Ed Driscoll

Pete Seeger's Ode To Soviet Worker Housing

Hadn’t heard this one before, but considering Pete Seeger’s background and the subtext of the song “Little Boxes” (and its famous refrain of “Little boxes made of ticky-tacky”, what James Bennett writes certainly makes sense:

The song was actually written by Malvina Reynolds at the time she was a Communist Party USA member.

The political context of the song was interesting. Right after World War Two, the Communist Party USA, seeking to capitalize on its wartime link to “our ally, Uncle Joe Stalin”, lanched a big organizing drive around one of the major general complaints of the time, which was the lack of available housing. The CPUSA’s drive was centered on demands for a gigantic government housing program to build government-owned “worker’s apartments”. This drive quickly petered out as the veteran’s housing loan progam and rapid suburban development rapidly produced millions of single-family houses, to the delight of returning veterans and wartime workers who had been renting chicken coops and trailers.

“Little Boxes” was written after the collapse of the CPUSA’s last major popular campaign, and is a sort of snarky critique of the cause of its irrelevance. It also marks the Left’s shift from critiqueing the market economy for producing too little, to critiqueing it for producing too much — substituting an aesthetic critique for an economic one. This in turn was a symptom of the collapse of any trace of a working-class base for the hard Left, and its replacement by a bohemian-intellectual base.

The specific houses in question were the multi-colored developments on the hills just south of San Francisco. I remember seeing them on my first trip to that area and thinking them charming. Eventually I learned that they were the “ticky-tacky” in question. It’s a sort of reverse Marie Antionette — criticising the peasants for eating cake when they could have had nice Soviet-style high-rise concrete block apartments instead.

And that certainly worked out just swell for all concerned, huh?

Update: A reader emails:

FYI I live in one of the little boxes made of ticky-tacky, in southern-most San Francisco.

It’s a little two-bedroom, one bath 50’s box, painted pink and white. I had the good fortune to buy it nearly 10 years ago.

Market value for a comparable house in our neighborhood? $900,000-$1,000,000.

But c’mon, wouldn’t you rather be paying a lifetime of rent inside a Corbusier-designed Borg-like ferroconcrete monolith like Pete and Malvina had wished upon the American public?