by Allan Carlson, Ph.D.

A Family Policy Lecture for the Family Research Council, Washington, DC, 27 March 2003

It's A Wonderful Life, the modest 1946 film which has become an American icon, offers rival images of the mid-20th Century American suburb.  In one scene, George and Mary Bailey drive the immigrant Martini family from its miserable shack in Potter's Field to a new ranch-style house in the Bailey Park development.  "I own my own home!" shouts Mr. Martini, as Mary Bailey presents the family with welcoming gifts of salt, wine, and bread.  In the next scene, the meanspirited monopoly capitalist, Mr. Potter, hears one of his aides describe Bailey Park as a collection of "the prettiest little houses you ever saw."  Later in the film, of course, the angel Clarence places George Bailey in a world in which he had never been born.  Bedford Falls has now become Pottersville, a community of vice, alcoholism, hypocrisy, mental disorder, and dysfunctional families: portent of a suburban nightmare.

Ever since, it seems, these rival images of the American suburb have clashed in our popular culture.  The positive view of suburban life took firmest root in the new medium of television.  During the late 1950's, this genre found a kind of pop perfection with the Anderson family in Father Knows Best (1954-60), the Stone family in The Donna Reed Show (1958-66), and the indomitable Cleavers in Leave It To Beaver (1957-63).  In all of these TV families, we saw professional fathers married to homemaking mothers raising their children to moral maturity in safe, modern suburban communities.  Behind the canned laughs, a warm domesticity permeated these fictional homes; the minor crises of the children's lives were invariably resolved in family-strengthening ways.[1] 

The dark vision of suburbia came to television somewhat later, first appearing as science fiction.  The common theme was the supposed suburban fear of difference.  One episode of The Twilight Zone, for example, showed paranoid suburbanites tracking down a presumed space alien in their midst.  The first true "reality show" on television, the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family, placed cameras in and about the Loud family suburban home, expecting to record scenes of familial growth and solidarity.  Instead, as the nation watched, the family fell apart, with the son "coming out" as a homosexual and the parents turning to divorce.[2]

Hollywood films cast the suburbs in still darker shades.  Stifling suburban conformity and the terror lurking underneath have been common themes.  An example is Poltergeist (from 1982), where the domestic calm of the Freeling family is torn apart by ferocious demons, the denizens of an old Indian burial ground under the family's suburban home.

The real fate of the Loud family on television would be replicated in a series of films.  Most recently, American Beauty (1999)--in one critic's words--"savagely deconstructs the notion of wholesome family values in the heartland of American suburbia."[3]

"Suburbia as Fascism" is another recurrent Hollywood theme.  In The Stepford Wives (from 1975), a malevolent husband moves his family from the normalcy of the city out to a suburb where unhappy housewives are transformed into "domesticated and subservient robot replicants."[4]  Gary Ross's Pleasantville carries this theme to perfection.  He shows two contemporary teenagers from a broken home who are magically transported into a 1950's black-and-white television sit-com.  As these newcomers expose the TV town to modern art, dirty books, and pre-marital sex, color appears.  As one critic puts it, "Pleasantville cleverly satirizes those who preach the virtues of…family values."[5]

The same battle over the meaning of suburbia has taken place in words.  Early promoters showed a populist exuberance.  Declaring in 1948 that "children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of this country as is Wall Street and the railroads," President Harry Truman urged passage of a bill to provide "a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family."[6]  Bill Levitt, the architect of the famed Levittown developments who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1950, declared: "For Sale: A New Way of Life."  The Saturday Evening Post of that era saw the suburban surge "motivated by emotions as strong and deep as those which sent the pioneer wagons rolling westward a century ago."[7]  Contemporary historian Michael Johns sees the suburbs of the 1950's as joining together "the classic American forces of cultural assimilation, economic mobility, and ownership of property."[8]

Suburbia's critics were again legion.  Lewis Mumford castigated suburban life as "a multitude of uniform houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances, on uniform roads…inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods."[9]  William Whyte, author of The Organization Man, stressed how "people's friendships, even their most intimate ones," were predetermined by suburbia's physical layout, denying authentic human bonds.[10]  Another critic described the new suburbs as hyper-superficial, "a sorority house with kids."  Feminists would condemn this era as "a foul time for women and girls."[11]  Later critics such as James Howard Kunstler would label "the American automobile utopia known as the suburbs" as "the favorite place of  conservative Republicans,…their natural habitat…where they spawn and replicate… It is inherently unsuited to be the dwelling place of civilization (or of a restored civic virtue)."[12]

Few suburban critics, though, have surpassed the vitriol of John Keats, author of The Crack in the Picture Window:

Apple Drive, like most developments, is a jail of the soul, a wasteland of look-alike boxes stuffed with look-alike neighbors.  Here there are no facilities for human life, other than bedrooms and bathrooms.  Here is a place that lacks the advantages of both city and country but retains the disadvantages of each.  Each suburban family is somehow a broken home, consisting of a father who appears as an overnight guest, a put-upon housewife with too much to do, and children necessarily brought up in a kind of communism.[13]

My Goodness!  Such a nightmare!  And yet, positive images of 1950's suburbia haunt our society, to this day.  Leave It To Beaver, as example, was not a very successful show when it originally aired from 1957 to 1963; it never climbed higher than 18th in the Nielsen ratings.  Since 1968, though, the show has enjoyed a boisterous syndication; never more so than now.    Dozens of LITB websites--yes, they have their own moniker--compete today to sell memorabilia.  Beaver conventions are held.  Whole books, written by frenzied academics, have sought to destroy "the Beaver myth":  books such as Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were and Joanne Meyerwitz's Not June Cleaver, which blasts "the mythic images of cultural icons--June Cleaver, Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson."[14]  Stephen Talbot, who as a child-actor played the part of "Gilbert" on Leave It To Beaver (his signature line was "Gee, Beav, I don't know") reported in 1997 that he had spent his entire adult life "trying to conceal my 'Leave It To Beaver' past….[T]he series has become inescapable."[15]

Beyond the sad humor, such powerful passions and sharp ideological conflict do suggest that the controversy over images of suburbia may be more important than we usually think.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most pointed debate between "capitalist" and "communist" during the Cold War was in fact over the meaning of suburban life.  The famed "Kitchen Debate," held July 24, 1959, between then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev started in a model American suburban home on exhibit in Communist Moscow.  Nixon pointed to a built-in control panel for a washing machine, and labeled it "the newest model,…the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installation in [American] houses," to support our homemakers.  Khruschev sneered that the Soviets did not have "this capitalist attitude toward women."  Nixon retorted: "I think that this attitude toward women is universal.  What we want to do is make easier the life of our housewives."[16]

Census 2000 reports that the majority of Americans--over 150 million-- now live in suburbs or suburb-like environments.  Even in cities, the rise of "urban malls," casual dress, minimarts, and McDonald's restaurants testifies to the suburbanization of all American life.  We are now a suburban people; or, in the title of one recent book, Suburban Nation.[17] 

On a more immediate note, contemporary scholarly accounts of the suburbs usually point to three nations as classic examples of modern suburban cultures: The United States; Great Britain; and Australia.[18]  Is it just a coincidence, again, that these are also the three--indeed, the only three--nations with combat forces now fighting in Iraq?  Might "suburbia" actually be a concept that embodies not only geography and housing design, but coherent and potent shared values as well?  The United Nations failed to act in Iraq.  Might future historians characterize the Iraq War as The Suburban Nations on the march?  On a more speculative note, might these future historians also see this event--in some unexpected way--as a stark manifestation of what Newsweek magazine recently called "the globalization of American family values"?[19]


How then do we sort out the truth about the suburbs, in the 1950's and also today?  Let us examine more closely some of the prevailing myths about suburbia:

Myth #1:  The suburbs of the 1950's were patriarchal, resting on exaggerated gender differences.  This is surely false, the result of looking backward from today's narrow feminist worldview.  Indeed, observers at the time were struck instead by the growing "domestication of the American Male."  In 1954, Life magazine concluded that "not since pioneer days, when men built their own log cabins, have they been so personally involved in their homes."  In contrast to their fathers, these "new suburban men" constructed backyard patios, entertained business associates in their homes as hosts and bartenders, bought modern time-saving gadgets for the kitchen, tended babies so their wives might go shopping or to club meetings, helped with the marketing, cared for the lawn, and often outnumbered the mothers at school on Parents Day.  Even those fathers grilling hamburgers on the backyard barbeque represented a new turn by men to domestic tasks.[20]  Suburban man, one study concluded, "can afford to orient himself more toward the enjoyment of life in family activities."[21]  McCalls magazine offered its own explanation, also in 1954:

Had Ed been a father twenty five years ago, he would have had little time to play and work along with his children.  Husbands and fathers were respected then, but they weren't friends and companions to their families.  Today, the chores as well as the companionship make Ed part of his family.  He and Carol have centered their lives almost completely around their children and their home.[22]

Women, too, were taking on new roles during the supposedly rigid 1950's.  A comparison of language in The Ladies Home Journal of that decade with language from the 1890-1920 period showed the disappearance of references to femininity and delicacy, replaced in the '50's by a stress on male-female companionship.  Similarly, the view of women as subordinate to men completely vanished.  (On the other hand, and importantly, there was no shift by the 1950's towards more acceptance of working mothers.).[23]  A recent scholarly analysis of the ubiquitous Tupperware Party system of the 1950's sees it as a form of "non-radical feminism": "Undermining the postwar image of the housebound, passive, and privatized suburban consumer, Tupperware embodied consumption as a liberating and celebratory form."[24]  Indeed, the main worry of psychiatrists in the 1950's was that "the sexes in this country are losing their identity."  Patriarchy had vanished; so-called "sexual ambiguity" was the problem.[25]

Myth #2: Suburbia in the 1950's contained a homogeneous population.  It is true that the practice of "red-lining" kept African-Americans out of most of the postwar suburbs.  And it is also true that the suburbs tended to segregate persons by income, age, and social class: these were middle-class creations by new, young families.  Yet, in another sense, the postwar suburbs were a great experiment in pulling diverse people together.  This new generation of white ethnics had left their segregated urban ghettoes--Polish, Italian, Jewish, Swedish, Greek--to coalesce into Americans.  This suburbia represented the greatest mixing of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews ever recorded in our history.  Coming after the challenges of The Great Depression and World War II, this was a period--in Philip Roth's words--of "fierce Americanization," a time of nation-building resting on a common devotion to family creation and "an overall cultural coherence."[26]

Myth #3: The suburbs generated a new wave of mental illness.  Again, not true.  In his careful study of one locale, Herbert Gans found "no more mental illness, at least of the kind that surfaces into statistics, in Levittown than in other [suburban] communities, and certainly less than in the cities."[27]  Indeed, surveys showed suburbanites to be happy people.  Over 80 percent rated their marriages as "above average."  Another survey found two out of three labelling their marriage as "extraordinarily happy" or "decidedly happier than average."[28]  It's like the so-called Lake Wobegon effect in school testing:  all suburban marriages were above average.

Myth #4:  The suburbs of the 1950's were highly conformist.  This is probably true.  But as Michael Johns correctly asks:  "[w]hy would anyone not follow the rules, accept the codes, and buy the entire package of suburban life?"  Unlike their parents, the typical suburban couple owned a house in a neighborhood that guarded property values.  They enjoyed a rising income and a summer vacation.  Their children were healthy; the schools safe.  They had confidence in a government that guaranteed mortgages, put veterans through college, built schools and sewer systems, and vaccinated the kids.  Moreover, "everyone understood that a cold war was being fought against an enemy whose way of life…was a threat to their own."[29]  Looking from a different angle, Herbert Gans found so-called suburban "conformity" to represent an "accelerated social life" resting on more neighboring, greater friendliness, and enhanced readiness to provide mutual aid: hardly bad things.  The Levittowners made little use of their backyards, focusing instead on the social life of the sidewalks and streets.  Rejecting Whyte's claim about the dominant role of propinquity in shaping friendships, Gans found Levittowners choosing instead personally "compatible"--not adjacent--neighbors with whom to socialize.[30]

Myth #5:  The suburbs represented the last stand of the traditional family.  This new suburbia was indeed intensely familistic and child-centered.  The 1950's embodied a true culture of marriage, where all the signals pointed toward family-building.  As one woman put it, the "current of the mainstream was so strong that you only had to step off the bank and float downsteam into marriage and motherhood."[31]  The proportion of American adults who were married rose to near an historic high; the average age for first marriage fell to 22 for men; 20 for women.  David Riesman found that young adults "moved to the suburbs for the benefit of the children,…for the sake of a better family life."[32]  Children were, indeed, everywhere: products of the famous Baby Boom.  Female college graduates defied the laws of sociology: their fertility more than doubled.  Dennis Brogan reported that "[y]ou can find in people of my [older] generation either wonder and pleasure at the acceptance of the four-child family by their only child, or an irritated bewilderment at such indecently large families."[33]

Yet it is also true that the suburban family was, in a sense, as new as it was traditional.[34]  Compared to families in the old ethnic neighborhoods, these homes rested on greater intimacy, companionship, and inward focus.  Compared to farm families, the suburban family was a far less functional and a more emotion-driven, child-centered entity.  A mere ten percent of suburban mothers with preschool children worked, even part time: well below the figures for city and farm.  Compared to both urban and rural family structures, the suburban family was also more connected to voluntary social, civic and religious groups: Tocquevillians all.

Myth #6:  The suburbs created a spiritual vacuum.  In truth, the 1950's witnessed the greatest surge in church membership and church building in American history.  Compared to the 1930's, the proportion of the population attending church or synagogue weekly nearly doubled.  It is true that many questioned the significance of this.  "There has been a revival of religion," Brogan noted, "but that ambiguous term does not imply a revival of the sense of sin."  Elting Morison doubted that higher church attendance meant a "daily search for divine guidance" in one's life or building a true personal relationship with God; more likely, he thought, it exhibited growing recognition "of the need for explicit and shared values."[35]  Gans said that the Levittowners believed in the value of church and school, not as transforming institutions, but as places "to support the home and its values."[36]  All the same, the new Revised Standard Version of the Bible topped the bestseller list in 1952; indeed, it was the top selling book for the whole decade of the 1950's.  A new sense of religiosity spread through American society: "In God We Trust" went on the currency; "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance.

In short, the suburbs of the 1950's were more complex and more interesting places than the myths would have them be.  Herbert Gans is right in chiding most of suburbia's critics as cosmopolitans projecting "the alienation they experience in American society onto suburbanites."  In attacking the suburbs, they were--in truth--attacking the middle-class, American virtues of family, faith, and responsibility.[37]  Michael Johns actually sees America reaching its peak--its Moment of Grace--as an urban society in this oft-derided decade.  It was

…the moment when the American city of factories, downtown shopping, and well defined neighborhoods, vitalized by a culture of urbane song, dress, and manners, achieved its consummate expression; when new suburbs relied on cities for jobs and manufactured goods; and when the residents of those suburbs epitomized the nearly dogmatic optimism of the time and belonged to a dense network of groups and associations.[38]

It is important to note, as well, that the suburban boom was also a product of public policy.  During the 1930's, the Federal government had favored the subsistence homestead of house, garden, and chicken coop on three to five acres.  After World War II, suburban developments gained preference and it was federally guaranteed FHA and VA loans that fueled suburbia's spread.  Meanwhile, Federal funds also built the freeways that bound these new communities to central cities.


And yet, this achievement--this "moment of Grace"--did not last: shortly after 1960, central city and suburb both went into a period of crisis.  For suburbia, the cause--at least in part--was the internal weakness of the new suburban family model.

To begin with, this family system rested on the concept of marriage as "companionship in leisure time activities, not on merging every aspect of married life."[39]  The new home would be devoted to psychological intimacy, love, and democracy, with the family resting on "the mutual affection, the sympathetic understanding, and the comradeship of its members."[40]

This also meant accepting the home-without-material-function as a positive good.  For the prior hundred years, the family had been shedding its historic functions: the making of clothes, the processing of food, and the crafting of soap, candles, and other commodities went to the factories; education and child protection went to governments.  The suburban home would complete this abdication of useful tasks.  Architects concluded that housing "inherited from the family farm" should be replaced by modern, flexible designs.  "The goal of home construction" would be "a frictionless family life."  Sheds, storage cellars, attics, work rooms, loom and sewing rooms, parlors, and large kitchens must all go.  The "companionship family," the Federal Housing Administration concluded, needed "space and facilities for nurturing," not for work: it wanted ambiguous spaces such as "the family room."  The great divorce of home and workplace must be made final, and complete.[41]  Accordingly, government backed mortgages would be denied to any residence that contained space for an office, productive shop, separate apartment, or small business.  Lawns would be allowed, and encouraged.  But large vegetable gardens were questionable.  Modest animal husbandry, such as a rabbit hutch or chicken coop, forbidden.

There were other fragile aspects to the suburban family.  Herbert Gans shows that suburbs like Levittown were built with small children in mind, and that most children were satisfied there.  But he also acknowledges that adolescents had no respectable and nearby place to go, "nothing to do."  The bedrooms were too small for adolescent use; the shopping malls too far away; there were few low-rent shopping areas that could survive on the marginal purchases of adolescents.[42]  Moreover, although women were generally happy in suburbia, there was a minority who reported "boredom" and "loneliness," the result of the husband's absence during the day and separation from extended kin.[43]

Indeed, the suburbs were also too modern, too bound up with a complete break from the past.  Fashion dictated that the modern living room not be cluttered up by old furniture and other family heirlooms.  Meanwhile, the faith in progress and boundless optimism of the suburbanites also led to a curious disrespect for nature and the broader environment.

And then, the suburbs began to change.  Some of these alterations were benign, or even positive, relative to the family.  The age segregation found in the post war era inevitably gave way to a greater mixing of the generations.  Fair housing laws opened the suburbs to minorities, as well.  Offices, distribution centers, and even factories left the downtowns, settling in the suburban "edge cities."  The classic commute from suburb to downtown was frequently replaced by the suburb-to-suburb drive.

Other changes, however, reflected a diminished commitment to family life.  Between 1960 and 1977, marital fertility in America fell 40 percent, a change concentrated in the suburbs.  And while divorce remained less common there than in the cities, it nonetheless climbed.[44]  Federally guaranteed mortgages, once funneled by law and custom overwhelmingly toward young, newly married couples, were partially redirected, to the benefit of divorced and never-married householders.[45] 

Home architecture changed, as well.  Suburbs of the 1950's were front yard and sidewalk oriented; by the 1980's, sidewalks had disappeared, huge three-car garages dominated the front yards, and household life reoriented toward the back.  In new suburbs such as Naperville, Illinois, one analyst noted, "it seems much more possible [now] not to know your neighbors."  Inside homes, the living and dining rooms were shrinking, becoming "vestigial spaces" alongside the front hall and reflecting a retreat from home entertainment.  Meanwhile, master bedrooms swelled in size while bathrooms increased in number and luxury: by the 1990's, one bath per bedroom was the construction norm.[46]  John Keats's snobbish sneer in 1960 toward the suburb--"Here there are no facilities for human life other than bedrooms and bathrooms"--actually seemed to be coming true.

The largest change--indeed the one driving most of the others--was the rapid emergence of the suburban working mother.  Where only 10 percent of suburban mothers of preschoolers worked in 1960, about 75 percent did by 1990, part- and full-time.  Changes in policy (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), in ideology (the new feminism), in culture (the diminished status of homemaking), and in economics (market adjustments to a two income norm) lay behind this development.  For suburban neighborhoods, this meant a great emptying during the daylight hours: fathers to their workplace, just as before; mothers now to their workplaces as well; and the children to the daycare center, the all-day kindergarten, or the school and after-school program.  The suburban home and way-of-life had been designed around the full-time mother and homemaker: she was the linchpin of the system, the nucleus of the suburban nuclear family.  With her gone, an eery silence ensued over the expensive daylight ghost towns of late 20th century suburbia.  The nights, in Nicholas Lemann's words, meant being "stressed out in suburbia."[47]

Working mothers, of course, had less time and inclination toward children: one perhaps; sometimes two.  As the number of bedrooms rose in the average suburban home, the number of children shrank, and even those left reported a new sense of disorder.  In his comprehensive study of American youth, Francis Ianni found many suburban adolescents confused by their "early emancipation" from family life, due to mother's employment and--sometimes--divorce.  These youth complained that "there was nothing to do and frequently expressed resentment at being abandoned by parents."  The researcher voiced concern about these "sullen and often disruptive bands of youngsters involuntarily liberated from parental guidance and supervision….To some extent, these peer groups are the suburban equivalents of the urban street gangs."[48]

Curiously, the diminished nature of suburban family life even accounts for the newest charge leveled against the suburbs: "suburban sprawl."  Anti-sprawl activists denounce the over-zealous development of new subdivisions and malls, and blame it on over population, the dreaded result of suburban fertility.  In fact, the real problem is almost the reverse.  It is true that the overall American population grew from 179 million in 1960 to 281 million in 2000, an increase of 57 percent.  Yet the number of households, requiring separate shelter, grew by 100 percent, from 52.8 million in 1960 to 105 million in 2000.  Why the discrepancy?  Simply put: the retreat from family living.  In 1960, 75 percent of all American households were "married couple households" and average household size was 3.4 persons.  By 2000, though, married couples comprised only about 50 percent of households and average household size had fallen to 2.5.  All the growth was in the never-married, divorced, and "childless cohabitating" categories.  Indeed, if the suburban family model of 1960 could be magically imposed on the American populace of 2003, the U.S.A. would actually need 28 million fewer dwelling units than it now has.  Put another way, marriage and larger families actually prove to be more environment-friendly than singles and childless couples.  Why?  Larger families--on a per capita basis--use less land, building materials, fuel, food, and supplies; they are more efficient.  This January, the leading environmental journal Nature calculated that if the projected average household size of developed nations for 2015 was the same as it had been in 1985, 415 million fewer housing units would be needed worldwide.  Again, family breakdown, not too many people, seems to be the primary cause of modern suburban sprawl.[49]


The key question follows: Can the suburbs be renewed as vital centers for family living?  I believe they can, but only if we consciously guide them toward healing the great divorce between home and work, bringing both parents back in the home for child-centered ends.

This is why the so-called New Urbanism is a step in the right direction, but only a step.  This movement among architects and urban planners calls for more diverse neighborhoods designed to accommodate pedestrians as well as autos.  The return of sidewalks, small front lots, large front porches, and garages on alleys are parts of their scheme.  Well-defined and easily accessible community centers and public spaces, they argue, should also guide suburban design.  Small shopping districts should be in walking distance, and cater to the needs of adults, children and adolescents; the latter, in particular, should have "honorable gathering places."  Architecture and landscaping should boisterously incorporate local history and building practices and show ecological sensitivity.[50]

These are all worthy ideas, but they remain incomplete.  They aim at renewed "community," understood as block, neighborhood, and polis.  But the New Urbanists say little about families, except to note, accept, and even praise their new diversity.  This probably reflects the origin of the New Urbanism on the cultural and environmental left, where "family values" in any traditional sense hold little sway.

For 21st Century families, the deeper need is refunctionalized homes.  Family life will broadly thrive again, whether in "old" suburbs or "new urbanist" ones, only when both parents are relodged in homes that are beehives of daily activity.  "Productive homes," not "companionate homes," are the imperative need.  Only this will start to heal the breach between work and home caused by the urban-industrial revolution, a divide that the "gawky" but "healthy and happy" suburbs of the 1950's were decidedly unable to bridge.

In practice, what would this mean?  Some of the specifics are already clear:

  • We can see home schools, where families are reclaiming the vital education function from the state and regrounding parents (mostly mothers at this point) and children in their homes and neighborhoods;

  • And we can see the 'wired' home, where the web and the modern computer make it possible to renew the family home as a place of commerce and the professions.

And yet, government regulations still maintain large barriers to the progress of this broad pro-family revolution.  FHA underwriting rules sharply restrict the kinds of work that can be done in homes.  Zoning laws, a relatively recent product from the 1920's, remain implicitly tied to the weak "companionship model" of family life.  In most places, it is nearly impossible to operate a business (with visiting customers) or a preschool or a professional office out of one's home. 

Even worse, it turns out, are the Neighborhood or Homeowner Associations, a new kind of informal governance that has recorded rapid growth at the same time as suburban family life has declined.  A product of the 1960's, Homeowner Associations now embrace 50 million Americans.  Using restrictive covenants and liens-on-homes to enforce their wills, these Associations are--in analyst Spencer MacCallum's words--far more "arbitrary, unresponsive, and dictatorial" than Zoning Boards in their control over the lives of residents.  Commonly prohibiting everything from home offices to swing sets and picket fences, Homeowner Associations--in one critic's words--provide neither liberty, nor justice, nor domestic tranquility.[51] 

The iron grip of state boards governing the professions of law, accounting, medicine, dentistry, and so on also limit the prospects for family renewal.  Once practiced out of homes, these professions reorganized on industrial models in the 20th Century: massive professional schools have replaced apprenticeships just as mass clinics have displaced the office-in-the-home, changes aided and abetted by state regulation.  With modest exceptions, modern technologies of learning, communication, research, and practice no longer make this necessary.

What is the solution?  In one word: Liberty.  We need to tear back the web of regulations that prevent families from being full, rich, and productive.  Specifically:

  • At the Federal level, we should abolish FHA and other public underwriting rules that limit the creation of home offices, home schools, and home businesses.

  • At the state level, we should abolish those regulations of the professions--medicine, law, dentistry, accounting, and so on--
    which favor giant institutions and prohibit decentralized learning such as apprenticeships; standardized exams alone should determine competence and licensing.

  • At the local level, zoning laws should be loosened or even abolished, to allow the flourishing of home gardens, modest animal husbandry, home offices and businesses, and home schools.  In place of zoning, the more flexible "nuisance laws" of the early 20th Century should be restored as guardians of neighborhood tranquility.

  • At the neighborhood or "development" level, "restrictive covenants" that bind families to the failed "companionship" lifestyle should be loosened, if possible; Homeowners Associations in new developments should be discouraged.

  • And at the cultural level, we should look to the creation of intentional family-centered communities by religious peoples.  Co-believers might create towns and communities built around worship, mutual obligation, and the rearing of children, living environments that could encourage the productive home and spiritual vitality.[52]

From this new birth of freedom, we can even imagine the lonely contemporary American suburbs reborn, with small shops where ghostly living rooms once stood; with lawyers, doctors, and dentists again working out of home offices, assisted by able young apprentices; with productive gardens and modest animal life; and with the midday laughter of homeschooled children where only silence had prevailed.  This is an environment where the great breach between home and work might heal, and where marriage and the child-rich family, embedded in real community, might flourish again in this, "The Suburban Century."


[1]   On this genre, see: Lynn Spigel, "From Theatre to Space Ship: Metaphors of Suburban Domesticity in Postwar America," in Roger Silverstone, ed., Visions of Suburbia (London & New York: Routledge, 1997): 221-24.

[2]   Spigel, "From Theatre to Spaceship," pp. 224, 232.

[3]   Greg King, "American Beauty," at http://www.all-reviews.com/videos/americanbeauty-10.htm.

[4]   Spigel, "From Theatre to Space Ship," p. 227.

[5]   Schlomo Schwartzberg, "Pleasantville," at http://www.boxoff.com

[6]   "Housing Gets No. 1 Spot at Family Life Conference," Journal of Housing (May 1948): 15.

[7]   Harold Martin, "Are We Building a City 600 Miles Long?" Saturday Evening Post (Jan. 2, 1960).

[8]   Michael Johns, Moment of Grace: The American City in the 1950's (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003): 94.

[9]   Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961): 486.

[10]   William H. Whyte, Jr., "How the New Suburbia Socializes," Fortune 48 (August 1953): 120-22.

[11]   Michele Landsberg, "'Family Values' a Myth of Suburban 1950's," The Toronto Star (Dec. 10, 2000).

[12]   James Howard Kunstler, "A Virtual Public Realm is not Good Enough," The American Enterprise (Fall 1997); at http://www.kunstler.com/mags_am_ent.html.

[13]   John Keats, "Compulsive Suburbia," The Atlantic Monthly 205 (April 1960): 47-50.

[14]   Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were (New York: Basic Books, 1992); and Joanne Meyerowitz, Not June Cleaver (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

[15]   Stephen Talbot, "Living Down Beaver," at http://www.salon.com/aug97/mothers/beaver970822.html.

[16]   CNN Interactive, "Cold War; Episode 14: Red Spring," at http://www.cnn.com/specials/cold.war/episodes/14/documents/debate/.

[17]   Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation (New York: North Point Press, 2001).

[18]   A point made most recently in: Silverstone, Visions of Suburbia, p. 4.

[19]   "Bush Family Values: The New Christian Crusades," Newsweek (Dec. 1, 2002).

[20]   "The New American Domesticated Male: A Boon to the Household and a Boom for Industry," Life 36 (Jan. 4, 1954): 42-45; "The Weekend  Woe of  a Father Named Joe: He Gives the Wife Time Off and Bravely Takes Charge," Life 41 (July 16, 1956): 85-89; and "Outdoor Cooking: Barbecue Boom Smokes Up U.S.," Life 35 (July 20, 1953): 49.

[21]   Robert O. Blood, Jr. and Donald M. Wolfe, Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Life (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1960): 61.

[22]   Quotation from:  Johns, Moment of Grace, p. 101.

[23]   Sanford M. Dornbusch and Caroline Roberts, "Perception of Women in the Ladies Home Journal, 1890-1955," Unpublished paper, 1957.

[24]   Alison J. Clarke, "Tupperware: Suburbia, Sociality, and Mass Consumption," in Silverstone, Visions of Suburbia, pp. 134-56. 

[25]   From Life (December 24, 1956); quoted in Clyde Kluckhohn, "Have There Been Discernible Shifts in American Values During the Past Generation?" in Elting E. Morison, ed., The American Style: Essays in Value and Performance (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958): 201.

[26]   See: Johns, Moment of Grace, p. 5.

[27]   Herbert Gans, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967): 236.

[28]   In Johns, Moment of Grace, p. 114.

[29]   Ibid

[30]   Gans, The Levittowners, pp. 157-59.

[31]   Brett Harvey, The Fifties: A Woman's Oral History (New York: Harper-Collins, 1993): xiii.

[32]   David Riesman, "The Found Generation," The American Scholar (Autumn 1956).

[33]   Dennis W. Brogan, "Unnoticed Changes in America." Harpers (February 1957).

[34]   Johns, Moment of Grace, p. 95.

[35]   Kluckhohn, "Shifts in Values During the Past Generation," p. 180.

[36]   Gans, The Levittowners, p. 28.

[37]   Ibid., pp. 234, 240.

[38]   Johns, Moment of Grace, p. 1.

[39]   Blood and Wolfe, Husbands and Wives, p. 173.

[40]   Ernest W. Burgess and Henry V. Locke, The Family (New York: American Book Company, 1945): 654-72.

[41]   See: John P. Dean, "Housing Design and Family Values," Land Economics 29 (May 1953): 128-41; Svend Reimer, "Architecture for Family Living," Journal of Social Issues 7 (1951): 140-51; and Gertrude Sipperly Fish, ed., The Story of Housing (New York: Macmillan, 1979): 476-78.

[42]   Gans, The Levittowners, pp. 206-09. 

[43]   Ibid., pp. 231-33.

[44]   According to a 1982 survey, among women whose first marriages had survived at least ten years, 44 percent of those in central cities saw them terminated during the next 15 years, compared to 21 percent in the suburbs.  See: Luiza W. Chan and Tim B. Heaton, "Demographic Determinants of Delayed Divorce," Journal of Divorce 13 (1987): 97-103.

[45]   See: Allan C. Carlson, From Cottage to Work Station (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993): 80-82.

[46]   Nicholas Lemann, "Stressed Out in Suburbia," The Atlantic 264 (Nov. 1989): 42-43.

[47]   Lemann, "Stressed Out in Suburbia," p. 40.

[48]   Francis A.J. Ianni, The Search for Structure: A Report on American Youth Today (New York: The Free Press, 1989): 84-85, 206-07.

[49]   Jiangu Liu, Gretchen C. Dally. Paul E. Ehrlich, and Gary W. Luck, "Effects of Household Dynamics on Resource Consumption and Biodiversity," Nature 421 (30 Jan. 2003): 530-33.

[50]   Kunstler, "A Virtual Public Realm is not Good Enough," p. 2; Michael Leccese and Kathleen McCormick, eds., Charter of the New Urbanism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999); and Peter Katz and Vincent Scully, Jr., The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1993).

[51]   See" Spencer Heath MacCallum, "The Case for Land Lease Versus Subdivision: Homeowners' Associations Reconsidered," in David T. Beito, Peter Gordon, and Alexander Tabarrok, eds., The Voluntary City (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002): 371-79.

[52]   One architect giving this idea attention is Philip Bess of the firm Thursday Architects in Chicago (http://thursdayarchitects.com).  See: Philip Bess, "Making Sacred: The Phenomenology of Matter and Spirit in Architecture and the City," Civitas 3 (1996): and Philip Bess, "Virtuous Reality: Critical Realism and the Reconstruction of Architectural and Urban Theory," The Classicist 3 (1996).