- Historic Sites
Today more Americans live in them than in city and country combined. How did we get there?
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
The designers had learned the lesson implicit in so many communities that had suddenly turned ugly. For not only families moved to suburbs. Manufacturing enterprises moved as well, sometimes forced out of inner cities by zoning ordinances and complaints—the vast chemical and petroleum works of the New Jersey marshes moved there to escape public opposition in A« New York City—but more often seeking an industrial Eden. In the countryside along railroad lines radiating from cities, manufacturers found inexpensive land perfectly suited to the new industrial age. Here was room to build sprawling one-story factories. The flight from multistory factories designed around freight elevators was speeded by the insurance companies’ insistence on “slow-burning construction,” a technique that generated open, one-story factories isolated from others. But above all, suburban industrial locations freed factory owners from the hidden costs of inner-city congestion; railroad companies gave quicker service, and teamsters encountered few dray jams when making deliveries. Waste disposal was easier too; what could not be dumped into the nearest creek could be heaped up or buried on the fringes of company property. About the only real disadvantage lay in obtaining a work force.
Factory owners knew that few workers, if any, could afford to commute by railroad, and many companies built worker housing within walking distance of their new plants. Owners also encouraged the building of streetcar lines; not only did the trolley companies charge low fares, but the cars ran along tracks laid in roadways and thus served factories some distance from railroad stations. The so-called streetcar suburbs nestled in the interstices between railroad suburbs and industrial suburbs. They wrapped around factory complexes, stretched along trolley lines angling away from city centers or radiating from suburban railroad stations, and sometimes surrounded proud railroad suburbs.
A typical streetcar suburb included both small, single-family houses set on tiny lots and somewhat larger, two- to four-family houses occupying only slightly larger lots. These houses had only minuscule front lawns; but their backyards were perhaps large enough for a tiny vegetable garden and a hundred square feet of lawn. Residential areas in streetcar suburbs struck most observers as uniform, if not dreary; the nearly identical houses stood no more than ten feet apart, and few developers cared to install paved roads and sidewalks, let alone trees and parks. Houses initially lined many “trolley streets,” but soon storekeepers converted them into shops with apartments above or replaced them with two-story “blocks” with stores on the ground floor. Here and there, where trolley streets intersected, a node of greater activity evolved, with perhaps a small post office or movie theater, but for the most part these new suburbs simply sprawled away from the main streets along which the trolleys ran.
Railroad suburbs had begun with at least a partial identity: the names the railroad companies gave their stations. Streetcar suburbs lacked any such identity, and even as they spilled outward, city planners began to worry about “sprawl.” In the first years of the twentieth century many metropolitan regions established commissions charged with providing safe drinking water, effective sewers, and perhaps public parks. Clearly the streetcar suburbs could not afford such necessities on their own, and residents of railroad suburbs often refused to help. Commuters learned to accept the vast suburban region through which they traveled, even if they did not understand it, but to their children it was, simply, home, the world, nothing remarkably special.
By 1925 seventeen million cars roamed American roads and choked city streets. Suburbanites quickly adopted the motorcar as a recreational vehicle; in the evenings and on weekends they could drive beyond the suburbs into the “real country,” enjoy shopping at farm stands, picnicking, and exploring rural lanes. As the gasoline-powered farm tractor precipitated a rapid fall in produce prices, housewives abandoned their vegetable gardens; the garage fitted snugly on the site. Automobile use increased rapidly—and in ways no one had predicted. Wives drove husbands to the local station and waited patiently for evening trains; but during the day they drove to card parties, to movies, to clubs, and especially to new shopping places, many in areas difficult to reach by train or streetcar. By the beginning of the First World War, commuters from railroad suburbs had begun driving to work, freeing themselves from train schedules but once again trapping wives at home. Railroad companies responded by reducing train service, beginning a long, devastating cycle that resulted often enough in the eventual disappearance of rail service.