- 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
Railroad suburbs adapted easily to the automobile. Most families had land enough for a garage and narrow driveway, and most residential streets proved wide enough for parking. The model suburb of Forest Hills Gardens failed miserably, however. Olmsted misjudged the popularity of the motorcar; not only had he neglected to provide space for garages, but many of the beautiful winding streets could not even accommodate parked cars. Worse still, he had bisected the development with two very wide avenues, perfect for carriage driving; these quickly became thoroughfares for automobile commuters, bringing racket and traffic jams into the bucolic island. Most streetcar suburbs fared no better; automobilists thronged the trolley streets, slowing streetcars, forcing streetcar commuters to acquire cars of their own, and creating parking difficulties beyond imagination.
Families in most streetcar suburbs sacrificed almost all their back and side yards to the automobile. Building codes in some densely settled suburbs mandated cement-block garages—inspectors’ fears of the flammability of early horseless carriages endured into the 1940s—while regulations in other areas required wood garages to be some distance removed from dwellings. Persistent difficulties with parking and driving made many streetcar-suburb families stare enviously at the large lots in the railroad suburbs they drove through on Sunday-afternoon outings, and throughout the 1920s they pinched pennies in order to afford house lots large enough for parking and croquet.
The Great Depression slowed suburban growth of every kind and reawakened interest in backyard agriculture; the subsequent years of war—and particularly of gasoline rationing—further stymied suburban development. But throughout the thirties and forties city dwellers thought about suburbs, dreamed about suburbs, and read about suburbs. And when the GIs came home, they set about moving to the suburbs.
Critics attacked the new speculator neighborhoods for their poorly drained streets deficient in sewers, water mains, and paving, and regularly taunted the young commuters who shuttled more than an hour each way. But public sentiment was turning against city living; the popular televison comedy “I Love Lucy” shifted locale from urban apartment to suburban dream house, and the family of “Leave It to Beaver” moved from a small suburban house to a big one on a large lot. Television hammered home the suburban good-life message; each year fewer shows featured urban settings. For some reason, for many reasons, young families moved away from cities.
For one thing, they had access to ever-easier financing. Just as the urbanmanufactured chemical fertilizers enriched the suburban lawn, so did urban capital enrich suburban communities. Until the 1920s house-buying families expected to borrow perhaps 30 to 40 percent of the cost of their property, pay semiannual interest payments based on a rate of 5 or 6 percent, and at the end of three to five years—eight at the very most—repay the principal in one lump sum or renegotiate the mortgage. Few lenders preferred the amortizing mortgages so well known today; most families borrowed from individuals leery of the madcap stock and bond markets but willing to venture money in the reasonably secure arena of neighborhood capitalism. Most families counted on renewing mortgages three or four times before repaying the principal; since private and public neighborhood improvements usually increased all property values, they felt secure in finding another mortgagee if their original one failed to renew. But after the 1920s more families borrowed from savings banks or loan associations chartered specifically for home financing, and the informal, individual-lender system began to wither. The massive suburban building boom following World War II resulted from federally guaranteed mortgages offered to veterans. Home-buying ex-GIs needed only the smallest of down payments to acquire the speculator-built “Cape Cod” and ranch houses that struck so many men and women as sparkling new.
There was a less obvious reason for the exodus. Certainly the automobile suburb is a reflection of the atom-bomb age, for the returned soldiers had seen devastated cities in Europe and the Orient, and while they might understand little of the force of the new weapons, they knew enough to desert ground zero. Look and other magazines explained defense by decentralization, reassuring suburban dwellers that fallout would not drift far from cities.