Bailey Park or Potter’s slums, hmmm….tough decision

Patrick Deehnan wrote an article on the TAC blog talking about a Washington Post column written by Ross Douthat on the pros and cons of Bailey Park, the fictional suburbia of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Given the movie’s prominence in our culture, especially around Christmas time, and the current housing crisis, don’t be suprised to see more articles which take a more nuanced and critical role of Bailey Park and I too have written such an article as well.

Let me offer a qualified defense of Bailey Park. Back then, no one had come up with the term “suburbia” or had any idea of what it would mean culturally and envionmentally. The slums of Pottersfield probably (and this is just a guess) were worker’s housing built by an industrialist like Henry Potter (because that’s how he would have gotten so rich back then, building things not packaging mortgage derivatives). Other industrialists did the same. Kohler, Wisconsin is a company town as is West Allis, Wisconsin (Home of the old Allis-Chalmers tractor factory), A.O. Smith in Milwaukee built a neighborhoods next to its massive plant, as did the Pullman Car Company in Chicago. Up on the Iron Range in Minnesota the mining companies helped building housing for their workers too.

Potter let the rental homes get run down because there was no alternative to them for those of the working class and he could charge whatever he wanted. There was no incentive for him to fix them up. Then the Bailey Building and Loan comes along and offers to build, not run down shacks, but actual decent homes for the working man and the citizens of Bedford Falls flock to them as any human being would. Who the hell cares what impact the car culture might have in the future, I’ve got running water! It wasn’t a tough choice.

And as Potter’s little rent collector said to the man himself when he asked why the Bailey’s never made all that much from their busines: “You know perfectly well why, the Baileys were all chumps.” Yup, that’s how Bailey Park worked. Out of almost charity did the Bailey built homes worth twice what they cost to build. They did so from the decency of their own hearts without so much as dime of taxpayer money. Nowhere in the film does George lament the fact or wonder why he’s not getting a chunk of money from Washington even during the height of the New Deal.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the housing industry was suddenly gushing with federal money and the reason why was the war itself. Millions of veterans were returning home from Europe and the Pacific and people felt it was a shame they would have to live with their parents. So the money poured in to finance the Levittowns in New York and Pennsylvania and the suburban boom in the Orange County, California orange groves and new mass production construction techniques developed during war itself to build airstrips, made all of this possible. George Bailey simply would have been on the receiving end, whether he wanted to be or not.

Bailey Park was not intended to be all-transforming piece of social engineering, just a place where working families, many of them recent immigrants from Europe, could get a piece of the”American Dream”. But along comes the Federal Government who decides the country should be filled with Bailey Parks, some as large as nation states, and they should pay for the cost of building them, pay for the cost of providing them roads and other infrastructure and pay for more roads and superhighways in order to make sure market good could get out to the former potato fields while the old trolley lines and neighborhoods back in the city were starved for funds.

In short, it is not a well intentioned idealist like George Bailey who should shoulder the blame of the unintended consequences, but the Federal Goverment, who took one man’s idealism and built an edfice complex to it and used a war to give it reason and means to do so.

As with most things in America, we always overdo it.

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One thought on “Bailey Park or Potter’s slums, hmmm….tough decision

  1. roho

    Every region of the country has their own story during this time period. And the stories are most likely as different as day and night?

    War factories were the key. Farm boys were leaving the farm to either work in the factories or go to war?………And the reconstruction of the “Old South” was changing to adapt. Even in the early seventies, the supply house in the Steel Mill that I worked in was still refered to as the “Old Bomb Shop” with stories about how it was when they made bombs in that department.

    These guys ready to start retiring in the early seventies had fascinating stories about how “Rosie The Riveter” was assimilated into factory life with men for the first time in American history. ;)

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