The Dispossession of the Post-war Boom
“There are no parties tonight,” my wife said on a Saturday in mid-November, as we made our evening walk through the neighborhood. She was referring to the pandemic and its consequences, here in 2020. “Then again, were there ever parties here?”
“I think, my love, you might be thinking of our end of the block,” I replied. “These people can’t party.”
This is partially true. A walk down our street situated in an old Buffalo neighborhood takes you abruptly from one magnificent era in history to another, a leap in architecture caused by the Great Depression and World War II. Our house was built in 1925, a Milwaukee Bungalow (so we believe), surrounded by other American Bungalows, Dutch Colonials, and American Foursquares, all built within two years of each other. It was said about our house that it held a speak-easy in the garage: an old buried sidewalk leading from a parkway to a window in an off-room in the back of the garage bore testament to the legend before a storm destroyed that section of the garage, after which disaster we found a door in the floor which opened to a cavity in the earth filled with bottles. Was it indeed a vestige of the Roaring 20s?
About halfway down the block is a line where the old neighborhood ended, overlooked by the house still owned by the descendants of the family after whom the street is named. It stands on what used to be a corner there, formed by a very short lane connecting our street to the next one. For some reason, our half-block juts out from the rest of the half-neighborhood by several feet, the rest of it bounded by another street of another name which runs, as an uninterrupted boundary for the old neighborhood, to the city limit. It is an oddity of the neighborhood that way, one of many subtle curiosities which speak volumes about the culture of this corner of the world, how it came to be, and who made it come to pass. I really don’t know what to make of it.
After the war, they doubled the neighborhood, extending the streets until it abutted an industrial zone, and houses were built. All of them look exactly the same, a variation of the “Sportsman” minimal colonial, tiny single story homes, about 800 square feet of living space. The city burgeoned and prospered.
My 76-year-old neighbor Bob was talking to me the other day. Bob is essentially the same generation of my father, who would have been 79 in 2020. “Art just sold his house,” he was saying. “He lived in that house until he was 96, and now he’s moved in with his daughter outside of town.” I asked, “How long did he live there?” “Well, I’ve lived here all my life, since I was the size of one of your little ones—I moved down here in 1971 from the house next to his—and I can’t remember anyone else ever living in that house.” I said, “You know those houses were built in 1950.” “Yeah,” Bob said. “That sounds about right. He’s probably the original owner; well, up until last week he was.”
Bob continued, “It’s all going away now, just like that. Since you’ve moved here ten years ago—has it been that long?” “Fourteen,” I said. He continued, “Boy, it goes fast, and it’s all going away now. I can remember when everyone moved here, and now they’re all dying or moving out.” And he began to name the names of all the families who moved to that end of the street when those houses were built. To some he would say, “Yeah, they’re still there, but they’re in their 90s,” while to others he would just say nothing.
Our end of the street is full of young families. We have four boys, the youngest of whom is three. Two houses down from us is a family who just had their fifth baby, a fifth girl (at which circumstance I am overjoyed). Two more houses down they just had their fourth baby. Across the street is a family that has so many children we’ve lost count. Going the other direction are two other families with children our older boys’ ages, teenagers. And up and down both sides of our end of the street finds a handful more families interspersed with recent empty-nesters. Summer days are cacophonous. Coming and going is going and coming at all hours of all the days of the week. Activity never ceases, and the exasperation of overtired parents hangs turbulent in the air, capped with the joy of familial fermentation, as it were.
My wife and I like to walk in the other end of the neighborhood because it’s dead quiet there.
I’ve thought about it, and I’ve come to conclude that it is not a vision of the future of my end of the street, not something that will come to pass in forty or fifty years. Those houses on the post-war end of the neighborhood are impossibly small, at least for our current sensibilities of size, space, and personal privacy. Families aren’t moving into them. The incredible wealth of the post-war boom is simply departing from the neighborhood, mounting up on the threshold, looking out over the city, and flying away, landing out of town or in a long-term care facility.
I pause here because my oldest son works for a dear friend who lives on the quiet end of the street. We’ve been close for over a decade, almost since the day I moved to this neighborhood. He’s a productive member of society, being able to employ people gainfully, but he lives alone, and his ex-wife and children live far away from here. Still, he seems happy enough, and who am I to judge? So I am careful to judge while not judging.
Bob, you see, is the only person I know who was raised down there, and it’s hard to think that he moved up here over forty years ago, a man starting his own family in the early-1970s, preferring a house built in the 1920s to one built in the 1950s. So who is moving in down there? If not families, then wealth producers? Hard to say, but, my aforementioned friend notwithstanding, certainly not the ubiquity of lower-middle-class mass acquisition of wealth from so many manufacturing plants that don’t even exist anymore, and haven’t for a generation. Exuberant families were raised down there, but that end of the neighborhood hasn’t seen children since the 1970s. Their grandchildren are my age.
What was it built for?
An American Bungalow, at least in the fashion ours was built, was built for growing; the house itself would grow. It was already twice the square footage of the “Sportsman” and all those minimalist houses like it, but it was built with a full second story, which, to keep the price down for young families, was unfinished, whose area, as a consequence, does not count as living space. The idea was that as the family prospered and grew, both in size and in wealth, the owner would finish the second-story, complete with a second bathroom and a few more bedrooms. Plumbing to the second floor was actually installed in the original construction! Unfortunately, before any wealth was reinvested in our house, the Great Depression intervened, and that was that. We found the house at a discount, second story unfinished, at the beginning of the Great Recession, dumped on the market by a less-than-savvy real estate agent who had picked up the house after an old widow had used it as leverage against her stay in the nursing home while she slowly wasted away to nothing and passed away. The government sold it to him for a song, but he was unable to capitalize, the poor fellow.
But there you have it: a house to buy for growing in. It remains so, and would remain so even were it finished (I will! Honest! Someday!). All the surrounding houses, unfinished and finished, carry in their aesthetic that same philosophy: growth in number and in wealth, a legacy of that marvelous era in American sensibilities which is marked by an energy toward middle-class creativity, an aesthetic of procreativity, if you will, the mystery of form and function, that is, the form of sexual congress captured in simple architecture and construction so that a family might…form.
The 1950s aesthetic is individualistic chic and abortive. It is the incarnation of The Pill, and its effects are just as liberating, the spoils of the victory of a very great war. The will of the returning GI triumphed in 800 square feet, and triumphed in the sterilization of blood and prostate, replacing mother’s milk with sugar and water. Reproduction was unfettered, the same house in the same city’s edge in the same suburb reduplicated endlessly so that even Andy Warhol woke from his sleep with a nightmare’s scream.
Every aesthetic good which you can think of from the 1950s came as an exception, indeed, a fight against the aesthetic of the post-war boom: Elvis; the black fist punching the white man’s face; the female fist punching the white man’s face; the beatnik; the Chevrolet Bel-Air.
This last one needs a special defense: mass-produced, nevertheless it had almost as much square footage within it as the Sportsman minimalist house. It was as much a symbol of American supremacy as the B-17 Bomber and the US Naval aircraft carrier, but instead of mass individualistic sterility, it shuttled families to and from each end of the neighborhood, a taxi between two eras. Because of its function, the Chevy Bel-Air (and other makes which tried to equal it, but failed) is in defiance of the 50s aesthetic. Besides, that’s the one thing out of the 50s I really like, so I want to defend it.
When Buffalo died in 1982, the year Bethlehem Steel reported a $1.5 billion loss, the old neighborhood sighed. The great manufacturing wheel had yet to fail, but international competition, automation, and underfunded pensions would remove one spoke after another for decades. When it was finally over, the old neighborhood was new again, and the new neighborhood has become a husk, whose houses are green with mold. In an odd way, the denizens here celebrate the husk, but even so, the husk has begun to blow away, at first slowly, imperceptibly, but now more quickly, so that the centers of culture here are university, museum, institute, and to a lesser extent, religion, re-emerging, submerged for so many decades after Robert Moses indiscriminately hacked and slashed what Frederick Olmsted, E.B. Green, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Seymour Knox, Millard Fillmore, and so many of their sycophants and disciples had laid out for Buffalo as a beatific vision. The abandoned steel mill has been purchased by a land developer, who has secured brownfield funds to scour it.
Buffalo can probably never rise to the heights it once occupied; in that way its pride has made it like Capernaum: instead of the Roman Empire, she is oppressed by the Empire State, who hates its own people. The old neighborhood, as I said, sighed, preparing to shoulder another burden, and it has, adding mediocrity to patient endurance in unsung vocation. This is good enough for a resurrection, which is life, and life is good.
It ought to be said—and a kind reader is surely already proffering it—that Bethlehem Steel was rooted in Buffalo fifty years before the John P. Cowper Company crowned the Queen of the Great Lakes with her unrivaled city hall in 1932. Indeed, and this is to the point, arguing away from aesthetics, that before the war, the mill was a part of a larger landscape of life in Western New York, one of the institutions which were raising a multitude from poverty to shared prosperity. The post-war boom, in contrast, made people kneel in service to heavy manufacturing, and, one could argue, as I am here, that the sensibilities of the 1950s shackled people to it, asphyxiating life with all that glitters through the grime and soot. Those sensibilities caused people to prefer the fictitious permanence of a manufacturing base in place of the personal and cultural transformations and transfigurations which are a result of the actual vicissitudes of an ever-shuffling existence. They became unable to procreate, satisfied to only reproduce. That’s why it’s so quiet on that end of the street.
Shoulder-to-shoulder these two eras stand, linked by history, by a street, by the flow of people and time. All those houses are inhabited; not a single one stands vacant. On a clear day I can see my friend down there, working on his truck in his driveway, and I can wave to him. After all, the epistemological question is right behind the aesthetic question: how do I know which represents what? What of alcoholism, abuse, and other sicknesses? Are those somehow absent from my end of the street? What if the noise is a noise of chaos or entropy and not growth? What if the quiet of the 1950s is satisfaction and peace?
In five hundred years, those who study these things will not distinguish the 1920s from the 1950s, or if they do, they will identify my half of the neighborhood as a close brother of the other half. “Early 20th Century,” they will say, with the pedantic among them saying, “Well, actually…” while everyone else rolls their eyes. Surely someone will note the same thing I see: these houses are for growing; these other houses are not. Even in very close families, I suppose, the siblings develop very different sensibilities within a shared realm of experiences and values. As for me, I prefer procreation.