[Marxism] "No man who has a house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do."

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 15 07:50:32 MDT 2005


Model Houses for the Millions:
The Making of the American Suburban Landscape, 1820-2000

Dolores Hayden
© 2000

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Working Paper

Sitcom Suburbs of the late 1940s and 1950s were constructed with multiple 
federal government supports: subsidized mortgages for buyers, subsidized 
financing for developers, subsidized highways to reach the houses. These 
suburbs appeared at the same time as national television programs, and many 
included televisions sets built into living room walls. Cultural critics 
such as Lewis Mumford carped at the uniformity, but from the late 1940s on, 
vast developments of one-family houses on small lots offered the cheapest 
shelter available to white, male-headed families.

Mass-produced Sitcom Suburbs, created in large numbers for returning 
veterans, with few community facilities, jobs, or public transit options, 
resembled earlier, smaller tracts of the Mail Order and Self-Built Suburbs 
that required commuting by automobile. What was new was their urban scale. 
The first Levittown, for example, totaled about 17,000 houses, or 55,000 
people. Lakewood, California, was even larger. The new developments were 
produced by far larger corporations who controlled vast tracts of land, 
worked with the federal government, and sold basic, small houses to 
consumers, while describing themselves as "community builders" because they 
built a few swimming pools or small commercial centers.

While the scale and speed of production of such suburbs by non-union 
workers suggested the industrial might of post-War America, the designs 
were nostalgic Cape Cod cottages or "ranches."  Working class residents 
were mixed by ethnicity and religion more than before- Italian American and 
Polish American and Russian American, Catholic and Protestant and 
Jewish-but all white. Racial segregation, always part of the suburban 
experience, now was enforced by government loan policies and local bankers' 
redlining. So was gender discrimination in lending. The long-term economic 
effects of racial and gender exclusion were heightened by the vast scale of 
new tracts, and by their promotion in mass culture. Fifty years later, 
households headed by persons of color and women still lagged behind in 
their rates of home ownership.

In 1948, William Levitt made his famous comment about male home owners who 
would be converting attics into spare bedrooms and mowing the lawns: "No 
man who has a house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do." 
Historian Barbara Kelly has documented the way Levittown residents added to 
their homes in Expanding the American Dream, echoing the activity of the 
Self-Built Suburbs earlier.  Now, however, there was less flexibility about 
multiple units and family types. The three-generation family was split. 
Older members remained in inner city neighborhoods as renters, adult 
children were scattered into new suburbs.

In the television sitcoms of the era, only one kind of model family was 
presented as suitable for one kind of model house. The family had an 
employed dad, a stay-at-home mom, and a traditional house on a suburban 
street in Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, or Father Knows Best. 
Recent films such as Pleasantville and The Truman Show satirize overly 
controlled places, neo-Colonial clapboard houses, neat lawns framed by 
picket fences, Moms in high heels and dresses making dinner, racial 
exclusion. Television reached all households, even the families who didn't 
get the houses, and because of this, many groups excluded from the sitcom 
suburbs of the 1950s, and from the public subsidies that supported them, 
still saw the house as an emblem of belonging and upward mobility. The 
Sitcom Suburb was federal policy, backed by intense corporate lobbying and 
reinforced by product placement in sitcoms as well as thousands of 
television commercials that used the model house as the setting for all 
sorts of goods from detergents to diapers, dishwashers to Dodge cars. The 
economic goals of Better Homes in America, Inc., and all of the lobbyists 
behind McCarthy, had been realized.

Interplay between real developers and the makers of sitcoms and movies in 
this era is fascinating. In Bachelor in Paradise, a bachelor ( Bob Hope) 
heads for a California tract to write an analysis of its social life, sure 
he will hate it. By the end of the film, he has married the only single 
woman within miles and moved in for good. In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream 
House, an advertising executive (Cary Grant) tires of New York and moved 
his family to an isolated, custom built, neo-Colonial suburban house, where 
he was overcharged for everything.  (Because Eric Hodgins wrote for Fortune 
magazine, it is quite possible his novel, and the subsequent film, were 
meant to play alongside the McCarthy housing hearings, where private 
builders stressed the impossibility of making postwar housing with 
unionized construction trades, as well as attacked the "communistic" nature 
of public housing.) Over seventy model Blandings "dream houses" were 
constructed around the country and raffled off as publicity for the film. 
In Kansas City, the developer J.C. Nichols demonstrated he could build the 
same house for less than Blandings paid. Orders poured in.

Meanwhile, Hodgins wrote Blanding's Way, the sequel never filmed. The hero 
gave up commuting and moved his family back to midtown Manhattan, where 
Blandings could walk to his job in an ad agency selling dog food and 
whisky. Unfortunately, most suburbanites couldn't afford this option. They 
were stuck with the sitcom, which cast them as Mr. Homeowner and Mrs. 
Consumer. Houses kept getting a little larger, and many families tried to 
move up as they discovered the "mansion subsidy," tax deductions for 
mortgage interest that rose with the cost and size of the house. Estimated 
at $81 billion in 1994, the mansion subsidy remains larger than the annual 
budget of the department of Housing and Urban Development.

full: http://sprawl-central.com/haydweb2.doc

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