Findings I: The Discourse of Supply

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As indicated in the preceding section on methods, I have drawn my data on the discourse of supply from advertising supplements in the real-estate sections of Antelope Valley and Los Angeles newspapers; freeway billboards; sales pamphlets; model homes; the statements of sales representatives; and the architecture of the houses themselves. The basic marketing scenario reflected here and confirmed in fieldwork is as follows:

  1. prospective buyers learn the name, location and price of developments from the newspaper or from billboards;

  2. these sources direct them to the sales complex, consisting of a staffed sales office and at least three fully furnished display models;

  3. a sales representative greets them with an information brochure and invites them to tour the models;

  4. if, after reviewing the models and literature, the buyers are "interested", they may sit-down across from the salesperson and learn more about the houses, the developer, financing options, etc.

Since all developers offer at least three different floor plans, ranging in price from "economy model" to "deluxe", and each available with two or three different exterior facades known as "elevations", brochures are used to diagram and display these variations and prices. Usually, each floor plan is named, for example: "the Colony, the Coventry, the Country, available in traditional and Mediterranean exteriors", but sometimes they are simply numbered: "Plan One, Plan Two", etc. Where floor plans are named, developers often employ a naming system. At the Rocking Horse Ranch tract, for example, one finds the Appaloosa, Palomino, and the Hackney; at the Rhapsody development are floor plans named Overture, Allegro, Crescendo and Legato.

Sales brochures diagram, depict and detail in words the specific features of each available floor plan and elevation. Further, they include a list of features standard in all the builder's homes. This list is almost always divided into six sections: interiors; exteriors; "convenient kitchens"; "luxurious master suites" (inclusive of bathrooms); "energy efficient features"; and customizing options. In addition, these brochures typically include a brief description of the development company ("your builder", "the US. Home story"); its history (the scale and success of past enterprises) and creed ("commitment to quality" etc.). Often they include site plans of the entire tract, showing parks and nearby shopping, together with photos and descriptions of the "community" and "neighborhood" the consumer will be buying into. Most brochures are glossy and substantial and all contain a loose-leaf "price page", sometimes photocopied, sometimes printed with blank lines where the sales staff can update prices by hand. This inserted price page is a tangible manifestation of the vagaries of the capitalist market.

Though I initially thought this marketing scheme, with its focus on facade, display and simulation, to be distinctly "postmodern" (in Jameson's use of the term to denote an aesthetic of depthlessness and superficiality), I was mistaken. The practice of erecting model homes for the public to peruse dates back as far as the Better Homes movement of the 1920s. As Gwendolyn Wright observes:

The highlight of Better Homes week was the demonstration house. During the preceding year, local architects, builders, and home economists in each participating community joined forces to either build or choose an exemplary moderate-cost dwelling and then furnish it. The house was open to the public for tours and special events. . .Most cities had one model home, but Santa Barbara, an exception, had thirty-two homes on display one year. In 1926, over two hundred communities built model houses at an average cost of $3,500. In 1930, after the stock market crash, 682 brand-new single-family dwellings at an average cost of $1,885 (exclusive of land) were on display across the country, and a total of four thousand houses were open for tours. (Wright 1981: 197-8)

Levitt and Sons, Inc. carried on the practice of using display models to market the planned residential suburb, Levittown, New Jersey, in the late 1950s (Gans 1967: 10). Today, Antelope Valley developers follow essentially the same building and marketing formula the Levitts initiated in the postwar period.

Nearly all the aspects of the discourse of supply upon which my analysis will touch were already present in New Jersey's Levittown. The Levitts' marketing process "was aimed at attracting the young family buying its first home" and, as in Antelope Valley, efforts were made to simplify the purchasing process so that it "was almost as easy as buying a washing machine" (Gans 1967:12-3). The Levitts introduced the practice of offering different house types, each with specific historical and regional associations (i.e. not modern), and of ensuring further variation by offering a choice of exterior elevations and paint color. As Herbert Gans writes in The Levittowners:

. . . three types of houses were to be mixed on each street: a four bedroom 'Cape Cod' initially selling for $11,500; a three-bedroom, one-story 'Rancher' for $13,000; and a two-story 'Colonial', one with three, another with four bedrooms and costing $14,000 and $14,500 respectively. Each house type was built in two elevations, but with the same floor plan, and was varied in external color to effect more visual heterogeneity. (Gans 1967: 7)

In addition, Levitt and Sons' innovation of combining traditionally-styled architecture with modern construction techniques and such "built-in" features as refrigerators, washing machines, fencing and landscaping, continues in the Antelope Valley. "Built-in" features appeal because they are considered part of the house and thus, can be financed in the mortgage. All in all, each of the four themes I will identify in my analysis of house marketing in Antelope Valley was already present in Levittown, New Jersey, the "prototype for postwar suburbia" in the United States (Gans 1967: xvii). These themes are:

  1. the deep ties between homeownership and the nuclear family and the notion that these form a sufficient basis for community;

  2. the paradoxical relationship between individual and community

  3. the vision of society as a ladder and concomitant persuasion that one must "climb the ladder; and

  4. the use of historical and geographical allusion to assert continuity over rupture.

All of these analytic themes are intimately bound up together with the capitalist social order and its specific historical and geographical unfolding on the North American continent. Though this is not the place, nor is my historical knowledge sufficient, to present a detailed account of this claim, after presenting these themes, I will discuss them in relation to the capitalist social order.

I. Home, Family and Community

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To me the most striking feature of the discourse of supply is the almost total equivalence expressed between the physical structure of the house and the social structure of the modern nuclear family. Most people who have grown up in the United States, no doubt, take this correspondence to be self-evident, perhaps even natural. In our culture, "home" and "family" are virtually synonymous, a child of divorced parents is said to come from a "broken home" and the terms "home life" and "family life" are used interchangeably. The equilvence of house and family is, in fact, coded into the sales nomenclature, for most developers sell, not houses, but "single-family homes". Unfamiliar with the thorough-going correspondence between detached houses and "the family" in American culture at the time I began my research, it was this that struck me as most remarkable as I inquired into sell-side articulations.

The most obvious expression of the deep association between house and the nuclear family is to be found in the billboards and sales pamphlets used to market tract developments in Antelope Valley. Almost all the billboards broadcast "family", at least in such references as "single-family homes for the first-time buyer" and often in images of one or both parents with at least one, but never more than two (one male, one female), children. Beaming children grace the pages of every sales pamphlet that includes photographs. Further, the sales literature never merely describes the physical qualities of the houses for sale; for example, I have found that breakfast nooks are never simply "breakfast nooks" they are invariably either "sunny" or "cozy". Much of this sort of embellishment consists of asserting the ideal correspondence between family and house (or rather, "home", for the word "house" is all but banished from the sales literature, since it does not as readily convey family warmth). For example, the caption under one floor plan reads: "You'll love spending time together in the family room featured in this plan"; another declares: "These extras make Plan 5 ideal for an active family"; and another: "Ideal for growing families, Corsica offers spacious interiors with a wealth of amenities". Emblazoned across the two-page spread of one builder's features list is the motto: "Affordable homes that growing families won't outgrow". References to "distinctive family living"; various "family-sized" spaces; "new family community"; and "family-oriented community", are as ubiquitous as those to square footage and numbers of bedrooms. As these last two references reveal, the union of home and family is also tied to an idea of community.

The deep associations, or bonds, that link the notions "home", "family", and "community" appear in each of the seventy-nine sales brochures I examined in the course of my research. Just as there is little mention of "houses", the words "tract" and "development" seldom appear in sales literature, it is "communities" and "neighborhoods" that are being sold. As the videotape playing on the television in the "media niche" of one model home proclaims: "Kaufmann and Broad doesn't build houses, we build neighborhoods, communities of people". In the sales literature, the term "community" refers to a specific development complex on a single site, not the group of people living in Antelope Valley, nor in a sub-area such as Quartz Hill, but the group of homes and homeowners in a discrete tract. Thus, the group of homes called Marbrissa is described as "one of the Antelope Valley's most prestigious and established communities"; and the pamphlet for Anthem, "a proud community", refers to that which surrounds it as "the thriving Palmdale area", not community. The following two excerpts from sales pamphlets illustrate the connection of family and home to community. The first, for a group of homes called Martica, reads:

The finest builders are those who see beyond wooden beams and property lines. They envision a total environment which nurtures families and expands living horizons.

The Stratham Group believes that strong planning must precede every home community if it is to achieve its full potential. This concern for the community's future makes the present that much nicer, too.

(Martica pamphlet, emphasis added)

Here the community is clearly Martica and, thus, membership in it is conferred only upon those who have purchased houses there. A second excerpt describing the Rancho Vista "community" reads:

Welcome to Rancho Vista, Palmdale's master-planned community. We hope you enjoy your tour of our beautifully-furnished models.

Rancho Vista is a community like none other in the Antelope Valley. Its collection of distinctive neighborhoods offers a unique lifestyle. One geared specifically towards the family and family values. No wonder over 4,000 people already call Rancho Vista home. Rancho Vista is also neighborhood schools just a walk away. A new shopping plaza is scheduled to open soon.

At Rancho Vista you don't just buy a beautiful home. You get an entire community.

(Rancho Vista pamphlet, emphasis added)

In this passage, the community consists of a "collection of distinctive neighborhoods" because Rancho Vista is a group of contiguous tracts off Rancho Vista Boulevard, each with its own name, for example: Rancho Vista Four, The Classics at Rancho Vista; Ponderosa Vista.

Thus, whatever its rich connotations, in the discourse of supply the word "community" denotes a group of homes put up by a single builder on a specific geographical site. Unlike a "community of faith", or "the aerospace community", "community" in the sales literature is something very tangible, consisting of dwellings, recreational, educational and commercial facilities. Almost all the brochures speak of schools, parks and "nearby recreation areas" and this is a further extension of correspondence between "family" and "home communities".

The analogy of house to family is asserted most concretely in Antelope Valley's new houses by the existence of a specific space called the "family room". In her social history of housing in America, Gwendolyn Wright, explains the origin of this room, writing:

In the suburban houses of the late 1940s and 1950s, attention to children's needs--some would say the creation of children's needs--produced a special place for their activities. First labeled the don't-say-no space, or the multipurpose room, it was later called the family room in a 1947 Parent's Magazine model house. Sometimes no more than an extension of the kitchen, the family room was usually accessible from the outside through a sliding glass door. It had a linoleum floor for dancing, a table for bridge games, and comfortable furniture for the new family pastime of watching television. In 1946, the FCC authorized four hundred television stations, and antennas went up on the first eight thousand rooftops across the country. Although the family room most often served as a place where children could do as they pleased in the midst of clutter and noise, it was also an architectural expression of family togetherness. (Wright 1981: 255)

The family room continues much the same in the houses built in Antelope Valley today. All but the very lowest priced houses have them, and where they are absent, the "breakfast nook" adjoining the kitchen is made larger so that this space can fulfill family room functions . Though the linoleum has been replaced with carpet, the family room remains open to the outside through a sliding glass door and maintains its function as the site of television watching, indeed many developers include built-in "media niches", "media centers", or "media alcoves" in the family room. Moreover, the openness of the kitchen to the family room has also endured and, in most floor plans offered in Antelope Valley, there is an unobstructed line-of-sight from the kitchen, to (sometimes through, or over) the breakfast "nook", and to the family room. Thus, a parent working in the kitchen can watch children at play, whether they are painting at the table in the breakfast nook, watching television in the family room, or running around in the backyard. (See Illustration 1)

Even though every tract house I saw in Antelope Valley was equipped with a central thermostat system, almost all offer either standard or optional fireplaces. The fireplace has long had symbolic importance as the family hearth in American as well as other cultures. However, until the Victorian period, the fireplace also had a functional role in heating, and, during the Colonial period, in cooking. As the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution brought other means of heating, the fireplace took on a more purely symbolic function as an expression of domesticity. By the 1870s "fireplaces had become popular as symbols of the family hearth" and the elaborate mantels atop them "provided the suburban home with its ritual center" (Wright 1981: 109). Displayed on these mantels, traditionally, were "all manner of bric-a-brac", vases and sculptural figures together with such domestic products as "crocheted lambrequins" and hand-painted Easter eggs (Wright 1981:109). Beginning in the Victorian era, however, the balance of such display "was shifting toward items purchased from a store or catalogue, which captured the refinement and culture that home was supposed to encourage" (Wright 1981: 109-110)

That fireplaces are a potent symbol of the American ideals of home and family, can be seen in the following: in the 1880s, architects seeking to counter the negative image of apartment life--prevalent in a culture where single-family houses are associated with moral virtue--installed fireplaces in their apartment buildings to "re-create the symbolic details of more conventional home life" (Wright 1981: 145). Many Antelope Valley tract homes include multiple fireplaces, some even in the master bedroom "suite", but, where there is only one fireplace, it is in the family room, rather than the living room. With the hearth thus located, the family room conveys even more fully the ideal of family togetherness associated with the single-family dwelling and a limited conception of community as a polity of property holders.

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