Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 7, 1946

"It's not about helping banks; it's about helping people. Because when credit is available again, that young family can finally buy a new home. And then some company will hire workers to build it." - President Barack Obama's Address to Joint Session of Congress, February 24, 2009

The true third rail of politics isn't social security, healthcare or the origin of the term itself, but rethinking the American dream. I mean, we not only have record foreclosures, but completely abandoned towns, and the measure for recovery success is still a "young family" building a new house? And what of we renters? Are we just too poor—or perhaps, more appropriately, too single—to own our own home? Are we somehow unfulfilled Americans until we do? Or is it just our duty to revitalize the downtowns, along with gays and empty nesters, renting and buying overpriced condos without a neighborhood amenity (such as a supermarket or pharmacy) in sight?

When Barack Obama met with his 27-year old speechwriter Jon Favreau (who owns a Dupont Circle condo furnished by Pottery Barn) last November to discuss the inaugural speech, they agreed to theme it around "this moment that we're in, and the idea that America was founded on certain ideals that we need to take back." Needless to say, we've certainly been in this moment before: eviction notices, families living in cars, abandoned pets. No, not just the Great Depression: for 1946 America, the quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness became synonymous with the search for a home. And while President Obama (or Mr. Favreau) might think that a new single-family home in the 'burbs is part of the American fabric, the reality is that in 1946, when America stood at the crossroads of the home ownership paradigm, many at the time—particularly, the Post-Standard editorial board—envisioned an American dream based in the city.

If we truly want to understand how one Syracusan can look at the Wilson Building and see a potential home for himself, while another, his car, look no further than the 1946 editorial pages of the Syracuse Newspapers. Loose lips may have sunk ships during the war, but in the months after, they had plenty to say about their neighbors (or lack thereof): single vs. married, childless vs. parents, veteran vs. civilian. Yes, that's right, put the images of ticker tape parades and the Greatest Generation aside, because one year after Victory Day, returning soldiers were being called out in letters to the editor for their favored status:

"To the editor of the Post-Standard:
I think it's time that war-workers and non-vets organized also - in self-protection and for the general improvement of the United States! With preferences and priorities on new homes, rentals, surplus goods, free medical care, civil service exams, etc. etc. etc. pretty soon one will have to be a veteran in order to enjoy the right to breathe." (The Post-Standard, August 5, 1946)

Once you start reading these remarks, it becomes clear rather quickly that the 1946 letter-writers were as "opinionated" as many in the comments section. To wit, single people have no right to live alone:

"There is over-consumption of our existing space....approximately 1,500,000 living units which were designed for two or more people are now occupied by only one person because of frozen rents. Everybody knows cases of this kind. The stenographer who used to live doubled up with another now has her own individual apartment. This situation is excellent for her and we do not begrudge it—but it certainly is over-consumption of space...If rents were increased no more than is fair to property owners, I predict that about a million added units of rental space would immediately be available for veterans and others...At least the single people, who move out, will be forced to double up with someone else." (Syracuse Herald-Journal, October 12, 1946)

Childless couples should be restricted to apartments:

"Why aren't some super-large apartment houses built for couples with no children so parents and children can have houses and flats with yards?" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 17, 1946)

Contractors shouldn't be allowed to build vets' homes:

"I am a veteran of better than two years with better than eighteen months in the South Pacific theater. I was in the battle of Okinawa and the rest of those battles up to and including the bombardment of the Jap mainland. I figure there are a lot more of you fellows who'd like to build your own home and can't get the materials...Why can't the state add a couple thousand dollars to the eight already backed by the federal government? Each veteran could build a real nice house for '$10,000 and by getting together with a few other "vets" he could get it built in no time and save giving the money to those contractors who have been so graciously taking veterans for sleighrides. I have seen some houses put up by contractors for veterans and must say tho they cost $7,500 I'd be ashamed to give more than $4,000 for them..." (Post-Standard, December 30, 1946)

What differs the letter-writers from the commenters is that rather than "I've got mine," it's "I want mine." In 1946, there was an unprecedented demand for housing. Returning soldiers—both to the Syracuse community and Syracuse University, on the GI Bill—caused the greatest need. Growing industries brought new workers to the area. As we know, the baby boom was well on its way. But materials were scarce, as was labor—in fact, General Electric was accused by the Syracuse Society of Architects of "paying wages well above standard rates" for the construction of Electronics Parkway that "discouraged [private home builders] to the point of withdrawing from production" (Post-Standard, August 8, 1946). (General Electric didn't exactly deny the accusation, but rather stated that their actions were perfectly legal.) Keeping a concerned—if not panicked—eye on the whole situation was the Post-Standard, who routinely published editorials about the crisis. When city leaders proudly announced a program to winterize summer cottages for homeless families, and then—in that unique Syracuse tradition, promptly forgot about it—the Post-Standard reminded them from their editorial page:

"What has happened to the campaign for signing up summer camps for winter occupancy by homeless Syracuse families?
And what about that proposal to convert abandoned schoolhouses into homes?
Since last week's blast by Syracuse builders at federal red tape and Mayor Costello's statement that he would accept whatever public housing could be obtained for Syracuse, little has been heard of these two plans to provide immediate rental space..." (Post-Standard, September 17, 1946)

On a weekly, if not daily, basis in 1946, the Post-Standard published editorials regarding the housing crisis, to the point of being called "hysterical":

"The Post-Standard has reiterated so often that the housing shortage is causing grave hardship in Syracuse that one of our realtor friends accused us the other day of being hysterical about the situation. 'Your editorials have made the mayor so jittery he doesn't know which way to turn,' he admonished us...The Post-Standard promises to keep hammering at housing until the homeless hundreds of Syracusans get some tangible relief." (Post-Standard, October 5, 1946)

While it is true that many of the families needed basic shelter (there were stories of converted silos, porches, and basements), most of them didn't just want a home, but a house—in the city:

"Have seen so much about the housing shortage, and heard it on the radio, that I wrote to the Syracuse Housing Authority, also G-E housing, saying I would lake a congenial couple into my home.

The first never replied, the G-E has no one interested at present.

Although we live about 16 miles from Syracuse, the road is entirely level and it is easily driven in 25 minutes. Most all the men from this locality work in the city.

As for my home, it's modern in every way, as much as anyone could ask for, lights, gas, bath, furnace, electric refrigerator, etc. Also boat for fishing on Oneida River. I wonder what the people in the city want?"—Farmer's Wife, Central Square. (Post-Standard, August 18, 1946)

"I have just read a letter from Desperate Evictee, of March 12, and am terribly disgusted with all such letters, when I have lived where I am for over seven years and made a living for myself, wife and 10 children, and can count at least five empty houses within two miles of here, as well as lots of others farther off. I see no reason why people should have to live in a park or any other vacant lot, if they would consider living in the country God made for them instead of tying themselves down to a cement sidewalk and paved streets.

Of course we have no stuffy shops here, close by, but we have plenty of clean, healthy work all the time, winter and summer, with lots of fresh air. So if anyone cares to come around here to live, I am sure they could find a place to live in. "—A Disgusted Reader, Lowville (Post-Standard, March 21, 1946)

While Central Square and Lowville might not be considered suburbs of Syracuse even today, there was an increasing trend of building what relatively few houses were constructed outside the city. It stands to reason that this was mainly because the undeveloped countryside was where the land needed for the thousands of houses was most plentiful. However, the Post-Standard monitored this situation, too, and insisted that the land was available in the city:

"Is Syracuse at last going to do something about stopping the undeniable trend to country living?

We've been harping on the subject for a good many years now, holding to the thought that the city could, by wise planning, offer families as much (and more) as any rural district.

We believe that if folks could get more light and air, more spacious surroundings and more seclusion in the city, they would prefer it to the country. There is plenty of land, not too expensive.

Why do we have to place houses side by side on 40 or 50 or even 60-foot lots? Why do we have to place them so close to the curb that automobile traffic noises and smells penetrate into homes? Why do we have to have yards so small that there is room only for a little grass, not for a garden and some fruit trees and a children's playhouse?

The answer is: We do not." (Post-Standard, March 7, 1946)

Yet as the months passed, and more letters and articles about homeless or soon-to-be-evicted families dominated the Post Standard pages, the conflict that would soon face the Syracuse (and American) city became apparent on the editorial page itself. On November 27, 1946, the Post-Standard featured two editorials about the housing crisis. The first reiterated the concern about housing being built outside city limits, and offered suggestions to abate this trend:

"About 773 homes were commenced in Onondaga county during the first 19 months of this year, with only 174 of them in Syracuse. The Post-Standard has been pointing out this trend for years, but we have apparently wasted tons of newsprint and gallons of ink with exhortations to city planners to do something to make living in the city as attractive as in the country.

It can be done easily if the real estate developers, the city engineers and other officials concerned with laying out new residential tracts would only study the reasons why so many families now prefer to build outside the city limits. The first consideration in most cases is more space, light and air for each home, with greater traffic safety. Yet the city continues its 1900 gridiron residential plan, with 40 and 50-foot lots in many areas.

Unless we are willing to let Syracuse become a community of obsolescent dwellings, we must give serious consideration to this problem, as well as to comparative tax costs between city and towns. For if Syracuse goes bankrupt while carrying 80 per cent of the county tax load, the entire area will suffer just as acutely as will the municipality."
One column to the right, on the very same page, the Post-Standard offered this additional editorial:

"We do not believe that placing the projected state housing on an E. Fayette St. site would depreciate other housing in the section.

In fact, from what we have seen of housing of the type, it ought to add to properly values.

It will be remembered that Gov. Dewey, while here during the political campaign, promised that the housing would have its own courts and playgrounds and would be developed to add to the beauty of the city, not detract from it.

The area picked for it is now a waste, with few houses on it and a garage or two scattered here and there in the area.

It would seem that attractive steel and brick apartment housing units would be an acceptable addition to the neighborhood. "

Now, perhaps the Post-Standard truly was suffering from histrionics at this point, which, according to the DSM-IV, is characterized by personality features such as "easily influenced by others," "rapidly changing emotions" and "believes relationships are more intimate than they are." Or maybe they were forty years ahead of the New Urbanism movement, envisioning a "broad range of housing types and price levels [to] bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community." But if New Urbanism came about in response to suburban sprawl, and supposedly modeled on the urbanism of earlier cities, what does it mean if this idea of the mixed dwelling neighborhood in the earlier cities never came to pass?

March 18, 1993 April 6, 2009
Revisiting Governor Dewey's Promise