Kenneth T. Jackson is a Professor of History at Columbia University.
He is the author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States and The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930; and Cities in American History.
KENNETH T. JACKSON Professor of History Columbia University
QUESTION: How big was the post World War II move to the suburbs historically, and where does it fit in America's century-long population shift from rural to urban to suburban?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: Unbeknownst to the most people, Americans have been moving to cities for very long time - from the early nineteenth century - and they've been moving to suburbs almost as long, certainly by the 1820s, 1830s. But the movement changes in character and quantity after World War II in this sense.
There is a large suburban movement in the 1920s, but it tends to be middle-class or better. Then in the 1930s, because of the Great Depression, housing starts literally drop 95 percent and more. During World War II obviously the nation has more important things on its mind than building houses for people. So, between 1930 and 1947, virtually no housing is built for the general market. There's some war-related housing built for defense emergencies, but just for what you call a single-family house for a husband, wife and kids, virtually none.
What's unusual about the move to the suburbs and the move to single-family houses between 1947, 1948 and the early 1960s is that it's unprecedented in two ways, first of all just in sheer numbers. We're making on the order of 2 million [new] houses per year and about 95 percent of them are fully detached single-family houses. We are building a new kind of structure in the history of the world where if we compared to the end of the nineteenth century or earlier, more of the places would have been apartments or condos or something else, but in the 1950s we're talking overwhelmingly single-family houses.
The second thing to remember about it is [these houses are] affordable. Quite literally you could buy a house in the 1950s cheaper than you can rent it.
QUESTION: How unique is the postwar suburban movement? What made it possible in America, as opposed to other countries?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: Well, one reason suburbanization catches on has to do with almost unique American characteristics. One is we are an automobile-owning society. As early as 1929, there was one car for every five Americans. Everybody in the United States could've gotten in an automobile and ridden off. The rest of the world does not reach that level of market penetration - and I'm talking about advanced countries in Europe - until really the late 1970s, 1980s, and most places in the world aren't anywhere close to it in the twenty-first century, let alone 1929.
Another factor is cheap land. We have so much of it. I mean, there are other countries about as big as the United States: Russia, China, Australia, Canada, but all of them are really nations where the population is concentrated in small areas and most of the land mass is unlivable. Not the United States. We have a giant nation that's mostly arable, mostly settle-able. And so it was out there, it was accessible.
QUESTION: So how do you explain the housing boom at the end of the war?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: The American government has a very important role to play in the suburbanization boom after the war. First of all in deducting mortgage interest and property taxes from your income tax, your gross income, that's almost a unique American policy.
But more importantly I think, through the FHA and VA programs, which essentially guaranteed the lender against risk so that if the borrower defaults on the loan, the lender is not at risk, the government will pay it. That means that over a period of twenty-five or thirty years you could stretch of that mortgage payment, you can bring down the average monthly payment to below what a comparable place would have rented for. And then at the end of the twenty, twenty-five years you often have a piece of property worth many more times than what you paid for it. It's a great public policy.
QUESTION: Was World War II beneficial to big housing in the way it was to big business?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: World War II has a powerful impact on the way this nation builds homes. Essentially homebuilding has been a small-scale business as opposed to automobile manufacturers, steel, lots of other things. But as a result of World War II some people get experience building a lot of things quickly.
For example, the Levitts, who worked with the Seabees. You've got to build an air strip, you've got to build Quonset huts on some Pacific island and you've got to do it now . . . you've got to do it fast. And individuality is not important.
You have systematically figured out a way to bring the price down by reducing every step of the building process to something that's replicable and that one or two or a small team can do over and over again with great efficiency.
QUESTION: How would you characterize the forces that created the housing crisis after Word War II?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: Well, clearly the crisis after World War II was created both by a supply and demand situation. The demand is [that] millions of new households have been formed by returning GIs and the women that they had loved or left behind. And they are reproducing very rapidly.
But there [has] been no new housing built virtually all through the 1930s and all through five years of war and it takes a year or two for the whole industrial production system to get cranking again. So that by 1947 you have millions of husbands and wives and children living together, bunched up, crunched in with their in-laws. People were practically living in boxes, in what we think of as a dumpster today, and all sorts of kind of Quonset huts that were mass produced by the government during World War II. People were taking any kind of a place that had a roof over it and a wall around it is a place to live. I think that we have never experienced in American history the kind of pent-up demand for housing that existed about 1947, 1948.
QUESTION: So when these houses came on the market, were people lined up around the block? Were people really snatching these up?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: Well, of course, there are stories of the demand being so incredible that people would get in line, you know, like you would for playoff tickets in some sports thing today. And you would use anything. In fact, my family was so desperate my father never saw the house. [When] my father got the deal [he said], "Buy it. We don't have to look at it. It's okay, isn't it?" So in a sense it's extreme circumstances.
QUESTION: What were the typical characteristics of the postwar suburbs?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: Well, in contrast with the twenty-first century, the postwar World War II suburb was homogenous. [Suburbs] tended to be heavily GI, returning veterans, young families, fairly large families. Three children would have probably been typical; four would not have been unusual at all.
There would have been a kind of egalitarianism, in the sense that the big growth in incomes had not occurred yet. So in a place like Levittown, you got someone who [came back to] a blue-collar occupation as well as somebody who had graduated from law school and was about to take off.
QUESTION: What were some of the criticisms of the suburbs?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: I think criticism of the postwar American suburbs come from three different directions. One would be kind of an elitist notion that these suburbs are tacky; they're all alike. A guy named John Keats - not the famous English poet - wrote a book called The Crack in the Picture Window, [making the point that] if you really weren't paying attention you couldn't even remember which house was yours.
I think a second criticism would come from the other direction, that there were people who were shut out of this, especially African Americans. And the tragedy of that was, of course, that these were often government-assisted housing programs and [African Americans] were as deserving as anyone, and yet by virtue of race they were prevented. This was not a secret. This is not something that's kind of hidden off in a corner. This was out front and open for anybody who wanted to know. Levitt, who was no more culpable than anyone else, simply said, "People won't buy houses if black people live in a development."
This, I think, can only be considered a mistake from the [viewpoint] of history. This was an opportunity for the United States to move beyond its racist past. Because the demand for housing was so great, I would opine, that actually even if there had been a black person next door, well, what choice do you have? And that we might have actually saved this nation many decades of great bitterness if we had used that opportunity to integrate at a time when you need the house, and who's worried about who's living next door? And personally I don't think the argument [against this] washes.
And I think the third criticism is more of sophisticated one, and really one more looking back, and that is we have become so much a suburban nation that there's kind of a blandness. We've become overly dependent on the automobile. We've abandoned our cities. We have in a sense privatized the American experience through our exclusive reliance on the single-family house. That's a criticism that's come more from recent years. I think it's a very strong one, but nevertheless it certainly is a criticism of the suburban world that we built in large measure after World War II.
QUESTION: Now go back to this other more serious criticism. What did it mean for the cities that so many whites were establishing themselves in the suburbs? What was this creating in the urban environment?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: By building the suburbs beyond the cities, by discriminating against blacks and encouraging whites to move out, we encouraged the racial polarization of our cities. We subsidized the move of millions of families out of cities. St. Louis, for example, had over 800,000 people in 1950. Its population in the next half century declined to only about 300,000. That emptying out has to do with people moving to the suburbs, often with government assistance.
QUESTION: What do you make of the argument over suburban sprawl? Is that a serious concern today, or does it parallel the sort of type of elitist criticism we heard in the early years?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: [Although some see it as elitist,] I still think that that argument [against suburban sprawl] does have validity, that we have spread out too much. It's simply what Thorstein Veblen would have called "conspicuous consumption."
And I think we can blame a lot of this on American attitudes that were generalized after World War II, and so that we do pay a collective price. While it may work for the individual family - "look at me, look at my yard, look at my house" - as a society we are paying a price. We are the world's biggest polluters at this moment, and this has to do not with the emission controls on our automobiles or on our factories. Those are the strongest in the world. It has to do with the fact that we're sprawling all over the place, and therefore we can't do anything. We cannot get a carton of soft drinks, we cannot get cigarettes, we cannot get bread without cranking up a 150 horsepower engine and riding around for several miles. Our individual trips are no longer than they are in Germany or Japan. The difference is that we drive three or five times as many times as they do. And I think that can properly be seen as a legacy from this period after World War II.
QUESTION: Even with all the criticisms, do you think this boom in affordable homes for the lower-middle class or even working class can be called an American success story?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: Well, with all the criticisms of suburbanization I still think that at the end of the day we have to count the building of so many homes after World War II as an American success story. Here we have these many millions of families, all these young people are brought up in happy circumstances in a way that no other country on earth can even begin to approach. So I think it's a little bit arrogant of those of us who have criticism of it to suggest that somehow it wasn't worth it, when Americans were so busy voting with their feet and seemed to have such satisfaction with the suburban world. [It was] really the realization of the American dream for almost all Americans, again, except for the blacks.
QUESTION: Overall, what does the suburban movement say about America, about what our dreams are, about what government policy is, about how we are unique compared to other countries?
KENNETH T. JACKSON: I think what we really see when we look at the United States in the immediate postwar period is a nation that is just incomparably richer than other places. Europe has not recovered. The Communist countries are still in depression and in kind of a tank. But in America we have just vast resources that we can afford to build new houses for virtually all of our people, and at the same time give them a car to ride around in and a television set to watch in the house. I think, again, from the perspective of a half a century we forget just how revolutionary that was at the time. This became, in a way, the world's first great consumer society. And the suburb, the car, the television, the shopping center, [the fact that] all of this sort of all together in one package sort of shows the incredible distance between the United States and the rest of the world in the 15 years following World War II.