Remembering Sprawl in Jackson, MS

Richard Ford

After 12 years of Depression and 4 years of a very bloody World War II, America was in the mood for a new way of living, with new buildings on freshly developed parcels on the edges of cities. The cities needed paint, tuck pointing and much more, but the new subdivisions caught the nation's imagination along with heavy government subsidy and regulatory support. The Federal Housing Administration and its various derivatives like Fannie Mae were pumping mortgage money into single-family housing. The Federal Highway Administration had begun its buildup to the Interstate Highway Act's 90% Federal funding for expressways to the suburbs. The Federal Rural Electrification program was providing cheap electric hookups to the new suburbs. All these subsidies and many more interventions eased the development of the new America on the edge.

It's tempting for urbanists to look for special interest conspiracies that tricked the American people into wanting suburbia. They do exist: the auto and oil combine did conspire against street cars, and New York highway czar Robert Moses, architects Frank Lloyd Wright, le Corbusier and many other 20th Century elite designers lost faith in the city as a center of civilization. Yet, the truth is post war Americans must have loved the suburban dream. I remember the opening scene in the Pawn Broker where Rod Steiger relaxes in his Levittown subdivision next to the Long Island Expressway. He's abandoned his apartment near his shop in NYC for the good life. Author Richard Ford reminds us of the attitude then in the Sunday, July 7 New York Times ("The Song of the Suburbs"). His dad never owned a new house; they lived in an old bungalow near downtown Jackson, Mississippi, but he loved to load the family in his '46 Mercury and look at the new subdivisions on a Sunday afternoon. Ford won awards writing about New Jersey's suburban real estate in The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. Jersey often gets mocked by New Yorkers, but has sometimes had Ford as a defender. After reading about his father it's easier to understand why.

Rod Steiger in the suburbs

Rod Steiger in the opening scene in the Pawnbroker relaxing in Levittown

 

This reminds me of my own father, Ernest Norquist, who would talk at the dinner table about whether to "build" or stay in our old house. He was a Presbyterian pastor and my mother, who handled the family finances, never thought we had enough money to "build". But Dad had the itch, which he scratched by buying new cars; a '49 Buick Special, '53 Pontiac, a '54 Studebaker, a '56 Chevy station wagon and then a 1961 Nash Rambler. He was an Army medic and a Bataan Death March survivor who'd been moved to Japan at the end of 1944. He was an eye witness to the napalming of Tokyo in March 1945, with over 100,000 civilian deaths. After three and a half years of imprisonment, he weighed less than 130 lbs. even though he was 6'4". At wars end, Ernest was ready for the American Dream. It's not that he disliked cities. He loved the streetcars of his hometown St. Paul. He had worked summers for the Northern Pacific Railroad to put himself through college. He could even be described as a rail fan, but I remember him admiring the new suburban houses. One night at the dinner table he even spoke approvingly of Robert Moses' slum clearance and expressway building which were featured in the Saturday Evening Post.

Later, Dad started to understand that someting was wrong. When the Congress Street Expressway was built in Chicago, he regretted the vast destruction involved which included a hotel that his Northern Pacific Dining car crew had stayed at in 1939 and 1940. He started to comprehend that all the road building and "slum" clearance had consequences; it was helping Americans travel further and further between increasingly insignificant destinations.

Today urbanism is gaining acceptance as measured by real estate value. Millenials are driving less and locating near transit. It is now more the suburbs, particularly the post WWII suburbs, that seem at risk. House prices are constrained and the mall, once a sure thing, is now just as likely to be failed real estate.

Perhaps, because it was the newness that attracted 1950s consumers, it was inevitiable that the single family house tracts would lose favor with age. Maybe we'll learn that design of human settlement needs to be interestingly complex; that city and village centers need to be nearby, connected to and part of neighborhoods.

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