BRAINIAC Q&A (7)
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Browbeating

From late September 2002 through early 2006, HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn wrote THE EXAMINED LIFE, a weekly three-item column for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section; and from late 2006 though mid-2008, he wrote BRAINIAC, an Ideas section blog that was repurposed as a three-item weekly column in the paper. This series reprints a few Q&As from Glenn’s two Ideas columns. [Brainiac image via 4CP]

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July 24, 2005
REALTOR NATION

Today’s low interest rates and hot real estate market have more people than ever scrambling to own a piece of the American Dream. But according to Jeffrey M. Hornstein, a Philadelphia-based union organizer and independent historian, home ownership wasn’t always the ultimate symbol of being middle-class. In his new book, A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class (Duke), Hornstein explores the leading role that brokers played in selling us on the larger vision behind the single-family home on the quarter-acre lot in a low-density suburban development. I reached Hornstein via telephone at his office in Philadelphia.

IDEAS: You got interested in housing and identity while a junior at MIT, in 1987, through an internship with the Boston Coalition for the Homeless.

HORNSTEIN: It occurred to me then, as I observed how homelessness was framed in the news, that the homeless aren’t considered truly American. These people don’t belong, we’re given to understand, because — unlike most Americans, who, no matter what we do for a living, believe that we’re middle-class, which has come to be synonymous with “current or future homeowner” — they neither own nor are saving up for a home. But before the early 20th century, being middle-class meant being an educated and credentialed member of a closed profession, like a lawyer or doctor. And the American Dream, before the early 20th century, had less to do with owner-occupied homes than with political freedom.

IDEAS: What was the role of real estate brokers in this shift?

HORNSTEIN: At the end of World War I, although proponents of so-called modern housing called for high-density, publicly funded land development, realtors — along with mortgage bankers and others — wanted Americans to buy homes. The National Real Estate Board’s government-backed “Own Your Own Home” campaign used wartime propaganda techniques to hammer away at the message that only the owner-occupied, single-family home is a true home. In the early ’20s, the realtors found a great ally in a young secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, who supported the launch of the Better Homes in America movement. The single-family home later became the centerpiece of New Deal housing policy, and by mid-century the suburban homeowner had become the true American.

IDEAS: As recently as 1910, real estate salesmen and developers were seen as disreputable “curbstone brokers” and “land sharks.” What does their professionalization tell us about the American middle class?

HORNSTEIN: In 1908, prominent American real estate brokers formed what is now the National Association of Realtors — the term “realtor” was coined to designate a broker who is a member. They started requiring aspiring realtors to get some training and demonstrate expertise. In doing so they helped redefine professionalism, which had previously been a difficult-to-achieve marker of middle-class status. Today just about anybody — travel agents like my mom, secretaries, even journalists — can own a mortgaged home and call themselves a professional, which largely explains why we all think of ourselves as middle-class. Its imprecision is precisely what gives the concept “middle class” its power.

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

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Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based semiotic culture and brand analyst. He is editor/publisher of HILOBROW and the Radium Age science fiction imprint HILOBOOKS. In addition, Josh is co-author of several books, including (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) the family activities guides UNBORED, UNBORED GAMES, and the forthcoming UNBORED ADVENTURE. In the ’00s, Josh was an editor and columnist for the BOSTON GLOBE's IDEAS section; in the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT.