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Sycamore Street and The Wonderful Life

It’s Christmas, and before long, the local channels will be airing my favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Many folks think it’s a movie about one man making a difference in the world, but I saw it in a different way: “It’s a Wonderful Life” explains why homeownership is so important to our country’s prosperity and economic health.

After The Great War ended, the magazines and newspapers of the time boldly extolled the many virtues of homeownership. Post-war, contemporary literature made it clear that Americans had a patriotic duty to be homeowners. Homeownership benefited not only individual families, but also neighborhoods and communities, and by extension, the entire country.

What better modern-day model do we have than Detroit or East St. Louis? How many homeowners live in these two communities? Despite some searching, I wasn’t able to find an answer, but I’d guess it’s NOT MANY.

The message communicated by Sears Modern Homes catalogs and early 20th Century magazines was this: Homeowners have a vested interest in their community and communities with a large percentage of homeowners will enjoy a greater proportion of prosperity, stability and peace.

In the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey sees what Bedford Falls, would have looked like if he’d never been born. Without George’s positive influence and his ever-fledgling Building and Loan, the modern subdivision of Bailey Park would never have been developed and many residents would have remained renters, rather than homeowners.

Without the Bailey Building and Loan, George finds that Bedford Falls (now “Pottersville”) is full of substandard rental properties.

And because there are so many rental properties, there is less stability in the family, and in a broader context, there is less stability in the community as well.

Remember Bert (the cop) and Ernie (the cab driver)?

In this alternate “George-less” world, Ernie does not live with his family in their own “nice little home in Bailey Park,” but instead, he lives is a decrepit shack in Pottersville and it’s implied that this hardship is largely to blame for the fact that Ernie’s wife “ran off three years ago and took the kid.”

The streets of this alternate Bedford Falls are lined with liquor stores, night clubs, pawnbrokers, burlesque shows and billiard halls. Garish neon signs flash “girls, girls, girls.” Breviloquent policemen struggle to keep peace and order among the surly citizens.

George’s revelation that he really had a “wonderful life” came from - in part - a realization that his meager efforts to give people the chance to become homeowners gave them a feeling of accomplishment, prosperity, security and pride. By extension, the whole community benefited in important, significant and enduring ways.

Sears was, to small communities in the Midwest, what George Bailey was to Bedford Falls.

Sears empowered countless thousands of the poor and working class to become homeowners. What would countless Midwestern towns have become without Sears homes?

How many towns were spared the fate of becoming a Pottersville, thanks to these little kit homes? Probably many.

Sears Modern Homes made a significant and enduring difference in many communities throughout the Midwest.

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George

The Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan was the real hero of the story. It persisted, despite great trials and tribulations, and enabled the less-than-wealthy citizens of Bedford Falls to achieve the dream of homeownership.

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House house

George and Mary worked hard to achieve their dream of homeownership, and that's another reason that I love this movie. They purchased a real "fixer-upper" and did a thorough restoration that spanned many, many years. Today, how many banks would even lend money on a house with a leaky roof?

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It was a common theme 1921

As demonstrated by this 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog, homeownership was a far wiser investment for the young couple starting out in the world. After all, would you rather have "rent receipts" or a home of your own?

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house 1921

Father is tossing those rent receipts right into the trash.

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Its a wonderful lfie

Another reason to love "It's a Wonderful Life" is 320 Sycamore Street, a classic "Second Empire Victorian." Or, as the author of "Finding God in 'It's a Wonderful Life'" said, "It is a home of second chances."

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To read more about why 320 Sycamore was in such ghastly condition, click here.

To read about how to identify Sears Homes, click here.

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  1. dale wolicki
    December 8th, 2013 at 19:13 | #1

    Let’s remember Sears wasn’t a non-profit charity helping to build affordable housing.

    It was a business meant to make money, and at 6% they made good money on mortgages to home builders who couldn’t get a better rate at the local saving and loan.

    Although Sears allowed many to have home of their own, they also allowed many to have more home then they could afford.

    Yet another financial lecture from the penny-pincher Aladdin Homes Man!

  2. December 8th, 2013 at 19:30 | #2

    Dale,

    Have I told you lately that I love you? :)
    You’re awesome.

    Excellent points. As always.

  3. dale wolicki
    December 8th, 2013 at 23:18 | #3

    Well admittedly Sears could get 6% because they offered homeowners the chance to have a high quality architectural significant house instead of relying on the local lumber yard and local builder, especially in small towns where they might only have one pricey lumber yard and one illiterate builder that never used blueprints, and … wait a minute that’s my house!

    My 1928 bungalow illustrates why ordering a pre-cut house was worth the extra money.

    Rooms are laid out badly, no standard sizes, salvaged lumber used in kitchen walls, a sun room where there is never any sun, tuna cans used as junction boxes,…

    Now if someone could explain why the surveyor put the neighbor’s driveway on my property in 1928, I’d be a happy man!

  4. Shari D.
    December 9th, 2013 at 20:34 | #4

    All perfectly wonderful, extremely valid points ~ as usual.

    Another, that has been mentioned elsewhere, is that Sears, in establishing its admittedly short-lived mortgage program, also offered people of color, first generation immigrants, and single women the opportunity to establish mortgage loans and become homeowners ~ folks who under no circumstances would have been given such an opportunity if required to come face-to-face with any banks or other mortgage lenders of the day.

    The social climate and prejudicial beliefs of the time simply would not allow it ~ not for decades.

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