In the Suburbs – 1957

Earlier this week a “Chart of the Day” post by Matt Steele about the always debated SWLRT project sparked 47(!) comments at the time of this writing. Part of the discussion in the comment thread touched on the idea of “The American Dream” incarnated as suburban living. The argument that people in the U.S. want to live suburban lifestyles is often trotted out as part of criticisms against urban investments and in support of road expansion projects leading to greater exurbia. You’ve probably heard comments similar to the following in these debates, “Stop trying to social engineer people into living in cities. Not everyone wants to live in a high-rise, above a coffee shop on a train line.” I don’t doubt that many people do want to live suburban lifestyles, but I wonder how much of this is the result of sinister social engineering itself.

In the Suburbs is a short film produced by Redbook Magazine in 1957. The post WWII time period includes many films similar to this one extolling the virtues of suburban living and encouraging people to leave city life behind. After all, there’s “Easy Living” to be had at Southdale and real-estate that needs to be sold around those new highway interchanges.

Matty Lang

About Matty Lang

Matty Lang has been interested in land use, transportation, and cities since he fell in love with Paris, France while studying there in 1998-1999. He is a filmmaker living in Minneapolis. He loves film, bicycling, and basketball. Follow him: Vimeo | @MattyLangMSP | Facebook

24 thoughts on “In the Suburbs – 1957

  1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    The interesting thing about this film is that its audience isn’t the public, but rather the potential advertisers for Redbook Magazine. The movie is all about how much purchasing power young families in the suburbs have, i.e. how much they’re going to shop.

    There’s a whole long conversation you could have around consumerism and urban design, but this gets to the heart of it.

  2. Ron

    I’m not sure it took much social engineering to convince people to move further out of town. It seems like if you want the best place for kids to grow up they should be around other kids. That’s how school levies pass and little league teams form. Once one area, say Richfield, has raised their kids then it’s just not the best place for new families. On down the road to Burnsville after that.
    Some of that is starting to reverse and like minded young parents are piling into specific parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but they will definitely try to cluster around the best schools.
    More to it than just schools obviously.

    1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

      Yeah but in this period of time (the 50s), all the kids were in the city. Places like Levittown barely had any civic infrastructure (parks, schools, etc.) because developers didn’t build them.

      1. Ron

        Y, they had no civic infrastructure but they sure had cheap land for sale. It’s been build it and they will come for a long time, as the population grew.

    2. Adam MillerAdam

      I think your analysis is jumping into things rather far down the road. Cities used to be where the kids were. It’s only after the migration to the suburbs that the phenomenon you’ve observed started.

      With the denser and more diverse types of housing in the city maybe you can get a stable populations of kids to support your schools.

      1. Ron

        The population shot way way up. How many people were going to fit in the Foshay Tower?
        Call it social engineering if you want but ppl wanted wide open spaces. There’s a lot you can do with them. Little league. Soccer fields. A big garden. Golf courses. Hockey rinks.

        1. Rosa

          It’s not like we don’t have these things in city parks, with the benefit of each homeowner not having to do all the upkeep themselves. There are dense cities where those goods can’t be easily sited in the city proper, but Minneapolis-St Paul are not those cities.

  3. minneapolisite

    I keep coming back to the conclusion that sprawling suburbia is inevitably what any conservative wants if the possibility is available and in this case cheap oil and heavy subsidies (from everyone else) made it possible for them to hide away in their bubbles (every kind: from physical to mental) away from the real world. This was still at a point in time when the US was culturally devolving from the increasingly liberal 20s-30s thanks to handing major influence in where our society was headed over to the narrow-minded military vets returning from war instead of, say, intellectuals and artists. Hence the much more straight-laced fun-hating 40s-50s.

    1. Ron

      You make it sound like you can’t be a virtuous person and live 5 miles from downtown.
      What would someone have to do to live in Blaine and still be a good person to you?
      What if they worked 1 mile from the Medtronic building and rode their bike? How about if they had solar panels and drove an EV and had geothermal heating/cooling?
      Maybe their activity of choice was riding track at the Velodrome? Maybe they lived in MPLS for 20 years and fixed up 4 houses and made the city a better place for the people who live there now before moving a little closer to their parents in Duluth?
      Good people live everywhere and unless you want power plants and a refinery right downtown then SOMEONE has to live SOMEPLACE else.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Reality isn’t quite so simple. When it comes to road expansion projects the charge is consistently led by liberals (though many from both parties fight hard to get their hands on those golden shovels). Our Suburbs and Exurbs are far from from the conservative enclaves you imagine, they’re actually close to split. Interestingly, Democratic strategists here and elsewhere have been getting concerned about the influx of younger folk in to cities because a big chunk of them are… Republicans.

      As to narrow-minded military vets, you can thank them for your having the freedom to write on this blog. Thousands upon thousands of men and women from the U.S. have risked their lives, lost their lives, lost limbs, and lost loved ones to protect peoples lives and freedom across the globe. I wish it wasn’t necessary, but when you have people like King George, Hitler, or Putin focused on conquering and subjugating others there is often no other way.

  4. Zach

    Alright here is the American Dream to the best of my admittedly rural republican understanding. It started out the forefathers rejection of aristocratic oppression, and continued with immigrants throughout the 1800’s fleeing the same, all to be able to not be oppressed, or rather to chart their own destiny. Throughout that time period land was abundant, and the nation was not industrialized (although it was industrializing), so people were able to chart their own destiny by being self-sufficient. They purchased land, grew their own crops on it, and made their own…everything, basically. As the nation industrialized, the population moved to cities, where it is much more difficult to be self-sufficient, and your destiny relies on your ability to make payments for rent, food, and other necessities. With the advent of the car suburbs provided a way for people to purchase their own housing and avoid rent, giving them greater financial security and self-sufficiency. Now, however, that point is essentially moot because people take out 30 year mortgages to buy a house, and after 30 years, move and take out another, and people view their homes as appreciating (risky) assets rather than the stable, low-risk financial security investments they once were. So I assert that while many people say that a suburban house and land is the American Dream, they are getting it confused with financial independence. The ability to save money in financial markets provides some of that, but it is too volatile to be a proper solution to that problem, and condos also do to some degree, but with high HOA fees, they are still somewhat inadequate in that respect. Also an implication of this is that there is the risk that the willingness of many young people to live in the city will decrease once they get some money to buy a house. So my question is: what can we do to make the American Dream more viable in high-density urban areas?

    1. Ron

      Good question. We’re talking about millions of people and the only way to get change on that scale is through the market. Make sure that people have to pay the true cost for the choices. User fees, for instance, and a gas tax, for an example. A lot of people will always want wide open space and peace and quiet. Just get the market right so they have to pay for it. A interesting example of this taking place now is that many rural roads throughout the country are going back to gravel because it’s cheaper to maintain and they can’t find a way to pay for the pavement.

    2. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

      Also, maybe younger generations are realizing exactly what you’ve said. That it’s very difficult to be self-sustaining, and rarely are you no matter where you are.

      Maybe the dream itself is changing; from agrarian self-sustaining to financial self supporting. This change is making it more rewarding for a young person to rent, no maintenance, no shoveling, no (additional) debt, and avoiding these costs leads to a better standard of living and a possibility to be more financially independent (less yardwork/housework could mean that I now spend 40 hours working and 5 hours on a hobby job instead of mowing lawn, shoveling snow, getting car repaired, etc.)

    3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      “So my question is: what can we do to make the American Dream more viable in high-density urban areas?” For many people with children, you likely won’t. They will want at least some bit of a yard. I’m in agreement with Ron that people do need to pay for their choices, and I think man suburbanites will.

      However, many of these will choose mid-density. If the cost of 100′ lots in sub-divisions far from daily needs becomes onerous (due to costs of driving and maintaining the road system), but there’s a good option of 40′ lots or townhouses within walking/biking distance of daily needs that’s much more cost-effective, they’ll choose that.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        The wife and I are at the stage of thinking about reproducing, which leads to thinking about whether to stay in my downtown condo. The assumption has been that we won’t want to, although I vacillate between thinking a move can wait a few years and thinking it should be sooner than later.

        But as you say, the one thing that won’t happen is that we will not move to the far out burbs. I will still want to be able to walk to things (grocery store, etc.) which means moving outside the city limits will be hard, and moving outside the first ring nearly impossible.

        I’d love to find a townhouse somewhere, though, as I really hate shoveling and yard work.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          I’ve a post on Little Urban Villages coming up in a few weeks that you might enjoy.

          There are some interesting options. White Bear is seeing an influx of younger couples in to the neighborhoods east of downtown. Small houses/lots, easy walk to local stores, easy bike ride or walk to groceries. Decent and likely to improve bicycle routes to downtown St Paul. Something similar is happening in Shoreview, particularly north of about County F, thanks to their fairly extensive bicycle/pedestrian paths.

        2. Rosa

          Lots of parts of Minneapolis and St Paul are not very dense at all, which gives a lot of choices between the downtown condo and the far flung ‘burbs. Though having little kids is just about the worst time to commit to a larger place with a yard, since the amount of work you’re trying to accomplish just multiplied anyway.

          Personally, I think having little kids and having to pack them into the car to do anything (even go to the park!) would be nightmarish – I really enjoyed being able to walk with my infant to the grocery store, park, hardware store, etc. Plus the safety issues – being sleep deprived and distracted does not make for very safe driving. I visit enough people who do have to do the carseat and driving thing to know what it’s like – a lot of times it’s just easier to sit home than cope with all of that, which isn’t good for anyone’s mental health.

        3. Cedar

          I don’t think there’s any reason why life will be so dramatically different post-kids that you wouldn’t like living downtown, but even if it is, luckily there are lots of options within Minneapolis (or St. Paul). We rent, but we have a six year old and love our situation — a full-floor apartment in a four-unit building in a great location in the north part of Uptown, close enough we can walk to the lakes, to all the businesses on Hennepin and Lyndale, and even to downtown. There are tons of single-family houses in the area too, of course, and some townhouses. I think you’ll be able to find what you want without going far. But… I also think that if you like where you are, there’s no need to rush out and move based on the assumption that it won’t work with a baby.

      2. Cedar

        To address the “people with kids want a yard” assertion: I don’t think this is by any means an absolute. It’s handy, yes, but I don’t think we should be so quick to assume we know what families with kids want. When we lived in San Francisco we did have access to a small yard behind our building. We rarely spent time there. Instead, we — like most of my neighbors — were regulars at the playgrounds near our home. That said, a little bit of green space is great; when we lived in DC, our apartment was both above a coffee shop AND had a small green shared patio space tucked away in the building’s interior; when sitting in the grass by the fountain you’d have no idea that you were just a storefront away from busy Connecticut Avenue. We lived there before we had a kid, but have often thought back to the building and thought how perfect it would be for families like ours. In other urban apartments, the same thing can be achieved through shared roof decks or terraces.

  5. Monte

    I’m one of those people that absolutely would not above coffee shop by the train station (and in fact I view myself as lucky that I’ve always been able to find jobs in the suburbs so I’ve never had to commute into the city). I’ve never heard any of the propaganda from developers, I bought into an established neighborhood because this is where I want to live. I don’t need developers telling my I need a shiny new house nor urbanists telling me my yard and SUV are evil and I need to live above a coffee house.

  6. Cadillac Kolstad

    ” I don’t doubt that many people do want to live suburban lifestyles, but I wonder how much of this is the result of sinister social engineering itself. ”

    YES!! This is indeed the case! American suburbs are the result of over a century of social engineering. FHA policy, “urban renewal”, oil subsidy, massive federal highway financing etc. The phenomenon is well documented. Though it is not what people usually visualize when they hear the term, detached housing in the suburbs is the largest segment of “subsidized housing” in the united states.
    to provide 1 example, in the twin cities the Met Council levies a heavy fee (tax) on businesses that wish to expand. The “fee” is used to expand services to ever expanding suburbs. Urbanites pay for most of this expansion.
    Even after suburbs were built people loved their cities so much that the only way the govt. could get people to leave was by bulldozing whole segments of the urban core, mostly in the 50’s and 60’s. Thousands of people lost their homes and hundreds of businesses were closed or relocated, many to the suburbs.
    For example the 17 square block “Gateway” Neighborhood in Minneapolis was demolished in the late 50’s / early 60’s this resulted in the elimination of 3,000 Peoples homes and relocation / elimination of 300-500 businesses.
    So yes I would call that “sinister social engineering”


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