- 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
But it was not just their potential for destruction that had fomented a national distaste for cities. Depression poverty and wartime postponement of maintenance combined to make many urban facilities almost decrepit; an eroding tax base, partly the result of earlier decades of suburbanization, made improvements difficult. A generation raised in Depression grayness and wartime battle and scarcity saw the suburbs as new—as shiny, clean, and pure. Purity, long considered by Americans to be a distinctly rural trait, acquired new significance in an age of polio, when parents feared urban contagion, in an age of growing racial strain, in an age of rising crime. Faced with a choice between rehabilitating a multifamily streetcar-suburb house or inner-city apartment and owning a new, tiny ranch house in the far suburbs, Americans responded with a Currier and Ives yearning for a bit of rural bliss.
Nostalgia also helped fuel a developing movement to improve the nation’s public schools, to make them what parents believed they had been once upon a time. As early as 1911, when Craftsman magazine published an article entitled “The Value of Country Life and Animal Pets for Children,” education reformers had championed the suburb as the best place to raise children. But well into the 1930s suburban families often sent their children to urban public or private schools, believing that city schools offered a richer education simply by exposing their pupils to art museums, libraries, and musical performances. By the 1950s, however, the attractiveness of the urban systems was waning. The sprawling, one-story suburban public school, surrounded by playing fields,reflected a new understanding of public education; it announced a faith in new educational methods requiring laboratories for science experiments and foreign-language study, facilities for intricate sports and physicaltraining exercises, and cafeterias for luncheon; but more important, it advertised the suburb’s openness to nature and reflected fundamental suburban values. Urban public schools displayed locked doors and grated windows: the suburban school blossomed with skylights, open-air theaters, and covered walkways.
The automobile suburb provided space for private leisure as well. After building the stone barbecue pit, the family invited close friends to enjoy it. Increased leisure time—shorter workweeks and longer vacations—coincided with the withering of many urban recreational pastimes; decayed parks no longer safe for sunbathing became more unsafe as city dwellers avoided them; fraternal organizations, declining in membership with the flight to the suburbs, no longer provided meeting halls open every evening; neighborhood movie theaters, faced with declining attendance, closed. In the far suburbs, meanwhile, Americans refined the art of backyard recreation, building swings for their children, patios for sunning, and, partly as symbols of status, partly in fear of polio, swimming pools. Leisure became more private. By 1965 the fenced backyard sheltered the housewife sunbathing in a bikini too scanty for a public beach, the child playing with toys too precious for an urban playground, the husband weeding vegetables while he contemplated financing a pool.
Private creativity and private leisure produced well-kept, but always more private, houses; the picture window and fenceless backyard, both much noticed by urban magazine columnists satirizing suburbs of ticky-tacky houses inhabited by homogeneous nuclear families, disappeared even as the scraggly saplings around them matured into full-sized shade trees.
Tiny houses built on large lots facing rudimentary streets, in areas lacking libraries, fire departments, and schools, turned out to be the seed of strong suburban communities. Young families buying the treeless, garageless, fenceless houses had little money in the beginning; they could barely afford mortgage payments, electric and telephone bills, and the eternal gasoline costs. But in time promotions and raises brought the young commuters the income needed to pay rising taxes; as the lawns greened, as neighbors helped each other build garages and plant trees, their taxes built schools for the babyboom children, then water and sewer mains, libraries, and other public works.