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«ican Dream I n his book The Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams first coins the term “the American Dream.” He states, “[The ...»

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Once the American Dream

I

n his book The Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams first

coins the term “the American Dream.” He states, “[The American

Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and

richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to

ability or achievement.... It is... a dream of social order in which each

man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of

which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (Adams 1931: 404). The American Dream rests on the belief that even those from the humblest origins can achieve social eminence and a richer standard of living. This dream has inspired many Americans and has attracted millions of immigrants to the United States in search of prosperity and a new life. It has shaped the country’s image and has brought forth strong feelings of national pride (Mennell 2007).

The American Dream manifests itself most acutely in the American suburb. Over time, suburbia has evolved to become that imagined land of opportunity, the place where life is better and richer and fuller for everyone. In their early history, suburbs were “bourgeois utopias” avail- able only to society’s elite (Fishman 1987). Early in the nineteenth 2 / Chapter 1 century, tensions between social classes, the tremendous problem of over- crowding, and the more noxious aspects of industrialization caused the cities’ affluent to seek escape at the suburban fringe. Suburbs were envi- sioned as sanctified spaces in deep contrast to the wicked, irreverent, and gritty industrial city. Eventually, and most profoundly in the postwar period, suburbs acquired a new image of material well-being for everyone, even those from the humblest origins. Suburbs were reinterpreted as the ultimate path to material success and the true expression of the American Dream.

This dream took concrete form in the physical structure of the subur- ban house, usually complete with an automobile and private yard. In the 1950s, Americans moved en masse to the suburbs. Housing was not read- ily available during the war years, and many young families lived with their parents or in-laws or packed into cramped apartments in the city. Spurred by postwar federal housing policies, white Americans, many of them returning World War II veterans, were suddenly able to afford new homes in the suburbs. The suburban boom of the postwar era presented new opportunities for homeownership and the possibility of a middle-class lifestyle. As Kenneth Jackson states, “The American suburb was trans- formed from an affluent preserve to the normal experience of the middle class” (Jackson 1985: 215).

In a study of American automobile workers in this postwar period, Ely Chinoy (1955) sought to understand their perceptions of the American Dream and opportunities for progress. Spending more than a year with workers from the so-called ABC plant in the pseudonymous midwestern city of Autotown, Chinoy interviewed white male workers and found that many lacked hope for any major advancement within the factory. They envisioned progress in another way. Ultimately, they felt they were “getting ahead” if they were each able to buy a new car, a new washing machine, and a small home of their own, all possessions needed for living the good, middle-class suburban life. The workers redefined advancement through the consumption of middle-class goods. Single-family houses in particular became the “fundamental components of the new identity kit for middleclass status” (Knox 2005: 36). For these workers of the postwar era, real advancement through the production process was unattainable, but a house and an automobile in the suburbs were viewed as marks of success, achievements of the American Dream.

A great symbol of suburban possibility was Levittown, a suburb on Long Island created by developers Levitt and Sons between 1947 and 1951.

Once the American Dream / 3 When first built, this quintessential postwar seven-square-mile suburb contained close to 17,500 houses. In her book Expanding the American Dream, Barbara Kelly (1993: 148) recalls an interview between an exchange student and a Levittown resident who stated, “The war was over, and we were living in one room in my parents’ apartment.... Think of it, Wei Ren, we were living in one room with two children. The boys had come from overseas and all we wanted was a home of our own. Then Mr. Levitt turned all these little potato farms into Levittown, and we got a piece of the American Dream.” For Levittowners, the ability to purchase a suburban home—a piece of the American Dream—symbolized upward mobility.

The federal government was instrumental in promoting homeownership in the suburbs. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), established in 1934, began insuring home mortgages. With risk underwritten by the federal government, banks were much more willing to lend money to house buyers previously considered risky. Federal government involvement helped lessen down payments and lengthen the repayment period.

Prior to the FHA, buyers typically needed to put down 50 percent of a home loan and pay it off in five years. Homeownership was therefore restricted only to the most affluent in society who could meet these financially burdensome requirements. A typical FHA loan, in contrast, required just 10 percent down with thirty years to pay, opening up the housing market to the middle and working class. Because of FHA as well as Veterans Administration loans, the houses of the 1950s became cheaper to buy than the cost of renting an apartment in the city. Homeownership was feasible for more people than ever before, and the suburbs were envisioned and sold as the open path to new opportunities.





Of course, some groups were excluded from participation in the suburban dream. African Americans in particular were denied access to the postwar suburbs. The FHA actively promoted the idea of racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods. African Americans were refused insured loans to purchase houses in white suburbia. Developers were advised by the FHA to draw up restrictive covenants preventing the sales of suburban houses to nonwhites. Developer William Levitt actively limited the sale of homes in Levittown to whites only, declaring that buyers did not want racially integrated neighborhoods. He stated, “We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two” (Jackson 1985: 241). The exclusion of nonwhites from the suburbs had lasting implications for metropolitan patterns of race and 4 / Chapter 1 ethnicity. Many African Americans became isolated into poor city neighborhoods, and suburbia became the cultural home of white, middle-class Americans.

Recent work has demonstrated that U.S. suburbs have been mischaracterized as completely homogenous (Kruse and Sugrue 2006). Workingclass and black suburbs have long existed, and certainly tensions among social classes and different racial and ethnic groups exist within suburbia as they do between suburbs and cities (Nicolaides 2002; Wiese 2004).

Suburbs were always diverse, and they have become more diverse as time has passed. They have evolved tremendously in the past half century into places black and white, unconventional and stereotypical, old and new.

In 2007, the classic postwar suburb of Levittown turned sixty years old. Since it was first built, this Long Island suburb has transformed greatly.

Many of Levittown’s original Cape Cod–style houses have been expanded upward and outward. Bought for about $7,000 in the 1950s, the average Levittown house sold for nothing less than $350,000 in 2008. Levittown is no longer accessible to its original residents—the lower middle class— and, compared to other postwar suburbs, few minorities live there: The suburb has remained almost 100 percent white over its sixty-year history.

Ironically, Levittown, once the archetype of postwar suburbanization, is today quite different than other postwar suburbs. Many have devolved into much poorer places, struggling with issues of fiscal stress, income decline, housing deterioration, and race and ethnic segregation. The socioeconomic decline of these aging suburbs has upended the American Dream.

Once the bastion of the middle-class lifestyle, many older inner-ring suburban communities, especially those built in the immediate postwar period, have declined into places of desolation and decay. Once symbolic of the American Dream, some have now become America’s nightmare.

Take for instance Lansdowne, outside Baltimore. An iron-ore mining town during the nineteenth century, this inner-ring suburb was built up primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. The postwar houses in Lansdowne are small, boxy structures, most under one thousand square feet. Many are attached row houses, each with only one bedroom and a tiny yard. Now more than fifty years old, the housing stock is showing signs of disrepair, and, unlike in Levittown, little expansion or remodeling has occurred over the decades. Poverty in Lansdowne has steadily increased. In 1970, 5 percent of the population lived in poverty, increasing to 14 percent by

2000. Six in every ten students in the local Lansdowne elementary school Once the American Dream / 5 received free and reduced-price lunches in 2003, a major indicator of poverty among the suburb’s children. Income levels have dropped. In 1980, the median household income was $38,800 (in 1999 dollars), declining to $37,000 by 2000, a number 40 percent below the median household income of the Baltimore region. Once growing in the 1950s and 1960s, Lansdowne has experienced population loss, losing an average of fifty residents a year for the past two decades. The white population has declined, and the black population has risen as whites moved to Baltimore’s outer suburbs and blacks migrated from inner-city neighborhoods.

The social structure of Lansdowne and other similar struggling inner-ring suburbs has changed dramatically in recent decades.

In part, this book describes the extent and nature of socioeconomic decline among inner-ring suburbs, comparing these suburbs to outer suburbs over the twenty-year period from 1980 to 2000. I provide an exact definition of inner-ring suburbs in Chapter 3, but, in short, these are the oldest suburbs closest to the city core of a metropolitan area. Outer suburbs were built more recently, and they are located farther from the city.

This book is a contemporary study of these areas and, although some historical discussion of particular suburbs is included, the focus is on more recent transformations.

Unfortunately, because of data constraints, much of the analysis in this book ends in 2000. Since then, the U.S. economy, financial system, and housing market have experienced tremendous upheaval. The housing bubble that began around 2000 finally burst, sending the economy and Wall Street into a tailspin. As this book goes to press, figures emerge each day that paint a very bleak picture of the U.S. housing market and future economic stability. News reports of rising unemployment, lack of credit flow, declining stock prices, and loss of homes to foreclosure are a daily occurrence.

One of the more reliable gauges of the housing market is the Standard and Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index. The index is calculated by tracking the changes in residential housing values in twenty metropolitan regions across the United States. It measures how much a home price has increased or decreased in a certain market since January 2000. The January 2000 figure is assigned a price index value of 100.

As Figure 1.1 indicates, since around 2006, housing values have slumped nationally. Housing prices are still about 50 percent higher than they were in 2000, but they are slowly creeping down to 2003 levels.

6 / Chapter 1 FIGURE 1.1 Standard and Poor’s/Case-Shiller Home Price Index in the United States from 1987 to the second quarter of 2008. (Standard and Poor’s and Fiserv.) According to recent figures, in 2008, housing prices across the nation fell more than 13 percent.

Some metropolitan areas have fared worse than others. The most intense price drops have occurred in cities and suburbs in Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada. These Sun Belt metropolitan areas had huge increases in housing prices in the height of the boom period. They have also been the hardest hit by the market crash. From October 2007 to October 2008, housing prices dropped by 31 percent in the San Francisco area, 33 percent in Phoenix, and 32 percent in Las Vegas. In some suburbs, housing price decline has been even more dramatic. The largest drop has occurred in Fort Myers, Florida, where the median sales price declined by 50 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Housing price decline is one element of the recent housing market debacle. There has also been an unprecedented jump in housing foreclosures, in part the result of the exceptional growth in the subprime mortgage lending market beginning in the 1990s. In 2008, two million people nationwide faced foreclosure proceedings (Business Journal of Milwaukee 2009). Foreclosures have been particularly copious in vulnerable, lowincome minority communities. This frequency is often the result of racial Once the American Dream / 7 discrimination and predatory lending practices, particularly in the subprime lending market (Wyly et al. 2006). In a recent article in Professional Geographer, David Kaplan and Gail Sommers (2009) describe the geography of foreclosures in Summit County, Ohio. They demonstrate that this geography corresponds tightly with the county’s racial distribution. They also show how poorer communities are particularly affected. Kaplan and Sommers suggest that policies that specifically address the issue of predatory lending will go a long way in resolving the foreclosure problem. Vulnerable people were sold the American Dream for a price that was often unaffordable and that quickly changed with rising variable interest rates.



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