"CREEPING CONFORMITY" By Bob Brocklebank (Book Review)


Bob Brocklebank

Living in suburbia is the North American norm but the nature of suburbs has changed over time. The author of this readable 200-page paperback, Richard Harris, Geography Professor at McMaster University, maintains that suburbs have become less diverse over the sixty years mentioned in the title.

At one time suburbs were not built by giant construction firms. The rich have always had their homes built to suit their personal taste but in the past the poor did the same, building their homes with their own labour. In the early years of the twentieth century, many families lived in small shacks which grew over time into permanent homes often of an eclectic design. Only the relatively prosperous middle-class tended to live in homes built by construction companies on a "speculative" basis.

The financing of suburban development has also changed. The chartered banks only entered the mortgage market in the fifties. While the insurance companies had provided some financing for housing, most mortgages a century ago were held by individuals.

Professor Harris surprises the reader (or at least he surprised me) in his finding that home ownership has not always been seen as a middle-class objective. In fact the poor seemed to seek the security of ownership at a time when the professionals were content to rent their housing.

Another surprise is Harris’ discussion of jitneys - a kind of casual public transit combining features of the taxi and of the bus. This element of transport was apparently deliberately suppressed in the 1920's with important implications for the rise of our automobile dependency in today’s suburban-oriented cities.

This is an interesting look at an aspect of Canadian history which surrounds us every minute. Published by University of Toronto Press in 2004, it is available through the Ottawa Public Library.

- Bob Brocklebank

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