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Ways of Life, Living Patterns

aspect of American culture, GI Bill of Rights, huge tracts of land, American desire, growth of suburbs

A fundamental element in the life of the American people was the enormous expanse of land available. During the colonial period, the access to open land helped scatter settlements. One effect was to make it difficult to enforce traditional European social conventions, such as primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherited the parents’ estate. Because the United States had so much land, sons became less dependent on inheriting the family estate. Religious institutions were also affected, as the widely spread settlements created space for newer religious sects and revivalist practices.

In the 19th century, Americans used their land to grow crops, which helped create the dynamic agricultural economy that defined American society. Many Americans were lured westward to obtain more land. Immigrants sought land to settle, cattle ranchers wanted land for their herds, Southerners looked to expand their slave economy into Western lands, and railroad companies acquired huge tracts of land as they bound a loose society into a coherent economic union. Although Native Americans had inhabited most of the continent, Europeans and American settlers often viewed it as empty, virgin land that they were destined to occupy. Even before the late 19th century, when the last bloody battles between U.S. troops and Native Americans completed the white conquest of the West, the idea of possessing land was deeply etched into American cultural patterns and national consciousness.

Throughout the 19th century, agricultural settlements existed on large, separate plots of land, often occupying hundreds of acres. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised up to 65 hectares (160 acres) of free land to anyone with enough fortitude and vision to live on or cultivate the land. As a result, many settlements in the West contained vast areas of sparsely settled land, where neighbors lived great distances from one another. The desire for residential privacy has remained a significant feature of American culture.

This heritage continues to define patterns of life in the United States. More than any other Western society, Americans are committed to living in private dwellings set apart from neighbors. Despite the rapid urbanization that began in the late 19th century, Americans insisted that each nuclear family (parents and their children) be privately housed and that as many families as possible own their own homes. This strong cultural standard sometimes seemed unusual to new immigrants who were used to the more crowded living conditions of Europe, but they quickly adopted this aspect of American culture.

As cities became more densely populated, Americans moved to the suburbs. Streetcars, first used during the 1830s, opened suburban rings around city centers, where congestion was greatest. Banks offered long-term loans that allowed individuals to invest in a home. Above all, the automobile in the 1920s was instrumental in furthering the move to the suburbs.

After World War II (1939-1945), developers carved out rural tracts to build millions of single-family homes, and more Americans than ever before moved to large suburban areas that were zoned to prevent commercial and industrial activities. The federal government directly fueled this process by providing loans to war veterans as part of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill of Rights, which provided a wide range of benefits to U.S. military personnel. In many of the new housing developments, builders constructed homes according to a single model, a process first established in Levittown, New York. These identical, partially prefabricated units were rapidly assembled, making suburban life and private land ownership available to millions of returning soldiers in search of housing for their families.

American families still choose to live in either suburbs or the sprawling suburban cities that have grown up in newer regions of the country. Vast areas of the West, such as the Los Angeles metropolitan region in California, the area around Phoenix, Arizona, and the Puget Sound area of Washington state, became rapidly populated with new housing because of the American desire to own a home on a private plot of land. In much of this suburban sprawl, the central city has become largely indistinct. These suburban areas almost invariably reflect Americans’ dependence on automobiles and on government-supported highway systems.

As a result of Americans choosing to live in the suburbs, a distinctly American phenomenon developed in the form of the shopping mall. The shopping mall has increasingly replaced the old-fashioned urban downtown, where local shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions were located. Modern malls emphasize consumption as an exclusive activity. The shopping mall, filled with department stores, specialty shops, fast-food franchises, and movie multiplexes, has come to dominate retailing, making suburban areas across America more and more alike. In malls, Americans purchase food, clothing, and entertainment in an isolated environment surrounded by parking lots.

The American preference for living in the suburbs has also affected other living experiences. Because suburbs emphasize family life, suburban areas also place a greater emphasis on school and other family-oriented political issues than more demographically diverse cities. At their most intense levels, desire for privacy and fear of crime have led to the development of gated suburban communities that keep out those who are not wanted.

Despite the growth of suburbs, American cities have maintained their status as cultural centers for theaters, museums, concert halls, art galleries, and more upscale restaurants, shops, and bookstores. In the past several decades, city populations grew as young and trendy professionals with few or no children sought out the cultural possibilities and the diversity not available in the suburbs. Housing can be expensive and difficult to find in older cities such as New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and San Francisco, California. To cope, many city dwellers restored older apartment buildings and houses. This process, called gentrification, combines the American desire for the latest technology with a newer appreciation for the classic and vintage.

Many poorer Americans cannot afford homes in the suburbs or apartments in the gentrified areas of cities. They often rely upon federal housing subsidies to pay for apartments in less-desirable areas of the city or in public housing projects. Poorer people often live crowded together in large apartment complexes in congested inner-city areas. Federal public housing began when President Franklin Roosevelt sought to relieve the worst conditions associated with poverty in the 1930s. It accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s, as the government subsidized the renewal of urban areas by replacing slums with either new or refurbished housing. In the late 20th century, many people criticized public housing because it was often the site for crime, drug deals, gangs, and other social ills. Nevertheless, given the expensive nature of rental housing in cities, public housing is often the only option available to those who cannot afford to buy their own home. Private efforts, such as Habitat for Humanity, have been organized to help the urban poor move from crowded, high-rise apartments. These organizations help construct low-cost homes in places such as the South Bronx in New York City, and they emphasize the pride and autonomy of home ownership.

In recent years, the importance of home ownership has increased as higher real estate prices have made the house a valuable investment. The newest home construction has made standard the comforts of large kitchens, luxurious bathrooms, and small gardens. In line with the rising cost of land, these houses often stand on smaller lots than those constructed in the period following World War II, when one-story ranch houses and large lawns were the predominant style. At the same time, many suburban areas have added other kinds of housing in response to the needs of single people and people without children. As a result, apartments and townhouses—available as rentals and as condominiums—have become familiar parts of suburban life.

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