American Dreamscape: The Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbiaby Tom Martinson
Filmmakers, novelists, social critics, environmentalists - they all decry suburbia, and the myths of mindless conformity, uncontrolled sprawl, decentralization, and cultural blight continue to grow. But so do the suburbs. In a phenomenon unparalleled in the social history of modern, post-war America, more than 138,000,000 Americans - the majority of our national… See more details below
Filmmakers, novelists, social critics, environmentalists - they all decry suburbia, and the myths of mindless conformity, uncontrolled sprawl, decentralization, and cultural blight continue to grow. But so do the suburbs. In a phenomenon unparalleled in the social history of modern, post-war America, more than 138,000,000 Americans - the majority of our national population - now live in suburbs; for the most part, happily. And Tom Martinson, a city planner whose fieldwork for this book has taken him to more than a hundred communities throughout the United States, has discovered why. Whereas recent titles like Suburban Nation and Jane Holz Kay's Asphalt Nation have attracted media attention for their indictments of suburbia as an American nightmare, this lucid, incisive volume displays conclusively that the suburbs, which are no less various than they are ubiquitous, defy the stereotypes of urbanist critics. Separating biases that characterize suburban communities as vacuous, wasteful, centerless places from their actuality, Martinson traces the evolution of suburbs over the past two centuries, examines the values that challenge and unsettle the urbanists, investigates charges that government unfairly favors suburbs over cities, and considers possibilities for the future development of suburbia. Martinson knows the issues, and asks some billion-dollar questions. He has illuminating answers as well as copious elucidating photographs of suburbs across the country to support them. With vision, wit, and historical perspective, he surveys and interrogates the war on one of America's premier cultural battlegrounds.
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THE YEOMAN MYTHOLOGY
Our greatest national myth is the assertion that America is a classless society. Many of us might not really feel comfortable talking about social class. When we do, it may be only as an off-hand reference to other societies that are traditionally characterized by class or caste.
But in reality, the Americas were colonized largely as a result of social-class conflicts. Social-class mores were thoroughly ingrained in all of England's colonies. Even as American revolutionary patriots were throwing off one monarchy, George Washington was being asked to become king and institute another. What makes the United States different from the Spanish and Portuguese New World is that Americans replaced the traditional European social-class structure based upon privilege, and thus wealth, with an economic-class structure based upon wealth, and thus privilege. Intense class conflict has been characteristic of the American scene for more than two centuries, interrupted only briefly, and then only out of unavoidable necessity, by the Civil War and the Second World War.
None of this is lost on Americans in the middle and lower economic reaches of American society, including those identified in this book as "Yeomen." They see what seems to be a markedly stratified society, one that is characterized by self-serving authority of all kindshardly any of which appears intended to help them, or even to listen to them. This is a condescending "I'm doing this for your own good" exercise in authority that is as old as the republic. TheYeoman recognizes it immediatelyand feels if viscerally.
The principal object of the Yeoman's indignation is the Gentry. This is because the Gentry is the social class closest to the Yeoman, and thus the most visible symbol of authority. In the United States, the Gentry often seem genuinely surprised by the Yeoman's distrust of their motivations. When the Yeoman does not readily accede to some Gentry proposal, the Gentry assume it is because the Yeoman is misinformed, or not intelligent enough to understand. It rarely seems to occur to the Gentry that the Yeoman understands all too well what is going on, and doesn't appreciate being talked down to. Members of the gentry class just don't seem to understand this. Gentry appear to sincerely believe that the United States really is a classless meritocracy, and that they should be respected because they have worked hard to get where they are today.
To me, the issue is not who is right, but that these two economic-social classes (which together account for perhaps three quarters of the U.S. population) are perpetually at odds with each other. With respect to the American suburbs, this conflict manifests ideologically, with gentry intellectuals, experts, and opinion leaders incessantly attempting to turn the suburbs into something they are not intended to becities. This gets in the way of truly creative and efficient suburban solutions, and is a fundamental reason why the postwar American suburbs are less innovative and personally fulfilling than they could and should be.
There are several de facto economic-social classes in the United States. Because their passions and actions all impact the postwar American suburbs, it is helpful to understand who they are and how they all interrelate. As an illustration, the following table compares contemporary American economic-social classes with their traditional English counterparts.
|Description||Traditional English||Contemporary U.S.|
Regal status or rank;
sovereignty; right of control
over national resources
Ruler of an independent duchy
A defined "power"
Speaker of the House
Major property owners and
those of influence
Public officials and bureaucrats
who works his own
small tract of land
A class of tenant farmers
and day laborers
| Lower Classes|
Powerless and invisible
The most prominent economic-social group missing from the chart is the U.S. upper middle classincluding professionals, technical specialists, and managers. These are people who have aspired to something more than basic, middle-class lives and careers. Thus they can hardly imagine themselves as Yeomen. But it is becoming abundantly clear that they are not really Gentry, either. To be true Gentry, they would have to have control of their own public lives and careers, through ownership of a business or through academic tenure or civil service protection. (Ours is a society, after all, that employs insurance clerks to second-guess physicians.)
Let me, hasten to add that in this instance, being "off the chart" is more than a matter of abstract classification. The upper middle class looks to me like a very loosely aligned cohort, one without a firm home base in American society. Royalty, Nobility, and true Gentry understand their places in our society and, through an array of formal and informal relationships, can and do take care of their own. The Yeoman also takes care of his own, mostly through strong and abiding personal relationships, especially among family and lifelong friends.
In contrast, the upper middle class enjoys neither the economic clout of the elite classes, nor the raw political power of the much larger yeoman class. Members of the upper middle class often style themselves as individuals who have "made it on their own." So the upper middle class seems to be not so much a functional and permanent social class as it is a current snapshot of personal income, a convenient demographic description. If and when things change for the worse, these are people who are indeed very much on their own.
What happens to the upper middle class may have a powerful bearing upon the future character of the American suburbs. A good percentage of the upper middle class currently live in what might be thought of as "gentry suburbs" [Fig. 4]. These can be defined as communities that place an inordinate emphasis upon maintaining a tasteful visual atmosphere through an array of restrictive zoning overlays and the so-called good-neighbor ordinances (see the chapter "The Trouble with Gentry"). As a result, these communities are often experienced as tightly controlled environments, with few rough edges but even less visual energy. The authoritarian tone of governance characteristic of gentry suburbs presumably means that the majority of their citizens still identify with "the system," that is, with the present hierarchy of American economic-social classes.
But the system is beginning to fail many upper-middle-class Americans, notably through downsizing and increasingly uneven allocations of corporate economic rewards. As this touches more and more of the upper middle class, it is possible that these people will become alienated from the system and begin to view the rigid application of municipal controls in an entirely new perspective. Such controls might no longer be perceived as progressive tools needed to maintain community standards, but rather as arbitrary, if not oppressive, local manifestations of the system. If this were to occur, the very consensus about the governance of such communities could be subject to challenge and radical change.
Where might this lead? The upper middle class has consciously detached itself from the yeoman middle class, and thus presumably from "yeoman suburbs" (see definition below). While much of our upper middle class now lives in gentry suburbs, many in this demographic cohort really have only the most tenuous social and cultural linkages to true Gentry. So neither existing yeoman nor gentry suburbs represent an ideal home environment for many upper-middle-class Americans. At least some of these highly educated and self-assured citizens may steer toward a new and different kind of suburb, one that is more consistent with their evolving values. This personal reappraisal may involve going "back" and reconsidering traditional American cultural values. If so, this new kind of suburb may be based upon the Arcadian visual and social environments that formed the American ideal in the first years of the republic (I'll discuss this in detail in the chapters "The American Ideal" and "The Return to Arcadia").
Politically, these traditional values were based on informal community consensus rather than on the application of formal authority. Thus such a reappraisal could in turn pull some existing gentry suburbs closer to the notions of governance found in typical yeoman suburbs. As a controls and less concerned about abstract visual aspects of a community than are most gentry suburbs. Compared to many gentry suburbs, they are relaxed and visually diverse. A typical yeoman neighborhood is architecturally unremarkable [Fig. 5], but well maintained and routinely vibrant with informal, in-yard socialization. At a community-wide level, the Yeoman would be particularly interested in purely local, human-focused matters, such as a pancake breakfast at the VFW and meals-on-wheels programs for seniors.
THE CULTURAL BASIS for all of this is the Yeoman Mythology. This is the traditional description of the typical American as an honest, hardworking, resourceful, and practical individual. "His" focus is on his own home and family, and upon his immediate community. He is slow to anger but not a person to cross. The Yeoman has few pretensions: he knows his place and is satisfied with it.
Like most myths, the Yeoman Mythology is both simplistic and also true enough. And it is accurate and universal enough to explain why people choose to live in certain kinds of suburbs. No matter how much money he has, a Yeoman is not apt to feel quite comfortable in a gentry suburbthe old Beverly Hillbillies TV series notwithstanding. The Yeoman Mythology also explains why citizens of yeoman suburbs seem so maddeningly indifferent to the improvement prescriptions advanced by the Gentry. This can be especially true for the prescriptions offered by academic and governmental experts, and for almost any scheme endorsed by big-city media. This is because even genuinely well-meaning Gentry often come across to the Yeoman as authority figures telling him what to do.
Our histories tell the basic story about why the Yeoman is so sensitive about authority. The great majority of emigrants to the colonies, and later the United States, were effectively forced to move here.
Some Europeans came to North America as a result of natural calamities, like the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine. But emigration more typically occurred because the European Yeoman and Peasantry fell victim to the self-interests of the elite classes in their countries of birth. In its most benign form, younger sons emigrated because of primogeniture. This was the custom/law that granted the first son all of his father's estate; the continuation of the established social-economic order was thus embodied in the oldest son. Younger sons of the Gentry could take advantage of family influence and secure government incomes. For such young men, "salaried sinecures of rather misty duties were limitlessly available." But these were unavailable to the younger sons of Yeomen and all sons of peasants, whose families had no influence in the upper classes, much less with the Crown. These men had only four practical choices: enter the army, enter the clergy, become a tenant farmer, or emigrate.
At least primogeniture was impersonal. But many other Yeomen and Peasantry were effectively disenfranchised by the relentless self-interests and sheer avarice of the English Gentry and Nobility. And that was personal. As early as the sixteenth century, the English upper classes had caused mass dispossessions of rural tenants through incessant demands for higher rents, now to be rendered in cash rather than in crops. At first, the dispossessed moved into the big cities in search of opportunity: London's population quadrupled between 1500 and 1600. But eventually, many saw no realistic alternative to emigrating to the New World and starting over.
Even as these landless classes were being pushed out of England and into the American colonies, the Crown thoughtlessly instituted a number of New World commercial monopolies intended to further enrich the English aristocracy at the expense of the American Yeoman and Peasantry." Why consider what the lesser classes might think about this? They had no say anyway. Of course the American Yeoman had seen this all before in the Old World, and knew exactly where it would lead if left unchecked: he would once again be dispossessed by the unfair application of authority in favor of the privileged. But this time the Yeoman was truly backed up against the wall: there was no place to go and start over, once again. The Revolutionary War was thus inevitable, and once under way, the Yeoman had no choice but to win.
DISTRUST OF POLITICAL-CULTURAL authority, of the elites, is half of the Yeoman Mythology. The other half is holding and working one's own land. The American Yeoman understood that his material existence was still tenuous as long as the upper classes, beginning with the Gentry, could manipulate political authority in their own interests.
Based upon historic experiences with ruling elites, no form of centralized government was really palatable to the American Yeoman. But if there had to be government, the closer to home and the weaker, the better. That is why states' rights was such an issue as the Constitution was being devised. Even today, the Yeoman's political sensibilities are most honored in populist-leaning midwestern and intermountain state legislatures.
The bottom line for the American Yeoman was to hold his own piece of land without fear that it would be taken from him. This was a widespread and intense desire on the part of the yeoman class that was eventually translated into the nineteenth settlement and homestead acts. After 1862not coincidentally, in the midst of the Civil War, and intended to garner additional support for the Unionhomesteaded lands were literally given away to those willing to settle on and work the land. Much milder vestiges of this historical political mandate survive today in the form of GI and FHA mortgage insurance, and with the home mortgage income-tax deduction.
As further insurance against the manipulations of the ruling economic classes, the American Yeoman of the early republic distanced himself as much as possible from the Eastern power centers. To the Yeoman, the arduous trek through Cumberland Gap may have seemed less of an obstacle and more of a defense, in symbol and in fact, against the gentrified elites on the eastern side of the divide.
By the early nineteenth century, the United States had become functionally divided into three distinct economic regions. The Northeast was characterized by manufacturing and urban growth. Much of the South was dominated by a plantation-slave agricultural economy. Trans-Appalachia was made up of a myriad of small family farmsthe realm of the Yeoman. The domination of this region by Yeomen provided the cultural basis for the traditional midwestern self-image of being straightforward and not "putting on airs." This was intended to expressly distinguish the Yeoman from the Gentry. From the perspective of an early nineteenth-century Yeoman living along the Ohio Valley, both the urban Northeast and the plantation South could easily be recognized as bastions of class-privileged authority. And so, successive generations of midwesterners have subconsciously understood themselves as being fundamentally different Americans.
This notion remained, even as national geographic distinctions eventually blurred. As a dominant U.S. economic middle class emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not socially monolithic, instead reflecting either northeastern "urban" or midwestern "agrarian" cultural roots. To generalize only somewhat, these two "branches" could be characterized as made up of either those who had come to a personal accommodation with the upper classes, or those who retained a suspicion of elites. Because so much of the American postwar population growth has occurred outside of the Northeast and other traditional elite urban centers, a large proportion of postwar suburbia has been colored by the yeoman sensibilities of this latter branch.
JUST HOW RELEVANT is all of this Yeoman stuff, anyway? Really, the American Revolution took place more than two hundred years ago. How can eighteenth-century class antagonisms have any relevance in today's socially integrated world?
Actually, this is not at all some kind of abstract historical construct. Yeoman-Gentry friction has been virtually continuous from the first days of permanent European settlement in North America, right up to the present day. Sometimes the descriptions of then sound eerily like now. Today's Yeoman is suspicious of elites not just because of traditional American social myths, but because contemporary elites have given him good reason to be suspicious. We are not artificially revisiting a long-past situation but rather viewing the current manifestation of a permanent American social condition.
Our standard high-school texts emphasize the intended egalitarianism of the United States: "Government derives its power from the consent of the governed" is how it is often phrased. Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as the ideological winner over Alexander Hamilton. Yet it is clear that Hamilton actually won. Jefferson's dream that the United States would become a great agrarian democracy died no later than the 1896 presidential election. It was Hamilton's vision of a country ruled by people who controlled the nation's private economy that has almost exactly come to pass. The country's elites have closely and consistently followed Hamilton's two-part prescription for a well-run nation: an enlightened aristocracy should (1) operate the national systems; and (2) keep unqualified people out of the decision making.
From the first days of the American republic, prescient northeastern business leaders recognized that it was the systems, not the products themselves, that were crucial to the functional control of the new nation. As early as 1800, a new commercial cohort had risen to prominence. These were men who did not concern themselves with actual manufacture, but rather brokered and transported the products of othersmade chiefly by Yeomen. These commercialists remained in major seaport cities and amassed great fortunes by "buying cheap" from the interior and "selling dear" to Europe. In addition to controlling transportation and distribution, this emerging American Royalty, Nobility, and Gentry set out to own and operate the national financial system. Private syndicates controlled the national currency until well into the nineteenth century. Since these commercial and financial ventures created a support class of supervisors, merchants, and other workers, an urban-oriented middle class began to form around these entrepreneurs, a class whose own fortunes were directly tied to the success of the urban economic elites.
Both in geography and in outlook, this "urban" middle class would naturally have political and cultural sensibilities that were very different from the "agrarian" middle class of the Yeoman. This distinction is mirrored today in many metropolitan areas. Those middle-class suburbs that trace back to agrarian values are often still "yeoman" in attitude. Anecdotally, these seem to be disproportionately located in the Midwest. Other suburbs can be much different `in outlook, reflecting more-urban sensibilities. So while yeoman suburbs are almost always middle class, not all middle-class suburbs are yeoman suburbs, especially in the Northeast.
The second part of Hamilton's two-part prescription for governance was to keep unfit people out of the business of running the nation. As we sometimes forget, the United States was not initially a very democratic place. Most of the population had no part in public life. If you were young, poor, a woman, or, of course, a slave, you had no vote and could not hold public office. And though voting was restricted to presumably reliable property owners, even they didn't directly elect a president. Instead, they voted for electors who made the final decision for them.
By the death of Jefferson in 1826, the American Royalty, Nobility, and Gentry were already firmly in control of the nation. Many other Americans, including the Yeoman, intensely distrusted the centralized powers that they saw dominating their lives. This eventually led to a "workingman's agitation," which erupted across the country in the late 1820s. Effectively shut out of the national political scene by the elites, labor began to force state legislatures into granting basic citizenship to the politically dispossessed, righting a situation in which "the poor have no laws, the laws are made by the rich and of course, for the rich." The 1828 presidential election campaign was polarized by two starkly opposing views. On one side was the Yeoman and his fellow travelers, who looked back to the old ideal of an agrarian society based upon the common good. At the other extreme were the commercial interests who wanted government to stimulate (their) wealth through tariffs and other actions. While these tariffs and other actions would not exactly benefit the average citizen, the commercial interests argued that a rising tide would lift all boats.
Andrew Jackson won the election based upon a populist platform, much to the dismay of the elite economic classes. He did make a crucial decision to wrest control of the national financial system away from private banking syndicates. This created at least an illusion that the public monetary system was actually public. But the elites never really lost, at least not in the long run. The same issues have been the focus of presidential elections in 1896 and 1932. And 1980 and 1992. It is hard to tell if the elites ever really lose, no matter what party or candidate is elected.
The Yeoman remains wary.
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