May 07, 2015

Today in History: The birth of suburbia -- 1947

John RobsonArchive

On May 7, 1947 Levitt & Sons announced the development that would become Levittown, New York, and the world changed … not always in a good way.

The original idea was brilliant.

William Levitt returned from serving in the U.S. Navy and persuaded his father and brother that the same efficient production techniques used to create military housing could be applied for civilians as well.

Concrete slabs, prefab lumber, assembly line-style construction, did create affordable rental houses and, with the GI bill, homes for purchase.

But then something went wrong.

As suburban homes grew larger and fancier they didn’t become less artificial. Instead the whole environment came to seem increasingly unreal, with fake fast food from drive-throughs going to fake houses to feed fake people.

Part of the problem is that giving people low-cost, low-quality things can change their tastes. But a lot of it is, as usual, governmental: zoning laws that separate living from working from playing and drain suburbs, downtown cores and shopping of the vitality that comes from a diverse human experience.

In the end it’s up to us. We need to repeal the sterile zoning laws that have dominated urban development since the late 1920s.

And we also have to ensure that, as mass production lowers the cost of everything including housing, we insist on putting some of our growing wealth into quality instead of accepting shoddy as the new normal.


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commented 2015-05-08 03:19:06 -0400
I can’t agree with your take on suburbia, John. As a kid growing up in Canadian suburbia, I loved it and wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I still think it is the envy of the world, which is why the world keeps coming here to live. And craftsmanship didn’t disappear, it just changed form. I think if you take a closer look, you’ll find lots to like about suburban life. It’s relatively safe, you have your own outdoor space in which to relax after a hard day’s work, and it affords a lot of opportunity to develop your life. For example, my late father, who was a steelworker, used his suburban environment to pursue various hobbies like writing and boating, and eventually become also a professional marine photographer and writer. In like manner, I have also found suburbia the ideal platform to pursue my own vision of what I wanted to achieve beyond my original occupation. So don’t sell suburbia short; there is more to it than you might imagine.
commented 2015-05-07 15:37:10 -0400
Most interesting artical John you’ve hit it out of the park again.