Last Christmas, I came upon a Peanuts cartoon that has stuck with me ever since. The episode, from December 1963, depicts Charlie Brown searching for a place or item in his home on which to hang his Christmas stocking. In the end, he laments, “A house with no fireplace! Oh, the trials of being part of the wrong generation!” It made me laugh (my three-bedroom split-level, built in 1964, is likewise sans fireplace). And then it got me thinking about the physical world, the natural settings and the built environments, that the Peanuts children inhabited. As it turns out, Charles M. Schulz’s beloved comic provides a revelatory window into America’s troubled history with sprawl.
Bedroom communities have failed us. My family and I have called one home for the last three years. Plymouth, Minnesota, located 16 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, is 70,000 strong and growing; the median sale price for single-family homes has increased by nearly $100,000 since we moved here. (Full disclosure: we’re renters.) Plymouth has no downtown. Sidewalks are scarce. Our so-called “business districts” are nothing more than strip malls dotting the landscape by the dozens. And yet, whenever I chat up neighbors about these blights and—time permitting—treat them to my theories about the need for greater walkability and density and public transit, I’m dismissed with a brand of “Minnesota Nice” that’s equal parts courteousness and passive aggression.
Most bedroom communities achieve something rather uncanny: they breed isolation. They’re communities, in the strictest sense, planned without even the slightest nod to the basic principles of community design and social architecture, save for the obligatory playground. These monoculture neighborhoods, comprising dozens of near-identical detached homes, consume land and resources on a scale no less than twice that of the average home in a high-density area.
Schulz, the celebrated Minnesota son who would have turned 100 this year, both presaged and captured the alienation of the suburban condition. Never one to be patronizing nor blindly optimistic, Schulz’s Li’l Folks (Peanuts’ original title before syndication)—widely considered a composite of the artist’s id—comprised a true community, one often at odds, even despondent over the state of things, yet always reaching a détente, egos be damned.
Published March 11, 1957
Published May 28, 1959
During the strip’s early years, from its debut in 1950 to roughly 1970, Schulz’s work deftly portrayed the unique anxieties associated with things like child rearing, overpopulation, environmental depletion, and nuclear fallout, all through the lens of the children themselves. Gary Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, once observed that Peanuts “vibrated with ’50s alienation.” And writer George Saunders fondly recalled poring over them in the “dank basements and mod parlors of the [1960s]” and, for the first time, experiencing the “heady sensation of seeing the world I lived in represented in art … set in a new-lawned and new-treed and under-furnitured suburb much like the one where I lived.”
Like most U.S. cities after World War II, daily life in the Twin Cities was oriented around the neighborhood. Residents had immediate access to small commercial hubs and schools and places of worship, thus enabling business and personal transactions to be conducted without the use of a car. But such conditions were not long for a society hell bent on homesteading. By 1952, Schulz and his family had moved into a modest three-bed, two-bath detached home in the inner-ring suburb of Richfield, one of several epicenters for Minnesota’s postwar residential boom. The mass production of single-family homes along reclaimed agricultural lands, built to accommodate a population that doubled between 1950 and 1955, gave Richfield its unofficial title of “the fastest-growing city” in Minnesota. It’s no wonder, then, that those early Peanuts years offered readers only a handful of central characters, most notably Charlie Brown and Snoopy, yet in the ensuing years Schulz expanded his universe to include Schroeder, Lucy, Linus, Violet, Pigpen, Sally, and others. With each new addition, this cast of precocious children became satirical vessels for a world that was expanding and contracting at once.
Published October 7, 1950
A surprisingly bleak humor dominates those early strips. From Lucy’s makeshift psychiatry practice to her brother Linus’ overwhelming sense of existential dread (hence his security blanket), Schulz was by no means treating readers to episodic glimpses of suburban frivolity, a la Dennis the Menace. Far from it. This is a world that’s emotionally tethered to the realities of the Cold War, racial injustices, and a natural environment increasingly in peril. A general sense of frustration permeates many of the early strips, yet one is never made to feel hopeless. That is because Schulz tapped into whatever levity could be derived from otherwise dire circumstances. After all, is it not the brutal (and refreshing) honesty of children that can help us realize just what an awful mess of things we’ve made?
Published November 24, 1967
Schulz’s artistic style, according to Blake Scott Ball, in his 2021 book Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts, was “decidedly minimal, providing the reader only the slightest indications of setting.” Whatever atmospheric elements Schulz did use, they were never extraneous nor incidental. If even a single tree was in the frame, it served some purpose. As Ball notes, “Though Peanuts began … as an urban story, it quickly and seamlessly migrated to the suburbs. This move came complete with countless suburban environmental concerns. The first tree depicted in Peanuts was a stump, likely cleared off to make way for new housing construction.”
One area where Schulz did (eventually) deviate from projecting the prototypical Minneapolis suburb was in matters of racial integration. Peanuts’ first Black character, Franklin, was introduced on July 31, 1968. His recurring appearances predictably received pushback from southern newspaper publishers and even United Feature Syndicate. But this milestone wasn’t necessarily Schulz’s doing. The previous April, only two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Schulz received a letter from Harriet Glickman, a “suburban housewife” and mother of three from Sherman Oaks, California, imploring him to introduce children of color. Glickman wrote, in part:
“It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. The gentleness of the kids … even Lucy, is a perfect setting. The baseball games, kite-flying … yea, even the Psychiatric Service cum Lemonade Stand would accommodate the idea smoothly.”
Schulz, who by this time was living in California himself, took the time to write her back. He sympathized with Glickman, yet stopped shy of committing to her wishes, for fear that such a gesture would appear “patronizing [to] our Negro friends.” Weeks later, Schulz received a letter from Kenneth C. Kelly, a Black “father of two young boys” and a friend of Glickman’s, who wrote, in part:
“We have a situation in America in which racial enmity is constantly portrayed. The inclusion of a Negro supernumerary in some of the group scenes in Peanuts would do two important things. Firstly, it would ease my problem of having my kids seeing themselves pictured in the overall American scene. Secondly, it would suggest racial amity in a casual day-to-day sense.”
Schulz capitulated, and within weeks of Kelly’s letter, Franklin moved into the neighborhood and into the Peanuts’ social circle with little to no fanfare; just another day in the life.
Published January 5, 1958
When considering the whole of Peanuts as canon, all indicators suggest that most of the neighborhood children lived in their own detached single-family homes. We occasionally catch glimpses of them; at one point, we’re even treated to a modernist interior fitted with a Knoll butterfly and an Eames LCW chair. That said, Schulz was no more an urbanist than he was an existentialist or behavioral psychologist. But there can be no doubt that when he perceived the world taking shape around him—one of alienation and “herbicidal culture,” as Ball phrased it—he harbored grave concerns. It only stands to reason that Schulz’s weapons of choice were a dry wit and a full-fledged community of neighbors, sharing the same space as freely as they share their hopes and anxieties with one another.
Peanuts’ story arcs rarely ended on a positive note. The formula often involved one of several supporting characters dashing the hopes of that cockeyed optimist Charlie Brown with some hard truth or cynical take. And yet, they carried on and cast aside any hard feelings. “Oh, good grief,” as the phrase goes. Come to think of it, the social architecture Schulz built is about the most optimistic thing I can imagine.
America is in dire need of more housing, better housing, and, above all, attainable housing. We need “light imprint” neighborhoods and mixed-use neighborhoods; walkable, healthy, and context-driven. We need to be doing a better job at promoting permanent housing for what it should be: a social construct. As the country’s housing crisis continues, it’s past time we concentrated public funds and private resources and focused them on housing solutions that actually work for people, as in communities of people, and not just a series of individual families, most of whom don’t need 4,000-plus square feet of interior living space to begin with.
Today, due to its proximity to the airport and Mall of America, the town of Richfield is more of a mass junction for interstate highways, strip malls, and corporate campuses than it is a residential neighborhood. Other inner-ring suburbs have met similar fates, as ever-widening commercial roads, business parks, and ostentatious developments began flanking from every which way the more modest residential pockets that established these towns as bedroom communities in the first place. And while the Richfield that Schulz and his family called home 70 years ago was hardly the model of a social construct like the Greenbelt Towns of old, there was an intimacy and connectivity to it all that did well to inform how his beloved Peanuts interacted, leaned on one another, and never pulled their proverbial punches. Call me old fashioned, but that sounds like a town I’d like to live in. I’ll do fine without the fireplace.
Featured image of Schultz via Time.