clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How the dream of homeownership failed African Americans

The third episode of Nice Try! travels to postwar suburbia, where homebuyers were sold their own personal utopias

Shutterstock

When Joyce Hadley describes Concord Park, the Philadelphia suburb she’s lived in since the 1950s, it sounds positively picturesque.

“I always associate it with the smell of honeysuckle bushes,” she says. “Every house has a beautiful tree in front of it. There are rhododendrons, roses—all types of beautiful fragrant bushes you can smell in the spring and even in the winter.”

Hadley has lived in Concord Park since the 1950s, when her parents bought a house in the new development. She loved growing up there, and remembers caroling door to door during Christmastime, a bookmobile that would come every couple of weeks, and families banding together to build a playground. There were dozens of kids her age in the neighborhood, and everyone was friends.

“There was always this element of togetherness,she says.

Hadley is African American, and the reason her parents were able to live in this suburban idyll at a time when many of these communities excluded African Americans was because one developer, Morris Milgram, set out to do what most of his peers didn’t want to: build a racially inclusive neighborhood.

Suburban developments built in the 1950s were positioned as perfect communities where families could thrive. A large part of this was due to federal policies that made it easier for banks to finance mortgages and for developers to build homes. Suburbs gave many people their first opportunity at homeownership. But these postwar suburban developments typically excluded African Americans, deepening racial inequality and locking millions out of the dream of homeownership, the most infamous being Levittown. While William Levitt used explicit racial covenants and other tactics to keep his developments white, Milgram used racial quotas to create an integrated community—and succeeded, for a while.

This episode of Nice Try! explores the challenge to provide the personal utopia of homeownership for African Americans, and whether the suburbs have to be ticky-tacky boxes of conformity. It features interviews with Dorothy Brown, former special assistant to the federal housing commissioner at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and professor at Emory University School of Law; Joyce Hadley, a resident of Concord Park; and Amanda Kolson Hurley, senior editor of CityLab and author of Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City.

Listen to Nice Try! Utopian on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app, and subscribe for free to get each new episode automatically every Thursday.