This is the first post of a series of three posts from Rick Tobin that discusses the evolution of the suburbs in America and how it was shaped and continuously being molded by the economic, political, cultural and technological changes in the world. In this post, Rick begins with the real estate situation 100 years ago to the 1950s. In his next post, Rick will cover the 1960s to the 1980s. In the post after that, he will cover the 1990s up to the present time.
Over the past 100 years, more Americans moved their families out towards suburban communities as the 20th Century evolved. In recent years, there is a growing trend related to individuals and families moving back to large metropolitan cities in order to find new higher paying jobs, attend universities, and take advantage of the better restaurants, shopping options, community parks, museums and arts events, and other well-known benefits.
For better or worse, many towns, cities, and even countries are beginning to look more and more alike as we progress through the 21st century. The “suburbanization” and the “franchization” of both America and the rest of the world are making housing communities, retail centers, and shopping malls look quite similar with these “cookie-cutter” type communities.
The same franchised fast food outlets, coffee shops, and mega mall outlets continue to pop up around the U.S. and the world. In addition, more housing subdivisions are being designed and built in styles consistent with California Mediterranean, Southwestern Ranch, or Northeastern Cape Cod.
Almost 100 years ago, more people lived within the cities than in the rural or suburban areas. The early to mid-century years of the 20th century had an increase in the size of large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. The traditional urban neighborhood consisted of pedestrian friendly areas where one could walk to work, schools, restaurants, and to other places.
The flight from urban centers like New York City began shortly after the Great Depression (1929 – 1939). Very few housing units were built in the 1930s or 1940s during that time range. This time period was the prime depressive era of “The Great Depression” and World War II. Shortly after the end of World War II, there was a tremendous demand for housing.
As the cost of housing in the crowded urban centers began to increase, areas outside the city limits began to look more attractive to people. Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, was driven both by demand for more affordable properties, increased availability to transportation (i.e. cars, buses, and subways), and the new efficiency of builders to deliver mass-produced housing tracts.
Home builders began to model their development business after the automobile assembly lines developed by the Ford Motor Company. Home builders used the mass-production assembly line, and converted it so that workers moved from different locations to perform the same specific tasks. These specific tasks included framing, painting, plumbing, and other components.
One of the original mass-produced suburban centers during that era was Levittown in Long Island, New York. This suburban community center became the ideal place for people to live who worked in the northeast. The housing styles were Cape Cod and California ranch. Many of the original Levittown homes were no larger than the typical apartment in New York City which is 800 square feet. The cookie-cutter conformity of homes in Levittown was appealing to some, and repulsive to others in the area.
Levittown featured community swimming pools and parks which attracted many young families. Levittown was formed in an unincorporated community adjacent to several formal towns. The adjacent towns had the financial burden of providing schools and other common area centers to accommodate the massive new figurative flood of new schoolchildren from Levittown.
Levittown homes provided the ultimate suburban lifestyle at the time. After the Depression and World War II, people wanted more leisurely lifestyles. Suburban homes closed themselves off from the street. Homeowners were focused on the tranquility of their gardens, backyards, and the community areas. The new suburban home offered a place of safety, peace, and isolation from the stresses of city, post-War, and post-Great Depression life.
The most attractive feature of a home in Levittown was the price which was just under $8,000. With the introduction of FHA (Federal Housing Act) and VA (Veteran’s Administration) mortgage loans, many home buyers were able to purchase homes with no money down. In addition, the home buyers had monthly mortgage payments lower than what they were paying in rent at the time.
The government backed and insured mortgage loans from both FHA and VA which were the main driving force behind the suburban housing boom shortly after World War II. FHA and VA provided approximately 11 million new home mortgages in the years following the war. Simultaneously, a 41,000 mile interstate highway program helped make the commute to the new suburban areas more convenient. The new highways were funded by both federal and local subsidies.
Housing gradually began to move from populated cities like New York City to new suburban towns like Levittown. Levittown was followed by communities such as Allentown (Pennsylvania), and hundreds of suburban communities across the nation.
The new era of postwar prosperity set in motion the “American Dream” of home ownership. This new suburban lifestyle, which was well entrenched near many large areas in the Northeastern United States in the 1940s, set in motion new lifestyles, communities, and real estate opportunities up until even today.
Suburbia’s Evolution: The 1950s
The decade of the 1950s began with a desire by many Americans to achieve the ideal lifestyle of suburban home ownership with a white picket fence and all. Many Americans were still saddened by the devastation of fighting wars in the 1940s. The threat of the possible Korean War also caused concerns and stress in the 1950s. In addition, the fear of nuclear warfare caused many Americans to seek peace and safety within the comforts of their new suburban homes.
The increased availability of credit from banks, thrift and loans, and other lenders helped suburbia grow in the 1950s. The introduction of credit cards (or “charge plates”) began in February of 1950 by a man named Frank X.
McNamara. He ran a small New York loan company. Mr. McNamara came up with the novel idea of offering a single credit card to many different people.
His credit card/charge plate was named “The Diners Club” card. The card was later accepted at department stores, restaurants, and a few hotels. American Express and Carte Blanche soon acquired “Diners Club”, and the expansion of consumer credit took off from there.
The introduction of credit cards helped restaurants and small businesses increase their sales tremendously in the 1950s. With the ready supply of new credit, Americans began visiting more restaurants, traveling, and spending money at shopping malls (first opened in 1956). Nineteen fifty-six was the same year that President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped push through the approval of the Interstate Highway Act. The new bill funded the construction of over 46,000 miles of new roads with more than $130 billion of federal money. The new roads helped car, truck, and suburban home sales increase dramatically throughout the nation.
The 1950s was also the decade that gave us the introduction of the national franchised business. Ray Kroc, a successful milk shake mixer salesman, was impressed with his customers’ The McDonald Brothers’ Self Service Restaurant in San Bernardino, California. Ray Kroc was amazed by the efficiency of their automated food serving system as well as with the high number of food sales at their restaurant. Mr. Kroc made an agreement with McDonald’s to franchise their restaurant business nationwide.
Hollywood began to get in on the act of promoting the perfect American lifestyles with hit television shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet. As more and more television viewers watched these television shows, more Americans tried to emulate these shows by moving out to suburbia to find their own version of the “white picket fence” home.
Walt Disney purchased 160 acres of orange groves in Anaheim in the early 1950s, and began the construction of the ideal place to visit – Disneyland. Television, movies, and theme parks began to focus on entertaining people as a way to distract them from the daily pressures of life.
The high fertility rates after World War II helped fuel the suburban housing boom as larger families needed larger suburban homes. America’s fertility rate peaked at 3.77 children per married household in 1957. The suburban location provided them with a home, garden, car, and the model American family lifestyle as seen on television.
The overall U.S. suburban population increased from almost 27 percent in 1950 to almost 50 percent here in the 21st Century. Homeownership rates increased from 43 percent in 1940 to over 65% to 70% in the early years of the 21st Century. The increased number of home mortgages, credit cards, roads, freeways, jobs, the size of families, and the overall U.S. population all led to the demand for more suburban communities around the nation.
Suburban communities began in the northeast with placed like Levittown, NY and Allentown, PA. Franchised businesses, theme parks, movies and television shows, which glorified the suburban lifestyle, began or were created in Southern California. As the 1950s progressed, these areas had significant impacts on other regions throughout America. More cities and states began to take on the look of the best of both regions.
The 1950s should be looked at as the decade that helped form the modern prosperous American society. Americans in the 1950s experienced the Korean War, the expansion of franchised businesses, the evolution of television, movies, theme parks, rock and roll music, rebelling teenage youth, and the space race with the other “Superpower” in the world – the Soviet Union. Suburbia in the 1950s offered people the American Dream as well as a sanctuary from the daily pressures of life. Suburbia’s root really began in the 1950s, and would continue to evolve for many more decades.
Stay tuned for part 2 (Suburbia’s Evolution: The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s) in the next issue.
Author: Rick Tobin
Rick Tobin has a diversified background in both the Real Estate and Securities fields for the past 25+ years. He has held seven (7) different Real Estate and Securities brokerage licenses to date.
Rick has an extensive background in the financing of residential and commercial properties around the U.S with debt, equity, and mezzanine money. His funding sources have included banks, life insurance companies, REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts), Equity Funds, and foreign money sources.
You can visit Rick Tobin at RealLoans.com.