In my tenth year, in 1970, my family—my mom, my dad, my seven-year-old brother, and I—moved into the American suburbs. More precisely, we moved to the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, a community of thirty thousand people which sat a dozen miles outside Boston. Our home, which cost $30,000, was like a child’s drawing of a suburban home: a square block with a door and a window on the ground floor and two windows on the story above, one looking out from my bedroom and the other from Tom’s. A single big maple spread its branches over the front lawn and the driveway, dropping leaves on the maroon Plymouth that carried my father on his daily commute. We were as statistically average as it was possible to be, a near-perfect example of the white American middle class then in the process of rocketing to a prosperity—a widespread, shared, suburban standard of living—that the world had never before seen. We lived, and this is the truth, halfway down a leafy road called Middle Street.
So what the hell happened? How did we go from an America where that kind of modest paradise seemed destined to spread to more and more of the country to the doubtful nation we inhabit fifty years later: a society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before a pandemic that deepened our divisions, on a heating planet whose physical future is dangerously in question?
Since the suburb has dominated our landscape over those decades, some of the answers must lie there—and in the generations that grew up there, those of us baby boomers who still weigh so heavily on the political and financial life in the United States. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, his fears as a young Black man were somehow “connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.” That was my pot roast, and I’m convinced he’s right—that you can see some of the roots of what went wrong back in those shady streets of my boyhood. And not only with race, but also with democracy, and with the planet. I’m convinced, in fact, that Lexington, because it was both very typical and slightly set apart by its place in American history, provides an unusually sharp lens through which to view those times, and our time. I’m curious about what went so suddenly sour with American patriotism, American faith, and American prosperity—the flag, the cross, and the station wagon. I’m curious if any of that trinity can, or should, be reclaimed in the fight for a fairer future.
I’ve never thought my own history was much worth recounting, because it was mostly free of the angst and suffering that have anchored memoirs in recent years. That’s why for much of my life I’ve concentrated on telling the stories of others as best I can. But perhaps that very averageness is the thing that makes my own history a little useful, at least if we’re trying to understand what went wrong. This is as much memoir as I’m likely to write, but it’s as much the story of a place as of a person.
So let me tell you about two important events that happened in 1971, the year after we arrived in Lexington. I was aware of one of them at the time; the other I learned about only recently. In deference to Dr. Seuss, a literary staple of that era when books were already fighting a rearguard battle against TV, I will call those events Thing One and Thing Two, and they will be touchstones throughout this book. But to understand them, you need to understand the particular town they were set in. And if you didn’t live through that time, perhaps this short recounting of one town’s history will give you a feel for the truly remarkable rise of suburbia.
* * *
LEXINGTON WAS WHERE the American Revolution began in 1775, and we will return to that history throughout this book. But by, say, 1900, its past was past, and its present was largely … dairy. The community produced more milk on its small farms than any town in Massachusetts save one. The milk rode the train into Boston each morning—but so, slowly, did more and more residents; as the twentieth century began, Lexington was in the process of turning from a farm town into a bedroom community for the expanding metropolis. From thirty-eight hundred people in 1900, it grew to thirteen thousand by the start of World War II—and then, in the war’s aftermath, it took off, more than doubling in size by 1960. Which was exactly what was happening everywhere else—between 1950 and 1970, America’s suburban population nearly doubled to seventy-four million, with 83 percent of all the country’s growth coming in such places.
One of the few modern histories of Lexington was sponsored, appropriately, by the town’s bank, and the introduction to that volume concludes: “As 1946 dawned, the town of Lexington was faced with the challenge of employing and housing returning veterans and educating their children. The great American postwar expansion was about to begin, and with it came the ‘baby boom.’ Lexington Savings Bank was ready to support this growth with savings accounts and mortgage loans.” Savings accounts and mortgage loans will be central preoccupations of this book, but at the time they must have seemed mundane and obvious features of a rapidly multiplying prosperity. By 1949, the local newspaper was reporting on proposed bids for a big new high school; a new four-story wing was under construction at the local hospital where four hundred babies had been born in the previous twelve months; and the town’s Board of Selectmen were discussing “the phenomenal expansion” of Lexington in the postwar years, with 947 new permits granted for single-family dwellings. That expansion was just beginning. By 1952 (when Clarabell, the clown from television’s Howdy Doody Show, made a much-awaited appearance at a local shoe store, and construction began on a “new, ultra-modern” A&P grocery store with “a self-service meat department and automatic doors”), school enrollment had begun to set new records that would continue to be broken each fall for decades.
If there were a few dark shadows—the civil defense agency wanted to blood type all residents “in case of atomic attack,” and the town’s first air-raid test fizzled when “the fire whistle malfunctioned and sounded for a full ten minutes instead of a series of short bursts”—most of the news from the ’50s and early ’60s was about progress and growth. Color television had “its first public showing” in 1954 when the local appliance store unveiled the latest Motorola; the Salk vaccine eradicated polio (and without resistance from local residents); a sonic boom, “the first purposeful breaking of the sound barrier in the Greater Boston area,” enlivened patriotic observations in 1956. Yes, the town’s oldest tree was cut down in 1960, a victim of Dutch elm disease, and yes, odor complaints finally led to the revocation of the license for the town’s last remaining piggery, but against that, “the Beatles, an English musical group causing international news,” landed at the local airport en route to a Boston concert. And the local garden center reported selling a ton of birdseed every week, even as mosquito control authorities announced their success spraying a miracle agent, DDT, from helicopters over the town’s wetlands to control that ancient pest.
As the 1960s wore on, however, even the most bucolic suburbs couldn’t escape the tensions starting to roil America. Hanscom Field, the U.S. Air Force base that straddled the town line and where the Beatles touched down, grew noisier as the war in Southeast Asia expanded; the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Division was established there to consolidate its electronic systems under one command (the computerized network for detecting incoming ICBM warheads was eventually called the Lexington Discrimination System). More and more local boys were drafted—one wrote in 1965 to say he “would pay $1,000 to be able to lie down at the Lexington Common with a tall glass of iced tea.” That same year NBC arrived to film an hour-long special, The World of the Teenager. Town pride at being selected for the documentary “turned to anger” when the show aired, local historian Richard Kollen reports—footage of local youth learning to waltz in jacket and tie or long dresses was intercut with scenes from “rock and roll dance parties” and “coffee houses,” reflecting what the narrator called “a teenage restlessness, stirring, and doubt. Throughout America there is a widespread dissatisfaction among young people with what has been handed down to them, with adult values and with established tradition.” Kids complained to the camera that the town was dull, with nothing for them to do; the police chief insisted that the trouble was “over-permissiveness in the home.” One adult explains: “I think this is the period of the individual. They now are taking a notice-me attitude.” A town official asks, “How can we get and keep them back into the mainstream of our orderly social and civic life?” Not easily, as it turned out—over the next few years the newspaper is filled with accounts of the police busting up “pot parties,” with “blaring rock’n’roll, marijuana cigarettes, and plenty of whiskey and beer.” (One week the crime blotter reported two local youths who had “cooked marijuana in the oven at one of their homes.”) By 1968, “a long-haired Lexington High School male student was sent home and told not to come back without his locks properly shorn. After he complied and returned to school, students circulated protest petitions noting the hair length of Mozart and Paul Revere.”
The town struggled gamely to keep up with a changing world: by 1970, the year I arrived, the first dead soldier had come back from Vietnam in a coffin, and Ralph Nader appeared in town to give the library’s annual lecture, blasting both air pollution and hot dogs, which he called “innovations to relieve food companies of all their crud.” A ban on that suddenly-not-so-miraculous DDT went into effect on January 1 of the new decade, and barrels were placed outside the Department of Public Works barn to collect the pesticide. The selectmen—one of whom was now a woman—declared January 15 Martin Luther King Day.
So consider all that as the backdrop to the two events I want to describe. This is a town that has grown quickly in population and prosperity, a town that prizes education and modernity, a town struggling to come to terms with rapid change, in a country where new kinds of people are making new kinds of demands that thrill some and worry, even anger, others. It’s a place that’s going to have to make some choices.
* * *
THING ONE HAPPENED in Lexington over Memorial Day weekend of 1971, and it’s one of the first “public” memories stored in my brain. Most of the things I can recall over the previous nine years of my life are private, events that involved me and my family, not history. This involved both—indeed, it involved my father and the largest mass arrest in state history.
The war in Vietnam had increasingly divided Lexington—thousands had turned out as early as 1966 to rally on the Common for a moratorium in the fighting. “Peace at any cost is not the American dream,” the newspaper had editorialized in response, and indeed a year later two high school students organized a demonstration in support of the troops that drew three thousand to the same spot. But all this was prelude: in May of 1971, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, led by a young and lanky John Kerry, announced plans to follow Paul Revere’s route in reverse. The group obtained the okay to camp on Friday night near the bridge in Concord, and then they asked Lexington’s selectmen for permission to bivouac on the Battle Green the next night. “Lexington could be a South Vietnamese or Laotian village,” they said; like the minutemen of 1775, South Vietnamese guerillas were “simply fighting for the privilege to determine their own destiny,” and to “exist apart from foreign domination.”
But Lexington Green had a ten p.m. curfew, and the Board of Selectmen refused to lift it. The veterans would be allowed to march single file through the town, and they could hand out leaflets as long as they did not litter the sidewalks, but the chair of the board, a lifelong resident and nursing-home administrator named Robert Cataldo, said, “The Board agreed that no good purpose could be served by the demonstration or the encampment.” From their Friday encampment in Concord the veterans voted to defy the order, and to bivouac on the Green the next night.
My parents were not firebrands—my mother was not part of the 29.1 percent of Lexington women who were now working outside the home, and my father was a business journalist. But they were good liberals, and firm believers in civics education, and so we went down to the Green as a family late that Saturday afternoon. The veterans had not yet arrived, and the streets were largely clear—but I can remember the menacing sound and sight of a contingent of men on motorcycles circling the Green, Hells Angels patches easy to read on their backs. Word came that a meeting would soon be underway at Town Hall, and so we walked the four blocks through the center of town. Past Cary Library, where I was already a regular in the downstairs children’s room; past Brigham’s, the town’s ice cream parlor. Past Michelson Shoes, and the Pewter Pot coffee shop, with thirty different muffins on the menu. Past the barber shop, where there were known to be copies of Playboy in the stack of Sports Illustrateds and Field and Streams, past the Bargain Barn where you went for back-to-school shopping; past the Chinese restaurant and the Italian restaurant because that was ethnic food in 1970; past the commuter train station and the Lexington Savings Bank, where I already had a passbook; past the movie theater where Love Story was dominating the box office that spring—all the while joining a growing stream of people headed the same direction.
Town Hall, where we were bound, needs to be a big building, because like many New England villages, Lexington governs itself via “Town Meeting.” It’s not the pure kind you find in little Vermont hamlets, where everyone shows up one Tuesday in March to argue and vote; at thirty thousand residents, Lexington had outgrown that kind of direct democracy. But its citizens still elected a veritable parliament—203 legislators from nine precincts—and this white building was where they sat each spring. That Saturday night, however, anyone could come in, and so we did—the selectmen were holding an informational meeting to explain why they’d blocked the veterans from camping on the Green. Perhaps because I’d never seen anything remotely like it before, the air seemed to crackle—adults were emotional, out of control in ways entirely unfamiliar to me. I remember Selectman Cataldo saying something, and before he could finish, a woman rising out of her chair to scream—scream—“You speak with forked tongue!” Again: this was happening a long time ago, in a different galaxy. The ad in the paper that week for the local dry cleaner had a drawing of a well-dressed man under the legend: “My Position Demands a Neat Appearance. It’s a Clever Wife Who Sees to It That All My Suits, Slacks, Jackets, and Coats Are Taken Regularly to the Professional Cleansers at Craft.”
We walked the four blocks back to the Green, and by now it was dark, with the flash of red and blue lights from the tops of police cars providing the only illumination. Knots of men, many of them in faded army fatigues and almost all with beards or drooping moustaches, bunched among the trees—the orange flicker of burning cigarette ends marked the small huddles, and a sweet smell, again entirely unfamiliar, hung in the air. Local residents stood in their own knots—it was dark, but my parents greeted neighbors, parents of my fifth-grade classmates, friends from church. I did not want to leave—this was the most exciting and dangerous place I’d ever been—but I was ten, and my brother was eight, and pretty soon we were in the Plymouth, my mother at the wheel, heading home to Middle Street.
Without my father, who stayed behind on the Green. The selectmen held a last-ditch meeting with the town’s clergy, almost all of whom backed the protesters, but the officials wouldn’t budge, and so at three a.m. the police peacefully rounded up 458 protesters, most of them the marching veterans but including about 170 townspeople, including Gordon McKibben. They took them by bus to the town’s Department of Public Works shed, where they waited amid the snowplows and garbage trucks to be processed for disorderly conduct. It remains the largest single act of civil disobedience in Bay State history, stretching back to the colonial era and up through Black Lives Matter.
My parents played it down—they weren’t particularly dramatic souls, and I imagine they didn’t want to alarm me and my brother. In my recollection, my father was home for breakfast by the time I woke up that Sunday morning, and I have no doubt we were soon off to church. In retrospect, I’m even more impressed now by his courage than I was then—he worked for Business Week magazine, after all, in an era when reporters were not encouraged to have political opinions, much less follow them to jail.
But that old order was shifting, or so it seemed. “Up until that point, Lexington had the reputation for being somewhat of a conservative community,” Joseph O’Leary—at the time of the arrests a nineteen-year-old police cadet, and later a lieutenant on the force—told an oral history project years later. “After that the political environment changed, and Lexington got the reputation of being much more liberal,” he said. “I think the complexion of the entire town and the people in town changed.” So it seemed. Despite a stern editorial in the paper (“where on Saturday night many of the townspeople lost their dignity to the side of protest, the Selectmen gained in stature. They had the courage to uphold the law”), its letters column bulged with anger directed at town officials: fifty-five letters the week after the arrest, forty-five letters the week after that, an outpouring entirely without precedent. “I want to express my sense of outrage at the incompetent, blundering, insensitive handling by the Selectmen.” “Was Paul Revere charged with disturbing the peace?” Digging through the blizzard of letters, I was pleased to see one from my address: “Lexington has always traded heavily on its symbolism as the birthplace of American liberty,” my parents wrote. “Officials may as well get used to the idea that all Americans, not just a few taxpayers living here, take the slogan seriously.”
Here’s how the newspaper editor, Anne Scigliano, recollected it when she was interviewed for the oral history project twenty years later: “I feel that it divided the town. People became labeled as conservatives or liberals based on their actions or their sides in this particular event.”
And here’s the chair of the selectmen, Robert Cataldo, who had been born in Lexington in 1924 and grew up on one of those farms that were now subdivisions, describing that Saturday night meeting that stuck so firmly in my mind: “The thing got completely out of hand. I never saw so many people congregate in the town of Lexington so fast. We could spend a hundred million dollars at Town Meeting and there wouldn’t have been half the people that showed up.… You know, not all of the people, but a great number of people that really don’t know me. They just formed their opinion based on that one decision, and they’re still holding it.”
Reading through those oral histories, I came across a particularly thoughtful one from a woman named Bonnie Jones, who lived four houses down Middle Street from me. I’d later babysit for her children, and take care of their family iguana when they went away on vacation. “We went through that whole time of our lives in the fifties which was so unbelievably deadly boring, so there was a big appeal to have all this stuff happening. These younger people were doing all these wild things, and it was pretty seductive stuff for us. The mature part of me—and I think I had some maturity at the time—was there out of conviction and strong opposition to the war. Another part of me—that missed my adolescence—enjoyed the hell out of being there because it was exciting, and the energy was a very seductive thing.”
Ten-year-old me certainly felt that way: everything seemed to be changing, and fast. I became an antiwar activist, hampered only slightly by the fact that I knew nothing about the war. (I could never remember who were our allies, the South Vietnamese or the North; then again, it was this same year that I was shocked to find out there were not two huge cities on the West Coast, one called Los Angeles and the other Ellay.) But it seemed to me that getting arrested clearly worked: by the time I was starting junior high we were pulling out of Saigon.
And so the future was clear: peace was coming. We were on the edge there in Lexington. Nothing would be the same; the old order, with its dry cleaning, was passing, and the future spread forth in all its glory. If you wanted to keep up with the Joneses, four doors down, you needed an iguana. What could stop us?
* * *
THING TWO PLAYED out over the same spring, but I knew nothing about it till I started reading archived issues of the newspaper and those detailed oral histories, to refresh my memory of that Battle Green protest. This second thing was, on its face, less dramatic, but I came to have a strong—and sinking—feeling it might have been more consequential.
In the oral histories of that night of protest, Bonnie Jones from down our street talks about moving to Lexington back in 1963,
because it was a sort of countryish town, and offered a lot of the amenities we were looking for—a good school system, some space, and so forth, and looked like a nice town to live in. We met people fairly quickly after we moved in. I joined the Civil Rights Committee, the Fair Housing Committee.… I remember the first meeting I went to—I signed up to track cheap houses in town that could be available for black families that might want to move to the suburbs. I went through the listing and found all the houses for less than $20,000 and listed them. Then we would talk to people who were interested in having help finding housing.
A few pages later in those archives, the interviewers sit down with Nancy Earsy, who had been president of the League of Women Voters at the time of the protests. The League was something I knew about—my mom had edited its newsletter for a few years, and I can recall stapling and addressing six hundred copies on the dining room table each time it came out. In any event, Earsy describes the peace-sign earrings she wore to the Battle Green that night, and the smell of lilacs in the air, and the grease on the floor of the DPW barn where the arrestees were taken. Almost as an afterthought, she was asked if there were other “divisive” issues in town. “Low- and moderate-income housing,” she said. “The big argument at the time was that a lot of people were not in favor; they felt there shouldn’t be apartment houses in Lexington; it should be single-family houses.” Hmm again.
Since a suburb is basically a collection of houses, it stands to reason that who would get to live in those houses and what kind of houses they would be would be fundamental suburban issues—maybe the most fundamental issues, even more so than the distant war. And so it was in Lexington, as a closer reading began to make clear.
Lexington was, it probably goes without saying, overwhelmingly white. “Restrictive covenants” had limited housing access in such communities for centuries—historians point out that as early as the 1790s a minister in nearby Salem, Massachusetts, had complained that the presence of a “negro hut” was damaging the neighborhood. Such deed restrictions were common in the suburbs by the 1920s; after the war, federal housing loans under the GI bill and “redlining” by banks to restrict loans kept many areas off-limits. By the early 1960s, with the civil rights movement spreading, some people were starting to feel bad about such practices—in 1962, fourteen hundred Lexingtonians signed a “good neighbor” pledge stating, “I will accept families and individuals into my neighborhood without discrimination because of religion, color, or national origin.” As the newspaper boasted, “Lexington, the birthplace of American liberty, is still its ardent champion.” Noting that a wide range of townspeople had signed on—“from banker to brickmason, fireman to fundraiser, meat smoker to meteorologist, physician to postman, sculptor to steamfitter, and treasurer to truck driver,”—it concluded, “Lexington citizens, like their forebears, still believe in ‘liberty and justice for all,’ and are ready to support the practice, as well as the principles, of fair housing.”
But of course the right to a house is not quite the same thing as a house, and as the decade wore on and the price of homes in Lexington rose, it became pretty clear that the town wasn’t, in fact, becoming more diverse. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, some of the town’s leading lights formed the marvelously named Suburban Responsibility Commission and began figuring out ways to change. Working with the local Council of Churches, the commission shaped plans fairly quickly. The fundamental reality was that “single-family homes” of the type that filled Lexington, each with its own driveway and yard, were essentially incompatible with “low- and moderate-income housing”; if you wanted cheaper homes, you needed to group them together, in clusters small and large. By 1969 there were plans for a first batch of 115 “garden apartments” to be sold to people of moderate income at a site off one of the town’s main roads, adjacent to the railroad tracks and to a cemetery. The town Planning Board, at an informational hearing, pointed out that Lexington comprised about 1.1 percent of the metro Boston area, and hence “our minimum proportional share of new low and moderate-income dwellings” should be about 330 units: this one development would take care of about 35 percent of the town’s “suburban responsibility.”
The town fathers were lined up firmly behind the plans, even if there were a few ominous signs. (At an early Planning Board meeting, a few neighbors of the proposed complex stood to register their complaints. One said he’d be fine with the plan “if it wasn’t right on top of me”; another said, “Everyone does not have to live in Lexington—Lexington is not Mecca.” He was suspicious of the whole plan, he added, because “this is the way slums start.”) Still, momentum seemed strong. First the Planning Board approved the proposal, and then, in early April of 1971, Town Meeting—that local parliament that meets for a few Monday nights each spring—gave its blessing, 127–56, passing the necessary two-thirds bar.
And then something happened that didn’t happen very often in Lexington. Unsatisfied with the deliberation of Town Meeting, neighbors of the proposed project signed petitions in sufficient numbers to force a town-wide referendum on the project—a ballot to be held within a few weeks. “This step has not been used often,” the editor of the newspaper opined, “but it is available in cases where there may be a sharp difference between the town meeting members and the public at large. It is a part of our governing process, and is a final assurance of the complete democratic procedure.” That democratic process was reflected in the letters pages of the newspaper over the next two weeks. “Although this approach to housing is admittedly somewhat new for Lexington, it is a 1971 solution to a 1971 problem,” one resident wrote, and “a significant step forward in human relations.” The parish council at Saint Brigid’s, the local Catholic church, weighed in in favor; so did Roland Greeley, a local icon who had served on the Planning Board beginning in the 1930s. There were a few complaints from people who said it would place too much pressure on schools, but they were far outweighed by residents insisting that the time had come for Lexington to change. Mr. Myron Miller of 46 Eldred Street, for instance:
If the referendum overturns the seriously considered vote of your Town Meeting members, it will really be because of certain unfounded fears of “those welfare people” and “hoodlums from the city.” First of all, the only element you might get from the city is that from which most of us come—the element that wants to improve its life by coming to the suburbs. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we in Lexington hold no great monopoly on uprightness than anybody else. We have bullies, drug users (and pushers, too, most likely), marital squabbles, and families doing a bad job of bringing up kids. Why don’t we show that we’re real Americans and take this tiny step to show that our hearts are in the right place and we have a desire to see all improve their lives?
Lexington’s vote, then, was historic. It was also a landslide. “In spite of the day-long drizzle, 52 percent of Lexington’s 15,317 registered voters went to the polls and voted nearly two to one against approving the action of their representative Town Meeting to rezone land for the proposed Centre Village. A total of 7,981 votes were cast: 2,718 were in favor of the rezoning, and 5,175 were opposed.” That is to say: in public the members of Town Meeting had come out in favor of a small low-income housing complex. In public, the letters column of the local paper had broken sharply in its favor. But in the privacy of the voting booth, the townspeople had rejected it decisively. As the newspaper pointed out, turnout for the special referendum was higher than any similar vote in the past; barely a third of residents had turned out to vote in the last town election. More than a rejection of a particular project, the paper explained, the vote needed to be read as “a strong voice against subsidized housing for Lexington.” If there was actually some reason to plan for “needy families” in the future, an editorial opined, “let it be done slowly and cautiously.”
* * *
LIFE RETURNED TO suburban normal after these two massive fights—within weeks the selectmen were at work on a new sewer plan, the League of Women Voters had collected 1,037 pounds of tin cans for a new project called “recycling,” and the largest class in the history of Lexington High School graduated after listening to senior class vice president Sylvia Notini of 2 Blueberry Lane ask, “Why it is that so much anger, hatred, and grief can be caused by the color of a person’s skin, why a thing called war must exist, and why one man throws out a piece of half-eaten steak while another rolls on the ground slowly dying of starvation?”
Good questions, those. Mine now are not so different. What was the actual place where I grew up? Was it the place where 170 townspeople joined those restive veterans to be arrested on the Green? Or was it the place where 5,175 people turned out to make sure that no homes for poor people would be built in their town?
Copyright © 2022 by Bill McKibben