Saturday, October 08, 2011

That sixties suburban sweet spot, revisited

My wife grew up on a leafy cul-de-sac in West Seneca, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. Her house, like I think most of the houses on the street, was a comfortable split-level (2500 sq feet, built 1954) with a good-sized yard.

Yesterday, at a family brunch, my wife started asking her fifty-something siblings what the parents of various friends on the block did for a living. Her brother had almost all the answers; her dad filled in a few more this morning. I am changing the names but perserving the ethnicities.

Mr. Grimm was a bricklayer. Mr. Wojick was a foreman at the Ford plant. Mr. Majewski worked in a bronze casting factory, as did one other neighbor. Mr. Cobb worked in product safety at Fisher-Price.  Mr. Frank was a stockbroker. Tombari sold insurance. Panetta was a meat wholesaler.  White was a concrete contractor working mainly on bridges. Carlotti was a dentist (and my father-in-law, an oral surgeon). The Murphys, husband and wife, were teachers, and so were the Stones. Burger was a roofer.

That is a pretty wide range of livelihoods, isn't it? Perhaps it's not so different today. The price of comparable homes in West Seneca today is $179k; metro Buffalo skipped both housing boom and housing bust. There are fewer factory workers, natch.  And I suspect that the dentists and stockbrokers probably live elsewhere. The area has had its share of McMansion building, and you can get a castle in the outer burbs for under $350k. 

The point is more or less one that Jim Manzi made some months ago, responding to a moment of nostalgic reminiscence by Paul Krugman: the 50s and 60s were a relative sweet spot for social equality in the U.S.  That is, if you were white -- my in-laws took a lot of flack from neighbors when they sold their house to a black family in the mid-80s -- the first on the block.  In large swaths of suburbia, factory workers and professionals and small-biz contractors were neighbors and lived in similar houses. In my wife's neighborhood, factory workers' kids went to Catholic schools (cheap! teachers paid a pittance!) and on to college. The kids ran free range on that half-mile cul-de-sac, in and out of each others' homes, dimly aware, if at all, of any differences in social class (though presumably more aware as they got older; why does my brother-in-law know what everyone's father did?) My wife's family had the first pool on the block (later followed by many others), and much of the neighborhood spent much of the summer there for some years. And no one signed a liability release.

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