December 08, 2005

Ticky-tacky

Glenn Reynolds's TCS column discusses urban sprawl and cites the song "Little Boxes", which was made famous by Pete Seeger. The song was actually written by Malvina Reynolds at the time she was a Communist Party USA member.

The political context of the song was interesting. Right after World War Two, the Communist Party USA, seeking to capitalize on its wartime link to "our ally, Uncle Joe Stalin", lanched a big organizing drive around one of the major general complaints of the time, which was the lack of available housing. The CPUSA's drive was centered on demands for a gigantic government housing program to build government-owned "worker's apartments". This drive quickly petered out as the veteran's housing loan progam and rapid suburban development rapidly produced millions of single-family houses, to the delight of returning veterans and wartime workers who had been renting chicken coops and trailers.

"Little Boxes" was written after the collapse of the CPUSA's last major popular campaign, and is a sort of snarky critique of the cause of its irrelevance. It also marks the Left's shift from critiqueing the market economy for producing too little, to critiqueing it for producing too much -- substituting an aesthetic critique for an economic one. This in turn was a symptom of the collapse of any trace of a working-class base for the hard Left, and its replacement by a bohemian-intellectual base.

The specific houses in question were the multi-colored developments on the hills just south of San Francisco. I remember seeing them on my first trip to that area and thinking them charming. Eventually I learned that they were the "ticky-tacky" in question. It's a sort of reverse Marie Antionette --- criticising the peasants for eating cake when they could have had nice Soviet-style high-rise concrete block apartments instead.

Posted by James C. Bennett at December 8, 2005 11:36 AM
Comments

Truman was being pushed to build public housing. But he had been involved in public construction projects in St. Louis and knew how hard it was to keep out the corruption. Moreover, he had a specifically Jeffersonian Democrat view of the thing. He recalled Jefferson's view that the Old Northwest should be sold off in its entirety, and hence wrote the Northwest Ordinance on that basis. Truman, harking back to Jefferson, decided that if the Federal government became an enormous landlord, it would necessarily gravitate toward tyranny. So, he was in favor of the GIs buying their own, privately built houses outright. Truman was a real democrat who cared about what the real workers wanted -- their own houses.

Posted by: Lex at December 8, 2005 12:18 PM

"Little boxes" -- I was hoping for something more... interesting.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at December 8, 2005 02:29 PM

James C. Bennett, the third paragraph of your post is just about the pithiest description of the metamorphosis of the American hard left that I've ever read. Very impressive.

Posted by: Just Some Guy at December 8, 2005 02:42 PM

Yes, I also love the 3rd paragraph. Beautifully insightful and to the point.

Posted by: Dana H. at December 8, 2005 02:50 PM

Anonymous Coward: Check out daytime TV. Lots of interesting stuff there.

Posted by: Banjo at December 8, 2005 02:50 PM

Right on James C. Bennett!

I lived in Berkeley in the 60s, and recall the convulsive sneers directed by the Enlightened Ones at those Henry Doelger homes with the numbers burned into the framing to distinguish one house from another. At the same time the same Enlightened Ones were pushing the 'Appalachian poverty' theme, whose solution was to be vast gummint programs, employing thousands of the Enlightened as administrators, undoubtedly replacing Lil' Abner's shack with gummint-financed Doelger developments.

They were sneering at the affordable housing that solved the problem, at least in areas with an economy more diverse than the mining of soft coal.

Posted by: Insufficiently Sensitive at December 8, 2005 03:01 PM

As someone living near "south of San Francisco"--this is earthquake country. Soviet style concrete high-rises have a _very_ bad record in terms of quakes.
Bravo to the boxes.

Posted by: Jim,MtnView,CA,USA at December 8, 2005 03:02 PM

The people who bought those ticky-tacky houses really suffered badly in the present real estate depression. It took me a little while, but I think I managed to find one.

Just a little tract home sitting on the hills. Two bedrooms, one bath, 830 square feet. Yep, worker housing all right. The cheapest one available right now, at an economical $625,000, is here:

http://www.realtor.com/Prop/1053702594

I think the folks who bought that house are not entirely displeased that they lost out on that nice workers' housing the communist folks wanted to provide.

Just a guess.

D

(If it's not obvious, yes, most of this post is dry sarcasm :-) ).

Posted by: David H Dennis at December 8, 2005 03:21 PM

Uh uh, be happy in your work! Praise Uncle Joe!

Posted by: BeHappyinYourWork at December 8, 2005 03:36 PM

I grew up in Daly City, California, the subject of the ticky-tacky song (and the town just south of SF, though it's not on a hillside). Those houses were not fancy but they were and are solid. My parents still live in the house and it's been through more earthquakes than I can count (including the big one in 1989 that did so much damage to SF and Oakland) without being harmed.

Today, the house that my parents paid $50,000 for in 1973 goes for about $900,000....

Posted by: Zhid at December 8, 2005 04:05 PM

GQ once had a great line describing the song as "[Pete Seeger's] declaration of moral superiority to those who, unable to afford sprawling country estates, elected not to kill themselves."

Posted by: Jonathan at December 8, 2005 04:34 PM

I haven't been able to find confirmation of the statement in this blog that it was all about the resentment that workers wouldn't wind up in government housing, although my research does make it plausible.

But it is delightfully ironic that the only thing uglier than a tract home development is a soviet style high-rise apartment block!

D

Posted by: David H Dennis at December 8, 2005 07:14 PM

My family company specialized in building the "starter home" for decades before branching out into the higher priced market. As a result, I grew accustomed to hearing snide remarks about the blight of ugly homes for first-time owners. True, the houses lacked the aesthetic appeal of the higher priced home. Yet, I was amused to note how our "starter homes" didn't have the serious construction problems that occured too frequently in the expensive home market. Some expensive homes used the same quality of carpet, cabinets and so forth, as the starter homes.

It also appeared significant that much of the criticism originated from "old money" families. Some of these individuals either owned large rental properties and/or large estates surrounding the city. They were loathe to lose their renters or share the countyside with all the upstart new home buyers. Stating these goals publically was unacceptable, so instead they coached their opposition as ecological and aesthetic concerns. In contrast, first time home buyers wished to escape the rental trap. Within in 5-8 years, a majority had used their tax savings and equity gains to move up into a higher home market.

Posted by: Mirra at December 8, 2005 07:44 PM

You can still get a good deal on one of those Soviet-style decaying concrete workers' apartments if you want one. They're all over Eastern Europe. Cheap.

As to Seeger and CPUSA:
"There's a black one, and a red one, and a white one, and a yellow one, and they're all made out of propaganda and they all think just the same."

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at December 8, 2005 08:42 PM

I haven't been able to find confirmation of the statement in this blog that it was all about the resentment that workers wouldn't wind up in government housing, although my research does make it plausible.

It was pure sour grapes. They expected to start a big mass movement for "worker's housing", but they hadn't anticipated VA loans and mass suburban development. So afterwards, hey sneered "but they weren't good houses, anyway." very much like the current European sneer about the jobs we create and they can't -- "We can't actually create any jobs, but if we did, they would be good ones."

For the story of the "worker's housing" movement, read this book.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 8, 2005 10:57 PM

I have lived in Soviet era apartments in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and believe you me; I would not wish that on an enemy. They are/were horrible places to live. In cities that I lived in, the best housing was build by German prisoners of war, or the Americans in the 20's that came to do other work. It is a shame they could not have done better. The living conditions might have been bad, but the people were some of the best people I ever met, the way they had to live was wrong.

Posted by: BCN at December 9, 2005 09:43 AM

Don't forget that one of the major intellectual bogeymen of the 1950s and early (pre-Psychedelic) 1960s was "conformity."

As I recall from hearing the song as a kid, it was more about attitudes than about architecture.

That said, I think the comment about substituting an aesthetic critique for an economic one is dead on.

Posted by: Chas S. Clifton at December 9, 2005 01:59 PM

1) I'm confused by your connection between "Little Boxes" and working-class Americans. Look at the lyrics:

And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there's doctors and there's lawyers
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.
And they all play on the golf-course,
And drink their Martini dry,
And they all have pretty children,
And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same.

That's a critique of the lifestyle of the working class? If there's so much martini and golf (and especially in the '60s, guaranteed college attendance) for working class people, sign me up!

Except that I like neither golf nor martinis, but anway.

Chas. S. Clifton is right; "Little Boxes" is a musical version of Catcher in the Rye or The Graduate. The original Marxist critique is of the lives of the bourgeois; the Marxists had to make those lives look undesirable or they would not be able to suppress the capitalist desire of the proletariat to become bourgeois. The Communism of the song is not in criticizing what the working class was doing; it's in criticizing what the working class might have found desirable.

2) You seem to be saying that as mainstream America became less economically conservative -- providing government-sponsored loans and grants for housing and education -- people on the left felt that their pet projects had been taken over and looked for new critiques. Isn't that part of the rise of the religious right in the GOP? Clinton triangulated his way through free trade, welfare reform and non-scary levels of taxation, and the Republican Party had to find a critique of the Democrats other than "They'll run the economy into the ground." So they took up a cultural criticism instead: "They hate God, children and America."

Posted by: PG at December 9, 2005 03:39 PM

Incidentally, Guthrie had a nice parody of "Little Boxes" that's more effective than the Assistant Village Idiot's:

See the beatniks in the Village
See the beatniks on MacDougal Street
See the beatniks in the Village
And they all look just the same
There's a tall one and a short one
And a white one and a Negro one
And they all go to the Village
And they all look just the same
And the boys all wear dungarees
And the girls all wear sandals
And they're all nonconformists
And they all dress just the same
And they go to the university
And they major in philosophy
And they're all deep thinkers
And they all think just the same
And they all read their Sartre
And they all read their Kierkegard
And they all talk about it
And they all sound just the same
And they all like folk music
and they dig Woody Guthrie
And just like Bob Dylan
They all sound the same

Posted by: PG at December 9, 2005 03:41 PM

Albion - Time for you to start posting on American blogs - Just our opinion, but the influence of communism can be easily overstated - The best year the CP ever had in the USA was in 1932 and they got a neglibile percentage of the vote. Seeger and a few other names are ryclyed over and over, leading to a false impression.

We just post a fake "conversation" between American's most prominant Marxist and his ally, Bush- Thinking satire was the only way the oddness can be describes.

Posted by: Gotham Image at December 9, 2005 04:18 PM

At one point in my life I used to read a review that was circulated to organizations. (Is that elliptical and obscure enough?)There was a section that summarized reports made by informants who attended CPUSA meetings in the bay area. I loved them, since I knew a lot of the people noted. They were better than the funny papers. The really interesting thing was that in a cell meeting of six people, there would be two reports. That meant two informants out of six. Many years later, I was seated next to one of the participants; at your standard rubber chicken dinner; who had achieved the bench. He had married and then divorced an ex girlfriend of mine. I'm sure he must have thought me to be a jovial dinner companion since I chuckled at many of his pontifications. Had he but known.

Posted by: M.H. Wood at December 9, 2005 05:19 PM

PG said:

Chas. S. Clifton is right; "Little Boxes" is a musical version of Catcher in the Rye or The Graduate. The original Marxist critique is of the lives of the bourgeois; the Marxists had to make those lives look undesirable or they would not be able to suppress the capitalist desire of the proletariat to become bourgeois. The Communism of the song is not in criticizing what the working class was doing; it's in criticizing what the working class might have found desirable.

Well, Malvina at that point was not yet admitting that the working class was in danger of going bourgeois, that came later. But she was creating an aesthetic critique of middle-class life, which had a good dose of sour grapes about it.

2) You seem to be saying that as mainstream America became less economically conservative -- providing government-sponsored loans and grants for housing and education -- people on the left felt that their pet projects had been taken over and looked for new critiques.

I'm not sure that amounted to the US becoming less conservative -- both the GI Bill (a voucher program) and the VA housing loans were government benefits earned for service performed, that made maximum use of market mechanisms. These are classic examples of the Anglosphere pattern of the instrumentalist use of state power.

Isn't that part of the rise of the religious right in the GOP? Clinton triangulated his way through free trade, welfare reform and non-scary levels of taxation, and the Republican Party had to find a critique of the Democrats other than "They'll run the economy into the ground." So they took up a cultural criticism instead: "They hate God, children and America."

But the cultural Left made it so easy for that perception to seem credible!

Gotham said:

The best year the CP ever had in the USA was in 1932 and they got a neglibile percentage of the vote. Seeger and a few other names are ryclyed over and over, leading to a false impression.

Yes, the electoral performance of the CPUSA was pathetic, even in comparison to the Socialist Party, which managed almost 6% in 1912, and elected municipal officials through 1962, all the way through the "red scare" period. It was exactly their electoral failure in 1932, under supposedly optimal conditions, that led them to abandon electoral focus and concentrate on cadre tactics and burrowing in labor unions. After the Stalinist subjugation of Eastern Europe and the thug tatics of the labor union cadres alienated the working class, their bohemian-intellectual assets were the only things they had left to work with. So they made the most of it. That's another reason why their critique became mostly an aesthetic-cultural one.

Albion - Time for you to start posting on American blogs -

Gotham, what the hell are you talking about?

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 9, 2005 09:31 PM

Scuse me, best evidence says that Malvina Reynold's lyrics were inspired by Levittown, not SF, nothing to do with SF, so this whole thread is a bit of a waste of time because it is based on incorrect info. Little boxes is known to be inspired by Levittown Pennsylvania and/or Daly City California.
Levittown gets the vote. How do I know, because I live in Wells, Somerset, England. That's where William Penn used to hang out, preach etc. In our Main Street we have a building where he used to appear at the window and tell the town about his beliefs. So we know everything there is to know about Pennsylvania. After all it is named after one or our residents. So we know that the song little boxes is based on Levittown. So there, that's it, no argument possible. Bye bye

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Posted by: bcxbgcbc at April 10, 2007 10:48 AM

I'm Malvina's daughter, and I happen to know that Little Boxes was written while driving through Daly City, California, not Levittown which I believe was more working-class. Also, Malvina had left the Communist Party more than a decade before she wrote Little Boxes, and was not intending to follow a party line by writing it. Interesting comments on the times, though. I got to your site because I was looking for the beatnik parody. Thanks for posting it.

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