- Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945–1965 by Barbara Miller Lane
Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945–1965
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015.
xi + 305 pages, 224black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-069-116761-9, $49.95 HB
Houses for a New World makes a significant contribution to the growing corpus of scholarly literature focused on the post–World War II tract house and residential development on what was then the metropolitan periphery. This volume is not only the most detailed study to date but offers an abundance of fresh material and, most importantly, substantial new insights on the nature of a phenomenon that became an emblem of the American landscape and American life, one that still profoundly affects our routines and our outlooks. Barbara Miller Lane takes her subject in a largely positive light that is framed by voluminous research over a period of many years. Her perspective accords with that of a number of other historians who have investigated this realm in recent years. At the same time, she is mindful that the postwar suburb still has its critics who variously deride it as physically banal, culturally deprived, environmentally harmful, and racially divisive. Lane not only acknowledges such invectives but also explores why these places were so demonized by sociologists, planners, architects, and others when they were new, and she provides a sound basis for refuting at least some of the arguments that persist.
Lane breaks new ground in several ways. First, she closely examines several kinds of tract development that for the most part have never received such attention before. The importance of her case studies is that they begin to give a more accurate reading of the complexion of postwar residential development [End Page 134] than we have had to date. Many previous writings have been grounded in generalities, drawing from federal provisions and policies, broad demographic and sociological studies, a sampling of trade journals and shelter magazines, and trends in popular culture, among other sources. Beginning in the 1990s, more detailed explorations have been made on the Levittowns in Nassau County, New York, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Lakewood in Los Angeles County, California; and Park Forest in Cook County, Illinois.1 But the first three of these developments entailed more than 17,000 houses each, and the fourth, nearly 5,500, in addition to a number of apartment buildings. In their size, scope, and support facilities, as well as in the case of Park Forest, with its focused application of garden city planning principles, these places were likely more the exception than the rule. Several case studies have been made of middle-class African American postwar suburban enclaves, the demographic nature of which renders them unusual.2 An urbanistic perspective is afforded in what was a pioneering examination of Los Angeles that shows how postwar housing tracts (two of which are also examined by Lane) were key to shaping that metropolis.3 Together, this work gives a more complex and nuanced picture of the seminal role of postwar developments of single-family houses in defining the United States during the second half of the twentieth century; however, it is hardly a complete picture.
Lane builds upon this research by taking a first, essential step in crafting a more truly national understanding of the phenomenon based on exploring the places themselves. Collectively, these examples offer more of a cross-section of the scope and nature of post-war house tracts than has previously been available. To advance the process, she focuses on twelve developments in four metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. The projects vary considerably in size (from 135 to 6,829 houses, with most falling between 1,200 and 2,500 dwellings), layout, and appearance. Likewise, the builders differed in background and in the methods by which they established and operated their respective businesses. Lane profiles not only these individuals, but also others with whom they contracted to realize their work. The local context often figured prominently in the nature of what was done. To develop her portrayal, Lane has...