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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Deinstitutionalization Deja Vu for Norristown?

This is actually my first post on that ever-controversial subject of HOUSING, Fair, Affordable, Subsidized, call it what you will.  It won’t seem that way, because the immediate subject is a specious "threat" to housing in Norristown.  I begin with it because that allows me to dismiss the threat as nonexistent, freeing me in later posts to focus on the relevant issues.  Doing it this way also allows me to demonstrate that even “authoritative” sources should be viewed with a skeptical eye, and I never miss a chance to make that point.

Deinstitutionalization is the word used to describe a period when society concluded that treatment of needy individuals is better accomplished in a community setting than by incarcerating them in institutions.  It is considered to be an outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement.  Until 1963, standard policy had been to send the mentally ill or the mentally retarded away, to “institutionalize” them, due to the cultural stigma surrounding both conditions.  In 1963 President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act, which initiated a new national policy to serve people in the community, in “the least restrictive environment,” and not isolated in hospitals.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania followed in 1966 with the Mental Health/Mental Retardation Act.  The state’s plan was to grow the community based services the former patients being released needed.

At least that was the way it was supposed to go.  The release of people judged capable of living in a community environment with varying levels of assistance proceeded apace; by the late 1960s Norristown State Hospital (NSH) was releasing people in accordance with the directive.  This is not well understood locally; most date deinstitutionalization after “the Broderick Decision” in Halderman v. Pennhurst, which was issued in 1977.  The Pennhurst case contributed to the local wave of deinstitutionalization, but Pennhurst was a state hospital that housed only persons suffering from mental retardation.  Norristown State Hospital housed only patients with mental illness.  There were many court decisions involved in the overall process, but they became subsumed into a national advocacy movement for several groups of people.

Unlike Pennhurst, Norristown State Hospital was not closed down, but it did discharge many patients judged capable of living in the community with assistance.  The subsequent experience of both the individuals themselves and the Norristown community into which they were inserted provide a microcosm of what happened nationally.  Neither the Federal Government nor the Commonwealth (nor any other state, for that matter) ever provided the funds necessary to properly establish, let alone grow the community services that both the mentally ill and the mentally retarded needed so desperately.  The level of support some of these people needed was underestimated, as was their economic situation.  These people were not only poor, most had little or no experience in the commonplace events of holding down a job or living in a community.

Deinstitutionalization was yet another example of a good idea that suffered greatly in its execution.  It was a national disaster, pretty much all the way around.  What should have improved the conditions of its intended beneficiaries did for some, but consigned far too many to homelessness and life on the streets.  Locally, it removed NSH as a community asset it had always been, one of Norristown’s largest employers.  The exact number of how many people moved into some form of assisted living—as well as where they were moved to—is lacking, although an attempt was made to reintroduce as many as possible back into the communities from where they had come. 

Even if the numbers could be pinned down, they would not convey the perception that arose about the damage being done to Norristown.  The chapter about Norristown in Montgomery County The Second Hundred Years, the county’s official bicentennial publication in 1984, contains a telling quote (on page 470) about the effects of deinstitutionalization on the community:

“Quite a few residents, still on government assistance, were once under treatment
at Norristown State Hospital, Eagleville Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, or 
some other nearby institution.  In 1980 about sixty-five halfway houses were 
scattered about the borough to the dismay and annoyance of many a citizen."

The quote is twice unfortunate; unclear on actual numbers and confusing in its use of terminology.  How many constituted “quite a few”?  This would have been useful to know, because sixty-five halfway houses is a large number, particularly as halfway house sounds suspiciously like “group home”.  The phraseology certainly leads you to believe that rather more than sixty-five individuals were causing “dismay and annoyance” in Norristown that year.

Even greater confusion arises from incorrect terminology.  A “halfway house” is one housing alcohol or drug patients on a temporary basis.  They do not house those with mental illness or mental retardation extensive enough to have hospitalized them in the first place.  Besides, the assistance needed by such people is permanent; there is no “halfway” involved.  “Halfway house” had already assumed the status of all-inclusive buzzword, and its use only serves to confuse, not enlighten.

This conflation of separate subjects has assumed the status of conventional wisdom among those that lived in Norristown during that era, and left a residual fear that it could happen all over again.  This is why the numbers do not matter; the perception does.

A document entitled: “2012 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice for Norristown, ” prepared by Urban Design Ventures, of Homestead, Pa., stokes that fear.  It is the kind of official document one sees frequently these days, a combination of American bureaucracy and Maoist “self-criticism,” wherein municipalities or programs sum up what they have failed to accomplish and lay out how they are going to correct their shortcomings in the future.  It was generated, I suspect, by the mounting complaints about how housing choice vouchers are being distributed in Montgomery County (more about that fascinating subject next week!).  It can be found on Norristown’s website.  I will reference it again, on the subject of “fair housing choice” itself, but the document also addresses the possibility that mental patients might be released into Norristown once again, perhaps even replicating the town’s previous experience with deinstitutionalization.  This must be disposed of before we move to actual problems.

Impediment Nine (there are more) is “Deinstitutionalization of Norristown State Hospital Patients”.  This is what follows that title:

With the reduction in the number of inpatients that will be housed in the state 
mental health care facility in Norristown, there is a possibility that the dispersal 
will be into the surrounding neighborhoods, where there are more rental units 
than single family homes, and the area is already impacted.

There are two problems with this statement.  First, it appears to assume that a reduction in the number of mental patients at NSH is actually being planned.  There is no—repeat no—evidence that such a move has even crossed anyone’s mind.  Norristown State Hospital is a mere shadow of its former self, but it remained open when several other State hospitals were closed, and is now an integral part of a regional program of health services.

Second, the sentence’s tone seems to indicate that there are many mental patients still in NSH, enough for their release to impact the municipality’s housing market.  This is also not true.  Although NSH now serves the entire eastern half of Pennsylvania, its mental population is capped at eighty-six beds, with each county allotted a specific number.  There are actually some 130 people housed there at present, the result of other counties exceeding their caps, as ordered by different courts. These are actually patients from the criminal section, which is a cause for concern.  Of these 130 however, only twenty-two beds are allotted to residents of Montgomery County.  Even if some court were to order NSH closed (a more than far-fetched proposition), only those twenty-two people would be released into Montgomery County, and not all into Norristown.  The remainder would be sent to their home counties.  But that's not going to happen anyway.

Deinstitutionalization in Norristown is over, and it's not coming back.  It is long past time to focus on real issues.

(My thanks to Nancy Wieman, Montgomery County Deputy Administrator for Mental Health Services, for much of the information contained above)

Friday, July 25, 2014

The History of a Volunteer Fire Company: Preserved in Alcohol?

The loss of a volunteer fire company is a grievous blow to any community.  It is a loss that cuts much deeper than just that of fire protection.  Norristown’s Humane Fire Company officially closed its building at #129 East Main Street in early 2012, a site it had occupied since 1852, the year of its formation.  The reason was an all-too-common one these days: the dwindling number of people willing to be volunteer firefighters.  The company merged with the Norristown Hose Fire Company, and moved its equipment.
The Humane Fire Company is gone, but its building—and more important, its history—will not be lost.  Two partners have purchased the building, and obtained the necessary financing to renovate it and open a microdistillery called “Five Saints”.  This could be an outstanding addition to Main Street when it opens in January, 2016.  The project has the full support of Norristown Municipal Council, as it should.

It’s good news that the building will be saved, and a microdistillery might be just the type of trendy new spot that will bring people to Norristown for recreation, which is the best news of all.  But there is one more reason to celebrate, and it’s the one I want to highlight.

The building’s new owners have pledged to preserve the old firehouse’s memory, and make it the central component of their local identity.  Norristown residents, regardless of whether they even drink or not, should be pleased about that. Such a pledge could mean many things, and only time will tell.  I am all in favor of preserving an old firehouse, but I hope that the new occupant’s commitment to telling the story of the building it calls home will go beyond displaying curious hats, items of brass and yellowed photographs.  That’s nostalgia, not history, and the Humane Fire Company was an important part of the real history of Norristown.  That makes it a potentially rich source of badly needed knowledge about the way things really were “back in the day,” and we can all use more of that. 

Volunteer fire companies used to exist everywhere, but they were of particular significance to our smaller towns.  A town’s volunteer fire companies are, together with its ethnic churches, the best windows into its past.  Even the obvious things about these companies have meaning.  The fact that Norristown’s different fire companies have different color schemes was not accidental; they symbolize the ethnic affiliations of their founders.  When you look below the surface, you find even more meaning woven into their very existence.

Volunteer fire companies came into existence because fire was the omnipresent danger in those towns during their period of growth, but they were social organizations first and foremost.  They may not actually have been all that effective at their primary task until well into the 20th century—the history of the Schuylkill River towns is rife with accounts of devastating fires—but ultimately their most important function was as symbols of civic organization and individual belonging.  This went way beyond parades, the social function for which they are best known.

Their influence overlapped with that of the ethnic religious congregations in each town, because they were reflections of those groups.  These ethnic populations set the tone within each town (largely in their order of arrival), and the fire companies reflect that history.  Geography played a part, of course, because each company was established to serve a specific physical area.  Still, ethnic discrimination shaped who lived where in a town of any size, making geography largely an expression of ethnicity.  Who could join what department and who couldn’t was universally understood, if not openly expressed.  In the larger towns on the Schuylkill River, size allowed repetition, which meant that the different volunteer companies could divide along ethnic lines.  In the smallest ones, this was much more problematic.

Another reason fire companies could discriminate was that they had a large pool of applicants to draw from.  The 19th century (and well into the 20th) was also a time that membership in local organizations was absolutely central to the social life of both individuals and families.  No mass media meant no mass culture; very few people focused much attention beyond their narrowly-defined communities.  Community organizations—civic, service, religious and commemorative—flourished.  Volunteer fire companies were prestigious organizations, and membership in them was highly desired.  Ethnicity and location determined what company a man might join, but the underlying reason was that in those days men lived and worked in the same town, and thus had a vested interest in protecting it from fires.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  We no longer live in a locally-centered culture; we have much more free time than in the old days, but also a great many more calls on it.  Perhaps the most important change for firefighters is the fact that today very few people live and work in the same town; the availability of volunteers can be chancy.  Thus volunteer fire companies have come to depend on paid firefighters to staff the houses, but still face the prospect of consolidation and closure.  Their loss means that rich sources of local history are disappearing.

There is so much that the history of a volunteer company can teach us about the history of our towns, and how much has changed since the glory days of both.  The fact that ethnic discrimination lies at the foundation of that history has been almost ignored in the telling of their history.  They are the subjects of such veneration, and the reality of their time is so distant from us, that they have become myths themselves, each with a carefully shaped and polished appearance designed to obscure the truth that lies within.

Norristown’s Humane Fire Company was no exception.  John George’s partner in this effort, Louis “Jay” Rachelli, might have a personal reason to promote an understanding of its central—if unpleasant—truth.  The Company’s location on East Main Street made it the only company located in the east end, and the population of the east end was overwhelmingly Italian.  Yet as late as 1950, the Humane Fire Company had never admitted an Italian member.  That little fact should serve up some interesting questions, of course.  Did this policy change, and if so, when?  What about Norristown’s other companies?  How long did they retain their original complexion?  Do they have any remaining traditions about membership?

I have been writing frequently of the need to know the truth about our past if we want to make our future better.  That's why words and phrases like "racism" and "ethnic discrimination" are peppered about my blog posts.  In this post I have simply added one more component to the picture and, I hope, thereby opened one more door to that better future.  This isn't about uncovering dark secrets; fire companies and what each represented are part of the history of our towns.  The fact that they did not display the attitudes of today should surprise no one, nor should anyone try to sugar coat history out of some misplaced sense of shame.  This was a time when overt discrimination against any number of "others" could be openly practiced, so ethnic divisions among fire companies must be understood in context.  Our volunteer fire companies played a role in shaping our communities that was both vital and multifaceted.  The fact that one or more of those facets are displeasing to the modern eye is not a reason to obscure them.  It is, rather a reason to highlight them, because only the truth will make you free.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Out With the Old, In With the New (Last—and First—of a Series)

This week’s post marks the conclusion to Phase One of my series about what happened to our urban areas after the Second World War.  I have mixed them in with other observations about the specific history of my subject towns, the eight along the Schuylkill River between Reading and the Philadelphia.  My approach to all has been to attack the myths that surround the history of post-war urban decline, and to substitute more accurate understandings.  I use the phrase “more accurate understandings” in recognition of truth’s infinite complexity, and of the many aspects it presents to its seekers, of whom I am by no means the last word. 

I find it convenient to divide the timeline of post-World War II urban history into two phases loosely based on Acts of the Federal Government.  Phase One dealt with those that together brought on the widespread decline of our older urban areas.  I term them “The Originals”.  They include government acts from the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and are grouped because they were enacted in ignorance of the consequences they would have for America’s urban areas.  There are a rather large number of other subjects I could have—and perhaps should have—addressed in Phase One.  That will undoubtedly be true of those that follow in Phase Two; it’s a space requirement.

My treatment of Phase One is complete, sort of.  I have only touched on the subject of limited access highways, both the Interstate and its predecessors, which have had enormous consequences across the nation.  The earliest—and biggest—consequence to Southeastern Pennsylvania came from the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Schuylkill Expressway, both initiated before the Interstate System, and later incorporated into it.  On that subject I refer you to my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street To The Malls.  What is perhaps the second biggest consequence to this area is still happening.  I will be discussing this quite significant topic in this blog in the not-too-distant future.

This post will complete The Originals, and will introduce the different approach I will employ in discussing my next series of topics.  Always remember, please, that there was, in truth, no such division into two phases as I posit.  It’s just an attempt to make a complex subject more accessible.  So this final post in the first series doesn’t really “complete” anything at all, nor does it begin with anything truly new.

Phase Two encompasses efforts I group together as “Those Intended to Undo the Damage of the Originals But Which Caused Problems Themselves”.  I have to tighten up that title a bit, but it does get the basic point across, so for now I’ll refer to them as “The Undoers”.  These will often be Federal Government Acts that were written as the consequences of the earlier events and actions were becoming manifest, and which created new programs and approaches to deal with them.  The relevant point is that several of these Acts date back to the 1970s, and a great deal has changed since then, both in how the efforts themselves are administered and how they are perceived.  These stories are complicated enough, but then there are the State Acts and local programs that have been passed to meet similar needs.  Throw in a court decision or two, and things get quite complicated.  These Acts, programs and decisions have already been subjected to several decades of the myth-making process, and many have been so encrusted with coats of blather and layers of hype that their real nature is often barely discernible.  It’s going to be fun.

In truth, my last/first subheading refers to a change in my approach more than in the subjects themselves.  This blog offers urban history in the support of urban activism, and future posts will focus on the activism part.  The subjects for Phase Two are part of history, but I will approach them through examining their current aspect at first, as they are not just current issues, but “hot button” topics.  Yes, I am speaking of Section 8, Deinstitutionalization, Immigration, those topics.

Be warned: I’m not going to spend any time debating the premise behind these government programs that I choose to discuss.  In other words, if you object in principle to “welfare” programs (or at least those that benefit people, if not corporations), you’re pretty much out of luck.  To employ perhaps the most obvious example, I consider “affordable housing” to be an important issue, and will not discuss whether such programs should exist at all, but how well the ones that do exist perform their needed task.  That is a significant distinction, but it does not imply automatic approval, as you will see.  I will fit in some history, to put every subject in context.  Those “hot button” topics in particular call out for some correction of the myths that have become fixtures of popular belief. 

These posts will be mixed in among what I hope will be less inflammatory posts that focus on other things happening today.  As has always been the case, I draw my most of my specific subjects from recent news about events in my subject towns, and I don’t know what that is going to be any more than anyone else.  Still, I expect the stream of reasons why I named tis blog “The More Things Change…to continue unabated.

My approach will change, but the fundamental motive behind what I do and how I do it has not, and will not.  Misunderstandings beget mistakes.  If you base your actions on myths instead of the facts, you are doomed to fail; to the extent that you allow myths to direct your actions, you will fall short of your goal.  We all share the same goals, so we should share the same understanding of the better tactics to achieve them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Was “The Melting Pot” A Myth In Your Town?

Over the past six months, I have taken several opportunities to excoriate the automobile suburbs (“the crabgrass frontier”) for the pernicious effect they have had on both our urban areas and our race relations.  It’s time I try to balance the books a little.  I have encountered a respected scholar who has something very good to say about those very suburbs.  I find his take on the subject fascinating, because it also fits quite closely with my current theme, inspired by the continued closing of Catholic parishes in Bridgeport and the Conshohockens, of how ethnic/religious discrimination and nativism helped to shape the towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  The connection between the two lies, surprisingly enough, in one of our nation’s most cherished myths.

There may be no more deeply held claim about the United States than that it is a “melting pot,” where ethnicities and races amalgamate into that uniquely blessed person, the “American”.  We retained our hyphenated racial/ethnic/religious identities, but managed to subordinate them and cooperate to build the greatest society the world has ever seen.  But was the melting pot truth or just another feel-good myth?

If we actually did as the myth claims, it had to be in that period since World War I.  If you have an eastern or southern European lineage, then the great immigration boom that brought most of your ancestors to America around the opening of the 20th century had been throttled by the mid 1920s.  Immigrants continued to arrive in the succeeding decades, but in much smaller numbers.  Absent new and different arrivals, the new ethnic groups largely acclimated to their new land, and even assumed a degree of political power within their communities.  This initiated the period our parents taught us to believe was “the good old days,” when people were honest, worked hard and rejected government handouts.  This was also when the concept of the melting pot made its appearance, celebrating the work-together attitude of Americans despite their different ethnicities and backgrounds. 

A recent claim that the melting pot was a myth arises not from the Left, where one would expect to find it, but from the Right.  The Cato Institute’s leading Libertarian scholar, Brink Lindsey, has offered a very interesting take on the subject in his book The Age of Affluence.  Simply put, he says the melting pot was an American myth for most of our history, and he credits the new post World War II automobile suburbs as the mechanism that turned myth into reality.  As he puts it,

“Part of Suburbia’s novelty lay in how it united people across regional, class,
ethnic, and religious lines.  Blasted by critics for their white-bread
homogeneity, suburbs took the myth of the American melting pot and made
it a living social reality.” 

This is quite a claim, but before we examine it through the lens of ethnicity in my subject towns, we must take notice of the one classification Lindsey conspicuously does not mention: race.  He slides right over the point on the way to his thesis, and even a cursory knowledge of American history requires us to admit that the melting pot allowed little black input.  Lindsey ignores this point, but I have emphasized how the automobile suburbs actually contributed to residential segregation.

But what about Lindsey’s claim that it took the post-war suburbs to bring people together across ethnic and religious lines?  Region and class have always played a part in our interior isolation from each other, but when we speak of the melting pot it is the mixing of ethnicity and religion that we are discussing, so that’s where we should focus.

Lindsey offers a broad refutation of a widely-held belief, so we must be careful in examining such a claim.  The first major distinction is to separate the situation in large cities from that in the smaller urban areas.  The existence of ethnic enclave neighborhoods in large cities prior to the Second World War is well documented and understood.  They had been long established by that time, spanning generations.  Their boundaries were unofficial but both recognized and respected.  Young men in particular knew which streets were safe to walk, and those where “intruders” were at risk, usually from young men from “the neighborhood.”  The violence that actually resulted from this pales against what takes place routinely today, but such subdivisions of a large city had a firm foundation in the ethnic and racial divides that existed within our cities at that time.

But what about our small towns, for example your old “home town”?  Is Lindsey correct?  Was “the melting pot” a myth in your town?  Let’s pick the admittedly quite arbitrary date of 1950 to examine this question, and focus on the time before that.  By that date, small town America still remained largely strong and vibrant, but the automobile suburbs were beginning to drain away long-time urban residents.  This was the sunset of “the good old days” that so many people lament, and to which they wish we could all return.  It is a good point to divide our analysis of the melting pot into the old—in our traditional urban areas, and the new—in the automobile suburbs.

I can speak with some authority only about the ethnic/religious divisions within Norristown prior to 1950, because I have researched the subject.  My research has also produced some insight into Bridgeport’s situation at that time.  Such knowledge as I have accumulated, I must confess, suggests that Lindsey has a point.

In 1950, Norristown was still one of the more egregious examples of a town riven and divided by ethnic conflict.  The first crisis came when the Irish began to arrive.  They were “ghettoized,” as we term it today, but that was only a rehearsal to what would happen when the Italians began to arrive.  This influx was much larger, and Norristown simply directed its Italian immigrants to the east end of town, the least developed, with the most shanties and shacks.  This became an unwritten law, and as late as 1950 kept all but the most well-off Italians within the area east of DeKalb Street and south of Fornance Street.  This made an ethnic divide into a geographic one.  This did produce one unintended result, Italian political power in the East End, and thus in Norristown Borough Council.  You could read about this dispute on a political level, but you also lived it on a personal level.  Everyone I interviewed about growing up during the years before 1950 was adamant about the subdivisions with Norristown, and each described them in the same way, only from their individual vantage point.  To those growing up during this time, Norristown’s internal divisions determined where you could safely go, where you didn’t dare, and which ethnicities were not allowed to even date one another.   The evidence on this is consistent: in “the good old days,” Norristown’s melting pot did not even heat up. 

Here is a fascinating piece of evidence concerning the melting pot in Bridgeport, taken from an editorial in the official publication celebrating the borough’s Centennial in 1951:

“The intermingling of people of widely varied, cultural and religious
 backgrounds has not altogether been smooth.  One strand frequently
 sows its dislike of another.  Certain elements in the community want to
favor people of their extraction in public office.  As a result of this racial
prejudice, little cliques form in many organizations and do everything to
discourage other people from taking part in them….This is not an Italian
town.  This is Bridgeport.  The celebration of Bridgeport’s 100th anniversary
shows that it took people from many lands to build the borough.  Let not
a few try to turn it into sinkhole of bigotry and racial prejudice.” 

It is clear that the author uses “racial” where we would use “ethnic,” as the African American population of Bridgeport was very small at this time, and totally without political influence.  The usage also provides insight into the mindset of people in our towns during this era, adding indirectly to the evidence.

What is fascinating is how such a frank statement made its way into an official publication, which normally allows no such thing, regardless of the town or the occasion.  Of course, a single statement, even such an authoritative one, is not sufficient to support any conclusions about Bridgeport’s political and social fabric prior during its heyday before Second World War.  Yet it does suggest that Bridgeport shared yet another issue with its larger neighbor across the river.  I would encourage local historians to look into this.

But what about the other river towns on which I focus?  My knowledge of how varied the ethnic/religious mix was among these towns is little more than superficial, yet sufficient enough to require an examination of each individual location, because differences among them exist, and were important.  I thus address this issue in the form of a request to those of you who grew up in these other towns, or whose parents did, during the ostensibly “good old days”.    Remember, we are speaking of the period largely before 1950, so what stories did your parents tell you about your town in “the good old days”?  Were Royersford, Spring City and West Conshohocken even large enough to demonstrate internal ethnic/religious divisions in the first place?  If your parents lived in the larger towns, who were their friends, who could they date, and who couldn’t they?  Where there places where it was safe to go, and those where it wasn’t?  What unwritten rules existed, and were they based on geography or on ethnicity?  Could Italian Catholics date Irish Catholics?  How about Slovaks and Ukrainians?  Or Jews?  Ask those who remember; you substitute the actual nouns involved in your personal stories, those you learned growing up.

I would very much like to know what your local research into family and community turns up, so feel free to contact me.  I repeatedly encourage my readers to look into the way things actually were in their old neighborhoods or towns; only understanding the truth about our problems allows us to craft effective solutions to those problems.  But always keep in mind that what is often said of genealogy is also true of local history: don’t get into it if you aren’t prepared to handle the unpleasant surprises you are sure to encounter as the myths you so cherish founder on the rocks of reality.  When that happens (and it will), try to remember that the end result—knowledge something closer to the truth—is worth the effort, and even the anguish over lost dreams.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Racism Perverted The American Dream

Now that I have your attention, just what “American Dream” am I talking about?  There have been so many, or at least so many uses of the phrase.  Most of them tend toward the philosophical; the superficial ones usually mention “freedom,” while the more sophisticated revolve around “a better life for the children, and their children.”  I’m not going to disagree with this, but I am going to talk about what those two terms actually meant during our history.  That’s why I’m going to nominate “home ownership” for the best phrasing of the American Dream, because it addresses just what “a better life” and "freedom" actually meant to real people, and to a large extent still do.  For a concept to be as old as our early immigrants and as current as today, of course, its literal meaning has to change, and this one has.  The ownership part hasn't, but the amount required has.

Look beneath every claim that our first settlers came over for some variation of “freedom,” and you will find they came over for property, because in those days property was freedom, or at least the basic requirement.  The desire to own one’s own property was the real motivation for the vast majority to come here, and its variations once here have made consistent appearances throughout American history.

Back in the pre-industrial age, it wasn’t so much about the “home” part; the focus was on land, because it was needed to sustain continued occupation of that home.  Land was the reason the vast majority of the original immigrants—and a substantial portion of later immigrants—came here in the first place.  The very first visitors to the western world were searching for quick riches, but the immigrants came in search of the one thing Europe had run out of a long time ago: available land.  Countless generations of the European poor came of age knowing they had no chance of ever owning land; those Hessian mercenaries so castigated in our history were nothing more than European peasants who had only their lives to sell, in a far away place from which most of them never returned.  They didn’t really expect to, not in those days of very chancy travel and no government accountability, but the reason many of them chose to stay was the same that had brought their unplanned adversaries here also: land.  Not only was there acreage beyond the imaginations of downtrodden Europeans, nobody owned it (okay, we are not considering the Native Americans, but neither did the immigrants).

The idea of sufficient land for everybody lies unspoken behind the philosophy of our Founding Fathers.  It was the fundamental assumption about the experiment in Liberty they came to call The United States of America.  Thomas Jefferson immortalized this concept as “The Yeoman Farmer.”  A tenant has a home, but was at the mercy of his landlord.  A peasant may own land (although he usually didn’t), but not enough.  Only someone who not only owns land, but owns enough to provide him and his family with sustenance plus surplus has the ability to resist economic, social and political pressure, and can thus be a free man.  This is also the reason why so many otherwise eligible white men couldn’t vote during the Colonial and Federal periods; they did not meet the wealth requirement, and thus were not trusted to exercise their franchise free of external influence.

The Industrial Revolution changed all this, because it changed everything, but it also took a while to happen.  As the 19th century proceeded, the transition from growing items for local consumption to growing items for sale on the market—in other words, from agriculture to agribusiness—led inexorably to the need for larger and larger parcels of land in order to be successful, and the consequent and equally inexorable decline in the number of farming families.  This was disbelieved and resisted, of course; into the 20th century there was a national movement dedicated to claiming that the traditional 40 acres was still enough to support a family, despite all evidence to the contrary.

By the 1920s more people lived in cities than on farms, but the decline in farm families did not have nearly as much to do with this remarkable historical achievement as did the preceding decades of mass immigration.  The Industrial Revolution had led to the need for larger and larger parcels of land for a resident farm family to be self-sustaining, but it also stimulated something close to the exact opposite to accommodate all those new arrivals.  It did so by providing to an unprecedented portion of the western world’s population an alternative means of securing their daily bread: wage labor.

Thus, despite the fact that a vast majority of the immigrants to the United States in the decades around the turn of the century came from an agricultural background, most were directed to urban areas, and rather unwillingly became part of that emerging concept, the “working class.”  These people did not give up on the idea of owning their own residence, however, but quickly realized that their quest was no longer for “land.”  In the new industrial cities the dream of land ownership transitioned into the only format possible, ownership of a house with little—if any—more land that what it sat on.  It just had to be located near to where he worked and she shopped.  They bought the best homes available under these restraints, which usually were shacks cheaply built specifically to lure those for whom home ownership remained their version of the American dream.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle has reminded several generations of readers that the fate of many new Americans who participated in this conversion was to fall victim to predatory lenders and venal administrators, with tragic results.

But the transition continued, and—very gradually—a set of rules emerged to mitigate what happens to individuals and families that attempt to negotiate with corporations, in the field of real estate as well as others.  I said “mitigate,” not “correct,” because the rich taking advantage of the poor has not exactly disappeared from our society.  An American middle class did come into being, and home ownership was virtually a requirement for entrance, at least for a married couple.

The evolving American dream of ownership also explains the appearance of the “suburb.”  Planned residences to provide a quiet, bucolic escape from an ugly, noisy, dirty and polluted city began to appear in America quite early in the 19th century.  They were only for the truly rich at first, and they spread slowly, commensurate with the drop in the wealth requirement for entry into them, to which the railroads made a substantial contribution.  These “railroad suburbs” also further embedded a system of residential segregation by race.   Many people of all classes might be disturbed by the movement of black people into their neighborhoods, but only the most well off had actually possessed the means to move to where such people were unlikely to be found.  The railroad suburbs allowed more families of less wealth to move, and the nature of African American distribution began to change.  While the early “Main Line” suburbs saw the rich bring their black servants with them and house them nearby, the steady arrival of a larger number of the less wealthy (I really have to express it that way) into the expanding suburbs led to precisely the opposite result: the grouping of African Americans within carefully delineated enclaves, progressively more distinct from the community norm.

After the Second World came the “automobile suburb,” about which I have had a word or two to say previously.  The transportation revolution, an unprecedented national prosperity and government spending combined to offer a new variation on the old theme of ownership, not lots of land to support the family, nor a shack or house packed tightly against many others, but a nice house on (initially) one eighth acre of land.  You weren’t isolated as was the farm family, or crowded into unhealthy quarters as so often in the cities.  It seemed like an ideal opportunity, and a great many seized it.

This migration to the crabgrass frontier brought forth a resurgence of traditional American real estate practices in new forms required by the new opportunities.  Racial segregation reached new levels of effectiveness in the automobile suburbs, effectively creating prosperous white rings around a decaying black core.  Within the cities themselves, a predatory financial community “redlined” poorer neighborhoods to death.  The result of these factors—and many others—served to not only maintain but to increase the overall level of residential segregation in the United States.  An unprecedented opportunity to achieve what should have been the true American dream—Inclusive Diversity—was squandered.  Racism perverted this latest version of the American dream, just when technology and economic progress offered the tools to realize it for everyone.  We continue to deal with the consequences.