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 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, Architecture, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the post-WWII housing crisis in the U.S.

This is a story which begins shortly on the heels of the Stock Market crash. Serious problems never arise out of a vacuum or overnight, and this one was no exception.

Since so many banks failed and people lost their entire savings, they often were unable to stay in their homes. Many people also streamed into big cities looking for work, and they needed someplace to live.

Contrary to popular belief, a not insignificant number of people stayed wealthy, which enabled some hotels and luxury apartments in progress to continue construction, and others to be built entirely after the Stock Market crash. These people merrily carried on as though the party of the Roaring Twenties had never ended, or at most slightly scaled back their extravagant lifestyles to avoid looking insensitive.

However, that wasn’t the norm. Many luxury apartments went from miniature mansions to studios and SROs. Townhouses and rowhouses, by then unfashionable as single-family homes, were also divided, and multiple families crammed into detached houses.

And those were the lucky ones. Many more people had no choice but to live in tents, shacks, and cars, or take up squatting.

Since there were far bigger fish to fry during the Depression and WWII, new construction ground to a near-complete standstill, and existing homes fell into disrepair. By the time servicemen began coming back home and starting families, the situation was at crisis levels.

There was such a dearth of housing, many people were seriously pressured, if not outright forced, into letting their apartments be split up for returning GIs and the war refugees.

This desperate situation is depicted in films like The More the Merrier (1943), Standing Room Only (1944), So This is Washington (1943), Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), Apartment for Peggy (1948), Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), and It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947).

Millions of veterans needed to find homes, particularly since many returned with war brides, were already married, or quickly married and began families. This wasn’t an era of casually dating random people for fun well into one’s thirties or indefinitely going steady for 5+ years, moving in together long before considering marriage, matter-of-factly having a couple of kids along the way, and getting married almost as an afterthought.

People had to be married to live together, have sex, and have kids without scandal, and society encouraged settling down and starting a family sooner rather than later. The average marriage age precipitously dropped in this era, as many couples didn’t even wait to finish high school before tying the knot (not always because of pregnancy).

Many couples were engaged within weeks or months of meeting, and engagements usually only lasted a few months. In the pre-Pill era, and with the Comstock Act making it illegal even for married couples to access information about contraception, children often started arriving 40 weeks after the wedding.

Thus, all these growing families needed a place to stay. Some lived with parents, but that created very crowded, awkward living situations. Even if you’re in a massive estate with separate wings, it’s no fun being stuck in your parents’ house when you’re a grown adult, esp. when you have a family of your own.

GIs also had first priority on housing, which meant people moving to cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. with romantic, idealistic daydreams had to wait their turn for a real home. Even GIs often had to accept rented rooms, SROs, or mere huts, shacks, or tents.

GIs who were lucky enough to come back to their own homes often weren’t very happy there. After spending the last few years living in foxholes, huts, tents, and appropriated houses shared with dozens of other guys, they were desperate for room to stretch out. When a spouse and kids are added to the mix, the need for more space multiplies.

Many of the homes which were available for purchase and within their means were in a state of disrepair (broken windows, rats, no heating, bad lighting, busted water pipes, backyards overgrown with weeds), and thus required a great deal of time and money to be made livable again.

Additionally, the Green Revolution put many small farmers out of business when they were unable to afford modern machinery and more land. When enough people leave a rural town, job opportunities dry up, and an exodus to larger cities results.

GIs or not, many people from such towns simply craved a better job market, and weren’t content to resume living in a quiet small town after the experience of seeing the world and meeting such a wide range of people.

The Second Great Migration sent over five million African-Americans to the Northeast, Midwest, and West in search of better jobs, in places without Jim Crow. They needed housing too.

About a million immigrants, half of them war refugees, also entered the U.S. in the early postwar years, and they likewise needed housing.

And then a seemingly perfect solution appeared.

Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction

The ultimate historical accuracy on fire

While all the anachronisms and deus ex machina plot developments in Season One of Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire really add up, I can concede they’re not that bad in comparison to something like Anne with an E. It seems more like badly-written characters, lack of attention to detail, and over-reliance on lazy, convenient plot twists.

Still, these characters (with a few notable exceptions, like Robina) tend to speak, act, and think more like 21st century people than authentic people from the 1940s. Even the most radical, against the grain people had to operate within certain parameters.

The quintessential example everyone knows is Scarlett O’Hara. While she very much breaks the mold of her time and place, she doesn’t entirely play by her own rules. She’s a product of white, upper-class Southern society in the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, not a 1930s character who just happens to live there and then.

Which brings me to…

No woman in the 1940s, whatever her social class or political views, would’ve treated an out of wedlock pregnancy as no big deal like Lois does, let alone gone about in slinky, form-fitting dresses! Even more stunningly, 99% of everyone around her likewise treats it as totally normal instead of scandalous.

I was really confused, at age 11 or 12, to see Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Father’s Little Dividend looking very un-pregnant, even when she was supposedly nine months along. I was stunned when my mother told me it wasn’t considered decent to depict pregnancy in that era.

Even after the historic I Love Lucy episode where Lucy tells Ricky she’s pregnant, the word “pregnant” still wasn’t used, and pregnant characters wore shapeless maternity clothes. Forget slinky dresses!

In real life, Lois would’ve done one of the following:

Scrambled to find an illegal abortion.

Entered into a shotgun marriage with Harry (though it would’ve made him a bigamist).

Married a man noble and understanding enough to publicly pretend paternity.

Pretended her husband was away at war (a perfect excuse!).

Hidden herself away until the birth. In 1939–40, the baby snatch era was still a ways off, so she wouldn’t have been coerced into adoption or had her baby outright stolen unless she went to a Magdalene Laundry or similar home.

In this era, the objective was on keeping mother and baby together, “reforming” the mother, and helping her get an education and find a job which would enable her to support her child. Eventually, she might find a husband who didn’t care about her past.

Instead she casually goes around in form-fitting clothes, making no bones about being unmarried, and performing onstage at her nightclub until the moment she goes into labor. Many bosses fired women just for getting married. Pregnancy was also frequent grounds for automatic dismissal.

When she meets the man she’ll marry after the birth, he naturally asks about her husband.

“Oh, I’m not married.”

Said no woman in 1940 who cared about her reputation, EVER!

That’s like matter-of-factly telling someone you just met about being gay, divorced, having an abortion, being married to someone of another race, or working as a burlesque dancer! That information was extremely dangerous, not to be divulged to total strangers!

People in general were much more discreet in this era. They didn’t constantly overshare the most private details of their lives with anyone and everyone. Even if they had an extremely progressive, black sheep family and/or circle of friends, they would’ve exercised much more caution outside that safe little bubble.

And though it was common for single women to raise their children, that didn’t come without huge amounts of stigma. Many people started counting days after a wedding. If the baby came less than 40 weeks later, everyone would know they had premarital sex. Quite a few full-term babies were falsely passed off as premature.

One of the many things which has vividly stayed with me about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the line hurled at men who got their girlfriends in trouble, “If she let you, she let others.” One great guy was prepared to marry his sweetheart, but his own mother and sisters used that line on him, and capped it off with, “We’re women, so we know these things.”

An angry mob also threw stones at a single mom who dared to go out in public with her baby in a fancy pram and show her love, instead of hiding away and acting ashamed.

Even the models for Lane and Bryant (the only mainstream company to make maternity clothes) weren’t pregnant. Women who didn’t have the luxury of staying home after starting to show wore very baggy clothes, wrap dresses, drawstring waists, smocks, maternity corsets.

Forget performing at a nightclub in slinky dresses! The audience would’ve been horrified, and the boss would’ve fired Lois or asked her to stay home till after the birth.

There wouldn’t have been a more relaxed attitude on account of being working-class either. 

Only in the last few decades has out of wedlock pregnancy lost its stigma, and maternity wear didn’t begin evolving past shapelessness until the 1970s. In my own lifetime, many maternity clothes were still shapeless!

If you can’t bring yourself to accurately depict the past, even if it makes you uncomfortable, hist-fic isn’t your genre.

Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction

Historical accuracy on fire

Warning: Contains massive spoilers!

While Season One of Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire, about the first year of WWII, isn’t nearly as egregiously anachronistic as Anne with an E, it nevertheless has much to answer for. I’m so tired of people defending historical characters with Current Year values as just “ahead of their time,” “not the kind of characters you’re used to seeing,” and “looking back on the past, not portraying it.”

I’ve zero problem with hist-fic including things like interracial couples, gay characters, single moms, assertive women, and people questioning the status quo. All those things obviously did happen in the past, even if they weren’t socially acceptable or legal. The key is in portraying them in a historically accurate way.

And what does that mean?

People being very discreet, only confiding in extremely trusted people they know to be fellow black sheep, keeping secrets, facing negative consequences.

Instead of recapping the entire season, I’m going to focus on everything wrong with it. There are plenty of other places you can find full reviews of each episode and Season One as a whole.

1. Those familiar with historical weaponry have said the guns and tanks are anachronistic.

2. The term “dumb-ass” did not exist in 1940, unless I’m very much mistaken!

3. Posh, wealthy Robina is a cold, unfeeling antagonist. Not only is she one of the few well-rounded characters, she’s just acting like anyone in her position would. Being rich doesn’t make one an automatic villain.

4. The interracial gay couple in Paris seems to have been included just to tick boxes. This storyline doesn’t feel well-integrated with the others, with far less screentime. The lovers are also a bit too out and indiscreet for their era. Even if you’re in a progressive, Bohemian bubble, the outside world still exists.

5. Nancy would’ve been an extreme rarity, a female investigative journalist and news reporter, yet we don’t see her facing any sexism.

6. We’re supposed to believe someone of Nancy’s age (forties or fifties) has never heard of eugenics or Social Darwinism before? It was hugely popular in the U.S., not just Nazi Germany!

7. Nancy’s incessant meddling and refusal to leave well enough alone leads to a huge tragedy with her neighbors the Rosslers. I predict her causing a similar situation when she’s in the USSR in Season Two.

8. How was Nancy not arrested after her anti-Nazi broadcasts?! She has no concept of the danger loose lips cause in totalitarian countries. (And egads, Helen Hunt’s mask-like facelift is so creepy and distracting!)

9. We’re supposed to believe Nancy and Hr. Rossler disposed of a dead body without anyone seeing anything? Also love the comment “She’s a dead Nazi, and that’s good enough for me.” Did the writers intend a parallel with the modern “Punch a Nazi” slogan, where anyone to the right of Antifa is deemed a Nazi and therefore deserving of violence?

Polish national shero Emilia Gierczak (1925–1945), killed in action at Kołobrzeg

10. Kasia’s surname should be Tomaszeska, not Tomaszeski! Polish surnames have grammatical gender.

11. It seems highly unlikely a Wehrmacht soldier would’ve killed an unarmed civilian so early in the war, even if she spat at him. It smacks of yet another convenient plot development.

12. How is Harry able to take Kasia’s little brother Jan back to England without papers? He could’ve only brought Kasia, his wife (who elects to stay behind and be a freedom-fighter with no apparent awareness of what danger she constantly puts herself into).

13. How did two Polish guys get all the way to freaking Dunkirk?! Huge plot holes! And of course they just happen to end up on the same boat as Harry.

14. And of course Kasia’s brother Grzegorz just happens to end up in a hospital close to Jan’s new home with Robina!

15. Why is Harry sent back to Poland to smuggle out Resistance fighters? Wouldn’t England be more concerned about resupplying them to enable them to continue fighting on their native turf, and wouldn’t a member of the Polish Free Forces be chosen in lieu of an Englishman?

16. How convenient Harry just happens to parachute into the area where Kasia’s stationed!

17. Also convenient how a bomb explodes just as Kasia is being led to the gallows before this, enabling her to escape.

18. And how convenient only Harry and Kasia are left alive after the Nazis attack their outpost!

19. Who the bloody hell leisurely, matter-of-factly wanders around in the middle of a warzone or behind enemy lines?

20. I have so much to say on the beyond-historically-inaccurate depiction of Lois’s out of wedlock pregnancy, I’m saving it for its own post on Wednesday!

21. Robina claims the Nazis didn’t bomb Paris. That’s sure news to me, after I read articles about the June 1940 bombing of Paris!