An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Journal of Urban History.
This chapter traces the convergence of real estate interests, suburban homebuyers, and government leaders in creating a culture of “shopping for schools,” or the buying and selling of private homes to gain access to more desirable public school attendance zones. This practice emerged and steadily increased during the postwar era in metropolitan Hartford, particularly as the postwar labor market increasingly rewarded higher levels of educational attainment. The concept not only brings together educational credentialism and suburban consumerism, but it also helps to explain increasing stratification between suburbs in recent decades. The spatial redistribution of wealth from cities to suburbs did not occur uniformly; some suburbs grew richer and faster than others in the postwar era.
To illustrate how public education and private housing came together to reshape the metropolitan region, this chapter sketches the trajectories of three suburbs—Avon, Bloomfield, and West Hartford—with respect to the central city. As the population of Hartford declined after 1950, all three suburbs gained residents. But each of these communities followed a different path. West Hartford was the first to develop into a suburb, during the 1920s, and eventually grew into the largest of the three outlying communities, with a middle-to-upper class population that remained virtually all white until the 1980s. Further to the west lay Avon, considered to be a rural white farming community until its meteoric rise as a leading upper-middle-class suburban destination in the 1960s and 1970s. On the city’s northern border, the previously rural town of Bloomfield also experienced a dramatic transformation into a suburb, most notably during the 1950s when its population climbed 137 percent, the fastest growth rate of any Connecticut municipality during that decade. Yet when growing numbers of African Americans moved into Bloomfield and its white middle-class population fled its public schools during the 1970s and 1980s, local observers began to compare this suburb more with the declining city of Hartford than its whiter suburban neighbors. The three suburbs’ levels of wealth also diverged after 1950s. Avon has enjoyed higher levels of taxable property per capita, while the economic bases of both West Hartford and Bloomfield have declined back to the county median in recent decades. Nevertheless, West Hartford’s reputation as a “good” public school system has largely retained a politically supportive middle-class population, while the perception of Bloomfield as a “struggling” school system has challenged the willingness of voters to support local educational services.
What caused these three suburbs to follow such different trajectories, creating increased levels of racial and socioeconomic stratification between them? The convergence of public school politics and private housing markets explains a large part of this story. During the postwar era, suburbs actively competed with one another to offer quality public education that would attract city residents to their individual school districts. Coalitions of local real estate interests and municipal officials devised individual “growth machine” strategies to boost the resources and reputations of their particular communities. Much of this activity focused on the relatively new practice of “shopping for schools” among suburban homebuyers. For example, in West Hartford, where the perception that public schools were mediocre served as a deterrent to suburban growth during the 1920s, real estate agents began to invoke selected public schools as “brand names” in private home advertisements during the 1950s and 1960s. During this same period, Avon sought to catch up and surpass neighboring suburbs by offering unique curricular offerings — such as gifted education and foreign language instruction — to entice upper-class professional families to relocate to their community. These coalitions also had the power to destroy a suburb’s reputation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, real estate agents steered African American homebuyers into Bloomfield, and white homebuyers outward to Avon and West Hartford, by preying on white anxieties about racially mixed schools. From the 1980s to the present, “shopping for schools” has been fueled by the availability of standardized test score data, created through the actions of state and federal policymakers. To be sure, schools are not the only factors involved in suburban stratification, which also includes land-use decisions, transportation policies, and shifting cultural identities. But from the postwar era onward, the dynamic relationship between public schools and private housing plays a key role in the story of metropolitan divergence. Furthermore, in contrast to Southern history, this Northern case study underscores how education and housing became powerfully linked in a setting that remained virtually untouched by school desegregation mandates for most of the twentieth century.
After World War II, West Hartford experienced a second suburban boom, the combination of growth in both the residential and commercial sectors. But town leaders continued to question whether the town had kept pace with the quality of education they expected in their rising suburban community. A 1950 Life magazine survey, titled “How Good is Your School?”, inspired Bice Clemow, publisher of the West Hartford News weekly, to launch a series of investigative articles about the quality of local public education. Although West Hartford now had 13 school buildings, Clemow found numerous examples of low standards in school facilities, curriculum, and teacher salaries. “If we lived in a mill town, where the income level was modest, it would not be startling to find that we could not afford the best in public education,” Clemow concluded. “To document that we have grade B- secondary education available in West Hartford is a shock of another order.”
Status anxiety over suburban schools also appeared in the real estate market. As school enrollments continued to grow during the 1950s, and town officials eventually agreed to fund new school buildings to address overcrowding, a heated controversy arose over redistricting. In 1954, several parents objected to proposed changes in school attendance zones, particularly a plan to move sixth grade students from overcrowded elementary schools to the Talcott Junior High School, located on the town’s south side. At a board of education meeting, one of the parents reportedly said, “that whenever real estate men sell property, they tell their clients that they (purchasers) are in the Sedgwick, Webster Hill, or Bugbee areas.” All three of these elementary schools were located on the western side of town, where new home construction was most prevalent. The proposed redistricting would remove children from the schools that real estate agents had promoted as the most highly desirable ones, and parents strongly objected to losing access to the public neighborhood schools that they had “paid” to attend. Superintendent Thorne blamed real estate agents for creating what the press labeled as “social class consciousness” among West Hartford residents. He asked: “Doesn’t it boil down to some people thinking there is more prestige to going to one school than another?” His principled stand was not persuasive to parents who opposed redistricting, and who probably paid more for a home located near what they perceived as a better elementary school.
Typical advertisement for a private home, featuring its location in a desirable public school attendance area. Reprinted under fair use of copyright law from the Hartford Courant, May 1, 1960.
Suburban real estate agents ignored Superintendent Thorne’s criticism and intensified their marketing tactics during the 1950s and ’60s. They increasingly engaged in “branding” access to selected West Hartford public schools as part of the private real estate transaction. Based on a sample of Sunday newspapers from 1920 to 1990, the number of suburban real estate advertisements increased across the Hartford metropolitan region over time, particularly during the baby boom years. But West Hartford advertisements stood out from the others. During the postwar era, this suburb had the highest proportion of real estate ads that mentioned a specific school by name, peaking at 38 percent in 1965. Real estate agents who placed these advertisements prominently included the name of the public school attendance zone, seeking to increase the value of the private home in the eyes of prospective homebuyers. Simply living in the suburb of West Hartford was not sufficient; one also had to live in the “right” neighborhood, in order to attend the “right” school.
In these postwar suburban advertisements, real estate agents generated a private-public consumerist discourse at an unprecedented scale. During the 1920s housing boom, none of the West Hartford ads in this sample ever mentioned a school. In the city of Hartford during the same decade, only 4 percent of the ads mentioned schools, including both generic references (such as “near school”) and specific schools by name. Therefore, the postwar language of “selling” access to a specific public school as part of the real estate transaction was a fairly new phenomenon in the metropolitan Hartford region, and part of a larger strategy to stimulate suburban growth by associating home ownership, educational investment, and upward mobility.
- Jack Dougherty, “Shopping for Schools: How Public Education and Private Housing Shaped Suburban Connecticut,” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 2 (March 2012): 205–24, http://juh.sagepub.com/content/38/2. ↵
- Population of Connecticut Towns, 1900-1960 and 1970-2000 [compiled from U.S. census data], Department of Economic and Community Development, State of Connecticut, http://www.ct.gov/ecd/cwp/view.asp?a=1106&q=250666. ↵
- For 1980 to 2000, taxable property values are drawn from official Equalized Net Grand List data published by the Office of Policy and Management, Fiscal Indicators for Connecticut Municipalities. For 1950 to 1970, estimated figures were calculated using official Net Grand List data published by the Office of the Tax Commissioner, Information Relatively to the Assessment and Collection of Taxes. Earlier net grand lists were equalized (based on each town assessor's stated ratio-to-fair market value), then averaged over a five-year period to correct for reassessments conducted in different years. ↵
- On "growth machine" theory and the development of suburban communities, see sociologists John R. Logan, and Harvey L. Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). ↵
- "How Good is Your School?" Life 16 October 1950, pp. 54-55; Bice Clemow, "A Layman Looks at Schools in West Hartford," reprinted from West Hartford News, 25 January to 15 February, 1951. ↵
- "Three Junior Highs Make Modest Showing" [editorial], 9 November 1950, West Hartford News, p. 4. ↵
- "New School Lines Offered by Thorne," Hartford Times, April 8, 1954. ↵
- This historical analysis of private home and public school advertising draws on methods used in a one-year study by Diana Pearce, "Breaking Down Barriers: New Evidence on the Impact of Metropolitan School Desegregation on Housing Patterns" (Unpublished report, Center for National Policy Review, Law School, Catholic University, Washington, D.C, 1980). We identified all advertisements for homes published in the Hartford Courant newspaper on its first Sunday edition in May, on a five-year interval from 1920 to 1990. Ads mentioned either a generic school (e.g., "near school"), a specific school (e.g., "Bugbee School District"), or no school. ↵