Popular culture and the federal government celebrated the suburbs as the post-war American ideal. But this ideal was not intended or attainable for everyone. Housing in the United States was deeply segregated even before the rise of the suburbs. Federal and state policies denied Blacks and other marginalized groups access to fair housing for decades.
Nearly 7 million white Americans left cities between 1950 and 1970. Suburban developers seeking business catered to the newcomers. The developers promoted communities where like-minded neighbors could build an American dream together. Many suburban developers included clauses in real estate contracts guaranteeing white residents that Black families would be kept out of the neighborhood. The founder of the famous Levittown in Long Island, New York, argued that such policies were necessary to attract residents.
In the same two decades, nearly 3 million Black Americans left the rural south for the urban North, continuing the Great Migration. They were not welcomed in most suburbs. Because they lacked options, many Black families moved into new government-sponsored public housing. Public housing was designed to provide low-income families with a home. The large apartment buildings packed many people into a small amount of space without any amenities.
The domestic reality for white and Black women was very different. White women were more likely to stay home full time to care for their families. Most married white women who worked earned a modest income, which added to the family’s spending money. They had access to better-quality homes filled with time-saving appliances. They also had the support of and participated in volunteer organizations that benefited their schools and communities. Black women rarely had the option to care for their families at home full time. Economic inequalities and employment discrimination based on race meant that most Black families needed two incomes to survive. As working mothers, Black women had less support and time to invest in their homes, children, and other needs. And no amount of hard work would earn them access to the suburbs.
This is a set of eight photographs comparing two housing developments in the St. Louis area. Glasgow Village was a suburban development built in the mid-1950s. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was completed in 1956.
The population shifts in St. Louis mimic those of other major cities across the United States in this era. White families fled the city, while Black families migrated to the city.
Glasgow Village was one of many new suburban developments built in the mid-1950s. It offered multi-bedroom, air-conditioned houses for growing middle-class families. Promotional images showed easy access to local schools, churches, and a shopping center.
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was celebrated by the city as a marvel of modern architecture. But the reality was grim. Outdoor spaces offered no trees or shade. Each of the building’s elevators stopped on only the 4th, 7th, and 10th floors. As a result, residents had to use dark stairwells to access the floors in between. The buildings’ walls were made of cold cinderblocks. Many apartments with multiple bedrooms had only one bathroom. In addition, the kitchens and living rooms were the same size in all apartments, regardless of the number of bedrooms. This meant a family of ten would have the same size kitchen as a family of two. A welfare office across the street provided easy access to families seeking benefits. But it also served as a public reminder of the economic status of the families living at Pruitt-Igoe.