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When did the American Dream become THE AMERICAN DREAM?

pete-rock

Cyburbian
Messages
1,550
Points
24
As I recall when I was growing up, "the American Dream" always appeared to me to be an ambiguous call to fulfill one's potential -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I always thought that it was up to the individual to define what the American Dream was, whether it was establishing a 10,000 member nondenominational megachurch or a storefront chapel; a multimillion dollar porn video production company or a brothel.

Lately, I'm seeing developers in general and anti-Smart Growth activists in particular defining the American Dream as homeownership. They're doing it in commercials, they're holding conferences on it, and it has become the sound-bite name for the anti-Smart Growth movement.

HOW'D THAT HAPPEN?!

It smacks to me of people wrapping themselves up in the flag to distract people from the larger issue, and to co-opt dissent ("...if you're against us, you're against the AMERICAN DREAM!").

I can't stand that kind of political posturing. But what do you think?
 
Messages
7,649
Points
29
I am sure there is a lot of truth to what ZG says, but I think it runs a bit deeper than that. Someone correct me if their knowledge of history is better than mine, but I am thinking that nobility and royalty and such owned land in Europe and the majority of people got to be tenants. Land ownership by the majority of people started as a peculiarly American thing. It goes along with that "right to bear arms" thing: determine your own destiny, tell everyone to kiss your butt, and be an individual. Owning a house typically gives you much more control over your immediate environment than renting, whether you are renting a house or an apartment.

Same reason we prefer cars: they give us independence and put control in the hands of the individual in a way that public transit can never do. Which makes me pretty ambivalent about what the "right" solution is to our present problems with a car-based culture. And also why I am ambivalent about what the "right" solution is to sprawl. In any group situation, there tends to be "winners" and "losers". I am very pro family and I think it is generally good for the kids and for society if one parent stays home with the kids. But it can really Suck for the person who does it, and that person is usually a woman. So, as someone who has been on the recieving end of the down-side for the few of promoting the welfare of the many.... I just don't think there are any nice, simple solutions. Win-win solutions are not easy to design.

When my IQ exceeds 3000 and, therefore, I have The Perfect Answer for all this, I will let everyone know. |-)
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
Messages
1,550
Points
24
Michele Zone said:
I am sure there is a lot of truth to what ZG says, but I think it runs a bit deeper than that. Someone correct me if their knowledge of history is better than mine, but I am thinking that nobility and royalty and such owned land in Europe and the majority of people got to be tenants. Land ownership by the majority of people started as a peculiarly American thing. It goes along with that "right to bear arms" thing: determine your own destiny, tell everyone to kiss your butt, and be an individual.
I agree to an extent, but all of those founding principles used to be wrapped up in one word -- freedom. Now the American Dream is just owning your home.

I'm sure ZG has the best answer. It's just how developers want to keep on building big homes on big lots.
 

H

Cyburbian
Messages
2,850
Points
24
Probably right after WWII when everyone came back to the US and bought themselves a peice of the American freedom (ie dream) they had just fought to secure.

This would be the same time suburbia as we know it began.

I am not for this slogan, but I bet this is where it was derived from.
 
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Messages
7,649
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29
pete-rock said:
I agree to an extent, but all of those founding principles used to be wrapped up in one word -- freedom. Now the American Dream is just owning your home.

I'm sure ZG has the best answer. It's just how developers want to keep on building big homes on big lots.
I think ZG's answer is kind of what it has devolved into -- but that idea came from somewhere. Often, we do not know the origin of all the things we associate with something. It is like the story about the woman who asked her mom why she cut so much meat off of the ham before cooking it. And she says "well, my mom did it that way. I don't really know why." When you go back and ask grandma, the answer is "I did it that way because my pot was too small. The ham wouldn't fit without a little trimming."

H is right: much of our present values and ideologies about what homeownership "means" derive from the post-WWII housing boom. Nevermind that the population has changed and those paradigms don't serve us well anymore. We "grew up on them" -- and our belief that they are "correct" is almost like a "religion" (and don't confuse me with the facts). Most folks attach a lot of sentimental value and meaning to all that -- and from there you get the rabid "if you aren't fer us, yore agin us" mentality.

Most people do not really think all that deeply about such things. Their reactions are kind of visceral.
 

DA Monkey

Cyburbian
Messages
84
Points
4
Michele Zone said:
but I am thinking that nobility and royalty and such owned land in Europe and the majority of people got to be tenants. Land ownership by the majority of people started as a peculiarly American thing. It goes along with that "right to bear arms" thing: determine your own destiny, tell everyone to kiss your butt, and be an individual.
I grew up with the great Australian Dream, I learned it from my parents who learned it from theirs. Even though Australia was founded as a penal colony, later colonists were lured with the promise of ownership of a block of land - this has continued very much through to the present day where the Great Australian Dream is becoming harder to achieve. (The great Australian Dream has always been, and still is very much about home ownership)

As to historical stuff, Im not sure but I think the Greeks began land ownership by the majority - something to do with citizenship. The Romans actually began with the citizenship ideal and home ownership (you could not join a legion without owning property and hence being a citizen) but later stratified into class divisions etc. Although I think you may be right in regards to European and English history of home/property ownership.

Does anyone know of the Scandanavian history - I think they were very into property based civilisation and expansion.
 

Wulf9

Member
Messages
923
Points
22
I think the American Dream has morphed into a dream of unearned income with a house as the vehicle. In California, it has become an article of faith that your house should provide you with vast riches, but none of those riches should go toward creating "community" or be shared with the community. I think that is because people know they will be moving soon, so why invest a part of your house appreciation in schools, libraries, parks, police, or fire services.
 
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7,649
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29
DA Monkey said:
As to historical stuff, Im not sure but I think the Greeks began land ownership by the majority - something to do with citizenship. The Romans actually began with the citizenship ideal and home ownership (you could not join a legion without owning property and hence being a citizen) but later stratified into class divisions etc. Although I think you may be right in regards to European and English history of home/property ownership.
I would have to look it up to be sure of the numbers, but in a Greek city of 100,000, only about 5000 or 6000 people were property-owning citizens who could vote. The rest were women (chattel property of husband's or fathers), children, slaves, and other non-citizens. In the U.S., home ownership rates is around 2/3s of the population -- granted, most of them are males or couples. Only about 3% of all U.S. real estate is owned solely be a woman (last I heard, anyway -- someone feel free to correct/update that last figure).

Democracy as conceptualized by the Greeks was a radical notion, but it was not remotely what we think of as 'democracy" today. They had the same issue when they wrote the American constitution: "all men are created equal" kind of meant all white men. They eliminated the property-ownership basis for right to vote but women could not vote, slaves could not vote, Native Americans were disenfranchised and run off their lands -- equality was hardly "universal".
 
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Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
Messages
3,216
Points
29
Keeping Up with the Joneses is not the same thing as pursuing The American Dream. The whole American Dream message that is broadcast on the TV waves via Fannie Mae commercials, among others, plays on the fears and delusional self-conscious feelings of inadequacy of a certain type of American.

Whatever. The American Dream is a falsehood anyway. It's more like a nightmare if you ask me.
 

Seabishop

Cyburbian
Messages
3,838
Points
25
I think Pete's right about the slow-creep of the term "American Dream" into a property rights slogan and marketing tool. My "american dream" location would be something very urban if I could afford it. I'm glad I can afford my semi-suburban house but its not my ideal. Its based more upon schools in the city being sub-par, and not being able to afford private schools.

I think both political parties have cornered certain virtues. Conservatives have the market on religion, defense and patriotism. Liberals have the market on environmental issues, civil rights, domestic policy, etc. They both act like they are the lone saviors of these issues.
 

Plannerbabs

Cyburbian
Messages
1,037
Points
23
I don't like it when our ideals are used as selling points. Call me idealistic, but it cheapens them. As if true happiness and fulfillment could be found on a 1/4 acre lot with landscaping as designed by the nearest home center, and all the latest in labor-saving devices. It's a bit sad that in that sense, we really haven't moved much past the 1950's with Levittown and turquoise Radaranges. I have nothing against homeownership--I'm one myself--but when you look at the rate of foreclosures and bankruptcies, you have to wonder who's really benefitting. |-)
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
Messages
3,216
Points
29
Plannerbabs said:
I don't like it when our ideals are used as selling points. Call me idealistic, but it cheapens them.
But it's not the marketeers that should solely take the blame for cheapening our American Dream ideals. Because of its seemingly ubiquitous use in marketing materials, its success as a selling point cannot be denied. People are eating-up the American Dream message. Blame the people who believe that mumbo-jumbo. And yes, blame the shameless marketeers, too. They are indeed culpable. But so is a certain segment of the American public.

Fannie Mae... the American Dream makers!
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
Messages
2,549
Points
25
I think that for a lot of people the American Dream IS homeownership. Call me evil, but it is pretty high on my list. Who are we to tell someone that their American Dream cannot be a brand new house on a large lot? That really may make some families very happy. For me it will be a modest old house on a small lot in the City. While this is only one aspect of my "American Dream," it is important. When you own a house you put yourself in a secure financial situation. No longer are you dumping hundreds of dollars down the drain every month, you are investing it in something that can be sold at a profit in most cases.

While I think that Developers over use the term, there seems to be no shortage of people who want to live in large lot subdivisions. However this may be where I differ a little bit from the Developers. I think that Smart Growth isn't necessarily demanding small lots. Smart Growth is just making sure that when you do allow for large lot development that it is done in conjunction with infrastructure improvements, natural resources preservation, and other components of good land use planning. It is making sure that there is parkland and schools to serve the additional population. Too often people confuse Smart Growth with New Urbanism. Smart growth doesn't mean no growth or only neo-traditional growth.
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
Messages
1,550
Points
24
Repo Man said:
I think that for a lot of people the American Dream IS homeownership. Call me evil, but it is pretty high on my list. Who are we to tell someone that their American Dream cannot be a brand new house on a large lot?
I think you miss the point. Who are we to tell someone that their American Dream is only a brand new house on a large lot?

I don't think you're evil for saying homeownership is your American Dream; far from it.

There are 290-plus million Americans, and I always believed that each one was free to live their own version of the "American Dream". But I resist the notion that corporate marketers and the media put out there that the "American Dream" begins and ends with homeownership.
 

boiker

Cyburbian
Messages
3,889
Points
26
I don't think that homeownership iteself is evil and a bastardization of the american dream. It's the obsession with NEW home ownership that is evil and a bastardization of the american dream. Having the car/suv you DESERVE because you are american (and we're RUGGED!, dammit), and the BIG house you DESERVE because you are american and the green lawn you've EARNED because you are american is the worst, most effective marketing campaign ever.


edit: pete beat me to it:)
 
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Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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3,216
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29
Repo Man said:
When you own a house you put yourself in a secure financial situation. No longer are you dumping hundreds of dollars down the drain every month, you are investing it in something that can be sold at a profit in most cases.
That is an interesting point. However, I don't think it's as simple as you put it.

Owning a home is not always a secure financial situation. In fact, owning a home could easily be considered a liability. Having a full-time job, winning the lottery, or having a trust fund can put you in a secure financial situation. I know, that goes without saying. I'm not trying to be dismissive of your point. And yet, there are no guarantees in this country, no job is secure, and buying a home entails a considerable amount of risk on the part of the homebuyer.

And it's this component of risk in homeownership that is so overtly deceitful in the American Dream message put out by the marketeers, the developers, and the home lending institutions.

If you lose your job and cannot make the payments, you can easily be forced to foreclose and lose your home.

If you don't have the skills or knowledge to make a smart home purchasing decision, then you could end up with a lemon that has a faulty heating system and can casue extensive and expensive damage.

These are but a few examples. Homeownership, while an excellent investment, can indeed be a nightmare. Like you say, many think homeownsership IS the American Dream. We won't disagree about how people conceive of their own personal American Dream. However, I will disagree and say that homeownership can be just one component of the American Drean. It isn't the end-all be-all of what it means to be an American.
 

Plannerbabs

Cyburbian
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1,037
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23
Thanks, Wanigas?, that's what I was trying to say but, pre-coffee, it didn't come out quite right.
What I was thinking when I said that it was sad that we haven't moved past the concept of Levittown is that there are many other models of home/property ownership that can be easier on people than the large-lot SF house that is widely promoted by the development and mortgaging industries. There's cohousing, and building conversion, and of course rehabbing older houses (that's my American dream, btw). Considering the financial hardship that can occur all too easily when people try to have their dream come true, these other options might be better for some. I know cohousing and gutting older buildings aren't for everyone, but they can provide a support group (in the case of cohousing) and strengthen core neighborhoods. Those types of housing can also teach valuable maintenance skills, something first-time home buyers often lack.
Home ownership isn't evil. Wanting to have a home, even a large-lot SF house, isn't evil. What's evil is taking one of the ideals, however hazy, that we've all heard about from grade school, using it to sell us something we may or may not really want upon closer analysis, and possibly forcing us into foreclosure and/or bankruptcy as a result.
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
Messages
2,549
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25
Wanigas? said:
However, I will disagree and say that homeownership can be just one component of the American Drean. It isn't the end-all be-all of what it means to be an American.
I agree and in my statement I said that it was one component of my American Dream, not the entire thing.

I also agree that homeownership can cause problems if one loses their job, but some of that may be the result of poor financial planning (you should have 2 months salary in reserve in case of such an event) and over-buying. People can point fingers and blame developers but in the end it is the consumer that often times overextends themselves financially when purchasing a home. Nobody is holding a gun to anyone’s head and forcing them to live in a huge house in the middle of nowhere.
 

Miles Ignatius

Cyburbian
Messages
368
Points
12
Whether You Like The Dream Or Not, Ready Yourself For More....

Given the pinheads who fashion economic and tax policy in this country, the "single family" ownership model [along with all of its implications...social, environmental, etc] will prevail. Look at the Bushistas - who spout at every opportunity tout home ownership as the sign of our economic well being...because there's little else to point to in a rapidly de-industrializing consumer economy.
 

Gedunker

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What is the alternative to the American Dream of home-ownership?

If Americans could not afford to buy houses and were compelled to rent, there would be inevitably be housing monopolies and -- in the mega-economy of these times -- very few choices. I've seen too many places where that alternative would be downright frightening. Wal*Mapartments, anyone? ;-)

BTW: In Indiana, if you rent, you are very much a second-class citizen. Most of the landlord-tenant statutes date from the 1880s and resolve who gets to keep the profits from the crops after the tenant is evicted |-)
 

Zoning Goddess

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13,852
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39
A lot of this suburbia new-home nonsense goes back to the 50's when parents were urged to remove their children to the healthier climes of suburbia (cleaner air! newer schools!), thus leaving cities to the singles (until sprawl apartments hit the scene) and lower-income folks.

A friend is about to have a nervous breakdown because she and hubby (nurse, plumber) cannot afford the new home they feel they "deserve". What's that? At least 3000 s.f. and it MUST be new (currently at least $300k around here). Never mind they only have one kid and who needs all that room? And their current "new" home is only 5 years old. Oh, maybe to house the $3k ATV they bought their 10 year old, and the kid's own PC/drum set/3 video systems, gas scooter, and their 3 big-screen t.v.s. They were shocked that I will not indulge my child that way (altho' I will spring for soccer league twice a year) and would get "claustrophobia" in my 1200 s.f. home. Sigh...

It's all about marketing. Keep your eye on the swinging watch...you want this home..you deserve this home...you will only be happy if you have this home...you will be beautiful people if you buy this home...
 

Wulf9

Member
Messages
923
Points
22
Gedunker said:
What is the alternative to the American Dream of home-ownership?QUOTE]

I don't favor alternatives to home ownership. I would like to see the government subsidies removed or at least reduced, so the price of housing will come down.

One of the reasons for non-affordability in California is the high level of government subsidies to house owners. Much of the value is illusory (the lot is worth more than the structure - often worth 3 or 4 times the value of the structure).
 
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13
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1
the american dream

My American Dream does not include mowing the grass, driving to the end of a cul-de-sac and delivering children to the mall for entertainment. Am I alone?
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,463
Points
29
Visionary Diva said:
My American Dream does not include mowing the grass, driving to the end of a cul-de-sac and delivering children to the mall for entertainment. Am I alone?
In central Florida, you may well be :)

(Not that I, living in Solano County, California, have any room to speak :( )
 
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Visionary Diva said:
My American Dream does not include mowing the grass, driving to the end of a cul-de-sac and delivering children to the mall for entertainment. Am I alone?
I would have to look it up, but I read an interesting piece (or perhaps more than one) in The City Reader about how "a woman's place is in the city".

This may not go over too well with some folks:

The suburban family home is an expression of the idea that "a woman's place is in the home" and "a man's home is his castle". It is a place where the man gets a break from his job in the city, where coming home from work every night is an escape for "the public sphere" to "the private sphere" (where his wife "belongs", in the theories of the time). The problem with this paradigm is that the woman gets NO break. Her purpose in life is, in part, to take care of HIM. The fact that she never escapes her work and that suburban life can be very isolating for the wife and kids is over looked because it comes from a very male-centered view of life.

I have no desire for a yard. I have kids and they rarely go to the mall -- they certainly do not go "for entertainment" (the go to shop and if the Best Buy were not at our local mall, they would almost NEVER go to the mall). I want to live in the downtown part of my city, and hope to do so at some time in the not too distant future. Cul-de-sacs are "Dead ends" for me, literally and figuratively.

So, allow me to say: "Amen to that, sister!"
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,463
Points
29
I want to live in the downtown part of my city, and hope to do so at sometime in the not too distant future. Cul-de-sacs are "Dead ends" for me, literally and figuratively.

So, allow me to say: "Amen to that, sister!"
There is a nice little building downtown (former Sanwa Bank) that just needs an investment team to be converted into live-work, Michelle.


I like my townhouse a lot, but I wonder sometimes if it is fully fair for my dogs (not that they don't get a lot of walks). An old building with a photo gallery downstairs and an open space with a lot of light above would be perfect.

I like living downtown, even if my downtown is still a little sleepy. A standard subdivision would drive me nuts. Even when I walk out of my general neighborhood and start getting into the "fashionable" subdivisions, they just make me screamingly bored with their design.
 
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BKM said:
There is a nice little building downtown (former Sanwa Bank) that just needs an investment team to be converted into live-work, Michelle.
Is that the one on the corner of Texas and, er, maybe Great Jones? We need to talk. ;-)
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,852
Points
39
Visionary Diva said:
My American Dream does not include mowing the grass, driving to the end of a cul-de-sac and delivering children to the mall for entertainment. Am I alone?
Uh-uh, wait a minute! You have grass! I just saw your grass on Saturday! Or did you roll it up and put it away after the garage sale??? ;-)
 

GRID

Cyburbian
Messages
35
Points
2
Without having time to read the rest of this thread (I gotta run), I would say the "American Dream" really became prevaliant on the national conscience after WWII with the start of the suburbs (i.e. Leviitown, PA). That is what I read anyways...
 

H

Cyburbian
Messages
2,850
Points
24
I used to be a loan officer before getting my masters in planning. I sold the American “Dream” around suburban Hotlanta. Most all people would maximize and stretch their income and assets to buy the biggest and newest home in the best subdivisions. Then they would max out what ever was left of their credit to fill it with a ‘room to go’, tvs and stereos from the big box retailer for that, then a new SUV to park in their driveway, etc.... Then they would not be enjoying their new loss of free time due to up keep, overwhelming dept and their new extremely high monthly payments. So, they would call us back up, crying about how awful these payments were and wanting to refinance, so we would have their home re-appraised and refinance from the new increased value of their house and consolidate their debt at a lower interest rate.

With the refinance boom of the recent low rates, many people are now even upside down on their homes. Owing more than it could be sold for. Many of these people are Baby Boomers and will be retiring soon. They wont want to work in that big yard, but not be able to sell their house for what they OWE even though it has gone up in value from what they bought it for.

The recent suburban “American Dream” will become the “American Nightmare” for many.

Fannie Mae is a good org for home buyers and owners, but like any debt, it can get people in trouble when they bite off more than they can chew.

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
 
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mendelman

Unfrozen Caveman Planner
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Messages
13,908
Points
57
H just effectively expressed the reason my wife and I decided not to buy this lovely little bungalow in Oak Park, IL:

check out the listing here

We didn't want to stretch ourselves too thin, which is what would have happened if we bought the house.

Our American Dream is to live in a diverse muni. with a good school system, with daily services within a 15 minute walk, with great transit access, with alleys, with a diverse housing stock, a good church community, well-educated populous, with lots of children and married couples and singles and elderly and empty-nesters and teenagers, with beautiful street trees, progressive land use and social inclusion, and with easy access to a multitude of culture and education.

All these are present and desired by the community of Oak Park, IL

That's my wife's and my American Dream, which does not have to include owning a house. There is a lot of beautiful rental out here, so we're not worried.

If others' dreams differ from that - great for them. I wish them the best.
 
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Maister

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71
I recall hearing that the phrase "American Dream" was coined by a historian named Adams in a book he wrote after the stock market crash/depression. I believe he described the essence of the American Dream as being an abiding belief in the common man's potential/opportunities for upward (economic) mobility and that while upward mobility was possible in other parts of the world it didn't occur anywhere near as often as it happened in the US. This upward mobility was evidenced in a number of different ways and home ownership was one of them.

This phrase seems to have been appropriated by a number of others who have used it in projecting their own agenda and values.... :-\
 

michaelskis

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Messages
20,174
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51
The phrase “American Dream” as been modified several times. It was originally said by Benjamin Franklin in 1775 when he said that the American Dream is freedom from oppression of the British. Then it was changed again for the gold rush, then used by the auto industry in the 20’s and 30’s, finally it was a post world war 2 thing when everyone started to build ranch homes in new sub divisions to boost. This too was supported by the auto industry because they quickly realized that people would have to drive to work. So GM bought most of the trolley companies, burned the cars, and supported (AKA funded) many of the new post war housing projects.
 

Maister

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michaelskis said:
The phrase “American Dream” as been modified several times. It was originally said by Benjamin Franklin in 1775 when he said that the American Dream is freedom from oppression of the British. Then it was changed again for the gold rush, then used by the auto industry in the 20’s and 30’s, finally it was a post world war 2 thing when everyone started to build ranch homes in new sub divisions to boost. This too was supported by the auto industry because they quickly realized that people would have to drive to work. So GM bought most of the trolley companies, burned the cars, and supported (AKA funded) many of the new post war housing projects.
Did a quick Google - looks like we're both kinda right and wrong....
www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/axs.html
 
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