Three landscapes: Building America after World War II

Plan Author

  • David Amato, 2014

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: A History of Now
  • Course: Modernity & Postmodernity in Cultural History
  • Course: Moral Philosophy
  • Tutorial: Urban History

Plan Description

Cementing Inequality: Built environments of postwar metropolitan America.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Francis Couvares, Amherst College


The following papers focus on three landscapes that experienced massive changes following World War II: the metropolitan regions of several American cities; Windham County, Vermont; and the city of Havana, Cuba. The relationship between these places is not obvious at first glance, but the lens through which they are analyzed in the pages that come—post-World War II politics and culture—illuminates the common themes that unite them. In the postwar period, projects of modernization, development, and the expansion of the middle class affected all of these places in similar ways. In these papers, I analyze the political, social, and economic forces which transformed American and American-influenced landscapes in the years that followed World War II. In addition, I analyze the changing geographical and architectural features of places themselves, to show the ways in which social, political, and economic shifts were rendered in physical space.

Perhaps the most fundamental unifying framework for these spaces was the emergence of an economic and political ideology of consensus following World War II. Consensus refers to the widely shared belief among politicians, economists, thinkers, and media outlets that after World War II the United States should be a nation built on a strong defense, accompanied by robust free market principles. During this period, the relationship between corporate interests and government intensified, strengthening, in historian George Lipsitz’s words, “the crucial role of the state in promoting, protecting, and preserving the technologies, social relations and economic interests of corporate capital and finance.” This mindset informed all of the topics under discussion in my papers, from the economically motivated Housing Act of 1949 to the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 to the collaboration between Americans and Cubans in transforming Havana into a modern tourist destination. In all cases, politicians and planners recognized the potential for economic growth that could be wrought by largescale development projects.

In most cases they were correct; the new landscapes which were formed following World War II supported and perpetuated cultures of consumption and leisure bolstered by an affluent middle class. However, not everyone benefitted equally from these changes. One of the transformative qualities that united these spaces was a separation of certain groups from one another along lines of race, income, and tradition. In all of the environments examined in these papers, people with deep connections to landscapes and places were displaced in some way by modernizing forces.


“The Housing Act of 1949 unleashed a tidal wave of federal funding into cities, igniting struggles to determine how the law would be implemented over the course of the next several years. The congressional trading that occurred in the debate over the 1949 Housing Act was reflected in the act itself. Not entirely a housing act, not entirely a redevelopment act, the law was instead a bridge that united these concepts: slums and ‘blighted areas’ could be cleared, but only if a sufficient supply of affordable housing was constructed in conjunction with the clearance. A 1953 report by the Boston Housing Authority described the law as ‘the most liberal and yet most conservative measure ever adopted by the U.S. Congress,’ affording cities ‘the responsibility of wiping out the slum areas of a nation” and private companies “the mandate of rebuilding the areas made available by slum clearance.’ Thus, in the Housing Act of 1949,conservative real estate interests and their allies in congress had successfully bargained with progressive housing champions and theirs.”

“In 1946, the same year that Marlboro College was founded, the governor’s office established a new magazine, Vermont Life, to promote the state to tourists. Published by the Vermont State Development Commission, the magazine sported an enticing motto—’Vermont is a Way of Life’— and was filled with articles that celebrated the state’s industry and landscape, as well as the hardscrabble identity of ‘the Vermonter.’ It favored profiles of individuals, businesses, and institutions, but in all respects the magazine insisted on a representation of the state as a rural, tough, and above all patriotic corner of the United States. Vermont Life presented people unfamiliar with Vermont with a selective understanding of what characterized the state. Early issues of the magazine were littered with stylized maps showing off the plentiful ski areas and natural beauty of Vermont, and pictures of Norman Rockwell paintings throughout these issues situated the ideal American way of life squarely within Vermont’s borders.”


The most memorable part of writing my Plan came in April, a few weeks before I mailed. I had all these threads that seemed to be veering in different directions, and I had no idea how to pull it all together. Then I set myself up in Dalrymple and marathon-ed for the next two weeks. And during that time I started to pull the threads together. It was an incredible, magical, empowering high that I’m still riding. I thought, wow, this was going somewhere the whole time, and now it’s finally coming together in a way that makes sense. I couldn’t believe it.

There’s a saying about writing, which is basically to never show someone a work in progress. That’s impossible with Plan because you are showing your advisers and peers your work-in-progress week after week after week. It’s brutal and occasionally humiliating. My advice to anyone writing Plan would be to tune out all of that criticism and focus on your own voice. The payoff of mailing, orals, and commencement is so incredibly gratifying. I’ve never experienced anything so spectacular in my entire life.

I wouldn’t say that my Plan (or most Plans) was a great leap forward in the big picture of academia. But it was a huge leap forward for me, and ultimately that’s what made Plan so special.