Suburban Swan Song

vintage illustration postwar suburban house and 1940s American family in bubble

Along with the housing market, that All-American suburban bubble of optimism has burst

The suburbs were once the promised land; the American Dream made manifest .

For over 65 years, home ownership was the defining definition the American Dream. Just as the NY Worlds Fair of 1939’s World of Tomorrow sprung up on a marshy wasteland of ashes, the same place that F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to as  a Valley of Ashes in the Great Gatsby, so the mid-century suburban dream sprung up in fields of potatoes and farm land.

vintage illustration postwar suburban houses and blueprints 1950s

The housing boom of the post-war years was unprecedented as the American dream burst into full bloom. To meet the needs of the ever-growing baby boomers, construction was at an all time high as new developments sprang up  across America seemingly overnight. For the first time, thanks to the GI Bill which helped in offering cheap mortgages backed by Uncle Sam,  owning a home was now cheaper than renting one. The deductability of interest on mortgages also made buying a house an economically rational one.

Manifest Destiny

vintage illustration in ad, suburban couples and families looking at houses 1950s

Like thousands of other young married apartment dwellers in the post-war years , my parents began house hunting in the mid 1950’s.

As parents of a 2-year-old and  a baby on the way, things were too darn cramped in their small Queens NY apartment.

Every weekend they trudged out to developing Long Island in their Chevy, making sure to “Fill ‘er up” at the local Texaco station, for what they knew would be a long ride.

They’d been to so many new developments, traipsing from house to house; seen so many new models that they were totally confused.

Newly constructed houses were being snapped up left and right by boatloads of hopeful twenty and thirtysomething’s taking advantage of Uncle Sams generous GI bill that helped with the mortgage.

Just as all the houses seemed to look the same so the other house hunting couples  all seemed to mirror their own experience.

They all seemed to come from the NYC Boroughs; Bushwick or Bensonhurst, Flatbush or Forest Hills, a world of apartment houses and 2 family attached houses, broad stoops with great balustrades in lieu of backyards, narrow concrete alleyways where little boys rode bicycles and little girls played Double Dutch.

Promised Land

suburbia 1950s family illustration

Vintage ad Metropolitan Life Insurance 1947

While their own  parents might have been content to remain  behind in decaying inner cities, these fresh-faced vets and their families were all ready for the modern suburbs of swing sets and split levels.

This was the land of Exodus where so many seemed to have already found the Promised Land.

Row upon row of newly built homes, with newly minted exotic names  like splanch’s  and split levels, sat ready to be filled with easy care  vinylite covered furniture and carefree new-as-tomorrow’s-telecast- kitchens.

These former urbanites wanted no remnant of a former life, or a reminder of a past left behind.

The boroughs were the Old World and for some, Brooklyn and Queens would become as far removed from this first generation of suburbanites as Minsk was from my first generation American grandparents.

vintage illustrations 1950s couple buying a house

Go West Young Man

My parents settled on a town named West Hempstead, that boasted paved roads, sewers, new schools, plenty of shopping and baseball diamonds for little leagues.

As my father got out of the car he stood on the little patch of newly seeded lawn in front of the model ranch style house on Western Park Drive. The street name evoked the pioneer spirit both my parents felt, and took it as an omen.

This new suburbia  would be their own Disneyland, a combination of  Frontierland and Tomorrowland.

“Only $22,000 ?” my mother asked the broker, as if a miracle were in the process of happening.

So they bought the house, a sprawling ranch with a sprawling mortgage helped in part by the GI Bill. My mother may have come to buy a house, but she sold my father on a dream.

The new house on Western Park Drive would be the beginning of the fulfillment of the Post War Promises that my parents could now begin to check off.

vintage illustration postwar suburban houses and blueprints 1950s

Boom and Bust

Though worth considerably more than what they paid for it, that  house now sits among the glut of inventory of mid-century houses, the tarted up real estate for sale sign festooned with balloons beckoning non-existent takers.

These houses that were once snapped up so quickly by young families lie dormant, unable to move in a depressed market, competing for attention along with deep discounted foreclosure homes. Joining the overcrowded housing market will  be the baby boomers for whom these first suburbs were built. The boomers are long gone from these first developments, raising families in their own over sized houses which will soon be up for sale as the first wave of retiring boomers turn 65 at the rate of 10,00 a day.

Ironically, many Seniors are now caught in the suburbs as  young people are moving to the cities. Saddled with credit card debt and student loans many  Echo Boomers question the value of home ownership.

Now the Greatest Generation and the baby boomers may be stuck in the suburbs that were created just for them.

Copyright (©) 20013 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

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  1. I love your posts, that was such an accurate description in so few words.


  2. Henry Joseph

    This is such a fascinating subject. Your presentation of the era is a real assist in fully understanding this magical period of American life. Thank you so very much.


  3. Andrew W. M. Beierle

    This mirrors the experience of my parents exactly. They left Brooklyn, NY, for Levittown, PA, in 1953, with three kids, including me (18 months old). Indeed, Brooklyn seemed as exotic as Minsk when we returned for visits: rowhouses or old stone apartment buildings, lace curtains, damask upholstery, the smell of cabbage embedded in the kitchen and hallways. By contrast, our suburb was bright and clean, with a swimming pool, baseball field, and elementary school at the end of our block and a modern, open-air “Shop-A-Rama” a mile away. Well, it’s bordering on a slum now, with the ragtag, ticky-tacky homes falling into disrepair. (Or so I am told. I haven’t been back in 30 years.) The “Shop-A-Rama” has been demolished, replaced by a Wal-Mart or Home Depot. What is the legacy of mid-century suburban life for those of us who grew up in that artificial consumer utopia?


  4. andrewatlanta

    Exactly my parents’ experience.


  5. Pingback: A Soaring Economy | Envisioning The American Dream

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