Sociology

How Suburbs Changed the United States



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Before suburbs, people were either city or country dwellers. There were no real in-betweeners. Country life, with its slower pace and relaxed attitudes, was the true American dream. Early on, city life was equated with hustle and bustle, a faster lifestyle fit only for vacations. It came to be more associated with wealth, education, entertainment and culture, though every city seemed to have its distinct class differences with the poorer city dwellers stuck in low paying factory or service jobs.

Suburbs came along and changed that. At first, only the wealthy owned second homes outside of the city. In New York, for instance, they bought second homes in Westchester, Long Island or the Jersey shore. But they needed people to work there. With the working class came cheaper homes and rooming houses. At the end of WWII, Levittown was built on Long Island to provide affordable housing to returning GIs. The houses were basically the same, cookie cutter Cape Cods. This model community was repeated across the island. Soon, even lower and middle income families could afford to move to the new towns outside of the city. All the necessities for life sprung up along the way, gas stations, grocery stores, car dealers, etc.

The new suburbs represented the best of both worlds. Children had more room to play out in the fresh air instead of on city streets. Schools were new and not crowded. Stores, like Macy's and Saks 5th Avenue, moved closer to their customer base. Train service provided a quick link to the city. Jobs moved out to take advantage of the ready work force.

And segregation found a new, unchallenged foothold.

On Long Island, the suburbs allowed people to re-segregate themselves and undid any progress made toward racial inclusion and integration. Towns like Levittown and Hicksville, though low to moderate income burgs, easily excluded non-European Americans from their neighborhoods. Towns like Garden City and Rockville Centre, more pricey areas, did the same. 'Red lining' became the catch phrase of most real estate agents. Blacks and other non-Caucasians, who tried to move into the suburbs, were steered into certain areas. Caucasians then moved to undisputed red-lined areas. Soon, the suburbs were successfully segregated. Since the European Americans were generally in power (the elected officials), they zoned and rezoned areas to their financial benefit. For instance, Mitchell Field and Roosevelt Field (on Long Island), both were zoned as Garden City, the wealthiest of the Long Island towns at the time. This added revenue dollars to their town, financed their school district and kept their property taxes down. Now, 30 years later, the poorer towns are still struggling after decades of paying exorbitant taxes and watching our tax base erode.

Segregation has been the suburbs' greatest contribution to America. The middle class by-and-large moved out of the city leaving either the poor or rich. Those neighborhoods eventually became almost totally segregated. Suburbanites segregated themselves first by race and then by wealth. While there are now some neighborhoods that are changing and becoming more segregated by class than race (if you can afford to move into the neighborhood, you can), most are still segregated, either by town or areas, especially in the north.

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