From self-help advice to living in a McMansion

Two authors looking at patterns in self-help books suggest they provide readers with aspirations and dreams of living in McMansions:

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are dedicated to finding answers to those questions. They are the authors of “How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books” and the hosts of the “By the Book,” a podcast in which they both follow the rules of one self-help book for two weeks...

On the aspirational nature of self-help books and their authors

Meinzer: A lot of these books are setting themselves up, or setting the authors up to be who we should aspire to be. We should be as exciting, as entrepreneurial, as organized, as worldly as this person selling dietary supplements and living in a McMansion.

Maybe some of us don’t want that. Maybe there are a lot of other ways we can be, and we can all be very content living what works for us.

And unfortunately, a lot of the self help books we’ve lived by do somehow create a world view that this is the one single way to be.

From The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 to today, Americans seem to enjoy looking for reinforcement regarding getting ahead and becoming successful in life. And it is not an accident that this often connects back to the suburbs. I take the reference above to “living in a McMansion” to be a reference to achieving the American Dream, often defined as living with a nuclear family in a suburban single-family home in a attractive neighborhood or community. This is a powerful ideology reinforced by decades of government policy, American values, race, and religion.

A lot of this came together in the 1950s: with postwar prosperity and change, numerous social forces – including self-help books – promoted a suburban lifestyle. This was not without its critics attacking the suburban good life from numerous angles, ranging from urbanists promoting city life to clergy decrying the abandonment of cities, but they could do little to stem the tide. (See James Hudnut-Beumler’s book Looking for God in the Suburbs has the best academic treatment of this subject.) After this, the American Dream was sealed: it was not just about getting ahead or making a better life but rather involved a successful suburban life.

It is also interesting to consider why a McMansion is a potent symbol of this suburban good life through self-help. Is it because it is a relatively new home? Is it because the external features of the McMansion – architecture, square footage, impressive facade – are meant to impress? (Critics of McMansions would argue that these are exactly the problems with McMansions: they appeal to particular tastes and hide all sorts of deficiencies.) Are there people who follow self-help principles, become successful, and buy tasteful older homes or live in mid-century modern suburban homes?

Seeing the nuclear family in a suburban single-family home as a historical blip

David Brooks argues the idealized American family in the suburbs is a historical anomaly:

For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”

During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.

Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.

In a sweeping historical perspective, Brooks is right (nor is he the first to make this argument): the American arrangement of small nuclear families in large private homes is unusual. It is even relatively unusual among contemporary living arrangements throughout the world. Fifty years from now, will this period look even more like a historical blip?
And yet, the idea has a strong hold on American life. This particular lifestyle became a significant part of the American Dream, supported by the federal government, promoted by films and television, and defining much of popular twentieth century sprawling suburbs. To move away from this ideal will take some work, even if there are reasons pushing Americans away from this life. Brooks proposes some different alternatives, from multigenerational dwellings to cohousing, but each will take time to develop. It is hard enough to get politicians to talk about housing, let alone discuss all the social arrangements and family life attached to it.
At the least, this is a reminder of how social arrangements can come together through a  confluence of forces and come to seem like normal – until things have changed.

Suburban dream: have a McMansion 12 miles from Times Square

A profile of Hasbrouch Heights, New Jersey in the New York Times highlights the variety of housing styles available in close proximity to Manhattan:

A mile-and-a-half square atop a hill, Hasbrouck Heights is hardly the boondocks. Times Square is 12 miles east, and the Manhattan skyline is visible from some streets. On the northern end, Interstate 80 swipes past and Route 46 cuts through. Route 17, with office buildings, hotels and chain restaurants, runs down the town’s eastern edge, and Teterboro Airport is just on the other side.

Driving through Hasbrouck Heights on Route 17 offers little inkling of the residential community up the hill or beyond the cliff to the west. Bordered primarily by Hackensack and the boroughs of Lodi, Wood-Ridge and Teterboro, Hasbrouck Heights has an eclectic housing stock of Capes, Victorians, ranches, split-levels, boxy contemporaries, Tudors, McMansions and colonials of all stripes, many on 50-foot-wide lots. The architectural variety, spanning the late 1800s to the current decade, is evident on nearly every block.

“With the new construction, builders have done a good job adding style and character,” said Susan LeConte, the president and chief executive of LeConte Realty, in Hasbrouck Heights. “The homes are not cookie-cutter.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This kind of real estate profile, a staple in many newspapers, tend to be very positive about each community or neighborhood highlighted. This profile is no exception: it has the feeling of a small town (bikes can stay unlocked!), there is a little noise from a nearby airport but not too much, and residents can commute to New York City. If this is not an advertisement for the American Dream – single-family home in a quiet suburb not too far from the big city – then I do not know what is. (Thinking more about these profiles: it would be funny to follow them with the opposite perspective of each community.)
  2. The paragraph on different housing architecture is interesting in two ways. How would a suburban community end up with an “eclectic housing stock”? Perhaps development took place in fits and starts. Perhaps the community has a mix of housing needs (with McMansions sitting on the more expensive end). Perhaps the community is more open to different kinds of development.
  3. The second interesting part of the housing paragraph is that the mix of architectural styles only hints at two more modern styles: “boxy contemporaries” and McMansions. Neither descriptions are endearing. Boxy and sleek homes are not preferred by many. McMansions are often viewed as taking up too much space and having poor design. Does this hint that home styles have hit a dead end in recent decades? Would more buyers prefer an older, more established style that they can then update to fit their own needs?
  4. For all the density and glamour of Manhattan, there are plenty of McMansions in the New York City region (including famously in New Jersey and elsewhere).

Looking for stories of millennials and young adults who want to and enjoy living in suburban homes

The suburbs are indeed changing – such is the premise of Curbed‘s “The Suburbs Issue.” And the lead story seems to fit into this argument: the suburbs are changing in that millennials are not so sure about buying a large suburban home. Here is the conclusion from that story:

Scocca concludes that the dream of having a big house built just for you was “never a very good dream anyway,” and that might be true, and maybe it’s not even a revelation. Houses have always been a location where we can project our hopes, dreams, and fears. No matter how much we try to rationalize the process of owning a house, the relationship is always a bit foggy, tinted by human emotion. It doesn’t seem possible to live somewhere for any meaningful length of time without imbuing it with your own nebulous ego. Over the past few months, I kept returning to this quote from novelist Helen Oyeyemi: “I think that houses, or at least the home part of them, are so much constructed that they’re simultaneously magical and haunted anyway.” Houses are not homes, and homes are not necessarily houses. Perhaps the real American dream is to find a sense of stability, safety, and acceptance. Maybe this is a downsized version of our parents’ American dream, or perhaps it’s just more honest, taking into account all the different stories we’re fed from the outside, and all the private stories we tell ourselves behind closed doors.

There is much truth here: homeownership in the suburbs is not such an obvious path for many young Americans due to financial insecurity, watching what happened to older generations, and different priorities about what they want to get out of life. Just because Americans prioritized suburban homeownership in the last one hundred years (and propped it up through policies and cultural ideology) does not necessarily mean this will continue in the future.

At the same time, is an article like this in a long line of suburban critiques that now stretch back roughly a century? Some of the same concerns are present: what makes a home (the happy suburban facade or the difficulties many people still face even when it looks like they have the American Dream), whether the suburbs are financially possible (beyond just homes, driving is expensive and giving children all sorts of advantages is encouraged), environmental effects (using more land, driving, building individual homes), and a lack of excitement or vibrant community in the suburbs.

All of this leads me to wondering about the millennials who are still moving to suburbs by their choice. Surely they exist. Surveys suggest many millennials want to own a home in the suburbs at some point. The homeownership rate recently increased, driven by millennial’s purchases. The population of millennials in big cities recently declined. Empirical data could settle whether millennials are not settling in the suburbs at the same rate as previous generations or might be doing so at a delayed rate (which would fit with other findings regarding emerging adulthood).

Is finding these suburban millennials not a priority because it reinforces the suburban ideology? If millennials do largely settle in suburbs, would this be viewed as a failure of American society on multiple levels? Would settling in denser suburban areas be enough to make amends for decades of urban sprawl and “the ghastly tragedy of the suburbs“? Or, might slight changes among millennials be an acknowledgement that reversing long-standing narratives about the good life – the American Dream – could take decades (just as it took time to develop suburbia as the ideal on a mass scale)? What if, in the end, Americans like suburbs for multiple reasons?

States with highest, lowest levels of homeownership

24/7 Wall St. ranked the states by homeownership. Here are the top and bottom of the list:

50. New York: 53.7%

49. California: 54.8%

48. Nevada: 56.8%

47. Hawaii: 58.3%

46. Texas: 61.7%

5. Iowa: 71.3%

4. New Hampshire: 71.3%

3. Minnesota: 71.5%

2. Vermont: 72.2%

1. West Virginia: 72.5%

The two states with the lowest levels of homeownership are not surprising given their housing prices and large urban areas though I would guess many people would not pick Nevada and Texas to be there. On the other end, the five states with the highest homeownership rates tend to be less dense and more affordable. If, as the article before the rankings suggest, homeownership is indeed a marker of the American Dream, does that mean the people in these five states with the most homeownership are more likely to be living the American Dream? I’m guessing there would be some debate about that.

 

America’s “cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids”

Derek Thompson discusses the decrease in children in large American cities:

Cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids. College graduates descend into cities, inhale fast-casual meals, emit the fumes of overwork, get washed, and bounce to smaller cities or the suburbs by the time their kids are old enough to spell. It’s a coast-to-coast trend: In Washington, D.C., the overall population has grown more than 20 percent this century, but the number of children under the age of 18 has declined. Meanwhile, San Francisco has the lowest share of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the U.S…

But the economic consequences of the childless city go deeper. For example, the high cost of urban living may be discouraging some couples from having as many children as they’d prefer. That would mean American cities aren’t just expelling school-age children; they’re actively discouraging them from being born in the first place. In 2018, the U.S. fertility rate fell to its all-time low. Without sustained immigration, the U.S. could shrink for the first time since World World I. Underpopulation would be a profound economic problem—it’s associated with less dynamism and less productivity—and a fiscal catastrophe. The erosion of the working population would threaten one great reward of liberal societies, which is a tax-funded welfare and eldercare state to protect individuals from illness, age, and bad luck…

Finally, childless cities exacerbate the rural-urban conundrum that has come to define American politics. With its rich blue cities and red rural plains, the U.S. has an economy biased toward high-density areas but an electoral system biased toward low-density areas. The discrepancy has the trappings of a constitutional crisis.  The richest cities have become magnets for redundant masses of young rich liberals, making them electorally impotent. Hillary Clinton won Brooklyn by 461,000 votes, about seven times the margin by which she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined. Meanwhile, rural voters draw indignant power from their perceived economic weakness. Trump won with majority support in areas that produce just one-third of GDP by showering hate and vitriol on cities that attract immigration and capital…

For those young and middle-aged Americans who are having sex and having children, the smaller cities and suburbs might simply be a better place to live—and not just for the obvious reason that they’re more cost-friendly for the non-rich. Perhaps parents are clustering in suburbs today for the same reason that companies cluster in rich cities: Doing so is more efficient. Suburbs have more “schools, parks, stroller-friendly areas, restaurants with high chairs, babysitters, [and] large parking spaces for SUV’s,” wrote Conor Sen, an investor and columnist for Bloomberg. It’s akin to a division of labor: America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents. The childless city may be inescapable.

The book and film Children of Men suggested people in the near future would not have children for some uncontrollable reason but perhaps cities will have fewer children by the collective individual and social choices of urban dwellers.

This also has implications for the American Dream which has tended to suggest parents will work hard and pass along benefits to future generations. Not having as many direct beneficiaries of actions could alter how people think about the future: it is one thing to project changes for a community (“this is good for Chicago’s future, whoever happens to live here”) versus thinking about more direct benefits which could also help a community (“my children will be better off – and they can continue to live in Chicago and benefit others”).

Final thought: this is a rare time when someone could claim the suburbs are “more efficient” for raising children. On one hand, I see the point: the suburban infrastructure has been built around children for decades. On the other hand, this idea of “efficiency” is an odd one as children can also be raised in cities and what Americans value for children and families is often closely tied to perceptions of cities and suburbs.

The well-cultivated lawns of Levittown

The history of environmentalism in the suburbs Crabgrass Crucible includes this description of how Levittown encouraged good looking lawns:

Abraham Levitt, among others, remained keenly aware of the additional work and expense suburban horticulture demanded, as well as the collective benefits that could follow if all Levittowners took the time and trouble to cooperate. However well-chosen and planted, all their grass, shrubs, and trees would die, and the chickweed prevail, if new owners’ commitments and skills were not also fortified. Through a gardening column in the Levittown newspaper, Abraham opened up a weekly line of communication to bring home to Levittowners how “lawns, like all living things, require care.” He “used to come around in a chauffeur driven car” to check on his homeowners’ floral upkeep. If lawns went unmowed or unweeded, he sent his own landscapers to do the job and followed up with a bill in the mail. Most developers at the lower end, like the Romano brothers, were far less solicitous, especially once their homes had been sold.

As lawn cultivation was taken up by new as well as longtime homeowners, its collective benefits, reinforced by the pressure of neighbors’ peeled eyes, helped make it the most ubiquitous of horticultural practices on Long Island. Whether these residents were white or black, however, their memories downplayed the landscaping contributions of builders and developers. Early Levittowners recalled a “sea of dirt” or mud that surged with rain, an uneven respreading of the topsoil, and scrawny, “inexpensive” shrubbery and trees. Residents later remarked little about any lawn damage from roaming children or dogs, or the neglect of lawn care by a neighbor next door. Instead, whether they were Levittowners or lived in African American Ronek Park, their recollections revolved around a joint if rival pursuit of horticultural handiwork. “Everyone” took up the mowing and watering and often the fertilizing and weed killing. As with Levittowners, Eugene Burnett remember “a kind of competition goin’ with that” that made Ronek Park yards into “some of the most beautiful lawns I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Caught up in the lawn-making enthusiasm, even Robert Murphy tried to plant one outside his Crystal Brook home. Yet for large lot owners, the dynamic was less intensely communal – the Murphy’s lawn was not even visible from the road. For denizens of Old Field, but also for smaller lots of horticultural hobbyists, lawns drew less investment of emotion or energy than other vegetation they cared about. (77)

Three pieces of this stand out to me:

  1. The pressure to maintain a nice lawn was present in the early post-war mass suburbs. It may have been present in earlier suburbs but fewer Americans could access those communities.
  2. It appears some of this pressure was promulgated by Abraham Levitt, part of the company that founded the community. At the same time, the developers of Ronek Park did less to landscape new homes there and the pressure to have a nice lawn also was present there.
  3. There are some hints that social class matters here regarding lawns. Was the lawn an essential part of purchasing a single-family home which offered access to the middle class American Dream? Could a poor lawn reduce or invalidate the success of the new suburban homeowner?

It is hard to imagine images of postwar suburban homes, whether in magazines, film, or television shows, without lush green lawns.