1957

Posted by Ellen

In the winter of 1957, my little sister Carol and I posed for a picture on the hood of my grandfather's Chevy, in the driveway next to our house in Silver Spring, Maryland. The house in the background across the street was identical to ours and to all the others in the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods like ours were called GI tracts back then, new subdivisions built for the baby-booming families of World War II veterans, who bought the houses with no down payment and bargain-rate VA mortgages. Every house was soon overflowing with kids; seven children grew up in that house across the street, and the houses on either side of ours both held six children. We never ran out of kids to play with.

A brand new school was built for us; it opened the year before I started kindergarten and was overcrowded from day one. But it was only a few short years, maybe fifteen or twenty, before the demographic bulge had moved on and MacDonald Knolls Elementary School actually closed down for lack of kids. The school building is now privately owned, used for office space with a small daycare center in one former classroom.

The neighborhood in general has morphed from GI tract to what I guess would be designated an ethnic community; most of the families living there now are Vietnamese, as are the businesses in nearby shopping centers.

I took the picture below of our old house about five years ago. It's a leafy, tree-shaded kind of place now, which was definitely not the case back in the day, though neighbors had put out small trees, supported by guy wires that we used to trip over. The house itself looks well-kept and largely unchanged, except for new windows and siding and a fancy new storm door.

Perhaps the most significant change is in the driveway: there are two cars there now, which is perfectly normal in 21st-century America, but back in the 1950s each family had only a single car. On Monday mornings, after the fathers drove off to work, the neighborhood was pretty much empty of cars and we kids had the streets to ourselves.

The second car is necessary because middle-class life now requires a second wage-earner. I read recently that since the Great Recession more and more households are needing a third wage-earner to make ends meet; new household formation in this country is almost at a standstill.