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The dark side of suburbia

Suburbia wasn't paradise for everyone -- especially women and African Americans. 

Overview

  • Geographic living patterns in the United States changed during the postwar era as more Americans moved to western and southern states.
  • Suburban living promoted the use of automobiles for transportation, which led to a vast expansion of America's highway system.
  • Suburbs' emphasis on conformity had negative effects on both white women and minorities. Many white women began to feel trapped in the role of housewife, while restrictive covenants barred most African American and Asian American families from living in suburban neighborhoods at all.

Suburbia, USA

Levitt and Sons went on to build two more highly-successful suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (both of which they also named Levittown), and other developers quickly adopted their formula for suburban housing. 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. This suburban trend has endured: today, four out of five Americans live in suburbs.1
Living in suburbia meant that residents had to own cars in order to go to work or purchase groceries. By 1955 American automobile companies were producing eight million cars per year, more than three times as many as in 1945. Likewise, the system of roads had to expand in order to meet the demand of an increasingly car-oriented society: states and the federal government invested heavily in an interstate highway system in the late 1940s and 1950s. Suburbia helped to promote a "car culture" in the United States that made it easier to drive than to take public transportation.
The war and its aftermath also changed American living patterns on a large scale. Defense plants in the southern and western United States drew workers during the war, and in the following 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.2

Race, gender and suburbia

With its cookie-cutter houses and firm emphasis on material comforts, from shiny new cars to washing machines, suburbia received its share of criticism. What most appalled critics was suburbia's emphasis on sameness and conformity. On one hand, this "sameness" heralded a kind of democratic progress: suburban families made about the same amount of money, lived in identical or nearly identical houses, and generally were at about the same stage in life. Class divisions narrowed as barriers to homeownership fell and the postwar economic boom elevated many families into the middle class. Even longstanding prejudices based on religion and ethnicity eroded in the suburb, as the shared experiences of GIs during the war trumped differences between Italian-Americans and German-Americans, or Catholics and Jews.3
Image showing a large white sign at the entrance to a housing development reading "WE WANT WHITE TENANTS IN OUR WHITE COMMUNITY" in capital letters. Two small American flags fly at the top corners of the sign.
Sign at a defense workers' housing project in Detroit, 1942. Levitt and Sons built housing for defense workers during the war and continued discriminating against minorities in their postwar suburbs. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
But this conformity also had a dark side. For white women, the charms of suburban life began to wear thin after a few years. Although it should not be forgotten that more than 30% of women did work outside the home in some capacity during the 1950s, popular culture was replete with messages counseling women that their greatest satisfaction in life would come from raising children, tending to their husbands' needs, and owning all of the labor-saving household appliances that money could buy. But many began to identify a creeping sense that there ought to be more to life than childcare and housework.4
Minority women did not experience the ennui of suburban life because, by and large, they were barred from suburbia altogether. William Levitt was an unapologetic segregationist, declaring openly that his subdivisions were for whites only. In 1960, not a single resident of Levittown, New York was black. Suburbs throughout the nation enacted restrictive covenants that prevented homeowners from selling their houses to African Americans or Asian Americans, upon the pretense that their presence would lower property values. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that such covenants were unenforceable, de facto segregation continued and was frequently enforced by violence and intimidation.5
Banks also refused to loan money for new homes or improvements in the inner city neighborhoods where minorities lived in a practice known as redlining (a term derived from mortgage security maps that shaded minority neighborhoods in red, signifying they were 'risky' investments).6 Thus, government subsidies for suburban home building and prejudice against lending to minorities combined to increase the distance--both physically and economically--between whites and African Americans.

What do you think?

What are the effects of American "car culture"? Consider its impact on Americans' ability to get to work and to the services they need, as well as its impact on the environment and the oil industry.
Do you think the "sameness" of the suburbs was an improvement on the "ethnic enclaves" found in the prewar period (Little Italy in New York, for example), or was the emphasis on conformity stifling?
What was the overall impact of housing policies on African Americans during this period? Do you think housing discrimination was a major factor in the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user shaniafraser384
    how bad was racism during this time
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user calleyover1199
    2nd paragraph under race, gender, and suburbia

    Did this lead to a revitalization of the women's rights movement? Before the conformity of the 50's, there were images of Rosie the Riveter and women were a major force to be reckoned with during WWII and after the war the media was pushing that a woman's only purpose was to please the husband, have kids, and buy shiny new household objects.

    Also, a comment on cars and suburbia. With all the new possibilities for travel that were opened up and after everything that happened in WWII, maybe people craved conformity at first since so much was changing in the era.
    (5 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Yas2003
      Yes, this was the revitalization of the women's rights movement, however I don't believe it really gained speed until during the Vietnam War. It was the mixture of the women's work in WWII and the paused women's rights movement decades prior.
      (2 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Grasso, Angie
    I really don't know what the word, "tenant" means. Does it have to do with people?
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user D Elizabeth Mensinger
    Were Catholics barred from certain neighborhoods? I heard stories from my Mom that (when she was little) she could not Trick or Treat at a Protestant house. Also my Dad (when he was 9) had a cross burned in his front yard for the family either being Catholic or having a Jewish sounding last name.
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Haters are going to hate. The cross-burning that your father's family experienced was due to haters acting hateful. The reasons you cite are likely to have been enough for that. As for the halloween thing, that sounds plausible, too. though it may have been about the family that lived in that house, rather than about them being protestants. Hatefulness and discrimination know no bounds.
      (3 votes)
  • cacteye purple style avatar for user Gaige Harold
    The process of suburbanization drove the movement of Americans and turned the wheels of the new consumer economy. Seen from a macroeconomic level, the postwar economic boom turned America into a land of economic abundance.Rising car and truck ownership made it easier for businesses and middle- and working-class white residents to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind growing poor and minority populations and fiscal crises.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Miles Rowell
    if African Americans were allowed into the suburbs during that time (late 40s-50s) would there have been less racial tension later on? because it would have been more of a normal thing to have African American neighbors, and they would be more part of life?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user templin.seth
    Were women ALWAYS like this? Did the president soon allow more freedom of jobs?
    (0 votes)
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    • purple pi teal style avatar for user Emma Spaniol
      Your first question is somewhat hard to answer, because always makes for a very broad question. Before civilizations were formed, and even in the earliest civilizations, women worked about as much as men, but often at different “jobs” - for example, in hunter-gatherer societies, men would do the hunting and women would do the gathering. When America was founded, many women did work as seamstresses, etc, or were active in politics, such as the Daughters of Liberty. However, in general, women have been seen as weaker than men, and therefore less able to be a major part of the workforce. That began to change in the 1940’s during WWII, and in the 1950’s as this article discusses somewhat.
      In response to your second question, what the president says would very rarely have any effect on who can get jobs, with some exceptions especially with the freeing of African Americans from slavery and similar instances with racial discrimination. There have been bills passed by Congress that have made any form of job discrimination illegal, including job discrimination based on gender, but the majority of change has been because of changing social expectations.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user La'Ryan Bradley
    So, women back then who had a little bit more freedom, was that good or bad?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lorenavam
    During this time period there was a lot of discrimination not just on color but on what class you belonged to. Why were people so negative when others tried to move in? Were they afraid of anything?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Many people wanted (and still want) to "reside among their own kind." The city where I now reside is considering a oning change that will increase density. There is opposition, because "density" is a euphemism for "lower class", and around here, "lower class" is a euphemism for "people of color". It was racism then, and it is racism now. THAT'S the American story, since the 18th century.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Enoch Bate
    Were Mexicans left out of suburban life?
    (1 vote)
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