Suburbanization in the United States after - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History
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In every region, most of these new suburbanites settled near existing minority communities, with the result that racial segregation expanded in metropolitan America even as court decisions and mass mobilization for civil rights upset the legal structures of Jim Crow. Movement into white neighborhoods was fiercely contested.
For whites and nonwhites alike, race emerged as part of the physical structure of the metropolis, reinforced by the separate and unequal spaces that they occupied. It is defined as much by sociologists and journalists observing suburbanites at the time, as by historians who have produced case studies of individual suburbs. Such studies offer useful starting points, especially the detailed accounts of social life that focused on the iconic mass-produced suburbs of the Levittowns and Park Forest, Illinois.
Right after World War II, new suburbs attracted a remarkably homogenous population, comprised of relatively young, white married couples with kids.
Heterosexual families with distinct roles for men and women were the accepted norm. The husband was employed and the wife was a homemaker. Observers wondered, was this setting producing new patterns of life and behavior?
Under this microscope, certain salient themes emerged about suburban social life. For one, postwar suburbanites were active participants in their neighborhoods. A number of accounts documented this pattern, but perhaps the most influential portrait was by Fortune editor William H.
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Whyte in his bestseller Organization Man. Whyte found neighbors who were closely connected, and immersed in a culture of borrowing and lending, participation in local clubs and civic groups, and social intimacy. Neighbors were not merely acquainted. They bonded on multiple levels—in the minutiae of the everyday demands of child raising and running homes, in mutual concerns about local civic issues, and even in intellectual and spiritual life.
Similarly, studies of the Levittowns reveal that early residents relied upon one another, especially the many isolated, carless housewives.
Neighbors gave each other rides, formed babysitter co-ops, gathered regularly for television viewing parties, and created a nurturing social environment.
There were lots of mothers. In these dormitory suburbs, husbands typically commuted to work during the day leaving their wives at home to dominate daily life in the community. The postwar return to domesticity was driven by powerful media imagery and platitudes by national leaders that valorized the housewife, infusing her role as household consumer and manager with patriotic overtones in the context of the Cold War.
Although suburban men tended to dominate positions of local leadership, women did much of the everyday work to keep social and civic life vibrant. This debate pulled in a range of participants, from advertisers, real estate developers and politicians to journalists, academics, and filmmakers. In the course of debating the relative merits of mass suburbia, each side put forth vivid—if often distorted—images of suburban life, swinging wildly between the extremes of utopia and dystopia. The suburban portrayals and images they generated had deep and lasting impact on the ways that many Americans came to view the suburbs, even up to our own day.
On one side were the boosters—business interests and politicians with a stake in selling suburban homes and the consumer goods to fill them. Magazines, television commercials, and real-estate developers peddled this image tirelessly, depicting contented white families thriving in suburbia. A logical collusion infused their efforts.
Real-estate interests plugged the homes themselves, while shelter magazines ran articles on suburban living alongside vivid advertisements for refrigerators, range-tops, television sets, cleaning products, and other household goods. These ads invariably depicted happy homemakers set against a backdrop of gleaming, modern suburban interiors.
The picture came full circle on television sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, which offered benign, family-centered stories of generational quarrels and reconciliation, all sponsored by advertisers eager to tap into the lucrative suburban market.
The result was a reinforcing web of suburban salesmanship. And they elevated the suburban home to a gleaming symbol of American superiority during the Cold War. Nixon used this slice of everyday suburban life as the ultimate Cold War propaganda weapon. Academics, novelists, filmmakers, and designer-planners, among others, blamed mass suburbia for some of the most disturbing social trends of the era. Homogeneous suburban landscapes, they believed, spawned homogenous people, who followed the dictates of blind conformity.
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Bland, monotonous, isolating landscapes oppressed women and pushed bored kids toward juvenile delinquency. Female-centric suburban life distorted gender relations and left men emaciated. And the list went on. What was properly a beginning was treated as an end. Even suburban family life was lambasted, portrayed as the polar opposite of the carefree innocence depicted on popular television sitcoms.
Novelists and filmmakers in particular depicted all manner of suburban domestic dysfunction: Sociologists like Bennett Berger, Herbert Gans, and William Dobriner found that moving to suburbia did not actually change people, as both the critics and boosters suggested. Instead, suburbanites continued to make life choices based upon such factors as class, ethnicity, religion, and personal preference. Political Life Scholars have examined the political culture of postwar suburbia since the mass suburban boom began, tracing critical trends that have shaped U.
In the s, political scientist, Robert Wood explored the fragmented municipal landscape of suburbia and the localism that characterized its political culture much as it had since the 19th century. This ideal of localism manifested in campaigns around municipal incorporation and zoning controls, annexation, taxation, school policy and local services from potholes to public swimming pools. Other political identities blossomed at the local level. Many suburbanites derived their core political identity—as white middle-class, taxpaying homeowners—within the context of their suburban neighborhoods, often politically independent municipalities.
Suburbanites made a direct connection between their role as taxpayers and their right to a particular quality of life, delivered through services like good schools and safe streets.
They developed a sense of entitlement to these advantages, which they perceived as the just rewards of their individual efforts to achieve home ownership. Historians, in turn, have exposed the limitations in this thinking by underscoring the broad web of governmental policies that subsidized and privileged white suburban homeowners.
The rich scholarship on suburban politics produced by historians in recent years challenges an earlier image of suburban civic banality painted by some postwar critics, and highlights the national importance of suburban politics.
Recent scholarship has documented the crucial role suburbia played in the rise of postwar conservatism, while newer studies linked suburbs to centrist and liberal politics. Two important works on suburban conservatism centered on California.
The infrastructure they created—study groups, newsletters, bookstores, and clubs—represented a crucial formative aspect of a maturing Republican Party. Both studies argued that localized suburban politics in this era deeply shaped conservatism at the national scale. As Matthew Lassiter and others have shown, this bipartisan suburban movement elevated the issues of metropolitan politics onto the national stage by asserting the interests of suburban taxpayers, etching deeply entrenched patterns of inequality across metropolitan areas.
The Republican Party was first to connect with this voting bloc at the national level, using it to win electoral majorities in seven of the ten Presidential elections from tobut Democrats likewise supported suburban political mandates during the postwar years. Residents like a young Betty Friedan mobilized to enhance their quality of life, which included a vision of integrated schools and multicultural neighbors, and they sought the active hand of government to achieve these ends.
White liberals in suburbs like Brookline and Newton actively supported a racially open housing market, but they rarely challenged the high economic hurdles that ensured that most people of color could not afford these neighborhoods. In the s, conflicts over the Levittown, NY, schools broke out between advocates of progressive versus traditional education, refracting larger differences between liberals and conservatives.
Their arrival was facilitated by a small, dedicated group of local activists, mainly leftists and Quakers, who were committed to civil rights. When William and Daisy Myers stepped forward to become black pioneers in Levittown, their arrival sparked massive grassroots resistance.
For several weeks, hundreds of white residents gathered in the evenings, hurling rocks and yelling epithets see Figure 2. Yet other white residents stepped up to support the Myers family. Eventually, emotions simmered down. Yet as Tom Sugrue shows, the end result signaled the limits of racial liberalism in places like Levittown where blacks remained a miniscule percentage of the population for decades, as well as in other metro areas where sharp class and race inequality persisted.
The crowd is protesting the first black family moving into Levittown, Photography by Jack Tinney, George D. Suburbanites played key roles in other political movements as well.
Levittowners engaged in environmental activism by the late s, part of a broader push among suburbanites nationally. When Levittown began feeling the effects of local factory pollutants and encroaching overdevelopment, residents united in action.
- Suburbanization in the United States after 1945
This new politics coalesced around Earth Day inthen fanned out into a range of grassroots activities. Residents gathered for garbage clean-up days, opposed a proposed nuclear power plant, held environmental teach-ins, circulated petitions, and picketed the nearby U. Steel plant over industrial pollutants. Growth and Diversification Land Development and Real Estate Changing economic conditions in the United States after reshaped suburbia, as they did much of American life.
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