The Dark Side of Suburbia

Suburbia, USA

Between 1948 and 1958, 85% of the new homes built in the United States were located in suburbs. Suburban construction across the country also meant that regional differences of architecture and urban planning began to erode in favor of identical housing across the United States. Today, four out of five Americans live in suburbs.

Living in suburbia meant that residents had to own cars to go to work or purchase groceries. By 1955 American automobile companies were producing more than three times as many cars as in 1945. The system of roads also had to grow to meet the demand of the car-oriented society. States and the federal government invested heavily in an interstate highway system. The United States developed a “car culture” that made it easier to drive than to take public transportation.

Defense plants in the southern and western United States had attracted workers during the war. In the post-war decades more Americans moved to the warmer states of the Sunbelt in search of jobs. The population of California doubled between 1940 and 1960. Florida's population nearly tripled in the same period. In general, people, jobs, and money began to move away from the industrial states of the Northeast and the Upper Midwest and into the South and West.

Race, gender, and suburbia

Suburbia received its share of criticism, especially due to its emphasis on sameness. On one hand, this "sameness" reflected democratic progress: suburban families made about the same amount of money, lived in nearly identical houses, and generally were at about the same stage in life. Class divisions narrowed as the postwar economic boom moved many families into the middle class. Even longstanding prejudices based on religion and ethnicity softened in the suburb, as neighbors from different backgrounds shared their war experiences.

This conformity also had a dark side. For white women, suburban life began to feel like a trap after a few years. Although more than 30% of women did work outside the home during the 1950s, popular culture sent women the message that their greatest satisfaction in life should come from being a housewife and owning all the labor-saving household appliances that money could buy. But many women felt there ought to be more to life than childcare and housework.

Minority women were barred from suburbia altogether. Suburbs throughout the nation enacted restrictive agreements that prevented homeowners from selling their houses to African Americans or Asian Americans. Although illegal, segregation was frequently enforced by violence and intimidation.

Banks also refused to loan money for new homes or improvements in the inner-city neighborhoods where minorities lived. This practice was known as redlining, a term derived from mortgage security maps that shaded minority neighborhoods in red, showing that they were 'risky' investments.

Thus, government subsidies for suburban home building and prejudice against lending to minorities combined to increase the physical and economic distance between whites and African Americans.

Source: The Dark Side of Suburbia
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