In 1947, William Levitt of Levitt & Sons began construction of a neighborhood in Hempstead, New York which was created for veterans who had returned from World War II with the reward of the GI Bill. The houses were small, economical and modern in design, and most included a white picket fence and the latest appliances. Working in concert with the banks, Levitt guaranteed buyers they could own the houses for less than they paid in rent. When sales began, 1400 houses were sold during the first three hours.
While this was the first of many, the Levittown model spread quickly across the nation, and numerous acres of farmland were consumed for housing developments and then strip malls. People fled the crime, noise and filth in major cities, and occupied new, treeless neighborhoods just as quickly as the paint on the houses was dry. Suburbia, as we now know it, was born.
But by 1963, Pete Seeger recorded a timely song called “Little Boxes” in which he criticized the generic, cookie-cutter nature of this new frontier. Some of the lyrics from that song are as follows: “Little boxes all the same — There’s a blue one and a green one and a yellow one — And they're all made out of ticky-tacky — And they all look just the same.”
“Ticky-tacky” was, of course, a reference to the cheap material and prefabbed, assembly line production used to build the “little boxes” that were exhausting the American landscape. And since at least the 1950s, we’ve been forced to tolerate this visual blight along the roadside that obliterates the otherwise scenic panorama.
However, by the 1980s, suburbia had metastasized into an assemblage of large, ugly, incongruous geometry. The “McMansion” had made its debut on the already cluttered landscape, and every middle-class citizen with a bank account had to have one. Lest we never forget the prophetic, mid-century adage, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”
In an article written by culture columnist Thomas Frank, he explains the reasons McMansions came into vogue in the 1980s: “The McMansion exists to separate and then celebrate the people who are wealthier than everybody else; this is the transcendent theme on which its crazy, discordant architectural features come harmonically together. This form of development wants nothing to do with the superficial community-mindedness of the postwar suburb, and the reason the giant house looks the way it does is to inform you of this. Have the security guard slam the gates, please, and the rest of the world be damned.”
As I drive home this evening and I survey the neighborhoods in our midst, I’ll treat myself to the mediocrity and ever-decreasing sensitivity that’s become pervasive in American culture. “Affliction, canker” and “eyesore” are words that quickly spring to mind when I take in the endless panorama of hideous, misshapen dwelling units. But then, this is now The American Way.