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Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 7Topic 3: Urban Renewal and ExpresswaysSuburbanization and Highways
Suburbanization and Highways

Cars rush into the suburbs along newly created parkways

Cars rush into the suburbs along newly created parkways.
New York's prewar suburban houses were built -- one house at a time -- around already existing towns, near trains, and for the upper classes. Postwar suburban housing sprouted up virtually overnight on vacant rural land, built for easy access by the car, and built for the middle classes.

William J. Levitt pioneered the use of assembly-line techniques for house construction. Like Ford motorcars, every house built was nearly identical. In 1947, Levitt built the largest private housing project in American history, called Levittown, on a four-thousand-acre potato field in Long Island. At his most efficient, he built 36 houses a day. Levittown came to be home to 82,000 people and was only the beginning of postwar suburbanization. By the end of the 1950s, more than half as many people lived in the suburbs of New York as lived in the city itself.

The car, not the train, determined the location of these new suburbs. And, in turn, since at least one member of most suburban households commuted to and from workplaces in the city each weekday, the meteoric growth of these suburban communities created an intense demand for more roadways to penetrate the city's heart. In order to build the great highways through urban centers, hundreds of thousands of people -- people who were voters -- had to be evicted. Most politicians and public officials were afraid of the voters' political power, but Robert Moses was not. He made sure that the new roads, which flowed to the suburbs through working-class and poor areas, got built. The working poor were no match politically for Robert Moses.

The growth of the suburbs was not the only factor that made cars and highways predominant features of the postwar landscape. The political and economic commitment to the growth of the automobile industry also made the car ubiquitous. Billions of dollars in federal aid poured out of Washington to build arterial highways. This expansion in federal spending on roads culminated in the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. This highway system was the most ambitious and important public-works system in the United States since the building of the Erie Canal. Taken together, Interstate Highways eventually formed a 41,000-mile system and represented the commitment of the entire nation's economy to the culture of the car. Not only was the American government committed to highway-building, some argued that the health of the American economy -- an economy delicate enough to have been close to destruction only a few decades earlier -- depended on it. Moses asserted:

We wouldn't have any American economy without the automobile business, that's literally true. This great industry will keep on turning out cars, trucks, and busses, so then there has to be a place for them to run. There has to be modern roads and modern harbors and somebody's got to build it and, in order to get things done, and done properly, people must be inconvenienced who are in the way.

Life in the Slums | Slum Clearance | Suburbanization and Highways
The Destruction of Neighborhoods | Jane Jacobs and Landmark Preservation

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