave feminism, something I will discuss more in another post. What can be seen for suburban women in America is a whole lot of nothing really – lots of physical, mental and emotional labour for very little pay off, and absolutely no wage.

Image result for suburban housewife

What we know about the American suburbs today is the product of decades of lives that have been lived in very specific ways, in order to create what we now know as American suburban culture. The process of redlining, and mass production of homes coupled with post-war attitudes towards gender and race have created what is now a very white, conformist place to live.

Check out the links below if you would like to read more about the American Suburbs:

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