"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

To the Crabgrass Frontier (Fourth in a Series)

My previous post in this series concluded with an introduction to the population changes our urban areas underwent with the advent of the automobile suburbs.  Between 1945 and 1980 our urban areas, large and small, suffered a general population decline.  But the raw numbers tell only part of the story, and not the important part by any means.
      To understand what really happened, we must learn the answers two questions:

* Who left our urban areas and why?

* Who took their place, and why?

     These two questions and their answers are interrelated, because they influenced each other.  Let’s begin with the first question, and pick up where we left off in discussing the immediate post-war period. 

     Last time I focused on how the Federal Government provided considerable financial incentives to both buyers and builders for the migration to the suburbs, for the best of reasons.  But financial incentives alone cannot fully explain the national phenomenon that resulted.  

      The young veterans who bought those Cape Cods on a concrete slab could have purchased a home in an urban area, if enough had become available.  Part of the reason they didn’t was because few new homes were built in our urban areas, given the profitability of mass-produced suburbs.   So far, so good, but insufficient housing supply might explain why our towns and cities did not increase in population, but certainly not why the population declined or changed in composition. To begin to understand, we need to go back in time to a very different era, and suspend some of our current thinking.

     Part of the reason for the first phase of this movement was psychological, and could not have been overcome by any actions of urban advocates.  A social factor was at work.  It’s hard to quantify, but necessary to understand.  It was basically a component of what was known as “pent up demand”.  People had done without for a very long time, had won the war and now felt determined to live a new life, as different as possible from what they had grown up around.  The overwhelming majority of the people we are discussing, whether veterans and their wives or factory workers and their wives, had grown up in the Depression.  Whether they had lived on a farm, in a small town, a mid-sized borough or a large city, that experience had quite likely not been pleasant.  After a childhood of economic sacrifice followed by a war of human sacrifice, our young men came home to face…a housing shortage.  Little residential construction had taken place during the Depression (and even less maintenance), and the newly-returned veterans often found themselves living again with their relatives in old, shabby buildings, or with their new families in temporary pre-fab trailers while pursuing their government-subsidized college degrees.  The experience did not dispose them toward urban living, or in places very close to other people.

     Our urban areas never had much of a chance with these people; their memories and the times directed them to the suburbs.  The vast majority had not owned a home before the war; they were “first-time buyers.” They moved back in with Mom and Dad or into trailers or cheap pre-fab quarters to get their G.I. Bill education benefits, and when they graduated the new housing in the new suburbs had begun to be available in large numbers.  So they left.  Some did return, of course.  These of them came back to their long-time family homes and resumed their previous jobs or even their place in the family business.  They would provide the leadership—and the followership—for our urban areas in the hard times ahead.  But too many didn’t want to go back, and armed with a college education and a mortgage guarantee, courtesy of the federal government, they didn’t have to. 

     But the returned veterans weren’t the only ones in the first phase of this movement who were entranced by the possibility of experiencing something new, something different from how their lives had been so far.  That’s part of the psychology we need to understand, and it applied to a lot of people.   Life in a new community seemed attractive for many, particularly somewhere else than where they had been living.  After decades of depression and war, the urge to do something different, go somewhere different, spanned generations and geography.  Some moved to new homes, and some just hit the road, to travel…

See the USA in your Chevrolet,
America’s asking you to call,
Drive the USA in your Chevrolet,
America’s the greatest land of all”

     Madison Avenue picked up on this mood very quickly, and proceeded to add its contribution, which was beyond substantial.   Moving to the suburbs became the thing to do because, well, everyone was doing it; everybody said so.  That message, in many forms, first legitimized then popularized the move to the periphery.  Sensing a mass movement, popular culture coalesced to make the move seem like a continuation of America’s frontier heritage, this time to the “Crabgrass Frontier,” in the words of historian Kenneth Jackson.  Pundits invoked our “frontier heritage,” our supposed need to keep moving in search of a better life.  The frontier was a central image in the American psyche during this time; we had fallen in love with the myth of the cowboy not long after his lifestyle had disappeared, and continued to show the depth of our interest by the size of our financial commitment, from dime novels to cowboy movies.  The TV era was taking shape, and cowboys would dominate its early decades.  It all seemed to come together; everyone pitched in to sell the image, particularly those pitching something more physical to sell.

     The reality, of course, was rather different.  Forty acres and a mule had been the goal of frontier homesteaders; for this new version it was one eighth-acre and an automobile.  That eighth-acre still needed to be cultivated, but the goal was lush green grass, not a crop, and an eighth-acre is a damn sight easier to tend than forty.  On the other hand, frontier homesteaders staked out their claims on good arable land; their descendants found their land stripped of topsoil, which had been sold, and of trees, because they got in the way of mass production.  Not to mention the fact that the journey to this new frontier (before the term was formally adopted by the Kennedy Administration) was a daily one, which the automobile had made not only possible, but also faster and much more comfortable.

     But Madison Avenue—and, indeed, American popular culture—is not about reality, but about dreams.  The dream lived on, and people continued to buy into it.  The result was a movement—usually in the form of families—from the cities to the new automobile suburbs.  This movement took place in numbers large enough to earn the term “migration”.  The motives for this migration, and the urban population turnover it brought about, were mixed from the beginning.  They also changed considerably over time.  We will give that change in motive further scrutiny.

Next time: An overlooked point about who left on this migration and why.