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.1^1
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.2^2

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.3^3
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.4^4
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.5^5
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).6^6 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?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. See "Levittown," Digital History, 2014.
  2. See "The Rise of the Sunbelt," Digital History, 2014.
  3. See Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 95-96.
  4. Betty Friedan makes this argument in The Feminine Mystique, New York: Norton & Co., 1963. For the percentage of women working outside the home in 1950, see "Changes in women's labor force participation in the 20th century," Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000.
  5. The Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer struck down racially-based restrictive covenants in 1948. For the continuing segregation of suburbs, see Robert M. Fogelson, Bourgeous Nightmares: Suburbia 1880-1930 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 121-127.
  6. See Gregory D. Squires, “Race, Politics and the Law: Recurring Themes in the Insurance Redlining Debate,” in Insurance Redlining: Disinvestment, Reinvestment, and the Evolving Role of Financial Institutions, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press, 1997), 1-26.
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