The History of American Urban Development Part 5: Post-War Period (1945–1973 CE)
Alright who’s ready to talk about some urbanization? I know it’s been a really long time, but oh boy, we are finally here again to continue on this never-ending series (that will end with the next article). It’s been a wild year of uh… well everything. So, give yourself a pat on the back for returning to your mandated lessons about the history of cities within the United States.
Just in case you wanted to catch up:
So, what are we going to be talking about today?
We’re going to be focusing on cities from the period of 1945–73, an era where the suburbanization that we talked about last time really gets a kick in the pants, where the car begins to dominate the American way of life, and where a generation of Boomers will be born to yell at service workers sixty years later. It’s an era of rock and roll, free love, horrific racial violence, and a war that makes America go: “are we the baddies?”
And as you might imagine, it’s also an era where the cities of the United States go through another wave of restructuring and the very orientation of cities within the United States shifts away from the previously dominant Manufacturing Belt.
We’re going to see more suburbs, more poor decisions, the continued decline of the central city, and all sorts of other things that are going to make us shake our head and go, what the fuck?
For this blog, we’ll start by examining general trends in urbanization, then focus a whole lot of words on the topic of suburbs (as did the urban planner of this era), vaguely talk about the inner city (as did the urban planners of this era), finish up with a few words on demographics, and then scurry off to finish this bad boy off with some concluding remarks.
Do I even really need to say it at this point?
It’s the same old story just polished off and sold to us for the fifth time in this narrative. The cities of this era were innovated, reorganized, and developed due to changes in transportation and communication technology.
On the transportation side of things, the United States went through a massive bout of road building starting with the Eisenhower administration, creating the modern Interstate Highway System. In 1956, an ambitious project was put in place with the latest version of the Federal Aid Highway Act (which we discussed last time). This iteration allocated funding for 41,000 miles of additional road ways. This connected every major city within the continental United States with high quality roads that facilitated rapid transit.
Not only did it connect them but it also integrated the urban road networks with the federal highways in a mode of development called the hub-and-spoke. The idea was to ring the urban centre with highways and then run a few avenues into the very urban core. This allowed for easy transportation into the urban core from the fringes, further fueling the flight of individuals out of the urban core and into the new suburban developments.
And of course, what would be roadbuilding without the cars to use them. During this period car ownership within the United States rose from 26 million cars in 1945 to 52 million in 1955 and finally 97 million cars in 1972, nearly a four-fold increase within 27 years.
These newer cars were also more efficient, as the average top speed of a car grew from less than 50mph (80 kph) in the 1920s to 80mph (130kph) in the 1950s. This meant that there were more cars which could travel further distances in the same amount of time, greatly opening up new tracts of land to potential suburban development.
Beyond roads, this period also saw the growing sophistication of air travel with a series of regional and subregional airports springing up to support the growing demand and availability of passenger aircraft.
As for communication technology, the growth of new industries and forms of communication allowed previously periphery areas to gain new importance within the United State’s urban system. A big example being the growth in electronics and computing.
To understand why this happened we must examine two seemingly opposite forces exerted upon the American urban form: regional decentralization and metropolitan consolidation.
Regional decentralization can be seen as a by-product of the growing ease of travel that started during the Fordist period. The growing number, power, and accessibility of automobiles meant that industries were no longer tied to the traditional Manufacturing Belt. Which was good because the aging nature of the Manufacturing Belt meant that these regions were becoming increasingly costly to operate in.
What this meant is that the South and West could now entice investment from industrial firms as they were becoming increasingly accessible, had cheaper land, lower taxes, lower energy costs, local boosterism, and a less militant labour force. Two big industries to make this transition were the electronic and aerospace industries which both took up operations in the American Southwest.
An added benefit to these industries was the fact that the cities here were rapidly taking shape, meaning these industries could more easily have a city conform around them, rather than having to conform to an existing city.
The biggest losers in this situation were the Manufacturing Belt cities where blue collar manufacturing and wholesaling jobs took a hit. For example, in New York, 206 000 manufacturing jobs and 26 000 wholesaling jobs were lost. In Philadelphia, these figures were 102 000 and 26 000. And similar crunches were felt in places like St. Louis, Boston, and Baltimore.
Though not all was lost for the manufacturing cities (as you can probably tell by the fact that New York is still an important place).
This is where Metropolitan Consolidation comes into effect. During this period corporate HQs and R&D facilities tended to be localized in the largest population centres. This is due to corporations themselves consolidating with mergers and acquisitions. What this meant is that we begin to see a rise in control centres. Control centres are urban locations with a high concentration of R&D and corporate headquarters.
Some of these control centres were already in large and established cities such as New York and Chicago. While some appeared in growing cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and LA which shows the growing importance of these regions. Still not all control centres were created equal. For example, by 1970, New York housed the HQs of 25% of the world’s 500 largest companies. Plus, they were the hub for a significant portion of the 300 largest companies in banking, insurance, retailing, transportation, and utilities.
New York always finds a way to thrive doesn’t it?
Why New York, and to a lesser extent Chicago, was allowed to do this is because they had a reserve of brainpower, an array of support services, and were well connected via infrastructure to the rest of the country. Meanwhile other control centres popped up near hubs of specific industries with Houston being the control city for energy and LA the control city for tech.
Meanwhile from the R&D perspective, things became heavily localized within a few innovation centres. These were metropolises which had a strong post-secondary education base, had a firm federal government presence, and offered attractive amenities to the highly skilled scientific workforces that populated them. Places like this included Silicon Valley, Route 128 in Boston, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Which yet again shows a mix of old and new.
So that’s what’s generally changed during this period. More cars, more roads, more sprawl, and the growing decentralization of the United State’s urban form.
Jesus, that’s Suburbia
As previously mentioned, the growing power and number of cars allowed for suburbanization to flourish during this period. During the 1950s, suburban populations grew by a massive 45.9% (or 19 million people) compared to a more modest 11.6% (or 6 million) within central cities.
There are four factors which led to this unprecedented explosion in suburban growth.
1) Euclid v Ambler, that court case we mentioned last time, allowed for large tracts of land to be segregated exclusively for residential purposes. This meant that these investments were seen as financially stable and highly lucrative, making lots of firms eager to try and make a profit off of them.
2) Over the course of the Depression Years and World War Two there was a suppressed demand for housing. With the war’s end, 16 million Americans had returned to domestic living and there was an immediate backlogged demand for 3–4 million homes. This situation did not get any better as the United States’ birth rate also exploded due to the baby boom.
3) 1944’s Serviceman’s Readjustment Act created the Veteran’s Administration whose primary goal was to facilitate home ownership amongst returning veterans. This organization was further strengthened by an evermore powerful Federal Housing Administration which received further powers under the 1949 Version of the Housing Acts. This helped make loans even cheaper and more secure for the average American.
4) As previously mentioned, the Federal Aid Highway Act allowed for the construction of 41,000 miles of limited access highways which greatly aided in transportation.
So, before we discuss suburbs, I do want to just briefly mention that there was at least some degree of physical growth within central cities. This was especially prevalent in the cities of the South and West. Throughout the 1950s and 60s major cities in these regions began to annex their surrounding counties into their legal borders. Through this annexation the central cities of places like Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Jose all grew by more than 100 square miles.
But this is but a mere drop in the bucket when compared to suburban growth.
With the war’s end, housing construction exploded. Prior to the Great Depression, there were 350,000 new housing units added to the market in an average year. After the war, this number exploded to 2,000,000 new units throughout the 1950s and would continue to produce an average of 1,500,000 new units all the way until 2009. This is an order of magnitude greater than the pre-war period.
So, what led to this massive explosion in housing development?
Well as mentioned, the government put in place many policies which favoured homeownership. The Federal Housing Administration helped nearly 11 million Americans with acquiring a home between 1945–73, leading to home ownership rate growing from 45% of Americans to 65%.
Government aid is only one side of the coin however. The other is the fact that developers began to adopt Fordism into their production models, turning housing into a mass-produced product for mass consumption. They utilized economies of scale, standardized techniques, and new technology to drive down costs.
One vital piece of technological innovation was the implementation of balloon-frame construction. This allowed for a cheaper frame to be used in housing construction. One that didn’t need a heavy and costly support beam. It also had the secondary effect of allowing for standardized components and the usage of cheaper semi-skilled labour. This single technique drove down the cost of housing construction by 40%.
So, using this technology, and by offering only a few pattern-book designs, developers began to create sprawling suburban communities. An early example would be the development of 16 square miles at Lakewood which was a development south of LA which would eventually house 100,000 people.
Though the most famous would be Levittown on Long Island. They took Fordist principles to heart and, starting in 1948, mass produced housing on their lands. By 1951, they had managed to sell 17,000 homes at the affordable rate of $100 down and $57 a month. Which… fuck you but okay.
So, houses were getting cheaper and this just so happened to also be a period of unprecedented economic growth. Between 1948–73 the economy grew five-fold and median incomes doubled (in terms of purchasing power). So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that homeownership grew by a rate of 50% over this same period.
Most suburbs were heavily car focused with development centred upon single detached homes. The suburbs were not a venue for apartments, duplexes, and smaller lot sizes. This had the effect of making the suburbs especially white as they, alone, had the purchasing power to live in such accommodations. Meanwhile, minorities and poorer elements were kept in the inner cities where conditions were less desirable.
It should also be noted how non-residential utilities were influenced by suburbanization.
As cars got more powerful, so did trucks, allowing for industry to move even further from the urban core. And as the land out here was far more advantageous and affordable many firms leapt at the opportunity to set up shop, creating sprawling industrial parks.
Along with these, there was also a continued evacuation of retail and office function to the suburbs with shopping centres and office parks. Even the department stores, who were once the centrepiece of central city living, got the memo, with companies like Sears moving their operations into these new shopping centres.
And the growth of shopping centres was tremendous. In 1957, there were 2000 shopping malls in the US. By 1965, this figure had grown to 8420. Then to 12170 in 1970. During this period suburban shopping centres would become dominant with 55% of all retail sales (excluding motor vehicles and gasoline) taking place within them. Not bad for something that didn’t exist until only a couple decades prior.
Now that we know why the suburbs were growing, let’s focus on what was going on in the central city.
Downtown USA: Population — 0
As previously mentioned, there was a flight of manufacturing and wholesaling jobs from the inner cities of the Manufacturing Belts. While the job losses were often balanced out with the creation of new white-collar service jobs, the populations lost would not be regained. That’s because blue collar workers would often live in their cities while white collar workers more frequently commuted from the suburbs.
This is just one of the many ways that the central cities of the United States entered a period of relative decline.
The central city ceased to be a venue for day to day life but rather hosted the jobs necessary to support their ring of suburbs. The city became a thing you commuted to rather than lived in.
So, what were a few factors that led to the decline of the central city.
First off there was the abandonment of old factories and warehouses as industry fled to the suburbs. This left large tracts of the central city blighted and reduced to nothing more than slums and relative wastelands.
While there was development this mostly took place in the very core of the Central Business District in the growing cluster of skyscrapers at its very heart. It was not evenly disturbed throughout the entire central city.
Secondly, the freeway system further added to this sense of urban blight. The freeways required a margin of 200–300 feet of right of way when they cut through cities. And due to free market economics, the freeways went through the region of “least commercial resistance” or the areas where the land could be bought up cheapest. Which meant that massive gouges were cut through low-income neighbourhoods, devastating communities.
And lastly, the 1960s was a period of massive social unrest with the civil rights and anti-war movements resulting in violence from the state. This further devastated the central city and led to the flight of more white and affluent families to the suburbs.
What we were left with was an American city that resembled a donut. A ring of populated and affluent suburbs around a blighted, devastated, and under-supported urban core.
While brief, the story of the inner city is a bleak one, during this period. Now to wrap up this blog we’ll be talking about demographic and social changes within American cities during this time.
The Baby Boom, Immigration, and Urban Life
Well let’s start off with the big demographic shift of this period: The Baby Boom. Starting in 1945, there was an explosion in the United States’ birth rate as new families began to form after the wake of WW2. From a low of 19 births per 1000 people in 1929, the birth rate spiked to 27 births per 1000 people in 1948 and would continue to remain within the low to mid-20s until the 1960s with the advent of the birth control pill.
This Baby Boomer generation had a profound impact upon American life and the American Urban Form.
For starters, there was a more liberalized view on divorce and sexual behaviour with this generation which led to the formation of many new types of household units that were different from the traditional nuclear family of the suburbs. Yeah, this one surprised me too. However, the formation of new household units put a greater demand on housing that was already being put under strain by the explosion in population.
So, by the 1970s, as this boomer generation was starting to enter the labour force and housing markets, we begin to see a great level of competition for jobs and housing, causing wages to stagnate and housing prices to grow higher and higher. This problem was added to as we see the entrance of a greater number of women into the labour force, adding to this competition.
Between 1973–83, the real median income of a US household, which was headed by someone under the age of 35, fell by 11%. And as prosperity faltered, the New Deal and Great Society of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnston were the first to go, replaced by the growing demand for liberalization and its neo- variant.
So, in the face of stagnation, the Boomer Generation started to vote with their feet, moving away from the traditional urban hubs of the east and into the suburbs and Sunbelt Cities of the South-West where housing was affordable, jobs more plentiful, and conditions for prosperity just ramping up.
The other demographic shift was the return of immigration to the United States. Many of the quotas and ceilings that were put in place during the Industrial Era (Early 20th Century) were removed in 1965.
In fact, migration has accounted for 1/3 of growth within the United State ever since.
What was different about this migration however was the demographic makeup of those coming into the country. Where previously, most immigration came from European countries, by the 1970s there was a steady shift towards Latin America and Asia. This shift would continue, and by 2009, 40% and 36% of migrants would come from Latin America and Asia, respectively, while only 9% came from Europe. This greatly shaped the cultural and racial identity of America.
How this shaped cities, is a two-part story. First, the traditional European communities that existed in many American cities began to assimilate to America and as they became American, they too fled the urban core for the suburbs. This left space for the new migrants to enter. Where there had once been Italian, Irish, and Russian communities there was now Cambodians, Colombians, Cubans, Jamaicans, Koreans, and Vietnamese.
This wave of immigration was also predominantly urban in form, like most before it, with large cities being the landing ground of many immigrants. What was different was where these big cities were. Where migrants used to land in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit, they now landed in San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and well… still New York… because honestly nothing can seem to bring that city down.
And this is a trend that continues to this day.
Well this project took several months of occasionally chipping away at it for it to finally take form. I honestly don’t even know if people are still sticking around for these bad boys.
That being said let’s quickly recap what just happened.
Suburbanization got even more popular, hollowing out the American urban core until there was nothing but ruin and desolation in the traditional central cities. Well except for an even more specialized Central Business District, a gleaming venue of skyscrapers that brought affluence but only provided jobs to those who had already abandoned the city.
The urban system within the US also shifted, with the Manufacturing Belt rapidly falling from grace and the mantle of American cities being taken up by the West Coast, American South, and the Sunbelt. We see the decline of almost all East Coast cities (with the exception of New York) and the rise of places like Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
Infrastructure was also a big theme during this period as the US dumped tremendous amounts of money into road building, helping to fuel the rise of automobiles, and in turn, providing a million opportunities to flee its cities. These roads also had a nasty habit of cutting swathes through urban communities, leaving them in further desolation.
And finally, we have the Baby Boom which caused the US population to explode, the housing market to become more and more expensive, and wages to stagnate. Who knew people fucking could have such a destructive effect upon our perceived notions of prosperity?
Oh, and we have immigration again. That’s pretty poggers, if I do say so. Good job… President from 1965… who was… *counts fingers* Johnston! Should’ve known that it was that guy. He’s pretty rad. Well except for Vietnam.
Anyways, thanks for sticking around and I hope to see you all around next time when we return to finish this bad boy up. That’s right! Only one part left.
Actually, I lied, I’m going to detour and do a brief food history article on currywurst because I’ve been having cravings that desperately needs sating.