The conformity of lawns

A Reading Note

Rushkoff on the process by which the federal government designed conformity into the structure of Levittown, a process since repeated by corporate housing developers across the country:

As a return on its investment, the federal government got to dictate the basic template for all houses. The FHA used this opportunity to design houses that reinforced the nuclear family while discouraging the congregation of larger groups. The recommended house plans were for four- and five-room Cape cottages. The houses were uniform—intentionally interchangeable. The five models offered at Levittown varied only in color and exterior window arrangement. Variations less expensive to deliver could have been offered, such as rotating the position of the house on its axis, or changing colors and textures in its interior. But this would have defeated the underlying agenda of uniformity; the homogeneity of the houses was supposed to engender a culture of conformity.…

Conformity shouldn’t be confused with solidarity. The houses and families within these subdivisions were equal, but separate. The architecture promoted nuclear-family values and gender-based roles for parents. As delivered, there was no room for relatives or even large parties—just the essential activities of a small family. The Cape houses had kitchens in the back, from which moms were to watch kids play in the backyard. In the front yard of each house were a lawn, landscaping, and four fruit trees to be tended by Dad. As William Levitt himself promised his government patrons, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” He meant this quite literally.

Rushkoff, Life Inc., page 61

I grew up in Dale City, Virginia, a suburb so-named by the housing developer who razed the land in order to build a rash of single-family homes. It was the 80s version of Levittown: a bit more colorful, with sidewalks here and there, and two-car garages if you paid extra. They say the developer named the streets after himself—taking his middle name and repeating it at each intersection, so that you turned from Lindendale Rd onto Silverdale Rd, then onto Ashdale, Surrydale, Cherrydale, Birchdale, Cloverdale, and so on. The bit about it being his name is apocryphal (his middle name was Don, not Dale), but what a falsehood! As if the community was a narcissistic reflection of its maker, as if the people who lived there were driving through his veins.

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Life Inc.

Douglass Rushkoff

A passionate, well-written text that argues that our centralized currency system is the key to the corporatism that has infected not only our government but our daily lives.