The Way It Was – Detroit Houses in the 1950s

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Photograph courtesy of Steve Wilke

1950 When folk singer Malvina Reynolds wrote “Little Boxes” in 1962 (a tune popularized by Pete Seeger), she was satirizing California’s tract housing “all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.” But she just as easily could have been writing about much of the post-World War II housing in Detroit and its suburbs. Although it’s true that many cookie-cutter homes were constructed in the suburbs following the war, there were undeveloped areas in Detroit proper, especially on the far east and west sides, where modest homes sprang up like tulips in May. That was the case in this photo of Neff Street, just off Chandler Park Drive, on the city’s east side. Detroit’s population peaked in 1950 at 1,849,568, and housing was scarce. The GI Bill’s home loan guaranty also made it easier for veterans to buy homes. Many people accustomed to renting were able to own a dwelling for the first time, even if some domiciles resembled glorified dollhouses. These Neff homes averaged between 700-800 square feet and were virtual carbon copies of one another. “If you visited with a neighbor, you could walk into their house blindfolded and easily find the kitchen or bathroom,” a former Neff homeowner recalls. Though the properties weren’t very wide, they did have one benefit, he says. “The lots were narrow but deep, so the backyards could actually have gardens.”

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