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Marin Theatre Company

"I live in a nice neighborhood." The Creation of Suburbia

By Margot Melcon

There were shifts in the United States in the last century that shaped the look and feel of our communities and changed the way the American Dream was defined. For many in this country, the frontier gave way to a new, iconic symbol of freedom and prosperity: home ownership.

A single-family home implies status and economic stability, not only for individuals but also for a country that measures growth in new housing starts. As industry moved away from city centers and transportation became more reliable, families that could afford to moved as well. They staked a claim on a new kind of frontier in the suburbs.

In the first half of the 20th century, there was a huge demographic shift as America became less rural and more urban, as industrial jobs attracted not only waves of immigrants but also agricultural workers in the US. But cities quickly became congested and overpopulated and had to expand, one way or another. New Deal government programs subsidized highway and public transportation construction and post-World War II housing construction soared. With help from Veterans Affairs and Federal Housing Administration loans, returning soldiers were all but promised a home of their own.

The first suburbs were built just outside of cities and seemed to spring up overnight. Developers borrowed techniques from automated manufacturing plants and created assembly line construction of homes, with few frills and little variation. The urban walking culture, with living areas built above shops and small mom-and-pop stores on every corner gave way to strip malls and big box stores. New zoning laws separated homes from work, shopping and public institutions, making automobiles a necessity.

Early suburbs promised not only independence but also the ability to choose similar individuals as neighbors. These new communities, deliberately or merely by location and cost, often filtered out people deemed undesirable because of their race, ethnicity, religion or class and became homogeneous, the houses and residents indistinguishable from each other.

The perceived safety in a community of the like-minded was to protect new suburbanites from the unpredictability of the city, as well as the looming threat coming from outside the country. Cold War-fueled paranoia fed into the need for the privacy and protection. Lawns and white picket fences transformed homes into modern day fortresses, impenetrable from the outside. Separation from the other implied safety and control. A nice neighborhood these days means clean, well-lit streets with manicured lawns and neighbors who, though very similar to you, pretty much leave you alone.