Livin the American Dream

Last week, we focused on Adam Rome’s book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism.

Rome focuses on the emergence of suburban neighborhoods in America and their lasting effect on our environment. The Introduction and Chapter 1, “Levitt’s Progress”, discusses the beginning stages of suburban development. In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a building boom. Between 1945 and 1955, Congress approved multiple bills intended to expand the housing market and encourage large scale building operations. The G.I. Bill allowed returning veterans to become homeowners with no money down and monthly payments stretched over 30 years. The Housing Act of 1949 provided funds for research on ways to reduce the costs of building and increase production. With all of this legislation, homes were being built outside of the crowded cities that average American families could afford. William Levitt was the most famous developer who made this homeowning dream possible for the American people. By dividing the construction labor into smaller tasks, homes went up quickly and affordably. Families could afford homes in these developments, such as Levittown, due to decreased construction costs. The typical American family could now partake in an integral part of the American dream: homeownership. 

The following chapters of the book introduce the problems that rose from the hasty development of these suburban communities. Although solar power technology was developed in the 1950s, the federal government didn’t get as involved as they should have in mandating its use in suburban homes. Developers and architects were working on ways to store the sun’s heat and conserve energy, although the research didn’t follow through entirely. Too bad, or maybe we wouldn’t have such an energy crisis today! Air conditioning was also a huge selling point to homes in the suburbs. An air conditioned home was a healthy home. Air conditioning, in conjunction with electric heat, made the electric companies money year round! Another issue Rome brought up was the use of septic tanks in the suburbs. Septic tanks were not intended for areas that are heavily populated, like the suburbs.  After 2-3 years, septic tanks stopped working, and created problems in these developments. The groundwater was polluted from the toxins that the septic tanks created. Imagine turning on the kitchen faucet to find soap suds spilling out instead of clean water. This is what happened due to the build up of laundry detergent in septic tanks. The federal government, more specifically the department of Housing and Urban Development, had to require more regulations for safer sewers and drainage in suburban developments.

There is also the issue of the loss of open space.  This is the main facet of the environmental conservation movement that emerged with the rise of suburban sprawl. Local organizations developed in order to protect open space and protest “the rape of the land”.  In order to build so many houses, land had to be leveled, trees had to be cut down, and wildlife had to be displaced. Americans were losing green space, and they were losing it fast. The Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other environmental agencies protested the loss of open space. Organizations such as People for Open Space in California, the Open Space Action Institute in New York, and the Open Space Council in St. Louis emerged as well. Americans wanted to ensure that their children would have parks, lakes, and woods to play in.

On Friday we explored what life was like in these suburban homes in the 1950s. We read a few sections of Russel and Mary Wright’s Guide to Easy Living, published in 1950. This book contains tips for the modern 1950s housewife in order to make her home run more smoothly. The name of the game was minimalism – no ruffles or frills were necessary! Departmentalizing, that is, keeping each home activity strictly in its own place, worked for all rooms of the home, was also important. It was interesting to read about how the Wrights thought a 1950s kitchen, living room, and bedroom should look like. The key was simplicity.

Uncovering the dirt behind suburban sprawl made me feel a little bit guilty to be so comfortable in my home in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I guess I never realized all the problems there are with such rapid, dense development in areas that can’t necessarily support it. A lot of the problems that Rome discusses make sense now that I can apply them to my own suburban experiences. Now I know why we can’t flush toilet paper at my grandparents house in the Poconos – the ground is already saturated from a nearby marsh, and the house has a septic system. It also makes sense now as to why suburban basements flood so easily. There is no gradation of the land for rainwater to run off and collect in, so, it collects in our basements! What should we do to counteract the negligence of our neighborhood’s contractors? Maybe we can all do our part by cutting back on our energy consumption, carpooling to work, and recycling. Maybe we should just cool it on the developing for a while. There are so many Toll Brothers communities sprinkled around Northern Virginia that have no people living in them, that I think Toll Brothers can afford to sell their houses before they build any new ones.


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