POCATELLO, ID – When my comrades and I first heard Malvina Reynolds’ iconic song “Little Boxes,” (1962) we viewed it as astute commentary on how American Society had become mundane, and how suburban architecture illustrated the burgeoning American fear of its children and creativity.
As a child circa 1960, I recall my parents, aunts and uncles laughing at at news story about one of the early “ticky tacky” housing developments in our area north of Seattle, how the owner parked his car, slammed the car door, and the carport roof caved in. We couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live in a house that was obviously poorly constructed, and, “horrors.” exactly like their neighbors’. Not that our unique, rather uninspired houses with peculiar roofs and plumbing would grace House & Garden magazine, but they were ours and like no one else’s.
In the 1950s, housing developments like the infamous Levittown in New York were applying the concept of apartment (cubicle) dwelling to separate structures, similar to row houses in industrial England yet slightly detached from each other creating an illusion of owning an estate with grass and perhaps a tree just like the “manor houses”, cheap for developers to build, but in the long run maybe not so easy on the psyche.
Betty Friedan’s infamous book “The Feminine Mystique” outlined the malaise “that has no name” that psychiatrists were logging among women struggling in this new “suburban life.” Wives had clean new houses complete with “labor saving” devices such as vacuum cleaners and washers and dryers – no more dealing with laundromats. Indoor plumbing that included a private bathroom was a blessing (unlike NYC tenements with the bathtub in the kitchen, its enameled metal cover doubling as counter space, and toilet behind a curtain in the common room). The modern housewife of the 1950s and 60s had all these amenities, and yet she had the audacity not to feel fulfilled. I mean, really, what more could a woman want?
Ironically, the camaraderie of the neighborhood laundromat could have possibly assuaged her suburban loneliness and angst.
I’ve yet to live in a ticky tacky house just like my neighbors. No matter what city or town I’ve lived in or near, I’ve always preferred older neighborhoods from a pre-World War II mindset in which people constructed each house uniquely, or the owners and/or ancestors built them themselves, and the houses evolved to suit a family’s needs. For instance, a closet may have become a bathroom when money and zoning dispensed with the traditional outhouse. These neighborhoods are likely to have established trees and front porches for sitting and sharing and taking in the cooler evening air, neighborhoods where the Xerox generation hasn’t yet applied its rubber stamp.
The Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s which overlapped with the Hippies of the 1960s and 1970s were movements responding to corporate America’s creation of carbon copy lives. Zounds! The Xerox corporation added another level to this imitation phenomenon by creating a machine that can and does make copies of copies of copies . . . ad infinitum, and this “miracle” of publication seemingly carried over into the mundane architecture of what has come to be called “affordable housing,” merely another low income ghetto with less character than New York’s old Harlem or the East Village.
Not only have humans struggled with the cultural ramifications of Gutenberg’s printing press and its popular dissemination of uncommon knowledge, and Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line, but now we have carbon copy housing, landscaping, clothing, and personal goals. And these copies of copies do indeed affect the mind, affect culture, and send messages to every level of society from law enforcement to Congress, from social and creative expectations to how we educate, or fail to educate, our children.
From my observations, it’s more important that our children look and behave like all the other kids than they learn to think independently and understand and critique their own culture. Invisibility is apparently the goal, and I can see where that may have certain merits in a world that news media tells us has gone mad.
Reynold’s song includes a description of the pattern Americans have adopted for their lives and the built-in irony that these ticky tacky houses represent. No day dreaming or idle contemplation in this plan and make sure you get a proper haircut.
A successful American life means we send our children to preschool, elementary school, then college, then graduate school, in order that they get a “good job” to support marriage, a big house (preferably bigger than the ticky tacky neighbors’), children and then, then “by god,” as philosopher Alan Watts proclaimed in one of his recorded lectures, we can sit in our arm chairs and proclaim: “I’ve arrived.”
But then Watts, my dear, elegant, crazy Alan Watts, bursts out laughing.
If you’re over 60 in America, you know full well that the joke’s been on us all along.