old, my parents and I moved from the sprawling, suburban township of Hudson, Ohio to the village at its center, and I fell in love with small, walkable cities and towns that are built on grids. I believe that such environments promote socialization due to the activation energy involved in going out. If we accept that socialization is more comfortable for the majority in the traditional context of a high-density city, why do the majority of new home permits proclaim otherwise? Why don't people just don't pick up and move to places where people have traditionally conducted their daily affairs without the use of a car, like San Francisco and New York City?
The 1960's and 1970's in America saw an urban transition still unknown in most of the major cities of Europe. The Federal Housing Administration had precipitated the explosion in suburban development by offering 4% interest loans following the Second World War. Unfortunately, the FHA actively discriminated against blacks in the procurement of new home loans, polarizing cities into two camps: the predominantly white and middle class suburbs, and predominantly poor and black inner cities. In many ways, this served to countermand national efforts at school integration. At the same time, federal highway initiatives instituted under Eisenhower in the mid-1950's made cities more accessible to suburban communities by providing them with a fast, easy commute. In 1920, there were roughly ten people per acre in America's cities, suburbs and towns. By 1990, there were only four. In areas built since 1960, there are just over two. Faced with a declining tax base, municipal authorities exacerbated the problem by condemning residential neighborhoods in order to build federally funded highways that would bring suburban commuters to downtown offices. In doing so, they condemned neighborhoods that were usually home to urban poor populations. Displaced, these residents moved to areas that had been conventionally seen as middle class, adding to preconceptions about urban blight. These residents were often also relocated in housing projects, which were built with federal money solicited for the purpose of poverty eradication. Instead, many residents often subsisted on general assistance stipends and their poverty became institutionalized. "White flight" was hastened by the large-scale urban black riots of the mid-60's in cities such as Los Angeles and Newark. Over the past three decades, urban poverty has grown distinctly worse and the number of people living in ghettos where 40% of the population is below the poverty line has doubled.
For a first-hand account of this monumental democratic transition, you must approach experts on the matter - namely, middle class families with children interested in purchasing a new home that grew up in the 60's and 70's, and their parents generation - one that was involved in the same process when they were children. I interviewed Stephen Blake, a self-described "old timer" who was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1936 and graduated from high school in Wilmington, Delaware in 1954. He went on to attend the University of Delaware where he studied chemical engineering as part of a 3-2 program with Dupont. After graduating with a master's degree in 1962, Steve went on to work full time at Dupont, and he married his college sweetheart, Heather. His first son was born in 1964.
I asked Stephen some general questions about the 60's. "What you have to understand is that I went to college in the late 50's and early 60's," he said. "The early 60's - we had the red scare back then - we, well, we weren't the '60's college students' that you think of as being stereotypical." He then went on to tell me about his first experience living independent of his parents. "I was in a housing group for engineering students with a lot of other men my age." I asked him if it was like a fraternity. "No, no - you see, a lot of the other students weren't very studious. We engineers were seen as having our noses in the books all the time. You had a lot of the arts classes try to push their communist ideas on their kids. My father was out of work in the depression, and he had told me that - he had told me the only job that's guaranteed to always be there and always pay well was engineering. His brother - my uncle Alex - Alex had been in the army core of engineers and landed a fine job after the war. It did well for me, because I wasn't in debt after I graduated and I was able to marry Heather and move into an apartment close to where I worked."
According to Stephen, who moved into a three-bedroom house in the Christiana region of Delaware in 1969, it wouldn't have mattered in New Castle County whether he had decided to live in the suburbs or the city; "because we went from one end of the spectrum with racial segregation in the mid-60's [to the other end], with bussing, by the time Steve Junior and Clarissa were in high school, all of the public schools were terrible." Steve's biggest concerns when moving his family to the area were good school districts and proximity to work. Steve was able to place his children in Archmere, an exclusive preparatory school, after several incidents convinced him that the public schools were beyond redemption. "In the 80's they had busses sending our kids - meaning the neighborhood kids - into downtown Wilmington! It was terrible. They were effectively forcing us to seek private schooling as an alternative option."
Part of the reason that New Castle County in Delaware instituted countywide bussing was that lawmakers had barred Wilmington from joining any other school district when school districts were consolidating in 1968. In 1978, U.S. District Judge Murray M. Schwartz approved a plan that bused Wilmington students to schools in the suburbs for nine years and suburban students into the city for three years. In 1981, the city was carved up into the four districts that cover northern New Castle County today: Brandywine Christina, Colonial and Red Clay Consolidated. Thousands of students were reassigned in what still is considered by pro-desegregation partisans applaud as one of the most far-reaching desegregation remedies in history. In 1995, a neighborhood schooling initiative achieved victory in the courts, when it was argued that bussing was to blame for deteriorating schools as communities didn't feel a sense of ownership in their schools. It was also argued that poverty was to blame for the continued underachievement of black students. Only recently, bussing was re-introduced by yet another court battle.
I asked Stephen to describe his first neighborhood. "Like a friend of mine once said, it wasn't too individualistic - you could get one of 6 entirely different houses in one of 8 entirely different colors. All of the houses were new. This was right off the Kirkwood highway - all the new homes were built around here." I asked him where the center of town was. "Center of town? Back before they built the Mall - it was all dirt roads in that area, back then - you had farmland here; there weren't any real towns between Newark and Wilmington - just wide places in the road and a gas station or two. People left Newark because of the crime and because they wanted a house of their own - I mean technically we were outside Newark but that was always 'The City' to us. I had a few friends that joined the service because they didn't make it into the 3-2 engineering program - they lived up in New Jersey and up there it was all the same thing. Same kind of home construction - same sort of shops. We didn't think anything of it. The commute was lousy, but the kids had a backyard and a swing set and everything." found it curious that Wilmington experienced white flight despite the unique attempts that were made at racially integrating the school districts. Many homeowners privately voice concerns about the infestation of predominantly black gangs in schools when citing reasons as to why they would rather live in tract housing than in a traditional urban environment. "Not everything about why people live the way they do has to do with the schools," Steve said. "A lot of people from the plant were deciding to live out here, and we wanted to be in a community where someone would notice if there was somebody outside your house - you know, somebody who didn't belong." I asked him if his place had ever been broken into. "Yeah - In 1972. (laughs) We had always left the key under the mat... we keep it in a fake rock now. I'm laughing because they only took some of Heather's costume jewelry. They must have been upset." I asked Stephen if one of the unspoken concerns about living in the city has been the prospect of being one of a dwindling…