Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the dark side of suburban history

Suburbia, esp. in the post-WWII era, has a reputation as white and bourgeois. There’s also a persistent idea that many people moving from cities to suburbs after the war were motivated by racist fears.

The first point is, demographically and historically, overwhelmingly true, but the result of many complicated factors all coming together in the worst way.

The second point has a kernel of truth, but is a lot more complicated to unpack.

People desperately needed more living space after WWII, and since the U.S. was largely rural outside of major urban centers and resort towns, there was lots of room to create suburbs. Initially, they were within short driving distance of the anchoring city, but gradually got farther and farther away.

Many also developed into their own true cities and towns. Though residents didn’t stop driving into the nearest big city for work, the suburb itself had everything else they needed—stores, parks, schools, post offices, fire and police departments, movie theatres, bakeries, you name it.

During the Second Great Migration of 1940–70, five million African–Americans left the Jim Crow South for better job, educational, and living opportunities. During the first Great Migration of 1910–30, they mostly only moved to the North and Midwest, but now they resettled in every region.

And here’s where the plot thickens.

Yes, there’s no denying society as a whole was much more casually, openly racist in that era. Yes, a not insignificant number of white people moved to suburbia in part or entirely because of racist fears.

However, the original wave of people moving to suburbia truly were motivated by wanting more living space. They just happened to be leaving urban centers at the same time as many African–Americans were moving in, just as many big names of the silent era just happened to reach the end of their shelf life or independently decided to retire in the early years of the sound era, when a whole new crop of stars were coming in.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation.

Many African–American vets were excited about the spacious houses in new communities like Levittown, but the GI Bill’s famous benefits were by and large denied thanks to racist legal loopholes and exclusionary housing covenants.

Other times, there was no attempt at legal pretense. Racist mobs used intimidation and physical violence. Shamefully, some of these vets were lynched.

When the original GI Bill ended in July 1956, the wealth gap between the races was even more pronounced. That famous postwar prosperity was denied to the majority of African–American vets, as was the chance to get a free college education.

When you haven’t much money and are denied a mortgage, your housing options are limited. But there were thriving African–American neighborhoods waiting for these migrants (probably the best-known being Harlem), and respectably proletarian homes being left behind by people moving to suburbia.

Since the powers that be saw the world through a bourgeois lens, they often viewed such neighborhoods as automatic slums, even when the residents were anything but poor and had worked hard to rehabilitate their homes.

“Slum clearance” destroyed entire neighborhoods, social networks, schools, thousands of businesses, beautiful old buildings, and historic districts with deep roots. In their place arose monotonous high-rise apartments, roads, and low-income housing projects.

These public housing projects drove many deeper into poverty, while others went from proletarian to poor. There was no chance for upward mobility, since residents had to fall below a certain income. If their fortune improved, they had to move.

The vibrant sidewalk culture of the old neighborhood was gone, and most successful small businesses never came back. There was no place to set up shop, and many customers were displaced far afield.

The powers that be never once considered the human impact of their “reform” projects. They thought only in the abstract about solving alleged “problems,” approached it through a bourgeois worldview, and were incredulous when people with a proletarian mindset didn’t react how they were “supposed” to.

Many vibrant proletarian African–American neighborhoods were also destroyed to build highways for suburban commuters. These highways had a deleterious effect on the Jewish community as well.

Though many restrictive covenants prohibited Jewish home ownership or living in certain areas, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was for African–Americans. Thus, synagogues were no longer in walking distance for most people. It was either violate Shabbos by driving or stay at home and lose perhaps one’s only meaningful Jewish connection.

The Conservative Movement allowed driving on Shabbos for the sole purpose of attending shul, which sadly opened a door to more and more violations of Shabbos and a more secular, assimilated lifestyle.

And meanwhile, people with money continued leaving for suburbia in droves, thus draining cities of valuable tax revenue. Schools, public transport, and other infrastructure began deteriorating. All the money went to suburbs, causing quality of life in cities to take a huge nosedive.

Poverty often begets crime and drug use, and then it becomes a vicious cycle. In the old days, communities informally policed themselves, but that quickly became a laughable relic of the past. Many real cops didn’t bother with such run-down areas, thus creating even more unchecked crime.

The only people left in cities by the 1970s were trapped by poverty, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely enjoyed urban life enough to hold down the fort while no one else would.

The situation was further aggravated by redlining and blockbusting. Redlining denies money and public services to neighborhoods deemed “too risky an investment” on account of lower income, older homes (often rented instead of owned), and, more often than not, skin color.

Blockbusting preys on racist “there goes the neighborhood” fears to convince white residents to move out, often with elaborate staging, and quickly sell their homes at a loss. As soon as they’re gone, realtors then sell the properties at much higher prices to African–Americans.

And thus the vicious cycle of poverty and despair begins.

Suburban sprawl has also destroyed a lot of nature, ripping down longstanding forests and lush fields, and draining ponds and creeks, to build more cookie-cutter houses.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Architecture, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the postwar exodus to suburbia

While the dark side of the postwar exodus to suburbia is well-known now, very few people had any reason to see it as anything but wonderful and a dream come true at the time. After all, those in charge of urban renewal and suburban expansion were motivated by noble intentions, wanting to help people.

Like so many other things in life, the serious, inherent problems only became apparent in hindsight, after they’d snowballed and led to many once-great cities’ absolute nadirs several decades later.

There was a severe housing shortage after WWII, with roots in the Depression. People were desperate for bigger homes, particularly as they started families, and wanted to get out of cramped apartments and in-laws’ houses.

The G.I. Bill guaranteed low-interest home loans to veterans, with the best deals on brand-new houses. Many of these guys had never owned their own houses before. The appeal was undeniable.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, many vets also were able to attend college and thus move into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. The cost of living was much better in this era, and more and more people bought cars.

If you own a car, you’re not beholden to public transport and living in the same city as your job. And with your college education, you have improved career prospects with a higher salary.

Many of the early suburban tract houses were rather small by modern standards, under 1,000 feet, but that was positively spacious to guys who’d spent the last few years living in foxholes and huts, and families crammed into too-small apartments.

Their cookie-cutter sameness didn’t bother that many people, who just wanted their own houses regardless of the details. That sameness made them easy and quick to construct, move-in ready, even equipped with kitchen appliances and TVs.

After the war, everyone was eager to resume normal life, and for many, that included accepting a conformist culture where people blended in. Then as now, going along with the crowd was far easier than going against it.

People who chose to remain in cities were viewed as the strange ones, not the ones moving en masse to picture-perfect new suburbs.

Almost exclusively, these new suburbs were settled by couples in their twenties with very young children. It was easy for them to leave a city and start all over again. They didn’t have established careers, homes they’d lived in for years, children in school. Suburbia represented a perfect fresh start at the perfect time in their lives.

Everyone in the neighborhood was therefore a built-in friend, often from the same original city. The kids were roughly the same age and could grow up together, and the adults were from the same generation.

Another huge draw of suburbia was the guaranteed green space. People coming from densely-populated places had never had their own yards, or at most had had rather small, shared yards.

Yes, there are always parks, but as more and more cities went downhill thanks to disastrous urban planning decisions, the parks went downhill as well. Many people avoided them out of fear. And unfortunately, not all cities have a good distribution of green spaces.

Prior to suburban sprawl destroying many precious natural resources, there was also the appeal of living near a real woods and/or body of water, even right across from your own backyard. Cramped urban apartment, spacious detached house in the middle of nature?

As urban decay got worse, so did schools. Even private schools suffered when much of their former base relocated to suburbia. They either had to close or relocate themselves. Though there was still the issue of too-large class sizes in many places (owing to how many kids were being born in this era), there were at least better teachers and school systems.

This wasn’t a one-time move over a few years just after the war ended. People continued hightailing it to suburbia all through the Fifties and into the Sixties, particularly as most cities got worse and worse. Rising crime rates and devastating urban decay made many people afraid.

Some people saw or smelled smoke just a short distance away not long after moving to suburbia, leaving just ahead of the riots which tore many cities apart. Those who hadn’t already left, and had the means to do so, fled in the wake of these riots.

“A Ride on the 6,” 1983, Copyright Alfred Gonzalez

The only people left in cities after the riots were too poor to leave, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely loved city life and wanted to be there more than in a suburb.

Sadly, the great life promised by suburbia wasn’t available to everyone, as we shall see in the next post.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Music

A double album of gourmet chocolate and fine wine

Image used solely to illustrate subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released 8 July 1987, Another Scoop is the second of Pete’s three double-albums of demos, outtakes, and unreleased songs, both for The Who and his own solo career. I bought it the same day I bought Scoop, in late January 2002, on the $2 wall at Mystery Train Records in Amherst.

Though I love both albums, I’ve always slightly preferred Another Scoop. Whereas the songs on Scoop have a really fun, cute feel, like candy and soda pop, Another Scoop feels more mature and polished, like fine wine and gourmet chocolate.

As with the first installment, Pete wrote liner notes for each song, some very funny. Unlike the first album, Another Scoop provides dates for every song. Ten of the 25 tracks were recorded in my lifetime.

Pete dedicated this album to the memory of his dad, jazz musician Cliff Townshend (28 January 1916–29 June 1986).

Track listing:

LP One:

“You Better You Bet” (1980)
“Girl in a Suitcase” (1975; a rejected Who by Numbers track)
“Brooklyn Kids” (1978)

“Pinball Wizard” (1969; infamously written and recorded only to butter up music critic Nik Cohn. Mr. Cohn, a huge pinball fan, had panned a sneak preview of Tommy, and Pete wanted to ensure a much better review upon its official release.)

“Football Fugue” (1978)
“Happy Jack” (1966)

“Substitute” (1966) (“Interesting that in eulogizing two of my most important influences [and ripping off a few ideas] I should end up with one of the most succinct songs of my career.”)

“Long Live Rock” (1972) (“At one point I had a whole concept album planned called LONG LIVE ROCK, UGH. This is an innocent, bouncy little demo that contains enough cynicism to make it bearable.”)

“Call Me Lightning” (1964) (“The song is a very clear example of how difficult it was for me to reconcile what I took to be Roger’s need for macho, chauvinist lyrics and Keith Moon’s appetite for surf music and fantasy sports car love affairs.”)

“Holly Like Ivy” (1982) (“Written and recorded in Dallas after a post-show party at some restaurant at which a girl called Holly shook hands with me. I received a very large shock of static electricity at the same time. I think I stood on her hair.”)

“Begin the Beguine” (1969; written by Cole Porter)
“Vicious Interlude” (Pete warns one of his daughters not to put something on the wall and says she has a mischievous look in her eyes)
“La-La-La-Lies” (1965)
“Cat Snatch” (1982–83; instrumental; planned for the aborted last Who album, Siege)

LP Two:

“Prelude #556” (1982; instrumental) (“This short prelude was written, recorded and mixed in Florida while the other guys in the band were playing hockey with a load of schoolgirls. I felt superior at the time. After all, I was writing a prelude. This should really be described as a fanfare:
‘… for the entry of Roger Daltrey in a gym-slip!'”)

“Baroque Ippanese” (1982; instrumental)
“Praying the Game” (1978)
“Driftin’ Blues” (1981; always been my least-fave track; written by Charles Brown, Eddie Williams, and Johnny Moore)
“Christmas” (1968)
“Pictures of Lily” (1967)
“Don’t Let Go the Coat” (1980)
“The Kids Are Alright” (1965)
“Prelude: The Right to Write” (1983; instrumental)
“Never Ask Me” (1977; intended as an alternative ballad for Who Are You)
“Ask Yourself” (1982–83; planned for Siege)
“The Ferryman” (1978; written for an amateur production of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha)
“The Shout” (1984)

Side Four, which begins with “Prelude: The Right to Write,” took on great emotional evocation for me after my third love Jason broke my heart in October 2002. From that first haunting, insistent, pounding piano note, I’m gripped by an aching, yawning heartache that lasts through the last song, as though I’m back in Massachusetts and a heartbroken 22-year-old again. Every single time for almost eighteen years.

Pete’s music is that powerful, truly a soundtrack of my life.

My fave tracks are “Girl in a Suitcase,” “Brooklyn Kids,” “Football Fugue,” “Holly Like Ivy,” “Praying the Game,” and the abovementioned Side Four.

Pete turns 75 tomorrow, 19 May. May he have many more happy returns and continue blessing us with such wonderful music!

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Music

A double album of musical candy and soda pop

Image used solely to illustrate subject for an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

The day I got back to Amherst after winter vacation, in late January 2002, I walked down to Mystery Train Records in the hopes of finding some awesome new vinyl for my collection. Among the loot I found were both of Pete’s Scoop albums, Scoop and Another Scoop, on the $2 wall. I finally had a record player, and I couldn’t wait to listen to them!

Though Scoop was released in April 1983, it contains material from as far back as 1965. Since all my records are sadly still 900 miles away in storage, I can’t pull it out to review Pete’s liner notes, but thewho.net thankfully transcribed them.

The 26 songs are demos Pete made for The Who, as well as discarded solo songs. It was quite strange at first to listen to him singing songs I was so familiar with Roger singing. On some of them, Pete is clearly straining to reach notes Roger hit with no problem, since he didn’t write those songs for his own voice.

Track listing:

LP One:

“So Sad About Us” (1966; opens with a spoken intro)
“Brr” (instrumental)
“Squeezebox” (“…a poorly aimed dirty joke….Further incredulity was caused when it became a hit for us in the USA”) (1975)
“Zelda” (recorded during the making of Face Dances, about Pete’s niece; I named my ninth journal after this song) (1981)
“Politician”
“Dirty Water” (also recorded during the making of Face Dances) (1981)
“Circles” (1965)
“Piano: Tipperary” (instrumental)
“Unused Piano: Quadrophenia” (instrumental) (1973)
“Melancholia” (Pete’s comment “I’m pretty sure The Who didn’t even hear this song” became infamous after the song appeared on the boxed set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. His memory lapses are legendary and hilarious!) (1967)
“Bargain” (1971)
“Things Have Changed” (1965)
“Popular” (later became “It’s Hard”) (1982)
“Behind Blue Eyes” (1971)

LP Two:

“The Magic Bus” (1968)
“Cache, Cache” (retch, retch) (1981)
“Cookin'” (“A chauvinistic little ditty, but I’m chauvinistic towards men as well so it’s OK isn’t it?”)
“You’re So Clever” (1980)
“Body Language” (a discarded track for All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, using the fusion of “streamed poetry with straight lyrics” also found on “Communication”) (1982)
“Initial Machine Experiments” (synthesizer instrumental, with a very trippy, spooky feel)
“Mary” (one of the two namesake songs of my current and twelfth journal) (1971)
“Recorders” (instrumental; 1973)
“Goin’ Fishin'”
“To Barney Kessell” (instrumental; always been my least-fave track)
“You Came Back” (the album’s crown jewel, in my opinion)
“Love, Reign O’er Me” (1973)

Pete released this album to try to put a stop to people bootlegging, stealing, and copying his demos, noting that such fans would welcome this addition “to their stockpile of obsessive memorabilia.” More than that, he liked how it testifies to the power of home recording to evoke moods and music which could be created in no other way.

Above all, writing and recording music gives Pete real joy, particularly when created away from the prying eyes of the public and demand to be as polished and refined as possible. He wanted to share that joy with others.

Though Who fans will recognize eleven of the songs, they sound much different than the band’s versions. Not only is there a different vocal, there are different arrangements and stylings as well. It’s kind of like how Charles Chaplin described each viewer bringing one’s own outlook to the viewing of a silent film, no two people imagining the same words for the scenes without intertitles.

These songs are so cute and fun, hence the descriptor “candy and soda pop.” They’re also a contrast with the songs on Another Scoop, which feel like gourmet chocolate and fine wine (more about that on Monday).

My favorite songs are “You Came Back” (which is about reincarnation), “Zelda,” “Cookin,'” “Mary,” “Politician,” “Circles,” “So Sad About Us,” and “Unused Piano: Quadrophenia.”

Posted in 1960s, Adicia, Ernestine, Girl/Deirdre, Music

WeWriWa—In loving memory of John

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. In honor of John Lennon’s 39th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m taking a detour from my holiday-themed snippets.

This excerpt comes from Chapter 25, “Ernestine and Girl Are Beatlemaniacs,” of Little Ragdoll. It’s set over 9 February 1964, the day The Beatles first played Ed Sullivan. This is the first time young Ernestine Troy or her friends the Ryans (whose disinterested parents called them simply Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant) have ever watched television.

The Ryans eventually take the names Deirdre, David, Fiona, and Aoife (EE-fa).

Ernestine thinks it’s pretty rude how the majority of the girls in the studio audience are screaming. Even if one really likes a band and is excited to see them perform, that’s no excuse for screaming nonstop. They’re probably making it hard for the band to hear themselves play, and are missing the entire show because all they’re doing is screaming.

During the next song, a cover of what Mrs. van Niftrik says is a Broadway tune, “Till There Was You,” there are closeups of each bandmember, providing each one’s name. Ernestine rolls her eyes when a caption appears under John’s name, saying, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” As though any of the girls in the audience or watching at home stand a chance of marrying someone that much older and that famous. She and Girl both think he’s the handsomest, married or not. The others are cute, but John has a more mature face, like a handsome adult man, not carrying the look of a cute, soft-faced boy into early adulthood. Girl also feels a special energy coming from him, an aura she has a very good feeling about.