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Cultural hedgemony. The Rise of the Suburbs. Pete Seeger “Little Boxes” (1963). Originally written and sung by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 About housing developments built in the post-war era by Henry Doelger near Daly City, California, particularly the neighborhood of Westlake.

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cultural hedgemony

Cultural hedgemony

The Rise of the Suburbs

pete seeger little boxes 1963
Pete Seeger “Little Boxes” (1963)

Originally written and sung by Malvina Reynolds in 1962

About housing developments built in the post-war era by Henry Doelger near Daly City, California, particularly the neighborhood of Westlake

early definition of the suburb
Early Definition of the Suburb
  • Suburb (burgus, suburbium, suburbis)
    • Sub (below, lower) + urb (city)
  • In 1850s, urban slaves required to live close to owners, but not in same home
    • “living out” system—some blacks moved to edges of town
  • Suburbs socially and economically inferior to cities when wind, muscle, water power were primary movers of civilization
  • suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, physical squalor
the 1800s
The 1800s
  • Technological advances in transportation (steam boat/ferry, railroad, omnibus)  population growth
    • Easier to travel from home to work, home to city
  • Late 1890s, suburban image distinct from large cities
    • Attitudinal/behavioral shift in concept of “family”
    • Single-family housing becomes ideal middle-class housing
garden cities
Garden Cities
  • Llewellyn Park, Riverside, Garden City
    • Most ambitiously planned suburbs of 19th cent. (also most conspicuous failures)
    • Tried to change traditional pattern of home ownership
  • Consequences:
    • Americans move to metropolitan fringes
    • Need dwelling option that falls between dense development and rural environment
    • Must cooperate with instead of remove natural topography
    • Must have full ownership of home
post wwii
  • Marriage and birth rates high, but not enough homes for sale/apartments for rent
  • Congress regularly approved billions of dollars in additional mortgage insurance for Federal Housing Administration (FHA)
    • Created Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944
      • Veteran’s Administration (VA) mortgage program
    • Supported 16 million GI’s coming home
    • Assured federal mortgage guarantees at whatever price the builder set stimulated unprecedented housing boom
suburban housing
Suburban Housing

Single Family Starts:

1944: 114,000

1946: 937,000

1948: 1,183,000

1950: 1,692,000 (all-time high)

  • Increase in number, importance, and size of large builders
  • WWII beneficial to big businesses
    • Before 1945, typical contractor put up fewer than 5 houses/year
    • By 1959, they would put up around 22/year
  • 1934-1953: Amer. suburban pop. rose by 75%
  • 1950-1956: suburban housing increased by almost 20%
1950s suburbia
1950s Suburbia

Suburbia = fundamental characteristics of American society

Distinguishing elements of American housing culture

  • conspicuous consumption
  • reliance on the private automobile
  • upward mobility
  • the separation of family into nuclear unit
  • widening division between work and leisure
  • tendency toward racial and economic exclusiveness
  • Low residential density
  • Penchant for home-ownership
  • Length of average journey-to-work, in miles or minutes
  • Socioeconomic distinction between center and periphery
levittown new york

“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.”

William Levitt, 1948

Began in 1946, with acquisition of 4000 acres of potato farms in town of Hempstead

Levittown, New York

The biggest private housing project in American history

island trees
“Island Trees”
  • 25 mi. east of Manhattan
  • Trucks drop off materials at 60-foot intervals on 60’x100’ lots
  • Built on concrete slab
  • 1947-1951: 17,447 homes built
  • Construction divided into 27 distinct parts
  • Pre-assembled parts, assembly-line
  • Vertical integration
  • At peak production, 30+ houses went up per day
buying a levittown home
Buying a Levittown Home
  • Total (mortgage, interest, principal, and taxes) less than renting
  • Incentives for buying
    • No down payment, no closing costs, “no hidden extras,” largest line of credit offered by home builder (FHA and VA advances)
    • Reduced process to two 1/2 –hour steps, simplified paperwork
    • Full page ads offered new Bendix washer
  • 1948 Harper Magazine: Levitt operation so efficient that it undersold competition by $1500 and still made $1000 profit
the 1947 cape cod model
The 1947 Cape Cod Model

4.5 rooms, 25’x30’

$7990 (earliest models $6990), rent $60/mo

Expansion possibilities upstairs in unfinished attic or out into yard

the 1949 ranch model
The 1949 Ranch Model

50 sq. ft. larger


Low roof, deep eaves, pronounced horizontal lines, suggested spacious living, outdoors

characteristics of post war suburbs
Characteristics of Post-War Suburbs
  • Peripheral location
    • 1954: Fortune magazine est. 9 million people moved to suburbs in previous decade
  • Low-density neighborhoods
    • 1946-1956: 97% of all new single-family dwellings completely detached, surrounded by own plots
  • Architectural similarity
    • After WWI and into post-WWII, Cape Cod cottage became American dream house
  • Easy availability
    • Homes more affordable
  • Economic, racial homogeneity
    • Sort families by income, color
    • Levitt organization (and others) publically and officially refused to sell to blacks for 20 years after WWII
    • Zoning laws to keep poor people and intrusive industries out of affluent areas
life in suburbia
Life in Suburbia
  • Family structure and the dream house were “designed around the needs of a bread-winning male and full-time housewife who would provide her prince with a haven from the cold outside world.” (Crabgrass Frontier)
  • Separated production from consumption, paid work from home life
impact of suburban life
Impact of Suburban Life

Man’s Role

Woman’s Role

  • Breadwinner
  • Man’s place in den, lawn
  • DIY-movement
  • Gardening, carpentry
  • Availing sex object, wife, mother, housekeeper
  • Tupperware parties
  • Isolation from work opportunities/other employed adults
impact of suburban life1
Impact of Suburban Life

Ideals of the Suburbs

Mass consumption

Possessive individualism


(Appearance of) high-quality home, neighborhood

  • Reallocation of Space
    • Physical space
      • Cookie-cutter homes, isolation of nuclear family
      • 84% of Amer. households reported less than one person per room
      • 1950-1980: 18 of nation’s 25 largest cities suffered net loss of population, while independent suburbs gained over 60 million residents
    • Temporal space
      • Spatial division of work and residence segmentation between work week and weekend