II. The Paradox of Individualism

(Back to Contents)

The second theme I wish to develop from my research is the tension between uniformity and individualism in middle class American culture. One of the first things that struck me about the tract housing in Antelope Valley was its extreme uniformity. Since most developers have adopted a Mediterranean look for the architecture of their tracts, the view of the Valley from almost any elevated point presents a sea of red tile roofs, a graphic assertion of social homogeneity and the egalitarian ideal. Even where another architectural style has been used, colonial or ranch, for example, and houses with different facades stand side by side, builders and their architects work to assert a distinct visual uniformity within each tract. Further, a complex set of rules have been established by a number of Antelope Valley developers to preserve and protect this uniformity even after the houses have been sold. (footnote 15) Where the builder accepts Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or Veterans Administration (VA) financing (long-term, low interest loans for qualified buyers), or city funds for parks, the federal and city governments also participate in establishing these rules. In the excerpt below, my informant Debra, a sales representative, names and describes these rules which structure uniformity:

DEBRA: Now CC and Rs are covenants, conditions and restrictions. They're just different rules that apply to the community...different things you can and cannot do. People can't run businesses out of their homes as in putting up a neon sign and advertising and have a steady flow of traffic going in through the neighborhood. Anything you want to change that is going to be a major change, structural change, or color change....the outside of a home. . . you have to get approval from the architectural control committee. They have to have either paint samples or drawings. . . We're not unreasonable, but we want to maintain the quality and the look of the community. So that it's a protection of the people that have purchased. We do not want someone coming in painting like pinks and purples and lavender, all kinds of different colors out here, that would not keep, maintain that look of the whole community, so they do have to get approvals.

It is clear both that uniformity is a sought after quality, i.e. an ideal, an objective, and that it is an expression of the community: "the look of the whole community".

Conscious of the American ethos of individualism, I found this ideal of uniformity paradoxical and, if you will recall, my earliest research interest was in how residents made uniform houses "their own". The tension between homogeneity and individuality that I felt is itself articulated in the discourse of supply: This tension is the explicit rationale for offering a number of floor plans, each available in its reverse, or mirror image form; a choice of exterior facades and paint colors; and a variety of "customizing options", such as extra porches, patios and garages. (footnote 16) Obviously, the permutations of these choices yield a variety of houses which buyers, and likely their neighbors, will recognize to be distinct. Yet, to the outside observer, the effect of homogeneity prevails. The following excerpt from an interview with another sales representative describes these structured variations and the rationale behind them:

ME: [I was] wondering why I've seen, in a number of the models, the tract model developments, that they show three, three different houses. . .

SALESREP: Three or four, umm hmm, three or four is pretty conventional. If you're doing a large group of homes, it would be awkward to only have two different floor plans, you'd see. . . every other person on the block would have the same floor plan. If you have three or four floor plans, with three exterior elevations, you do not see the home repeated. As much as we like a home and as beautiful as you or I may think it is, we certainly don't want everybody on the block to look the same, which they usually don't because everybody decorates differently, everybody landscapes differently, but .......it has to do with personal egos usually, we just.....do you like to walk into a dining room and see three other women with the same dress on that you have on, it's that type of thing, everybody doesn't want to look the same...And this developer, as many others, may, a year down the road, when the project's half finished, may decide that one of the plans was not popular and may add another plan which will change the make up of the area again.

ME: What are exterior elevations?

SALESREP: The exterior elevation is the way it's finished, completed in the front, they change the roof lines. You um .......you can tell by the pictures that are there, that some of them have a gabled roof and some do not. Some have a little porch like over the front porch, that's protected, some do not.....Some almost give a little patio effect off the front, which are stuccoed under the eaves and some may have the rougher wood look to it ..............This gives you a different look for each model, so that even though they may have the first floor plan out there five times, its got three different elevations, three different exterior looks and then, even with that, all of those could be different colors, different stucco, different trim colors, different roof color.

Thus, the discourse of supply structures a high degree of uniformity in terms of the overall image each tract projects to the outside world. Yet, by offering a variety of options, that discourse also prescribes a standard degree of variance. Moreover, because it is the buyers who choose among available possibilities, they are necessarily made conscious of the objective of variation. Of course, buyers might already be conscious of it, and some might argue, along with the sales woman above, that it is the buyers' desires that have stipulated it, but this is not my point. My point is that even if buyers had no such concerns, by engaging with the discourse of supply, they are made aware of the importance of a certain degree of diversity and individuality.

Now even the most cursory acquaintance with American culture will tell one that the ideal of individuality is, indeed, to be found in the wider society. Volumes have been written, a vast profusion uttered, on the topic of American individualism (Tocqueville, Twain, and Lasch, the list is endless), but one need not consult the records to know of this phenomena. In almost any discussion of "issues" or "politics" with these "natives", recourse will be made to a set of individual freedoms enshrined in a founding document known as "the Bill of Rights". Most all issues of general societal relevance are couched in terms of the individual's "right to choose", "right to speak", in short, in terms of his or her freedom to dissent or differ. Thus, it is the homogeneity of tract housing that requires further explanation, not this ethos of individualism.

Though one might think the source of uniformity in tract housing to be the cost efficiencies of standardized mass-production, this is not entirely the case. No doubt, the fact that it is cheaper to build houses that are highly similar and to build in quantity contributes to the phenomena of uniformity. However, historical accounts show that even before houses were built within an industrial capitalist mode of production, uniformity prevailed. As Gwendolyn Wright states, in the late 1700s, "[S]oon after independence, an urban tradition of plain, uniform row houses, based on models in builders' books, became an established form" (1981:23). Since the early 1800s, foreign visitors to the United States have remarked on this American tendency to homogeneity. The most famous of these visiting social commentators (anthropologists, perhaps?) was Alexis de Tocqueville who, regardless of the fact that he is said to have introduced the term "individualism", did not fail "to point out one of the central ambiguities of this new individualism--that it was strangely compatible with conformism" (Bellah et al. 1985:48). Less famous is Englishwoman Frances Trollope who complained in her 1832 treatise, Domestic Manners of the Americans: "The greatest defect in the houses is their extreme uniformity--when you have seen one, you have seen all" (Wright 1981: 32).

Since it cannot be reduced to a matter of cost efficiency, the homogeneity of tract housing must be seen as articulating some cultural ideal, or value, other than the principle of maximal profit. (footnote 17) As Tocqueville observed, since the first days of the Republic--the founding period of our state and ideological history--American individualism, has existed together with an egalitarian ethos. It is this tension between conflicting ideals that manifests itself in Antelope Valley tract housing as uniformity mitigated by customizing options. Again, I turn to Wright for some historical substantiation of my claim. Writing of urban America in the first decades of the nineteenth century, she asserts:

The repetition of simple forms in housing was taken as visible evidence of equality of station in society. Equality was a goal that engendered constraints, tensions and symbolic responses from the beginning of the republic. Most citizens did not actually believe in full equality; they believed in conditions for individual freedom, which theoretically allowed for an equalizing process, and in social practices that outlawed aristocratic privilege. They had hopes for a society in which the public good would be a shared concern, so long as it did not interfere excessively with personal freedom. What emerged as a solution of sorts was the "fabrick of Freedom," [sic] a visible structure that embodied both common good and personal gain. An important thread in that fabric was the built environment, representing private property and public commonweal. A smooth, uniform environment was considered a sign that Americans had resolved some of their deepest conflicts.

This core American conflict has also been examined by Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler and Tipton (1985), who discuss it as a complex cultural knot of values and beliefs including: individualism; conformity to the community; expectation of social mobility; and egalitarianism expressed as equality of opportunity.

In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah et al., cite Tocqueville on the American determination to live and make judgments individualistically, each according to his or her own belief and experience, rather than by any received doctrine. They write:

But, as Tocqueville observed, when one can no longer rely on tradition or authority, one inevitably looks to others for confirmation of one's judgments. Refusal to accept established opinion and anxious conformity to the opinions of one's peers turn out to be two sides of the same coin. (Bellah et al 1985: 48)

In their subsequent discussion, Bellah et al., like Wright, relate this tension between individualism and conformity to a cultural milieu and socio-economic structure where hierarchy and status mobility coexist with a belief in equality of opportunity. First, they note that paradoxical individualism is closely linked to middle-class status. They assert that the middle-class which began to emerge in the late nineteenth century differed from the old "middling condition" in that members of the former exhibit, not merely a desire for "material betterment", but "a conscious, calculating effort to move up the ladder of success" (Bellah et al. 1985:49). This vision of society as "a ladder" (footnote 18) and accompanying drive to "climb" serve to explain the social relations of production (and conditions they produce) as the natural outcome of individual accomplishment. As Bellah et al. expound:

In this conception, individuals, unfettered by family or other group affiliation, are given the chance to make the best of themselves, and, though equality of opportunity is essential, inequality of result is natural. But the ambiguities of individualism for the middle-class person arise precisely from lack of certainty about what the "best" we are supposed to make of ourselves is. Schneider and Smith note that "there are no fixed standards of behavior which serve to mark status. The only clearly defined cultural standards against which status can be measured are the gross standards of income [and] consumption". Middle-class individuals are thus motivated to enter a highly autonomous and demanding quest for achievement and then left with no standards against which achievement is to be measured except the income and consumption levels of their neighbors, exhibiting anew the clash between autonomy and conformity that seems to be the fate of American individualism. . . One response to this situation is to make occupational achievement. . . no longer an end in itself, but merely an instrument for the attainment of a private lifestyle lived, perhaps, in a lifestyle enclave (footnote 19)

(Bellah et al. 1985: 49-51, emphasis added)

Though few are enclosed, the tract neighborhoods of Antelope Valley are clearly "lifestyle enclaves" that make status claims about the people who live there. These tracts give tangible expression to the cultural complex which I, following Bellah et al. (1985), have found it useful to call the paradox of individualism.

First, a house in these tract "communities" symbolizes a certain level of material achievement. Homeownership is thus an outward sign of having attained a certain income (i.e. status). Second, as anthropologist Constance Perin argues, "the banker qualifies the homebuyer with a credit rating that is a major threshold of American social personhood crucial in the correct traversal of the ladder of life" (1977:66). Thus, while ownership and the customizing options offered signal the achievement of the individual, the uniformity of tracts signifies a community standard by which achievement can be measured. Neighborhood homogeneity broadcasts to the outside world the claim that residents have attained that standard.

Further, the decorated model homes are veritable theaters of consumption. They are filled with furniture; wall hangings; "decorator items" such as vases, or plaster amphorae; and plastic replicas of major appliances, like faux computers, aptly manufactured by Props Inc. All communicate to prospective buyers an image of what the house ought to contain and how these things ought to be displayed.

Finally, the sales literature teems with references to this cultural ideal of individual achievement objectified in the home. One brochure reads: "a vast master suite rewards you with a well-deserved sense of privacy". Another asserts: "There's a new standard of excellence in Antelope Valley living, a new definition against which all others will be judged." A third proclaims: "Now you CAN afford the best!" Every sales pamphlet makes it clear that houses are supposed to broadcast something about their owners, for example, entry ways are typically referred to as "impressive". Indeed, "impressive", "distinguished" and "distinctive" are three of the most frequently used adjectives in the sales literature, for example: "ideal for families wanting a home that's a distinctive showplace to be proud of"; "home is more than a place to live, it is a personal residence of distinction; "An impressive two-sided wood-burning fireplace warms the living and family rooms"; "The impressive master suite offers. . ."; "the impressive, tiled entry". "Glamorous", as in "glamorous skylights", and "dramatic", as in "dramatic volume ceilings", are other frequently used words that convey the sense that someone is looking and the house should communicate to them. Often this sense is implied by theatrical metaphors, as in the following description of a floor plan: "Scene I opens on a gracious stairway that's sure to be a real scene stealer."

III. The Ladder of Society

(Back to Contents)

As my discussion of the paradox of individualism indicates, the idea that society is a ladder to be climbed is culturally central. Aside from structuring a degree of visual diversity, the convention of offering three or four floor plans in each development also serves to communicate the ladder concept. These floor plans are never merely different: they comprise a hierarchy of price and size, from the smallest and cheapest to the largest and most expensive. Indeed, I was surprised to find in my comparison of seventy-nine tracts that, all talk of lifestyle and other advertising embellishments aside, price is almost entirely based on the brute fact of square footage. The smallest floor plan in a tract is usually billed as "ideal for the first-time buyer", which sends, first, the message that house-buying is a serial practice; and perhaps also indicates that, if you are not a first-time buyer, you had better "step up" to a more impressive house. I heard one sales representative say to a prospective buyer undecided on a floor plan, "if you want to move up and look at the Coventry, we could do it on a smaller lot."

This hierarchy of floor plans is reinforced by the furnishing and decor in model homes which display items appropriate to successive "stations" in life. The lowest priced model often has a "country" motif of checkered table cloths and lacy curtains conveying a rustic simplicity which, though humble, plays on a prevalent theme in the discourse of supply--escape from the city. (footnote 20) The highest priced model usually displays more "sophisticated" tastes, a nautical motif; a reproduction of a Chagall, perhaps, rather than an anonymous rendition of flowers; or, a wooden replica of a Tang horse, instead of a decoy duck. In one set of models, the food items conventionally displayed in kitchens and breakfast nooks bespoke this hierarchy. On the table in the cheapest model, were muffin mix and jam; in the middle model, pasta and bottles of vinaigrette; and in the most expensive, sushi. As Fussell has noted, foreign, exotic things tend to be associated with the upper classes (1983).

Another indication of the principle of social mobility in the sales literature may be seen in the numerous allusions to re-sale. The same brochures that detail the many advantages of a particular house do not hesitate to acknowledge that, in time, the buyer might move on to something better. As one pamphlet reads:

And when it's time to say good-bye to your Anden home, you'll be confident in knowing that Anden quality is a highly sought-after commodity of lasting desirability.

Next Chapter