Swingsites for singles are … all pleasure oriented … girls and boys … sharing hangovers in the snackshop, mixing doubles on the tennis courts, cuddling by twos in the Jacuzzi whirlpool.
— Joyce Haber, Los Angeles Times, 1966 1
In 1972, novelist Cynthia Buchanan published Maiden, a parody of mass-market post-collegiate life in the bleached-blonde world of Los Angeles when the birth control pill was still new. The hapless heroine is Fortune Dundy, a thirty-year-old virgin looking for Mr. Right in all the wrong places. Enthralled with the romantic imagery of ’50s cinema, Fortune, who sells “House of Circe” cosmetics door-to-door, is mystified by the rising California culture of plastic surgery, spermicidal foam, and clothing-optional gestalt therapy at Esalen. But she is hopeful: she tries the beach in Santa Monica, the bar at Trader Vic’s, and computer matchmaking. Life gets really interesting, however, only when Fortune moves into Villa Dionysus, one of the city’s many “swinging singles” apartment complexes.
Villa Dionysus — not for nothing is the acronym “VD” — is operated by Dionysus West, a dubious social club for unmarried young adults owned by a San Francisco mobster who wears a diamond pinky ring and white “Pete Kardin” suits. The VD is, in period parlance, “Where the Scene Gets Together.” As a marketing brochure beckons:
Why not … GO DIONYSUS WEST, YOUNG SWINGLE … Year-round Bacchus Bashes! The Fun Scene! The Sun Scene! Parties! Dances! Dinners! Picnics! Celebrations! Clambakes! and Wienie Roasts! Sea Weekends! Ski Weekends! … FOLLOW THE SUN TO WHERE SWINGER MEETS SWINGER IN THE EYE OF ! ACTION !
From a distance the complex looks ordinary: plain-vanilla stucco boxes overlooking a freeway. But the real views are interior: balconies face inward, panopticon-like, toward a “vast courtyard” with lush lawns and tennis courts. Here a shimmering pool — “vast, cool, illusive” — is the focus of the “action,” where “Dionysids,” with their “tattoos, sideburns, chests and breasts,” their Bain de Soleil, pop-top Budweiser, skimpy bikinis, and Speedos, play ping-pong and checkers and share “marijuana joints.” 2 It is here that Fortune — characterized by one critic as “Huckleberry Finn played by Marilyn Monroe” — meets her dream man: a divorced dentist who, as it will turn out, dies before the relationship is consummated. 3
Now mostly forgotten, Maiden generated much discussion and high praise when it was published. Some saw it as a feminist statement. A review in the New York Times described it as part of “a natural trilogy” with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays: “All three heroines are women struggling for breath in the smog of commerce and sexism.” But beyond its (questionable) feminist voice or literary merits, most contemporary reviewers welcomed Maiden as a critique of mass consumption. Buchanan, who was in her late twenties when she wrote the novel, captured growing anxieties about what one contemporary reporter called the “loneliness industry”: entrepreneurial efforts that sold the promise of sex, love, and companionship. Other commentators worried that a whole generation of young people — raised on Pepsi and the Beatles in a culture of mind-altering pharmaceuticals and body-altering cosmetics — was susceptible to the trendy, Day-Glo glamour of places like Villa Dionysus. If critics saw Fortune as a kind of feminist folk hero, in but not of her seedy milieu, they delighted in Maiden‘s skewering of the VD. The Washington Post reviewer lamented “the tawdry sustaining illusions of the Villa, which are a mixture of California youth cult and the broader American cult of sex-without-tenderness.” Hemingway scholar Earl Rovit praised Buchanan for capturing “the bleak loneliness and undignified despair that is at the core of the advertising dazzle of institutionalized hedonism.” 4
But how much of the world of Villa Dionysus existed, and how much of the critique was valid? I would argue: not much. The singles apartment complex originated in Southern California beginning in the late 1950s and by the early ’70s had spread from coast to coast, attracting attention with newspaper and magazine articles copiously illustrated with images of wet young flesh. In fact, we might say Buchanan ripped her story from the headlines: born in Arizona, she wrote the novel while living in Spain. She had never visited a singles complex. One skeptic suggested her real target was not the singles industry but rather what was then becoming a stereotyped fantasy of California: “all those screwy divorcées, beach studs, pot parties, poolside orgies, and bizarre fads” that writers elsewhere liked to imagine. 5 And yet despite the hype —and the hyperbole — despite the appeals to consumerism, and even despite the sexism, the lives of most residents were fairly ordinary. Yet beyond that, I would argue, the complexes heralded a new era for young adults, especially women.
In this light Maiden raises provocative questions. Can we dismiss the swinging singles residence as a tawdry relic? A site of financial and sexual exploitation? Or can we view it as a creative response to specific housing and cultural challenges — and as a bridge from the early postwar era of mass suburbanization, the rise of the nuclear family and the triumph of the single-family house, to the more recent history of intensifying interest in urban life, alternative households, and gender equality? Was the singles residence as rearguard as critics suggested? Or if we look beyond the surface — beyond the Bacchus bashes and Jacuzzis — can we see it as part of the countercultural turn — even as a force for social progress?
Boys and girls together
The singles apartment complex might have been marketed as the “Fun Scene,” but like virtually all U.S. dwelling types, from the boarding house to the McMansion, it was also a commodity, a product shaped by economics and demographics, by taste and values. In particular, the singles complex emerged in response to the growing desire on the part of young unmarried adults for well-serviced, well-equipped rental housing outside of traditional urban centers. As such it benefited from a long history of experimentation with the now familiar garden apartment. Beginning in the late 19th century, housing reformers pioneered the mid-rise courtyard complex as an alternative to the working-class tenement; in the 1920s, designers like Clarence Stein and Henry Wright advanced the model at low-rise suburban communities like Sunnyside, Queens, and Chatham Village, near Pittsburgh. The trend accelerated after 1935 when the newly created Federal Housing Administration promoted an even lower-density variant: multiple two- and three-story buildings arranged loosely around spacious green commons. This type proliferated during World War II to provide housing for defense workers, and during the postwar period it offered expedient if temporary accommodations for veterans and their families. 6
By the late 1950s, when the singles complex began to take shape, the garden apartment — along with regional variants like the California dingbat — had become a standard housing type. 7 What was new were the clientele. While the rise of singleton middle-class households dates to the late 19th century and gained traction in the 1920s, it was the mid-20th-century that saw unprecedented growth in the number of unattached young adults who could afford to live on their own, rather than with their families or in residential hotels and boarding houses. In retrospect, the 1950s were a quiet prelude, amid the cultural obsession with nuclear domesticity, to the dramatic changes in housing — as well as in what began to be called lifestyle — that would take place as the baby boomers reached adulthood in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Better educated and better paid than any previous generation, young adults came to constitute nothing less than an important new demographic for specialized housing. 8
Segmentation into ever narrower demographic and market niches, such as “swinging singles,” was already becoming a hallmark of the highly commoditized U.S. system by the late ‘50s. 9 And like so many trends of the day, the singles apartment complex emerged in California. The early driving force was the aerospace industry. In the late ’30s companies like Lockheed, Douglas, Alcoa, and Northrop began opening facilities in southwest Los Angeles, in the Centinela Valley and South Bay communities which stretched north-south from the airport to the ports of San Pedro and Long Beach. By mid-century, the industry was employing hundreds of thousands of well-educated and well-paid engineers and managers — a ready market for upscale apartments. 10 With few vacancies in places like Hawthorne (home of Northrop) and Torrance (with large Douglas and Alcoa facilities), by 1959 the Los Angeles Times was reporting a “near panic to build” among local investors. 11
But ultimately it was evolving gender dynamics that catalyzed the transformation of the old garden-variety apartment into “swingsites for singles.” For as landlords were learning, it was relatively easy to fill vacancies in “bachelor” apartments (studios and one-bedrooms): aerospace employed many more men than women, and the men were better compensated and could more easily afford to live on their own. But there was a hitch. The bachelors seemed increasingly to reject the de facto segregation. In the casual culture of postwar California, they wanted to live near the bachelorettes, and so in complexes dominated by men, turnover proved unacceptably high. Only with “boys” and “girls” together, in a ratio of at least one woman for every two men, could turnover be slowed to economically sustainable rates — a crucial consideration given the thin margins of the rental property business. 12
It was the effort to attract female tenants that spurred one landlord after another to introduce innovations in the garden-style apartment. Some of these innovations involved interior planning. By the mid-1950s, most U.S. builders were configuring apartments as either studios or compact one-bedrooms. These suited professional men, but were usually beyond the means of young working women, who could only afford to live with roommates; in addition, women often preferred shared living for reasons of safety and propriety — a revealing indicator of the persistence of a cultural double standard. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a story in the late ’50s on the new complexes, shared arrangements allayed “the fears of parents who have seen their ‘baby’ leave the fold.” 13 To better accommodate women, landlords began to feature apartments with “dressing rooms” (a.k.a., walk-in closets) and extra half-bathrooms. Eventually — paralleling trends in other markets with a similar clientele — they introduced larger units expressly designed for as many as four unrelated adults: the super, or luxury, two-bedroom, which included two master bedrooms as well as two full bathrooms, a plumbing extravagance all but unheard of at the time. 14
Yet the most striking innovations of the new complexes involved not physical design but social program: what distinguished them were management efforts to encourage ongoing interaction among tenants. Although large cities like Los Angeles offered myriad social opportunities, building owners recognized that many tenants sought not just safety and respectability but companionship as well. In an era when early marriage was still common, single life could feel isolating, especially after the intense social experiences of college. As one young teacher explained, although she had looked forward to the “total freedom” of living on her own in L.A., it had left her feeling lonesome and unmoored. “All my life, I’d been with people my own age. Then, suddenly, you graduate, and your two best friends get married, and you’re alone.” 15
No wonder that the liveliest of the new swingsites came to resemble a co-ed “campus for single people,” as one resident described it, with tenants dining together by the pool and organizing skiing and camping weekends. 16 To encourage spontaneous friendliness, landlords not only included that most desirable of amenities — a large swimming pool, heated and night-lighted — but also a resident manager with highly developed interpersonal skills, often an older woman whose discrete presence suggested a kind of post-collegiate in loco parentis. (As one complex operator explained, the preference was for “older women — in their late 40s and early 50s. We want them to develop a mother image.” 17) Thus did evolving mores and markets spur landlords to assume the unusual role of social director.
Sex and the Sunbelt
While rooted in what one critic called the “trackless sands” of Cold War boomtowns like Hawthorne and Torrance, the singles complex was, in the era of The Feminine Mystique, well suited to the needs of young adults everywhere. 18 In the early ‘60s, L.A. saw a proliferation of often elaborate complexes that became known as “active” spots for social tenants: places like West L.A.’s West Park Village and Burbank’s E’Questre Inn, which (naturally) featured stables. Still, none of these residences was explicitly created for unmarried men and women. This began to change when, in 1964, a trio of young developers — two MBAs and a contractor operating under the name R&B Development — built Parkview Village West, in Torrance, which featured more formal social programming for its youthful tenants. To be sure, this kind of programming itself was not new. Sun City, Arizona, the nation’s first “active retirement” community — residents had to be 55 years or older — opened in 1960, and it was soon followed by Leisure World, in Orange County. But Parkview was among the first communities to focus on young people, and its various amenities suggest a mix of family resort and summer camp (with a dash of the Playboy Club). It featured a swimming pool and recreation room; a children’s center and teen recreation room; and a clubhouse with a bar, card room, gym, steam room, and hobby workshop. All were overseen by an on-site recreation director. As a local newspaper noted, Parkview was designed to appeal to tenants who “want luxury now and are not willing to wait until they are over 50.” 19
The apartments rented well. But it soon became apparent that highly programmed complexes were not a priority for families with children, who tended to prefer privacy over community and to opt for the traditional single-family house or another then-new alternative, the “townhouse” development. But the social club format did appeal to young, unattached adults. Within a year R&B opened the South Bay Club, specifically targeting the “singles, the swingers, the young professional people.” 20 According to the developer’s market research, these people were “everywhere,” had a “fantastic amount of leisure time,” and were demanding “activities to use up that leisure time.” 21
It’s not surprising that the packaged singles complex would emerge in the mid-’60s. The early baby boomers were entering adulthood, unleashing a wave of demand for rental housing on the part of an affluent generation of enthusiastic consumers; still more important, the singles complexes were responding to rapidly shifting social values. Second-wave feminism and the birth-control pill were changing the dynamics of dating and sex; early adulthood was no longer necessarily a period of marriage and child-rearing but instead a kind of extended adolescence; divorce rates were rising, too, creating another new cohort of singles — and a new and experienced client for places like the South Bay Club. 22
It’s also not surprising that the apartment house-cum-social club would emerge in a low-density landscape like Torrance, a suburban place “crisscrossed by broad boulevards and elevated freeways,” where “brand-new, middle-income houses, gas stations and shopping centers … blend interminably into each other, for mile after mile,” as the Los Angeles Times described it at the time. 23 In the popular imagination as well as in much critical scholarship, the epicenter of the Sixties youthquake — and the singles lifestyle — was located in the bohemian districts of cosmopolitan cities like New York and San Francisco. (Think That Girl and the Summer of Love; Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury.) 24 But in reality young single people were less likely to live in Manhattan than in Manhattan Beach. Indeed, the number of singles living in U.S. suburbs nearly doubled in the ‘60s. In metropolitan Washington, for instance, nearly half again as many lived in Maryland and Northern Virginia as in the District by the early ’70s. Assessing the trend, one contemporary critic argued that young people were “fed up with the hectic life of the big city, drawn by the bonuses of the great outdoors, the cheaper rents and safer streets.” 25
But the great outdoors had its limits. That same critic conceded that suburbia could not match “the party whirl of the city,” the chances for entertainment and encounter. It was precisely this party-whirl gap that R&B Development was exploiting when it adapted the club format for “swingles”; in effect, the South Bay Club was an effort to transform the suburban apartment building into a social center with the “bright, self-contained air of a huge luxury hotel.” 26 Young adults in suburbia might have had discretionary income and leisure time, but what they lacked were the opportunities — the venues — to find partners. “Everyone is lonely,” said the South Bay Club’s manager. “Most of our tenants have no other way to meet people informally. Where can a school-teacher find a mate — outside of school?” 27 Where indeed? One place, as it turned out, was the swingsite. Already in the late ‘50s, one Hawthorne landlord told the Los Angeles Times that eighteen of her thirty tenants had married one another, while in its first year the South Bay Club claimed “17 to 20” nuptials. Of course, suburban complexes encouraged other kinds of coupling, too. As one tenant explained, to Time, South Bay was “a good place to be bad.” 28 No matter the terms of engagement, complexes promised a pool of eligible candidates, and R&B became the first to explicitly target the young and unattached, and to take the well-publicized — though largely symbolic — step of prohibiting tenants who were married or over thirty-five. (This was a switch from earlier days, when many landlords shied away from young tenants.) In its promotional brochures, R&B likened South Bay to “a hometown in a big city” and highlighted the credentials of its desired tenants: college-educated, professional, white-collar. 29
Never on Friday and the year-round holiday
To help program the South Bay Club, R&B partnered, initially, with the Never On Friday Club — the first of several large social organizations for singles that flourished in U.S. cities in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the model for Maiden’s Dionysus West. The idea was concocted in 1961 by four young bachelors who shared a house in Long Beach; one of them in particular, an enterprising engineer at North American Aviation named Dick Hoagland, recognized in his tens of thousands of coworkers — a third of whom he estimated were young and single — a lucrative untapped market for “dancing and socializing” — for “respectable” intermingling that would attract single women without dates. “Even for today’s liberated career woman,” Time noted in the mid-Sixties, “walking into a bar … still boarders on indiscretion.” 30 By 1963, Hoagland was hosting parties at the Lakewood County Club; soon he quit his aerospace job and incorporated Never on Friday, targeting “single, fun-loving young adults, 21 – 35,” and playing on the idea that Fridays were not for steady dates but instead for new friends. Within a year Never On Friday was sponsoring dances at hotels and country clubs across L.A. and Orange County and operating party cruises to Catalina Island. By 1965 it had recruited 20,000 members, and the offerings had expanded to include nightclubs in Long Beach and Santa Ana, and weekend travel packages. 31 Members formed a ready market for the South Bay Club.
Like so much of ’60s suburbia, the architecture and site planning of the singles complexes tended toward the standard-issue and no-frills. Designed by the Los Angeles architect Robert H. Skinner, the South Bay Club comprised a compact cluster of three-story, stucco-veneer buildings with off-the-shelf aluminum windows and a covered parking deck that doubled as a podium for tennis courts. The interior of the club, however, was anything but ordinary. Here sportif tenants found lush plantings, swimming pools, tennis and volleyball courts, gymnasia and weight rooms, hot tubs and saunas, party rooms and snack bars, bowling lanes, beauty salons, barbershops. Carpets were wall-to-wall, windows were floor-to-ceiling, and colors were bright: “fluorescent green … flaming orange.” 32 The programmatic features were arranged to encourage interaction and maximize visibility, even voyeurism. One competing complex even boasted a wooden “play tower,” ostensibly to give tenants “something to swing on” but perhaps used chiefly for looking. 33 Occasionally one of the competing complexes would break the stucco-block mold. Some boasted “environmental” or vaguely historicizing architectural motifs; most dramatically, the Carousel Country Club, in San Diego, comprised a massive circular structure, four stories high, surrounding three acres of play space, including a putting green and a “meandering” lake with an island and a beach, complete with 900 tons of trucked-in sand. 34
In operating the clubs, R&B and other managers emphasized the personal touch: new tenants were met not by a leasing agent but by an activities director or “club hostess.” These figures were central to the experience of the residential clubs, where the typical weekly calendar rivaled that of a cruise ship. In the kind of commercial come-on that made parodies like Maiden practically inevitable, advertisements beckoned: “Some SINGLES have all the FUN! … Dances, parties, entertainment, barbecues and songfests make living a year-round Holiday.” 35 In a given week the “holiday” might include a happy hour on Tuesday, a cocktail party and dance on Saturday, and on Sunday a “hangover brunch” followed by a steak cookout and “hootenanny” with live music. For the intellectually inclined there were lectures on contemporary topics, from the personal (“sex and the single person”) to the political (civil rights, the war in Vietnam). Tennis, badminton, and volleyball tournaments were popular; so were softball and bowling leagues. Indoor activities included bridge, yoga, and sculpture. Club directors organized field trips to the beach and sports arenas, to museums and theaters. Every national holiday rated a party. (The frenzy portrayed in the now obscure but then popular 1968 film For Singles Only, set in a thinly fictionalized South Bay Club, is hardly exaggerated. 36)
Managers like R&B and those who emulated them did more than provide nonstop programming. They tailored the clubs to the transient rhythms of the young and unattached. For a small fee they offered apartments that were furnished, and because — as it would turn out — most tenants stayed less than a year, they eliminated leases. They even managed to transform high turnover — what most landlords sought to avoid — into a virtue by charging premium rents and retaining in-house crews that needed just a day to spiff up an apartment for the next fun-seeking single. R&B in particular also mounted a highly effective public-relations campaign (with features in Business Week, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Life, Look, and Time) that ensured a steady waiting list and turned South Bay Club into a recognized name. Soon the company began to expand, first in West Los Angeles, then the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach. Financing flowed from major national lenders and within five years R&B had fourteen complexes as far afield as Northern California, Arizona, and Texas — and was planning thirty-six more — making South Bay Club the country’s first branded apartment chain. 37
The limits of swinging singledom
For a while it all worked: especially in the early years, singles complexes delivered on many of their promises. Fatherly landlords, matronly managers, space for roommates — these fulfilled the growing need for post-collegiate housing that was more permissive than traditional women’s residences but that limited the perceived risks. Meanwhile, a lot of people had a lot of fun. Maiden might have been exaggerated, but the complexes were vibrant social scenes; at the height of the trend, one large swingsite, in Atlanta, “literally rocked from sunup to sundown” with parties that attracted two or three thousand guests. 38 Yet the triumph would prove brief. The singles apartment-club phenomenon had grown quickly, but the culture was moving quickly, too. As second-wave feminism (and long-forgotten offshoots like Southern California’s “singles liberation movement”) upended cultural norms and social values, women were released from the complex’s implied moral guardianship.
At the same time, being suburban and single became more common as household demographics diversified. New social venues — including organizations like the First Singles Church in Orange County, California — effectively created social opportunities that didn’t depend upon housing arrangements. 39 But most of all, the singles club collapsed under the weight of its own impossible expectations. Inevitably the gap between marketing promise and everyday reality would lead to growing disappointment. Visiting one complex, a reporter found no “swingles” at play but instead tenants reading paperbacks, women dining alone, and a group of thirty-something men talking about football — “overweight junior executives in UCLA sweatshirts … losing their hair.” And at another, in Arlington, Virginia, a visitor found an equally joyless scene: an empty pool surrounded by tenants nervously watching each other. 40
As the trend stalled, building operators sought to stave off obsolescence through what seems a counter-intuitive strategy of proliferation: more clubs, more apartments, more marketing. Early complexes had twenty to 130 units; by the late ’60s, R&B was developing buildings with 500 to 1,100 units, for a target population of approximately 2,000: the size of a small liberal arts college. But you might say it was too much, too late; the “scene” had moved on. R&B Development stopped planning new singles-only complexes in 1969 and quietly began lifting age and marriage restrictions, refashioning its properties as “adult communities.” It also began phasing out the South Bay Club name in favor of the more mature sounding “Oakwood Gardens.” But even the adults-only format proved unsustainable. It was not until 1986 that U.S. courts would rule against age restrictions in housing, but by then R&B had left the market entirely. (It would soon become a global leader in a new and more promising venture: long-stay “corporate” travelers.) By the ‘80s, the singles complex was utterly outmoded. 41
Today few traces of the singles club remain. Most of the original structures still stand but new owners have repurposed them as all-age apartments, or, like so many cheaply constructed apartments from the ’60s and ’70s, as low-rent housing. 42 Some of the well-equipped off-campus apartments that have recently become popular in college towns recall the older model, but the student clientele makes further comparisons impossible. In the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, the CastleBraid apartment complex — which on its website boasts “a seamless interplay between the individual and the vibrant collective they’ve helped create” — has echoes of South Bay, but chiefly as a lure for upscale tenants. Closer in spirit to the old format are projects like the Anton Menlo, a ten-acre, $120-million housing development now under construction in Menlo Park, California. Planned by developer St. Anton Partners in collaboration with Facebook, the 394-unit complex is targeting young tech workers who prefer not to reverse-commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Like the South Bay Clubs, it is aiming to create a world of its own: not only a swimming pool and landscaped courtyard but also pet daycare, a convenience store, bike-repair shop, café, and sports bar. Yet even though a majority of young adults continue to settle in suburbia and not city centers, developments like Anton Menlo have become a tough sell: they seem out of tune with the times, eliciting less envy than disdain (as in the millennial sitcom Arrested Development, with its lampoons of Singles City, and later, Swing City and Fuck City). 43
Rearguard or counter-countercultural?
In retrospect, the singles apartment-club of the mid-20th century appears singular: a specific response to a specific cultural moment. But I would argue that it also speaks to broader truths and perennial realities. The swingles-club phenomenon reminds us that despite the popular stereotypes of American housing as a monoculture — an endless repetition of the suburban single-family house — the system has always had real capacity for innovation. Decades before developers began marketing “NextGen” homes for extended families or “micro-apartments” as the ultimate in solo city living, the singles apartment complex was responding creatively to new social needs. And what was especially important, it was responding to the inevitable confusions of young adulthood: a period of life defined by the need to set up one’s first household and, as often as not, a time of restless experimentation with living arrangements. Such confusions are fundamental to modern experience and, as cultural historian Jerrold Seigel has argued, date at least to the rise of the concept of the bohémien in Paris in the 1830s. Every generation since has sought to fashion its particular style of adulthood, to find a place apart from what one singles-club advertisement referred to as “your prudish elders.” 44
Clearly no discussion of the singles complex can then be complete without acknowledging another mid-20th-century experiment in youthful alternative community-making: the commune. The comparison seems especially valid in the case of racy examples like Drop City and Morningstar, whose raison d’etre, some would argue, was akin to that of the swingsites: opportunity for sex. 45 At first glance, of course, the singles apartment complex and the hippie commune would appear to have little in common. One was a real-estate commodity that required a security deposit, if not a signed lease; the other was an intentional community set up explicitly outside the usual market mechanisms. One comprised generic buildings, basic geometries, and mass-produced parts, the other featured A-frames and do-it-yourself geodesic domes assembled from scrap material. The singles complex embraced the low-density landscapes and car culture of the postwar Sunbelt and appealed to stable, mainstream tenants; the commune held values that were resolutely anti-suburban and appealed to dropouts. And while places like South Bay were motivated by the “mindless pursuit of pleasure,” communities like Drop City were devoted to the “mindful pursuit of happiness.” 46
Yet closer scrutiny reveals that these two quintessentially American inventions share common characteristics — and also ambiguities. Both provided middle-class young adults with a physical and moral escape from the conventional bounds of grown-up domesticity. Both titillated; the apartment club and the hippie commune traded on promises of sex, pleasure, and personal fulfillment, and profited from live entertainment and easy access to drugs. Both claimed to “liberate” women while often reinforcing old inequities. And, most obviously, both fashioned new, immersive environments intended for people in roughly the same age group, at the same moment, in the same West Coast milieu.
History has sided with the communes. No doubt they could be creepy and cultish, but they were also optimistic, and with their handicraft DIY agendas and self-conscious quests for authenticity, the communes embodied cultural currents that continue to resonate strongly. Yet I would argue that ultimately it was the swinging singles complex — despite the chlorinated pools and cosmetic excesses — that was truly the more progressive. For the anti-modern, utopian impulses that animated the communes were, after all, old; however radical they appeared, the communes were also self-indulgent and elitist: a connoisseur’s exercise in the conspicuous consumption of non-commodities. 47 And in the end, the impact of the communes was fleeting. In contrast, the singles complex played a key role in introducing changes in gender, life cycle, and lifestyle into mainstream culture. The complex’s incremental and commercial approach may have been middlebrow — to borrow a popular pejorative of the era — but it was also democratic and far-reaching. As a mode of dwelling , singles apartments quickly outlived their purpose. But the cultural transformations they embodied were novel and enduring. More so than any commune, they signaled a deep shift in how, where, and with whom Americans would live as young adults. Looking back after fifty years, we should dwell not on their “advertising dazzle” and “institutional hedonism” — although, to be sure, many former residents still fondly recall that aspect — but on the role they played in the historic journey toward personal liberation.