Friday, May 29, 2009

reconstituting working class neighborhoods

I grew up (1954-1969) in a suburb of San Francisco -- San Mateo -- in a neighborhood of blue collar/working class families. Construction on the subdivision in which we lived began in about 1948, and was not fully completed until a few years after we moved there in 1954. The first wave of houses were two and three bedroom, one bath, with a attached single car garage, and lots under a quarter acre. The later wave of houses built between 1953 and 1956, were three bedroom, two bath, with attached two car garages. These were on the same sized lot, so had less yard.

By 1954, solid six foot high privacy fences completely divided the backyards of each single family home from its neighbors. The only shared/public spaces were the sidewalks, the elementary school ground, and the single, large municipal park located across from the elementary school at the center of the subdivision. Children roamed from yard to yard, but adults stayed within the limits of their own yard, and did not socialize frequently with neighbors.

The residents of the homes during the 50's and 60's were primarily nuclear families, consisting a husband employed in a blue collar or working class occupation, wives who were rarely employed outside the home, and 2+ children. Occasionally a home was occupied by a retired couple, without children. Many of the men in this subdivision worked in maintenance departments of major air lines based at San Francisco International Airport (less than 8 miles away). There were also large numbers of men in the construction trades -- carpenters, electricians, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.

Almost all of the adults were from outside California, and many of the older children had been born outside the state as well. None of the families were related to each other, all were stripped of kinship ties. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all resided "back east" or in the Midwest, rather than California. Rarely families would go "home" for brief vacations, usually during the summer months. Even more rarely kin would come for short visits. Thanksgiving and Christmas were holidays celebrated by isolated nuclear families.

Those of us who grew up in these communities took this isolation from kin for granted. Leaving behind extended family, to move great distances for work opportunities, and new communities was the norm for the majority of white working class families in California of the 1950's and 1960's. So it was not unexpected that most of the first wave of children would leave the area to go to college, find work and build futures in other cities and other states.

Attending college in Ohio and later graduate school in Kentucky, most of my fellow students had also left their homes and families some distance away. So the family and neighborhood patterns of my childhood seemed quite normal. It was not until I obtained my first full-time teaching position in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that I got a good, close hand look at a very different pattern of working class family and community life.

In Johnstown, the majority of working class and lower middle class adults lived within a few miles of their parents and grandparents, frequently on the same street, and not uncommonly in the other half of a double house -- a two or three story house under a single roof, that was divided down the middle into two distinct separate living units with separate kitchens, etc. This type of housing is extremely common in older working class neighborhoods of older industrial cities and towns east of the Mississippi.

Not only did the generations stay close to each other physically, but they often formed cooperative economic and social units. Children were cared for by grandparents, while parents worked. The increasing necessity for married women to be employed outside the home, made the assistance of grandparents in child care more and more crucial to economic well-being of working and lower middle class families in the 1980's.

The period of time that I spent in Johnstown included 1984-1985 during which time official unemployment rose to 25 percent as Bethlehem and U.S. Steel closed down the majority of their steel works. The permeable boundaries of family/household across generations was essential to many families survival, as those who retained jobs shared income with those who lost jobs. Many of the family and community patterns chronicled by Gans in Urban Villagers were alive and well in Johnstown in the 1980's.

I have since observed that trans-generational/trans-household family patterns are also exceedingly common among the working and lower middle classes in small town Virginia and rural Kentucky, and part of long standing traditions of kin helping kin.
What I find fascinating is that fifty years later in the 21st century, working and middle class families in San Mateo are reconstituting similar family and neighborhood patterns. This is being done both by new ethnic in-migrants to California (Filipino, Tongan, Vietnamese, Cambodian etc.) and by the later generations of the original working class families that populated the second wave in San Mateo's subdivisions.

It has become extremely common for two to four houses on one street to be owned by successive generations of the same family, and for other homes to be inhabited by cousins or other relatives. Because of vastly inflated housing values, often the older generation owns several homes that are rented to younger couples starting out. One family that first bought into the neighborhood in 1962 (the second wave) has three generations living in four houses at one end of one street. Two other houses nearby are owned by cousins who settled in the neighborhood in the 1970's and their adult child.

The entire neighborhood that was once populated by isolated nuclear families has become a complex web of family ties across generations, and extending out to collateral kin. The behavior of these families, providing assistance, child care, and financial aid, is far more similar to the old working class neighborhoods of Johnstown, than to the same neighborhood in the 1950's. All it took was time.