Suburbanization/Exodus from Cities to the Suburbs/ The Growth of the Middle Class

America’s role in World War II left it in a position to become the dominant economy in the world after the war. This was primarily the result of the fact that the U.S. had escaped the mass destruction of its infrastructure during the war. Unlike the European countries and Japan, which were the scenes of devastating combat, there was no significant fighting on the American mainland. This meant that domestic production and manufacturing facilities were easily able to transform from a focus on wartime goods to peacetime consumer goods. While the rest of the world was facing the reconstruction of housing, manufacturing and transportation infrastructure, the U.S. had no competition for the products it made. In fact, it took Europe ten plus years to return to any kind of normalcy, and then it was only able to do so with the economic help of the United States through The Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program (ERP), was named for George C. Marshall, Secretary of State under President Truman, who developed the idea. The Marshall Plan was a U.S. sponsored program designed to rehabilitate the economies of 17 western and southern European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and western Germany) in order to create stable conditions in which democratic institutions could survive. It was enacted in 1948 and provided more than $15 billion to help finance rebuilding efforts on the continent. It was crafted as a four-year plan to reconstruct cities, industries and infrastructure heavily damaged during the war and to remove trade barriers between European neighbors – as well as foster commerce between those countries and the United States. One of the stated goals of the Marshall Plan was to halt the spread communism on the European continent. The thinking was that economically devastated countries would more likely succumb to communist influence than countries where the economies were good and the populace was satisfied. The countries that received funds under the plan didn’t have to repay the United States, as the monies were awarded in the form of grants. By the time of the Plan’s last year, 1952, economic growth in the countries that had received funds had surpassed pre-war levels.

As global reconstruction began, only the United States could provide the materials needed. In addition, America’s immigration laws remained quite restrictive. The consequences were high demand for labor from a restricted pool of workers, resulting in steadily climbing real wages. Industrial workers by the millions moved into the middle class. Meanwhile, continued high marginal income taxes on the wealthy—reaching more than 75 percent at the highest levels—limited to a degree the growth of the super-rich. The result was a decrease in inequality, and a buttressing of the middle class. The average family income grew as much in the ten years after World War II as it had grown in the previous fifty years combined. Between 1940 and 1965, average income grew from about $2,200 per family per year to just under $8,000, when adjusted for inflation, meaning average family incomes almost tripled. The percentage of families below the official poverty line in 1950 was 30 percent. By 1960 it had dropped to 22 percent and by the 1960s, it had dropped to under 14 percent. Between 1950 and 1970, in other words, poverty declined by over 60 percent. American farmers also benefited from mass production and distribution, selling enough food at war’s end to feed populations around the globe. For American citizens who saved and sacrificed in the 1930s and early 1940s, the next decade promised unprecedented security and abundance.

Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product more than doubled, growing from $200 billion to more than $500 billion. Much of this increase came from government spending: the construction of interstate highways and schools, the distribution of veterans’ benefits and most of all the increase in military spending on goods like airplanes and new technologies like computers–all contributed to the decade’s economic growth. Rates of unemployment and inflation were low, and wages were high.

Few ideas became more pervasive in popular culture than the sense that America was becoming a middle-class nation—a society in which everyone was either already part of the middle class, soon to become part of it, or aspiring to become part of it. And, there was some evidence for this powerful idea. There was rapid growth in the number of people able to afford what the government defined as a “middle-class” standard of living—60 percent of the American people. Middle-class people had more money to spend than ever, and, because the variety and availability of consumer goods expanded along with the economy, they also had more things to buy. They became “consumers.” This consumerism was driven by advertising. Spending on product promotion boomed from $6 billion annually in 1950 to more than $13 billion by 1963. “The reason we have such a high standard of living,” Robert Sarnoff, president of the National Broadcasting Company, said in 1956, “is because advertising has created an American frame of mind that makes people want more things, better things, and newer things.” But these figures also show the survival of a substantial minority (25 to 40 percent) that remained outside the middle class. More than 23 percent of Americans still lived in poverty, and African American poverty was far higher.

As manufacturers converted back to consumer goods after the war, and as the suburbs developed, appliance and automobile sales rose dramatically. Flush with rising wages and wartime savings, homeowners also used newly created installment plans to buy new consumer goods at once instead of saving for years to make major purchases. The concept of paying for goods using a credit card started in 1950 and the main cards available in the United States in the early years were Diners Card and American Express. Both required full payment at the end of the month so were only provided to the most financially respected consumers. In 1958, Bank of America created the BankAmericard which later became Visa, which allowed for payment of a fraction of the credit outstanding with interest charged on the outstanding balance. Fueled by credit and no longer stymied by the Depression or wartime restrictions, consumers bought countless washers, dryers, refrigerators, freezers, and televisions. The percentage of Americans that owned at least one television increased from 12% in 1950 to more than 87% in 1960. This new suburban economy also led to increased demand for automobiles. The percentage of American families owning cars increased from 54% in 1948 to 74% in 1959. Motor fuel consumption rose from some 22 million gallons in 1945 to around 59 million gallons in 1958.

Another factor that fed the postwar economic boom was population growth. From the 1940s through the early 1960s, Americans married at a higher rate and at a younger age than did their European counterparts. Population grew in the 1940s and 1950s at twice the rate it had grown in the 1930s The American population as a whole grew 19 percent in 1950s – this was the “baby boom.” This boom began in 1946, when a record number of babies–3.4 million–were born in the United States. About 4 million babies were born each year during the 1950s. In all, by the time the boom finally tapered off in 1964, there were almost 77 million “baby boomers.” Increased population led to increased demand and increased consumption.

The years after World War II saw the coming of suburban housing developments that proved to be magnets for the burgeoning new families of veterans, who benefitted from favorable federal housing policies. To stimulate the growth of the housing market and reduce the financial constraints such as ten year mortgages and the need for eighty percent down payments, the federal government instructed the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to allow thirty year mortgages and approve mortgages with only ten percent down (Patterson, 72) And, The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (also known as the “GI Bill”) subsidized low-cost mortgages for more than 2 million returning soldiers, which meant that it was often cheaper to buy one of these suburban houses than it was to rent an apartment in the city. Basically the government acted as guarantor, and rampant suburbia was impossible without the Feds—which they took pains to play down, fearing accusations of socialism. The way it worked was the FHA offered generous insurance so builders could break ground with near-full security. And this in turn allowed mortgage bankers to ask down payments of less than 10 percent, versus a pre-war rate of 30 percent-plus. The VA lowered interest rates for GIs. On top of which, lenders could now stretch the life of the mortgage to 30 years, chopping down monthly payments so that, suddenly, it was cheaper to buy than to rent.

Eighteen million people—10 percent of the population—moved to suburbs in the 1950s. The suburban population grew 47 percent. Suburbs created a vast new market and provided an important boost to several of the most important sectors of the economy: the housing industry, the automobile industry, highway construction, and a wide range of consumer industries. This prosperity is reflected in the following quote: “Every year, my parents had more money to spend, a prosperity shared by almost everyone in the neighborhood. Excitement infected the entire block when someone got a new refrigerator with a built-in freezer, an automatic washing machine, or a television with a bigger screen. Critics have railed against the acquisitiveness of the fifties generation, but for our parents, who had lived through the Depression, the ever-expanding economy seemed like a miraculous cornucopia; they took nothing for granted, and approached each major purchase with a sense of awe.” (Goodwin, p.77.)

The classic example of this new suburban housing phenomenon was Levittown in Nassau County on Long Island, outside of New York City. Levittown was named after Abraham Levitt, who along with his sons, William and Alfred, developed the concept for a new type of housing. Almost as soon as the war ended, the Levitts, sensing the need for housing for returning veterans, began to buy land on the outskirts of cities. Although the Levitts did not originate the concept of tract development, they took the process to the next level. The Levitts experimented with and implemented wholly new methods for the mass building of a community of inexpensive tract houses on nicely landscaped streets. Taking the division of labor and efficiency to the extreme, construction was limited to one architectural style called the Cape Cod. The construction of each Cape Cod home was divided into twenty-seven steps starting with the laying of a concrete foundation. Construction workers were trained to do one step at each house (which were spaced 60 feet apart) instead of finishing each house before moving to the next. What developed was a workforce with almost amusingly narrowed skills. One guy only painted windowsills, for instance; another just bolted washing machines to the floor.

The Levitts’ homes were affordable, planted in a picture-perfect, carefully controlled community, and were equipped with futuristic stoves and television sets. The houses were simple, unpretentious, and most importantly to its inhabitants, affordable to both the white and blue-collar workers. Each dwelling included a twelve-by-sixteen-foot living room with a fireplace, one bath, and two bedrooms (about 750 square feet), with easy expansion possibilities upstairs in the unfinished attic or outward into the yard. Most importantly, the floor plan was practical and well designed, with the kitchen moved to the front of the house near the entrance so that mothers could watch their children from kitchen windows and do their washing and cooking with a minimum of movement. Similarly, the living room was placed in the rear and given a picture window overlooking the back yard. The 1950 house was probably heated by coal, which was the most common heating fuel in 1950. Only .7% of homes were heated by electric and 26.6% by utility gas. That would all change over the course of the decade though. By 1960 coal was down to 12.2% and utility gas up to 53.1%. Plumbing in the Fifties was also rudimentary. If there was indoor plumbing, it probably only served one bathroom. Complete plumbing (hot and cold piped water, a bath-tub or shower, and a flush toilet) was only available in 64.5% of homes in 1950. That would change too and by 1960 only 16.6% of homes were without complete plumbing.

The Levitts took more than the homes themselves into consideration. They designed community streets along curvilinear patterns to create a graceful, un-urban grid like feel, that directed cars going through the development to the outside of the community so Levittown would not be disturbed by noisy traffic. Even the maintenance of houses and yards were meticulously governed; buyers had to agree to a laundry list of rules that, for example, prohibited residents from hanging laundry to dry outside their homes. Once the houses were constructed the Levitts added baseball fields, swimming pools, shopping centers, schools, parks, and churches to their neighborhoods. Ultimately Levittown had more than 17,400 separate houses and 82,000 residents.

“Little Boxes,” Melvina Reynolds (1963) (Folk singer Melvina Reynold’s song “Little Boxes,” captured what some saw as the forced conformity of suburban life. “Little Boxes” was critical of the lifelessness and homogeneity that Reynolds believed was spawned by the development of suburbs. She wrote this song as a political statement about the uniformity, the sameness, which she believed was being fostered by what are now known as “Cookie-Cutter” or “Tract” houses; houses along suburban streets with identical floor plans.)

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there’s doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same,
There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

The Levitts’ level of control over the appearance of Levittown did not stop at the yards and houses but extended to the appearance of the inhabitants themselves. Bill Levitt only sold houses to white buyers, excluding African Americans from buying houses in his communities. Levitt vilified those who questioned his segregationist policies as communists. By 1953, the 70,000 people who lived in Levittown constituted the largest community in the United States with no black residents. Originally, the Levitts’ racist policy was enshrined in the deeds or leases themselves, which stipulated that “the tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer struck down explicitly racial neighborhood housing covenants, making it illegal to explicitly consider race when selling a house.

Mortgage lending practices, called “redlining,” also acted to deprive blacks of home buying opportunities. Government agencies, such as the HOLC and FHA, lending institutions and real estate agencies conducted surveys/appraisals of neighborhood’s demographics. They used the data to rate whether neighborhoods were low or high risk lending areas. They created “security maps” that were color coded with letter designations depending on designated credit risk. Every neighborhood was assigned a letter grade from A to D and a corresponding color code. Mixed-race and minority dominated neighborhoods were believed to be credit risks and were assigned low ratings. The least secure, highest risk neighborhoods for loans, received a D grade and the color red. Banks refused to loan money in these “redlined” areas, resulting in segregated neighborhoods.

In Illinois, Phillip Klutznick (a former commissioner of the Federal Public Housing Authority) and his American Community Builders followed the ideas of the Levitts and created the planned community of Park Forest, which was more than 30 miles from downtown Chicago. Park Forest was second in size only to Levittown, New York. Park Forest opened rental “townhomes” in 1948 and offered its first homes for sale in 1951. New streets in Park Forest were often named for the fallen of World War II, more particularly for Illinois’s Congressional Medal of Honor winners. In the 1950s, one-third of Park Forest wives were college-educated, but few worked outside the home or even left the neighborhood during the day. Many women met over coffee, attended self-improvement classes, and became involved in local community issues. Life could be lonely and isolated for women who didn’t become part of a group.

Lakewood, outside Long Beach, California was the west coast version of Levittown. Here, non-veterans had to put $695 down, veterans $0 down for a thousand square feet of hard-won comfort, wrapped in stucco. Lakewood was the subject of the famous Fortune photos, wherein moving vans stretch as far as the eye can see. On Palm Sunday, 1950, when it opened its sales office, there were 25,000 people waiting outside.

Big Yellow Taxi,” written and sung by Joni Mitchell (1970) (Although it has become an anthem of the environmental movement, the song was not necessarily written to protest the development of “little boxes” in suburbia. For an analysis of the song lyrics see

They paved paradises
Put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
Shoo, bop, bop, bop, bop
Shoo, bop, bop, bop, bop

They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
Shoo, bop, bop, bop, bop
Shoo, bop, bop, bop, bop

Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot

Subdivision Blues,” Tom T. Hall (1973) (A lament to the fact that subdivision living was not all that it was made out to be.)

Out on the edge of town I bought a two room brick
Moved in as soon as I got the plumbin’ all fixed
Making them payments worked my fingers to the bone
Anything I had to do to get myself a home
There was water in the basement it looked like a swimming pool
The man said son that water’ll help to keep your cottage cool
The Welcome Wagon brought me out some sleepin’ pills and booze
I got the mean old subdivision blues

Somebody came and knocked my fence down just the other day
Tore up my yard and hauled my lawnmower away
Shot out my windows with the BB gun
A buggsy down the street came by and beat up my son
So I went out and bought myself a big old German dog
The man behind me saw me and he started raisin’ hogs
A nineteen year old girl next door is sunnin’ in the nude
I got those mean old subdivision blues

But I bought my house because it was located near a school
Now a bus comes by and takes my kids to Istambul
The guy next door just bought his son a brand new saxophone
The man behind me sued him cause his hogs were leavin’ home
My buddy left his wife now he’s livin’ in a tent
A hippie sued me cause I did not have a room to rent
They built a trailer park before I had a chance to move
I got them mean old subdivision blues

Well I moved out in the country just as far as I could go
I couldn’t even get the Grand Ole Opry on the radio
I guess you know what happened just as soon as I moved in
The man across the valley started clearin’ off this land
The law came out and said that I would have to move my barn
They said the man next door was gonna subdivide his farm
They auctioned off my farm to build the state another school
I got the mean old subdivision blues

Well other night I dreamed I died and I went right straight to hell
I don’t know what I did but you know you can never tell
They handed me a key and handed me a little map
They said you got a place to live we’ll show you where it’s at
They took me to a two room brick just on the edge of town
With thirty thousand other little houses falling down
A million years to pay it off with payments overdue
It’s hell to have the subdivision blues

Got those mean old subdivision blues