A Piece of the Dream

By Jim Cullen '92 Ph.D. / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007
In 1969, my parents, sister, and I moved from our row-house apartment in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York, to a first-floor rental in a two-family house on Long Island. The reason was the racial desegregation of our neighborhood public schools. The civil rights movement, whose first stirrings had focused on Southern school systems in the 1950s, had spread, and racial violence now engulfed cities as close as Newark. Perhaps even more frightening than the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., however, were more lasting structural challenges in everyday life. The previous year, a political struggle over school integration had erupted in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Ocean Hill and Brownsville; in the ensuing arguments, which resulted in a state takeover of the schools, even former allies - the teachers' union, black activists, Jewish residents - found themselves bitterly divided.

My father, a white New York City firefighter who worked in Brooklyn's largely black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, was not the kind of man to participate in protests or follow Supreme Court rulings. But he knew which way the political wind was blowing. He was unhappy that as a kindergartner, I knew much more about Martin Luther King Jr. than I did about George Washington. He also opposed my pending transfer, via busing, to a more remote school. But in the broadest terms, he was concerned about the safety and quality of a system that, to put it more euphemistically than he would, was undergoing a difficult transition. So when he learned about an available apartment in the nearby suburban town of Port Washington, he and my mother, who tended to share his views on such matters, left the city in which they had spent their entire lives in search of better ones for their children.

Port Washington, only about ten miles east of Queens, was demographically much farther away, and not only because of its racial composition. Though we lived in its least affluent neighborhood, Manorhaven, the town was decidedly upscale. Our street was a dead end, and I would often cut through the woods and end up among the mansions of Sands Point - the thinly fictionalized East Egg of The Great Gatsby. My mother, who inculcated in her children both a sense of pride in our working-class origins and an expectation of upward mobility, ventured far outside her urban background to serve as a den mother for my Cub Scout troop, a stretch she made to further my socialization in this new world. I look back on this period of my childhood fondly.

But Port Washington was also problematic for my parents. For one thing, they were in a sense only pseudo-suburbanites, because they were tenants in someone else's home, not owners of their own. For another, my father was not entirely comfortable with the progressive educational style of Port Washington public schools, which emphasized newfangled ideas like open classrooms and a nontraditional curriculum. Finally, while I don't believe any member of our family was ever subject to condescension or ill-treatment, the gap in class status between us and many of the people we dealt with troubled my father greatly. My mother, who loved the town but worried about her children growing up with their noses pressed up against the glass of their classmates' houses, reluctantly agreed.

Unlike some of their contemporaries, who jumped at the first available opportunity to buy a house, my parents were ambivalent at best. They did not welcome the burdens of debt, repairs, and taxes that home ownership entailed; and the business of buying real estate held little charm. Yet for them, no less than for those with a penchant for carpentry or gardening, the decision to buy a house reflected a series of hopes and fears inextricably (if silently) bound in mortgage. One factor was racism. But there were others, too, ranging from a thirst for privacy and autonomy (I remember vividly my parents' rage when our landlord in Port Washington raised the rent, and how my parents refused to make eye contact with him) to a dream of upward mobility that perhaps paradoxically rested on family stability - and good schools.

After what my sister and I regarded as an agonizingly boring search, my parents finally found something they liked and could afford. They scraped together $2,000 of their own, borrowed $2,000 from my grandmother, and, with the help of a mortgage backed by the Federal Housing Authority, they were able to buy a $35,000 split-level ranch on a quarter acre in Northport, a small town about twenty-five miles east of Port Washington. My mother still lives there. The mortgage, along with a 1988 home equity loan to finish a basement apartment, was paid off in 1999.

And so it was that I finished my childhood at the tail end of the Baby Boom in a virtually all-white suburban town with friends who were generally (but not outrageously) wealthier than I was. The three-bedroom house in which I played, ate, and slept is, by almost any standard, unprepossessing, if for no other reason than there are about fifty more just like it in the postwar housing development in which it is situated. But, you see, it was mine: the bedroom, in which I could barely fit my bed, a desk, and a bulletin board that I filled with movie-ticket stubs, newspaper cartoons, and photographs; the yard, bounded by a six-foot stockade fence, in which I reenacted entire sporting events single-handedly to imagined audiences of millions; and the kitchen, with its gleaming Formica counters and enameled appliances. Each autumn there were leaves to rake, and each spring a lawn to mow.

I don't doubt that the move to Long Island was principally a matter of devotion to my sister and me, but I suspect it also represented an opportunity for my parents to clean the slate, to start over. Indeed, every trip we made back to the city to visit my relatives' apartments seemed like a trip back in time, our car a sealed capsule protecting us from a harsh frontier environment that would swallow us up if we ever broke down or even stopped. I was always a little frightened, and a little excited, by the visits.

Looking back now, however, I see their flight from Queens - and our forays back there - in a less heroic light. Although racial and class segregation have more or less become a given in U.S. history, I feel shame about my essentially segregationist beginnings - as well as shame about being ashamed of my parents' actions. I have taken refuge in any number of justifications: that they were far from unusual; that their concerns about educational safety and quality were legitimate; that my father could not only say that some of his best friends were black but that he in fact had pulled black and Latino children out of burning buildings; and so on. Still, the facts surrounding the move complicate my nostalgia.

"THE AMERICAN DREAM of owning a home," we call it. No American dream has broader appeal, and no American dream has been quite so widely realized. Roughly two-thirds of Americans owned their homes at the start of this century, and it seems reasonable to believe that many of the remaining third will go on to do so. And if, like other American dreams, this one is imperfect, even fatally flawed, it is also extraordinarily resilient and versatile. My family's story is only a fragment in a late chapter of an already long story.

Conceptually, the suburb can trace its origins to an unlikely union of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. From the Jeffersonian strain in American history, it drew on widely shared assumptions about the beneficent influence of nature, small communities, and home ownership. At the same time, the suburb reflected Hamiltonian realities about the centrality of cities as the source of American livelihoods, and the role of commerce, not self-sufficient farming, as the true engine of national development. The resulting hybrid was pastoral - a managed geography combining human effort and repose.

In the United States the first traces of a suburban style surfaced at the turn of the nineteenth century in places like Beacon Hill, a vacant lot at the edge of Boston. This was, however, still part of the city, and a neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. A more direct forerunner of suburbia was the early-nineteenth-century town of Brooklyn, New York, located across the East River from Manhattan. It began growing rapidly when ferry services began moving commuters for a standard fare of two cents each way. Indeed, Brooklyn grew so fast that it soon became a major city in its own right before it became part of New York City in 1898.

Ferries notwithstanding, suburban development for anyone unable to afford a horse and carriage could not really begin to develop until new forms of transportation - notably the railroad and streetcar - made it possible to transport people beyond city limits relatively quickly and cheaply. Once that began to happen, increasing numbers of the well-to-do began to leave the bustling workshops, jostling social classes, and increasing urban problems of central cities for homes on the perimeter. The series of towns along Philadelphia's fabled Main Line - Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr - became bywords for suburban affluence after the Civil War. So too did Chicago suburbs like Evanston, Lake Forest, and Highland Park.

Wherever they happened to live, Americans seemed united by an exceptional penchant for home ownership. It is notable, but perhaps not coincidental, that the greatest fervor appeared to come from immigrants. One study of Detroit, for example, showed that in 1900, 55 percent of Germans, 46 percent of Irish, and 44 percent of Poles owned their own homes - figures that would have been virtually inconceivable in Europe at the time, particularly in Ireland and (what was once) Poland, whose residents were often virtual prisoners of foreign powers. In the Massachusetts city of Newburyport in the 1930s, Irish and Italian parents tended to make home ownership an even greater priority than their children's educations; the percentage of those with property holdings who lived in the city for twenty years ranged from 63 to 78 percent. Eleven percent of New York City immigrants owned their own homes; in Toledo the figure reached 58 percent. Among the native-born, by contrast, 15 percent owned homes in New York City, while in Los Angeles the number was 40 percent .

In varied ways, then, a suburban subculture was firmly in the United States by 1900. At that point, though, a new element appeared on the scene that would have a transformative effect: the automobile. At the most fundamental level, the car altered the physical geography of the metropolis. Before, the organizing principle had been the rail line extending outward. Now, however, the suburbs were defined not so much by a radius from the center as by a circumference circling it (like the Beltway that looped around Washington, D.C.). Cars also transformed the built environment, whether in the growing prominence of the garage or in the oversized signs, parking lots, shopping centers, or other kinds of architecture specifically designed to attract motorists. Cars also hastened the decline of cities by decentralizing many of their social functions, and by draining financial resources away from their infrastructure (the proverbial story of the huge Los Angeles rail system, eviscerated by funding for highways, comes to mind).

Perhaps the most important contribution of the automobile to suburbia, however, may have had less to do with its use than its means of construction. Henry Ford revolutionized American manufacturing by exploiting the principles of the assembly line for what was at the time an extremely complex consumer appliance. But could the same techniques - control over large quantities of raw materials; a fixed sequence of assembly using fewer workers; economies of scale to lower per-unit price; and sufficient capital to provide financing for a wider array of buyers - be used to construct residential housing?

Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred had been relatively small-scale contractors before World War II, during which they received a government contract to build more than 2,000 homes for war workers in Norfolk, Virginia. The experience allowed them to develop a system for laying dozens of foundations every day and preassembling walls and roofs. Just as important, the economic forecast - which included a huge demand for housing in the wake of the Great Depression and the end of World War II, as well as the prospect of government aid to veterans and others - made the construction of large housing developments seem a worthwhile gamble. Returning to Long Island after the war, the Levitts built some high-priced residential housing and acquired a 4,000-acre tract of potato fields in the township of Hempstead. Their development, which was known at the time as Island Trees, was soon renamed Levittown.

When complete, Levittown consisted of more than 17,000 houses and 82,000 residents, making it the largest housing development ever built in the United States. The Cape CodÐstyle structures, which were built in a few standard variations, typically offered about 750 square feet of living space and sold for as little as $6,990, including a washing machine. As little as 10 percent was all that was necessary for a down payment, and because the mortgage, interest, principal, and taxes were often less than rent, virtually all were owner-occupied - particularly since government aid in the form of VA and FHA guarantees allowed the Levitts both the capital to build the houses and the freedom from risk in lending it. In the years that followed they would build similar developments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - which would inspire a wave of similar development across the country.

Jefferson would have been disappointed: the United States never became the nation of yeoman farmers he envisioned. And yet in important ways, the suburbanization of the United States realized his dream of small stakeholders. But it realized one of the less attractive dimensions of that vision as well: a wish that black Americans and other minorities would simply disappear. The explicit government policy of redlining - declaring certain towns, cities, and neighborhoods with high minority populations too risky to insure - made them virtually worthless to banks and buyers. Levitt himself refused to sell to African Americans for fear that doing so would hurt his business. In this regard, of course, both he and the government simply reflected the attitudes of the voters and customers they served. "We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem," Levitt explained in the isn't-it-obvious, commonsense logic of the postwar years. "But we cannot combine the two." In 1960, not a single resident of Levittown was black.

THAT WOULD CHANGE, very gradually, as many of those with African and other minority backgrounds made their fitful entrance into realms of American life from which they had formerly been excluded. To begin to understand why they may have done so - and to begin to understand the cost they paid for doing so - requires a look at the psychological and symbolic import of suburbanization and home ownership in America.

Among the first to critique the cultural ramifications of the emerging suburban order was David Riesman, whose widely read 1950 sociological study, The Lonely Crowd, traced what he considered a historic shift from the goal-oriented, work-minded, "inner-directed" individual to a more self-conscious, consumer-minded, "outer-directed" one. Riesman did not focus on postwar suburbanization, which was barely under way, but his successor William Whyte did. In his 1956 classic, The Organization Man, Whyte specifically linked the archetypal figure of his title to Riesman's outer-directed person, noting warily the high degree of social conformity in postwar suburban life - both in the offices of men who commuted to the city and in the communities they returned to each night. (Whyte used the affluent Chicago suburb of Forest Park as his case study.) For Whyte, as for Riesman, all this suburban emphasis on "togetherness" imperiled the independence and autonomy that had characterized earlier American culture, replacing it with a sense of conformity that was at best bland and at worst deeply hostile to pluralist traditions of democracy. Like de Tocqueville before him, Whyte worried that America's most powerful, its businessmen, lacked the spine to keep the dream alive.

But he needn't have worried. The women's movement and the youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s exposed a latent unease with suburbia's sameness - the "Little Boxes" folksinger Malvina Reynolds sang of and the bourgeois values they stood for. For better or for worse, the pastoral mythology of Woodstock and the urbanity of Haight-Ashbury - as well as free love, antiwar militancy, civil rights communalism, and hippie self-indulgence - were all fired by a rejection of suburban values of moderation, conformity, and the pursuit of happiness via a plot of land. In retrospect, though, what seems most remarkable is not the power of these challenges, as compelling as they were, but suburbia's ability to (blandly) repel them. Despite the vast and varied critique of suburbia that was at my parents' disposal by 1969, they and millions of other Americans either rejected or were oblivious to it. They did not buy a house to make a political statement or because of an overriding emotional predilection for home ownership; they did it because it made sense economically and promised upward mobility for their children. In this regard, I think, my parents were like millions of Americans before them, whether on Midwestern farms or in urban triple-deckers.

A half-century later, the most remarkable thing about The Organization Man is how dated it seems in its anxiety about conformity. This is less because conformity has ceased to be a problem than because individualism seems to have run amok, typified by the so-called "gated communities" in which wealthy home owners in McMansions virtually barricade themselves, holding at bay the outside world (except perhaps to admit servants; complaints about the difficulty in finding good help now seem as common as they were among the affluent as a century ago). The restlessness of suburban housewives that feminist Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name" in the 1960s was replaced by a different one in the next generation: mothers who worked outside the home and struggled to find the resources - time, money, quality child care - for their families and themselves. The gradual creation of a black middle class and the reform of the most flagrant government abuses have allowed African Americans and other minorities to make their own migration to the suburbs, where class segregation is now in some places almost as obvious as the racial kind. The revitalization of some city neighborhoods, along with the general spread of city amenities (and city problems) has led to a blurring of just what constitutes a suburb.

Yet despite all the changes, suburbia remains a recognizable phenomenon. It also seems like a relatively stable one; my own suburban upbringing in the 1970s was not fundamentally different from that of young people in the 1950s or today. Like my predecessors and successors, I knew a world of McDonald's restaurants, shopping-center parking lots, and four-bedroom colonials surrounded by chemically treated lawns. Like them, I watched parades go down Main Street, went swimming in backyard pools, and shoveled snow. The routines, trivial in themselves, had a cumulative effect that felt like security.

THIS IS WHY, shortly after our first child was born and my wife and I had reasonably solid jobs, we bought a four-bedroom colonial in lower Westchester County, New York. (I use the term "my wife and I" loosely; the truth is that her parents gave us the down payment.) And when it came time for that child to begin his education, we sent him to private school. Ironically, a major factor in this decision involved a desire to avoid the rather severe racial segregation of our community and to allow him to learn and socialize with African-American and Latino children. Not that I'm proud of, or can even finally defend, that decision. My wife and I both wished our local public schools weren't so mediocre, or that we could afford to buy a house in a community where the commitment to public schooling was greater (though we felt the cultural homogeneity in those wealthier communities constituted another kind of mediocrity). We viewed our choices as the best we could make of an inherently flawed situation, recognizing our complicity, our hypocrisy.

In truth, any dream that becomes a reality - or, perhaps more accurately, any dream that approaches reality - will be inherently flawed. Moreover, any such dream will also reveal more than perhaps its dreamer may know or intend - about other American dreams (like that of upward mobility, so intimately entwined with schooling) as well as other American realities (like our checkered past in race relations). Built as a bulwark against the ravages of time, nature, and the less pleasant realities of American life, home ownership cannot finally be a refuge from them. But every home is an American history of its own.

Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. This essay is adapted from his book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, which will be published in February, copyright ©2002 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 2002