This is the house I grew up in. It wasn’t a terrible house. It wasn’t a great house. It was what my parents could afford. And it was nearly identical to all the houses that everyone in suburban southern New Jersey lived in back in the 1970’s. People with more money fixed up these little Cape Cod tract homes to a higher standard. Poorer families lived in slightly more run down versions. My mother and stepfather were able to buy this four bedroom house on a quarter acre lot an hour and a half south of New York City with the help of a Veterans Administration home loan. It was a fixer-upper with an assumable mortgage (an FHA finance trick from the 1970’s to work around 12% interest rates), but it seemed like a big step up from a rented apartment in Queens. Keep in mind, back then New York was in sharp decline and the suburbs were ascendant. It seemed like the right move at the time.
In response to the high taxes, pollution, crime, race riots, and general misery associated with big cities back then the town was planned and built explicitly to solve those problems and to filter out people who couldn’t afford to buy a single family detached house. There really wasn’t anything else built for decades. It was also zoned and fitted with road infrastructure that demanded private car ownership. Transit was verboten as it attracted the “wrong element”. See also: apartments, density, mixed use, etc. It had become politically and legally impossible to explicitly discriminate again the poor (with the heavy racial connotations that implied) but it was perfectly acceptable to build a place that made it impossible for the poor to function. This design approach was extremely successful for fifty years.
But there were side effects for the people who lived there. From the very beginning my family struggled with the economics of owning this house. Like everyone in our extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins we were working class people who aspired to be middle class. And decisions were made about where and how to live based on what we hoped to be rather than what we really were. Unfortunately we never got above the economic threshold to achieve those goals and life in the suburbs was a disappointment. When the roof started to leak there was no money for a new one so some tar was smeared into the cracks. The on-going leaks eventually lead to rot and termites and carpenter ants that plagued the structure for years. The water heater rusted out and released enough boiling orange water into the living room and dining room that the carpet and wood floors were ruined. The house always needed to be painted, the old windows needed to be replaced. The rain gutters were damaged in a storm. The clothes washer died. Then the dryer… The list went on and on and the deferred maintenance just accumulated year by year for lack of funds.
And of course there were struggles with transportation since keeping even one car on the road on a limited budget was a serious problem. Just as the insurance bill was paid the transmission would fail. The transmission would be fixed and the windshield would crack. The windshield would be replaced and the tires went bald. Between the house and the car it was basically impossible to save money or move forward on my parents’ modest income.
There are other challenges for working class people attempting to live a middle class life in the suburbs. Suburbia is a pay-per-view environment where every activity involves cash. Aside from wandering around a shopping mall (not buying anything) there isn’t much to do if you can’t afford golf, swimming lessons, soccer camp, dance and gymnastics classes, piano lessons, little league, etc. Even the beaches in New Jersey have an entrance fee. And it isn’t always just about cash. Being poor takes up all your time and energy so organizing inexpensive recreational activities is a bit of a luxury. Mostly we were housebound and bored in a pre-internet pre-cable TV era.
My mom worked tirelessly to improve our family situation, but she had very little raw material to work with. She was isolated and frustrated in the suburbs compared to her very active life back in the city. My stepfather was content with a simpler lifestyle. Financial distress isn’t good for a marriage which contributed to an unhappy set of conditions for everyone in the family. In these situations the standard solution would involve spending time with extended family and neighbors as part of a supportive community. Again, suburban culture is weird. Back in the city our grandparents and cousins were all close at hand and very supportive in times of need. In the suburbs there was the exact opposite culture. People took a strange pleasure in the failure of others – as if one family’s decline made other people move up a peg somehow. Bad news was hidden and people suffered in silent isolation. At the same time there was also a compulsion to make a big show of small successes like a new car or a kitchen remodel.
This is my old high school. It’s a giant concrete box with a flat metal roof and sodium vapor lights instead of windows. It sat in the middle of an enormous parking lot. The location of the dumpsters was the only thing that distinguished the front entrance from the back loading dock. I used to joke that if chickens were raised in these conditions the animal rights people would protest. The design of the building was meant to promote efficiency by having as few exterior openings as possible. Each night the National Weather Service would send a message to the central HVAC machinery with its prediction for the next day and the furnace or air conditioning equipment would bring the building to the correct temperature by morning. Unfortunately the NWS was wrong half the time and the building was always too hot or too cold. The town experienced a population boom and the school was overcrowded in the early years. Condensation from the breath of all 2,000 students and faculty created a humidity problem inside the building and the foam ceiling tiles turned green and brown from mold.
A while ago I was in Philadelphia to attend a friend’s wedding and I took a side trip back to the old neighborhood. Like my parents’ old house the whole neighborhood has declined. Over the years people with money gradually moved to newer larger homes in other areas. The 1950’s tract houses have lost a lot of value. The1960’s strip malls and gas stations failed and people began to shop at newer ones in better neighborhoods. The county widened the roads, and then widened them again, and then again – each time reducing the value of the property on either side and making it easier for people to drive a bit further away to newer developments. Keep in mind, this neighborhood is two blocks from the water. It should be prime real estate. But instead it’s gradually becoming a slum.
I can’t help but think that my family would have been better off acknowledging that not everyone can afford the whole suburban middle class dream. We might actually have been better off living in a town that had walkable streets with shops, parks and schools nearby. If we had been near a train station we might have had access to the larger opportunities on offer in the city. As it is the old house burned down about ten years ago and there was enough insurance money for my parents to buy a new house in one of the slightly better neighborhoods now that they’re getting older. That’s the good news. The bad news is they bought their new house at the top of the market just before the crash of 2008. Just as they approached retirement they took on new debt for a home that is now worth less than they paid for it. The irony is the old neighborhood in Queens has out-performed the suburbs in terms of property values and livability as a new generation rediscovers the advantages of urban life.