Swarms of yellow bulldozers, puffing and harrumphing, bowled over orange trees and mashed potato fields, just like that. The concrete trucks followed, the sweet swish of their contents articulating cul-de-sacs. Then the bang-bang of framers, the clang of plumbers, the sharp swick of plasterers. And soon enough you were home, looking out your own picture window, not at an orange grove or a potato field, of course, but—rather more reassuringly—at another picture window.
Farmland was converted to housing at such an astonishing rate that the effect was more like a cultural wall-to-wall carpeting than construction. It was a miracle of suddenness (36 houses a day in one development) and of economy. These homes could be had for as little as $7,900. And if you were a veteran—and in 1954 who wasn't?—you could qualify for easy financing. The postwar years witnessed a surprising boom, full of pent-up demand, creating a new middle class that was educated and secure and newly self-confident. Men ripped from small-time dreams to fight overseas returned to the States to find that college (thanks, GI Bill!) was easily accessible and that lifetime jobs were there for the taking, as were inexpensive houses. Ambition in all things was possible, even encouraged.
"This is Levittown!" read one ad in The New York Times. It spelled out the deal. A GI (the suburbs were marketed principally to that demographic bulge of newly returned veterans now creating families) could move in with no down payment (a nonveteran would have to pony up $100) and a monthly mortgage of perhaps $63 (including taxes). The ad rather needlessly concluded, "You're a lucky fellow, Mr. Veteran."
The houses were small and uniform, and sharp-eyed snobs sneered at the neighborhoods' covenants of conformity ("Remove weeds at least once a week"; "Please don't leave laundry hanging out on Sundays..."), but more promise than problems percolated in these freshly sprung subdivisions. For someone who'd washed up on the beach at Normandy only scant years before, the certainty of a ready-made life in a ready-made house was welcome beyond further inquiry. A returning GI, coming from a blue-collar background in which college was never thought possible, now had a degree, a white-collar job at AT&T, a house for less than $10,000 and a cul-de-sac full of friends who, in aspiration and circumstance, were absurdly like himself. They'd get together on weekend nights, the flare of tiki torches illuminating their happiness.
Such density of optimism, such constriction of viewpoint anyway, masked some serious social shortcomings. For two decades it was not possible for blacks to buy a Levitt house. Bill Levitt felt we could "solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two." While the country was opening doors as never before, some Americans would not be allowed to walk through them.
This new American Dream was a feverish hallucination of national consumption that went well beyond housing. If you had $199.95, you could obtain a television, the new, giant 21-inch model from Philco. Campbell was advertising a soup that would go from shelf to table in just four minutes. Wait! Swanson had taken that argument to its logical end and was pushing a meal that could be served—without any more preparation than turning on your General Electric oven—in front of that Philco. Who knew what additional time-savers would soon be available—so you could have more time to watch television?
The ambient sound of the suburbs, after all, was not the clickety-click of baseball cards stuck in bicycle spokes but the hum of Philcos. By 1954 there were 32 million sets (some capable of color), a reverse nervous system, delivering sensation instead of receiving it.
The news for this luckiest generation was always the same: This is the time of your lives, and there's so much of it. In 1954 there were more paint-by-number paintings hanging in suburban homes than original works of art, which speaks not so much to a poverty of taste as to the sheer wealth of leisure time. So much pointless art, or rather the leisure to create it, was proof of one's status: emancipated from the rigors of survival. It was a long, hard haul, but finally—suddenly!—you've got it made. You have time to burn.