Urban planning community

+ Reply to thread
Results 1 to 9 of 9

Thread: When did suburbia begin?

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
    Registered
    Mar 1996
    Location
    Upstate New York
    Posts
    14,514
    Blog entries
    3

    When did suburbia begin?

    Forking Linda_D's excellent post from the affordable housing thread:

    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    You can also argue that suburbanization goes back even further. In fact, Delores Hayden does that in Building Suburbia. In the mid-19th century, cities expanded their limits so far that it took decades to fill up the space. Buffalo, NY is a case in point. In 1854, the city expanded to take in the village of Black Rock along the Niagara River as well as land to the north, east, and south that make up the present city, but was nothing but cow pastures and farm fields at the time. Much of it remained that way until after 1900. (See 1894 Buffalo City Atlas.

    The area north of the Pan American Exhibition grounds was finally developed in the early 20th century, from the 1910s to 1930. It was Buffalo's "suburbia" then. My immigrant grandparents escaped the crowded conditions in Polonia (the Polish part of Buffalo's East Side) to move to newer, nicer housing in the Grant-Amherst area.

    That wasn't a pattern unique to Buffalo, either. The neighborhood I live in here in Jamestown is near the city line and is a mixture of 1920s and post-WW II homes. Further south, most of the homes are vintage 1960. In the southeast corner of Jamestown, there's suburban style developments from the 1960s and 1970s. There are numerous suburban-like neighborhoods within the city limits of Albany, Troy, and Schnectady, too. In fact, when I lived in the Albany area in the 1990s, there was still significant land available for development in both Troy and Rensselaer, and builders were putting up houses on that land.

    Too many people assume that because the widespread development of towns outside the city limits didn't occur until after WW II that suburbanization started then. The fact is that was about when many cities, especially in the Northeast and Midwest finally filled up the land within their city limits (and they were prohibited by law from annexing neighboring areas). What too many people today don't realize is that people's needs and wants changed over time. Moving from a crowded tenement or from a tiny little shotgun shack housing two or three families to a newer home with a basement and spacious apartments on each floor and a yard big enough for a garage and a little garden was the 1920s version of the 1950s single family cape on its quarter acre lot or the 1970s rancher with its bath and a half, attached garage, and half acre estate. The beautiful Victorians and Tudors that dot city neighborhoods today were their eras' versions of the 2000's exurban McMansions.

    We're Americans, the descendents of people who mostly came here to get land of their own, even if they actually never did accomplish it. Owning the land we live on (even if it's only an apartment) will probably remain important to most Americans for the foreseeable future, even if it's only a dream. It's just something that's ingrained in us in a way that doesn't happen in most places in the world. Maybe it's in the water.
    There seems to be a belief that American suburbs as we know them -- low density, primarily residential with separated used, vehicle dependent, and middle class -- was a phenomenon that began after WWII. While what we see as suburbia dominated the built environment after WWII, it didn't start then. Great Depression and WWII only interrupted the advancement of a nascent but growing form of development.

    The economic boom after WWI saw the massive growth of America's middle class. At the same time, automobiles became affordable, more reliable, and usable (electric starter, heated passenger compartment, standardized transmission shifting, regular sources of fuel); they made the leap from toys to appliances. Many of the things we associate with the 1950s -- consumerism, auto ownership, and the emergence of the single family house as the American Dream -- became part of our collective consciousness nearly 100 years ago.

    When I'm back home in Buffalo, I'll sometimes go to the main branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and look through the microfilm reels of old newspapers. The real estate ads tell a story of an emergent suburbia. Before WWI, ads for subdivisions -- usually just improved lots alone -- were full of text, and offered directions to the site via streetcar and interurban. The ads changed dramatically after WWI. There were more developments comprising of speculative-built houses, and "bring your builder" became the exception. As the 1920s progressed, ads increasingly featured driving directions to a site, and directions via streetcar disappeared, even though the network hadn't begun to contract. The sales pitch also changed, from "escape the smoke" and "land in this area will only appreciate in value" to "good schools" and "nearby parks". The ads grew slicker as the 1920s advanced, with photos, sketches, and appeal to upscale aspirations.

    I like to use Tonawanda, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, as an example of 1920s suburbia. About half of the town was subdivided and improved in the 1920s. Most of the new lots were in the 45' to 80' range.



    Development stalled in the real estate crash of 1927, and little took place for nearly 20 years. After WWII, with material shortages over and demand for housing at an all-time high, the once-nearly abandoned streets came back to life. The town's housing stock is mainly fromt he 1950s and 1960s, but the lots they were built on were platted decades earlier.

    .
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Coragus's avatar
    Registered
    May 2002
    Location
    The Bluegrass Region . . . for now
    Posts
    1,024
    Broadly speaking, Suburbia began after WWII when cheap mortgages were offered to returning soldiers and the factories started churning out automobiles for families.
    Maintaining enthusiasm in the face of crushing apathy.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Plus
    Registered
    Jun 2003
    Location
    De Noc
    Posts
    17,494
    Interesting timeline from the NPS

    1. Railroad and Horsecar Suburbs, 1830 to 1890;
    2. Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928;
    3. Early Automobile Suburbs, 1908 to 1945;
    4. Post-World War II and Early Freeway Suburbs, 1945 to 1960.

    http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/b...urbs/part1.htm
    Oddball
    Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves?
    Why don't you dig how beautiful it is out here?
    Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?
    From Kelly's Heroes (1970)


    Are you sure you're not hurt ?
    No. Just some parts wake up faster than others.
    Broke parts take a little longer, though.
    From Electric Horseman (1979)

  4. #4
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
    Registered
    Mar 2004
    Location
    Where the weak are killed and eaten.
    Posts
    6,100
    Quote Originally posted by JNA View post
    Interesting timeline from the NPS

    1. Railroad and Horsecar Suburbs, 1830 to 1890;
    2. Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928;
    3. Early Automobile Suburbs, 1908 to 1945;
    4. Post-World War II and Early Freeway Suburbs, 1945 to 1960.

    http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/b...urbs/part1.htm
    Seems about right to me, only that I would add there have probably been suburbs in the US as long as it has been around. The nature of them had changed from small farms near cities/right outside the gates of the fortress to subdivisions.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
    Registered
    Nov 2006
    Location
    Jamestown, New York
    Posts
    1,635
    There was an early suburban pattern well established around my home town, Gowanda, NY, by 1940.

    In looking at the 1940 census by town, I found my street (Catt County was backward ... most rural roads didn't have actual names even as late as the 1940s apparently. There was no need since everybody knew where everybody lived. Even into the 1980s, I could address mail to my step-mother as "Marge X, Gowanda, NY 14070" and it would get to her).

    Anyhoo, what I found was that going up our road south of town were most of the families that were still there when I was in HS (1960s) and they were doing the same things: working primarily in the tannery, glue factory or at the state hospital. Even if they owned acreage, they didn't identify themselves as farmers ... that occupation didn't appear until about 3 miles further south (about where our farm is located today). In other words, people who could afford to move out of the village, especially the east side of the village, fled north to the Zoar area or south to Dayton and Broadway. This wasn't surprising as tanneries and glue factories were among the most noisesome industries around. In the summer, the village stunk, and being in a small, bowl-like valley, it baked in summer.

    I think that has always been the driving force behind suburbanization: the desire to escape intolerable or deteriorating conditions towards the center of cities. It's starts with the wealthy who can afford to live on the outskirts, but it continues down the economic ladder. I think what made the post-WW II cities start to shrink was that the stream of people at the bottom of the economic ladder, primarily immigrants and rural migrants, began drying up. The movement of people from rural to urban areas was nothing like it had been between 1900 and 1945. Of course immigration largely dried up because of laws, economics, and war after WW II. The only significant groups that migrated to northern and midwestern cities were African Americans and Latinos, which in turn sent may whites scuttling for the 'burbs.
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
    Registered
    Oct 2011
    Location
    USA
    Posts
    25
    "It's just something that's ingrained in us in a way that doesn't happen in most places in the world. Maybe it's in the water."

    I dunno, the dream of ownership (house, apartment, condo, land) is common in a lot of other countries too, some of which have homeownership rates that make ours look pathetic. I don't think there's anything particularly American about it: there's an ancient, almost universal cultural memory of trapped, rent-slave peasants being run out of their meager shacks on a periodic basis, and ownership has long been considered insurance against that turmoil (harder for governments and private interests to run land/house owners off, though it certainly seems like it's getting easier to do even that).

    As for the origins of suburbia, you can date it back to the beginning of city-based civilization, though the form certainly has changed and will continue to do so. Ancient Rome was ringed by patrician villas, after all. What's happened is that ersatz-rural living has become increasingly feasible to a wider class of people over the centuries thanks to progressively cheaper energy (cars and appliances replacing armies of servants and expensive stables) and less land-based warfare (can't remember the last time a band of raiders raped and pillaged a village in the developed world). First only the patricians and aristocrats could do it (preindustrial suburbia). Then the industrialists and robber barons could do it; i.e. you no longer had to be a brahmin (railroad suburbs). Then the mere upper class - doctors, lawyers, engineers - could do it (streetcar suburbs). Then even the lower middle classes - the factory workers and schoolteachers - could do it (auto suburbia). Finally in the last couple of decades, due to various programs and experiments, we've made it so that even the poorest - including even some on welfare - could increasingly get garden apartments in the suburbs. The ersatz-rural living ideal has been expanded to cover virtually the entire spectrum of society, in this country at least. Whether this broad accessibility can continue in the future is an open question.

    To me the more interesting question, because it gets into cool sci-fi speculation, is "what will the future of suburbia be?" Unfortunately right now there are some incredibly ludicrous fantasies flying around the "cutting edge" architectural ghettos: they constantly fantasize about a reincarnation of the old "tower in the park." Ridiculous. This stuff died in the real world but it lives on in the schools.
    Last edited by marcszar; 29 Nov 2012 at 5:18 PM.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
    Registered
    Nov 2006
    Location
    Jamestown, New York
    Posts
    1,635
    Excellent post, marcszar! I'm primarily focused on the US and didn't think of the non-US angle at all. Certainly the ideal of the people who till the soil having ownership of it has been a universal one for centuries at least. It's certainly been an impetus for migration to the New World and revolution in the Old.

    One interesting historical/cultural difference between the US and Europe in regards to cities: in Europe, the town or city represented freedom while in the US, it's been the countryside, the "wide open spaces" that represented freedom.

    In medieval times, independent towns with stout walls were their own little states free from control local warlords and even from the king (think of London's defiance or support of several English kings determining whether they kept their crowns or lost their heads). Serfs who escaped to towns and remained free for a year and a day gained their freedom. With almost all land in Europe owned by the nobility, the church, and the king, towns were the only place that ordinary people could prosper. Merchants and craftsmen in London and York and Bruges and Paris could become wealthy men.

    In the US, the virtues of living in the country, especially of farming, have long been extolled. You can start with Jefferson's idealization of the "yeoman farmer" and continue through the angst created in the popular mind by the official "end of the frontier" as per the 1890 census to the present day desire of some very well educated urban people to "live off the grid", perhaps in Alaska. We have lots of "sin cities" around the country (my friends who live in the country in the next county are convinced that Jamestown is wall-to-wall drug dealers when, in fact, their next door neighbors are suspected of maintaining the marijuana "farm" that the State Police raided last summer while mine are just ordinary working people). The quintessential American hero is the cowboy. Who could represent freedom better in the American mind?
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
    Registered
    Aug 2001
    Location
    Gale Crater
    Posts
    2,842
    We need a Robert Fishman reader for this thread. An example:

    "...the tract mansions of Orange County, China represent the cultural hegemony of the dominant global power."

    From Global Suburbs, page 7.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
    Registered
    Nov 2006
    Location
    Jamestown, New York
    Posts
    1,635
    Quote Originally posted by Wannaplan? View post
    We need a Robert Fishman reader for this thread. An example:

    "...the tract mansions of Orange County, China represent the cultural hegemony of the dominant global power."

    From Global Suburbs, page 7.
    Interesting read. Thanks.
    If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

+ Reply to thread

More at Cyburbia

  1. So when does Spring begin ?
    Friday Afternoon Club
    Replies: 21
    Last post: 25 Feb 2013, 8:18 PM
  2. Replies: 32
    Last post: 11 Oct 2012, 7:45 PM
  3. Replies: 29
    Last post: 22 Mar 2006, 3:10 PM
  4. Replies: 31
    Last post: 04 Oct 2005, 5:27 PM
  5. Where to begin?
    Career Development and Advice
    Replies: 0
    Last post: 28 Mar 2005, 10:56 PM