Suburbia

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Define the term "suburbia".

What were some of the common values shared by popular culture within the suburban landscape of the 1950's and 1960's.

How did these values begin to shift? .

Jun 1st, 2015

In the decades following World War II, the population of the United States underwent a massive migration to the suburbs. The society which became the "Patio Culture" of the 1950's and 1960's has been the subject of much criticism from intellectuals and social scientists both then and now. Much of the criticism can be attributed to the mind set of the critics themselves, which could be considered apathetic to the conditions of the middle class. While many of the social problems that the critics so poignantly singled out did, in fact, exist, they often did not manifest themselves to the extent that was claimed, and they were also simultaneously taking place outside of suburbia as well.

When undergoing an examination of the charges against suburban culture, one must take into account the mind set of the intellectual elite of the 1950's. It must be understood that the conclusions they reached were usually based on a cosmopolitan world view; a view which included such urban facilities as museums and ethnic districts, most of which were lacking in suburbia. What they perceived as blandness and conformity were really only the home-centeredness that is characteristic of the lower middle class culture. Suburbanites were viewed by critics as outsiders who saw their community from a "tourist perspective". The tourist mind set required excitement and a sense of the exotic, and this conflicted with the mind set of the homeowner which required a comfortable and secure place to live. This discrepancy in views created an intellectual disappointment by critics since their expectations were not met.1

The Patio Culture was portrayed in books of the time as "a strange netherworld of rathskellers and dens, of cheese dips and cocktails (the required icebreakers in a highly mobile society), or kaffeeklatsches and card parties, and of outer-directed husbands and neurotic corporate wives." 2

To better understand the post-World War II suburban phenomenon let us look at one of the more famous incarnations of it--Levittown, New Jersey. Built in 1955 on land bought from the Willingboro Township, New Jersey, Levittown was the third such development built by Levitt and Sons, Inc.3 The firm gained experience during World War II building housing for the Navy, and from that, they developed a system of mass production building which was perfected in the two earlier Levittowns; Long Island, New York in 1947 and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1951.4

Innovations in the planning of Levittown included the building of elementary schools from the onset of development, the cost of which would be incorporated into the houses. The single house pattern of the previous Levittowns was replaced with three styles: a four-bedroom "Cape Cod" selling for $11,500; a three-bedroom one-story "Rancher" selling for $13,000 and a two-story "Colonial" selling for $14,000 and $14,500 for three and four bedrooms respectively. The Levitt executives were divided on how to approach the planning of Levittown. Two factions emerged: one was composed of "idealists" who wanted to build the best community possible, and the other consisted of "realists" who were more concerned with keeping costs down to improve sales. The latter group were mainly concentrated in the comptroller's office and resisted innovations which would increase cost.5 Federal financing, low interest rates, and mortgage guarantees permitted many veterans to purchase their first new home. Their eagerness to make a fresh start was reflected in a 1945 poll conducted by the Saturday Evening Post in which only nineteen percent of those polled said that they would be willing to live in a used house or apartment. The new suburban developments offered them the chance to afford something new on land of their own. "With the kitchen spilling directly into the dining room, the glass doors opening from the living room into the outdoor barbecue and play area, the picture window bringing the lawn right up to the wall-to-wall carpet, the ideal suburban home was an intertwining of nature and civilization; it was as if the suburban family had realized Karl Marx's vision of a blending of countryside and city".6 Almost as soon as the first bulldozer blade of earth had been moved, social critics began to condemn the new developments. "These cardboard-box housing developments are much in evidence. They may be said to represent the most painful form of the disease of civic disintegration, but this is certainly not the fault of the suburban idea in itself, any more than big city slums may be attributed to the idea of urbanity".7

True, the architectural styles available to homeowners were quite limited. The conformity of the houses was broken up only by their exterior colors, the choices of which were limited as well. In the Long Island development, for example, the public schools (15 of them) were built of the same red brick and glass as were the hospitals and civic centers. The appearance of these buildings was also diminished by the fact that they were situated on large barren lots. The same open spaces that were planned to give ex-city dwellers a sense of space gave them a sense of desolation instead.8

Conformity of architecture did not mean the Levittown, Long Island, residents did not desire a more colorful and varied environment. Their plight can be linked to the fact that the development was a private venture and zoning was controlled by the builder from the onset of construction to provide strictly residential neighborhoods. Changing the look of public buildings was beyond the control of the inhabitants. So great was the need for the quick creation of school spaces that in an attempt to block their construction, say for aesthetic reasons, the residents would have most certainly met with failure. It can be said that the Levittowners were prisoners of their environment similar to that of city apartment dwellers who undertook renovations; they could not afford to do the work themselves and there was no public channel to force the landlord to the work either.9

One of the most poignant criticisms of suburbia was that of racial segregation. Racial segregation was the rule in the Long Island development as it was elsewhere. The ethnic makeup of this community reflected the social advances of American society as of 1945. Religious bias was virtually non-existent and Catholics, Jews, and Protestants mingled freely. In 1947 and in 1949, African-American veterans were turned away when they attempted to buy housing, and Puerto Ricans also experienced the same treatment later on. Although housing discrimination became illegal, homeowners and realtors found ways to discourage minority buyers. Ironically, it was the reputation of the town itself as being unreceptive to minorities that became the major roadblock to minority settlement.10 It must be stressed that although this disturbing practice did, in fact, occur throughout suburbia, it was also a problem of the 1950's society at large and continues to be addressed to this day


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