I think the most interesting aspect of reading both Crabgrass Frontier and The Bulldozer in the Countryside is both the level of overlap in terms of events and people used to provide historical background, and yet the wildly different approaches by both authors, both historiographically as well as within their arguments. Crabgrass Frontier told a very linear, broad history of the American suburb, specifically focuses on industry, technology, and the government (and many specific people) in order to explore the cultural significance of the suburb. On the other hand, The Bulldozer in the Countryside was much more thematic in its approach to the story it was trying to tell, looking at larger groups and movements rather than specific people within industry and government to map the emergence of the environmental movement and its relationship with housing in the United States. Adam Rome is much more limited in his scope, only extending the limits of his history beyond the post-war through the 1960s when it was necessary thematically. Kenneth Jackson, on the other hand, attempts a very lofty goal of discussing housing in the United States from the Revolutionary War onwards. Because of those two differing aspects of the histories, the two books read very differently.
There is something very striking about the way in which the culture of the Cold War, and the culture of the 1950s more generally, greatly shaped the current perception of the “American identity.” We discussed this at length when we read The Culture of the Cold War by Whitfield, however in Crabgrass Frontier one of the strongest aspects of Jackson’s argument is his tracking of American identity in relationship to housing. From his many chapters on the way which moving further from urban centers changed transportation technologies (and in the case of the automobile, fundamentally changed the entirety of American culture) or the fundamental shift of the suburbs being the place where minorities flee to a place of white flight from those minorities, Jackson makes a very compelling argument that the fabric of the cultural identity in the United States is directly tied to housing. For me, this point was driven home in chapter 13, “The Baby Boom and the Age of the Subdivision” where he lists the five characteristic of American urban development from 1945 to 1973: 1) peripheral location, 2) relatively low population density, 3) architectural similarity, 4) easy availability and this reduced suggestion of wealth, and 5) economic and racial homogeneity. These characteristics still live with Americans today, where an older generation still believes that buying a home is a necessity and a sign of wealth and stability that has not evolved with the reality of the housing market that younger buyers are having to navigate. It is very interesting how Jackson sets up the foundations for how housing is still thought of today, both in this chapter and throughout the rest of the book.
In both texts, there was an interesting discussion of the way which technology, rather than government intervention, really drove the housing boom in the post-World War II era. Both texts discussed, at some length, the housing crisis which existed at the beginning of the twentieth-century that the government did not intervene in, for various reasons depending on the head of state at that point. This housing crisis really came to a head when veterans, with new training and opportunities to attend college, returned from the war, either already with families or ready to begin families, and this drove the market to find a way to address the housing crisis. It was mass production of homes (through cheaper lumber, cheaper labor, and cheaper means to produce the parts) that led the way to the housing boom, and ultimately the environmental concerns which Rome discusses. This was also discussed in the chapter on Sun City in Magic Lands. Not only was heavy machinery added into the mix, destroying fragile ecosystems, but masses of people were moving to land which had been mostly undisturbed up to this point, bringing with them the wealth of waste which humans produce. This question about technology driving culture is one which has come up before. There was a need for housing, no doubt, but that need had existed long before it was met, with very few people concerned about meeting it until there was a real market incentive to meet that need. However, it does seem to be a real chicken or the egg debate, because was it the market demand that came after World War II, with real money involved that drove companies to develop technologies to mass produce houses, or was the technology developed first, which ultimately led to people moving to the suburbs?
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