I had intended to lead each shift in designation (single family to multi-family, for example) with a sort of general essay about the designation. To be honest I wanted to get the low-rise thing done. It was nagging at me and I found that I couldn’t quite think of anything to write in broad terms about townhouses or triplexes. Those housing types seem to be in some kind of cultural twilight. I can’t even say I knew anyone who lived in a townhouse when I was growing up.
So I skipped it. But not so for midrise and highrise. There is something culturally powerful about living in tall buildings. I guess that statement doesn’t mean much. Let me try to be more clear. Tall buildings generate a complex set of emotions in most Americans. For some, the apartment building represents poverty. For others, the tall apartment building is bad design, and ant hill that is out of scale with human needs. For for still others, the tall apartment building represents a step up.
Let’s look at two slices of popular culture from two different eras. This clip is from I Love Lucy and originally aired a week or so after Dwight Eisenhower was sworn into his second term in the White House.
Where’s the highrise? Well, there were never any exterior shots (that I remember) of Lucy and Ricky’s building, but it’s clear that it is multifamily and that it’s in Manhattan. The show took it for granted that people would understand a family living in an apartment building in Manhattan–a middle class family. This isn’t Mr. Drummond’s place on Different Strokes.
1950’s momentum, though, was not with cities. It was with, as it’s called in this episode, “the Country.” The Country has a very specific meaning in England, but there is a similar sense here. The Country is the place to get away from the dirty city, spread out, grow something. The Country is where people can really live. The country manor is a staple of 19th century literature the way the suburb became the locus of action in the sit-com in the late 20th century. Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and on and on.
In this clip you can see the cultural norms about the city changing and the birth of the suburb. One can easily imagine producers of the show getting lots of cards and letters wondering, first, when will Lucy and Ricky have a baby and second, when will they be moving out of the city.
The next clip is a counter example, and the one I’d like to offer for the other possibility. The Jefferson’s was a show I grew up with. Every Sunday night it was certain to be on the tube. As a kid I always thought it was funny, and I took it for granted that moving to the East Side was a good thing. I lived in a single family house in a sprawling Southwestern city and to me New York was a magical world. It made sense that success meant movin’ on up.
Well we’re movin’ on up
To the East Side
To a deluxe apartment in the sky
Well we’re movin’ on up
To the East Side
We’ve finally got a piece of the pie
The “pie” that George and Louise are eating in their deluxe apartment is presumably “American Pie.”
The two clips are remarkably similar. Sad women friends saying goodbye as they consider or make a big move. Even George Jefferson and Ricky Ricardo have some things in common. What is notable is the direction of the move — not what it means.
For Lucy and Ricky moving to the country is certainly a step up and away from the dirty city. Lucy plays up the cultural stereotypes of city life in her efforts to persuade Desi. But she doesn’t have to, Ricky has already made the $500 deposit, about $4,000 in todays dollars. It is a significant sum to lay down as a deposit for a hard working band leader.
The Jefferson’s are also moving toward their dream. But rather than moving away from the dirty city, Manhattan, they are moving towards it. Lucy and Desi wind up in Connecticut and Ricky commutes (by train!) to work in the City. But George and Louise move to a highrise apartment. The motives are the same: economic and cultural mobility. The feelings are the same: where we are now isn’t good enough, we deserve better. The sense of importance about the meaning of “home” is the same.
But the outcome is decidedly different. Ricky commutes but George lives above the store. These are social constructs separated by decades, issues of race, demographics, and evolving sexual and cultural norms. But we can influence these. I look forward to a day when our cultural expectations shift enough (and they will) that we’ll measure social mobility by what floor a family lives on than by the size of their single family house.