Echoes of 'Little Boxes'

On its 60th anniversary—the provocative 1960s folk song that tainted the suburban way of life
Little Boxes

If a nursery rhyme and a political folk song had a baby, it would be called 'Little Boxes.'

When that catchy anti-suburb tune hit the Bay Area airwaves in the early 1960s, we assumed they were singing about our neighborhood—Eichler's Fairglen tract in San Jose.

Except for variations in exterior door colors and beams, the houses in our neighborhood looked virtually the same with a minor exception: one style had a tent-like roofline, the other was flat as a flapjack. They all had glass and mahogany walls and a kitchen like the Jetsons.

But when our family would drive north back then, past Daly City's Westlake development on the way to San Francisco, it was hard to miss the strings of seemingly identical homes covering the hillside like a rainbow of dominoes.

  Little Boxes
Despite the 'Little Boxes' claim that Westlake's homes (as above) were constructed of shoddy materials, they were actually made out of redwood with high-end finishes and many different floor plans.

Those rows of repetitive architecture were the inspiration for Berkeley alumna and political activist Malvina Reynolds, who, back in 1962, scribbled down lyrics as she and her husband drove by that imposing landscape.

A year later her song 'Little Boxes' became a hit for Reynolds' friend, folk singer and fellow activist Pete Seeger, whose version is the one most people remember today.

What better time than now—on the 60th anniversary of 'Little Boxes'—to take a fresh look at Reynolds' lyrics and realize, with some surprise, how little has changed over the past six decades.

"Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky
…Little boxes all the same."

  Little Boxes
A vital player in the 'Little Boxes' saga was Malvina Reynolds (above), who wrote the song in 1962.

Like other folk songs of the era, 'Little Boxes' was a catalyst for cultural introspection and change. The song became so popular that the term 'ticky-tacky' cemented its place as a catchphrase for many years afterwards.

It referred to the shoddy materials sometimes used during the construction of mass-produced suburban housing during the 'Baby Boomer' years.

But while there was a lot of criticism about the sameness of the architecture of Westlake, the homes there were not actually made out of ticky-tacky and lesser materials. In fact, they were considered high-quality housing, and from close up, they didn't all look the same. Not at all.

The homes of Westlake were made out of redwood, with a variety of floor plans—as many as twelve. They contained high-end finishes, and all the front facades and colors differed.

  Little Boxes
Sheet music for 'Little Boxes,' which became a popular sing-along in the '60s.

However, the houses there certainly looked like an endless procession of side-by-side boxes with similar sizes, styles, and shapes—at least from a distance.

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