|Children in a DP (displaced persons)|
camp for refugees from Baltic
countries, Germany, 1945
Daniel Ludwig, his wife, and four children arrived in New York Harbor in 1955 with little more than a homemade wooden crate containing Dan's most valuable possessions: his hand tools. He had been trained as a master woodworker in his homeland of Rumania, having come to the United States by way of a German refugee camp for displaced persons. Within two years of arriving in America, Dan had saved enough money to buy a ramshackle old house with a big back yard in the little town of Concord, California.
After he’d achieved the American Dream of home ownership, Dan Ludwig turned his attention to setting up his own shop. He filled his first cabinet and furniture orders from the cramped old one-car garage that stood at one edge of his property. His business quickly outgrew those tight quarters, so in 1961, he took out a building permit and, with the help of his friends and neighbors, began adding a brand-new workshop onto the rear of his old garage. It was a spacious, ten-foot-high barn of a building, painted a sunny yellow, with several pairs of huge doors for loading in lumber and sending out his completed cabinetwork.
|Class photo of children at Schauenstein, Germany|
DP camp, around 1946: No future.
Inside this big yellow barn, as his budget allowed, he slowly accumulated the best power tools of his trade--table saw, planer, jointer, and all the other machinery of a modern woodworking shop. Thus established, Daniel Ludwig was the model American immigrant—a sole proprietor supporting a large family and bringing his Old World skills into the roaring New World economy.
A textbook tale of America’s promise, right? A man leaves a bleak and war-torn nation, poor and without much future, for a place with greater prospects. Yet Dan Ludwig’s story, as classic an immigrant tale as it is, took place in an America now long vanished. It was a time when practically everything seemed possible, including the ability of an ordinary person without wealth or connections to succeed on hard work alone. Alas, if we put Dan Ludwig in a time machine to replay his life in present-day America, the outcome might be quite different.
|Elderly couple, one of 1,267 European refugees |
arriving on the refitted troop ship
USNS General Langfitt, in New York Harbor,
October 28, 1956. Statue of Liberty at background.
To begin with, the likelihood of a working-class immigrant saving enough to buy a house—no matter how modest—within a few years of arriving in the United States is virtually nil. Home prices have continued to outpace family income for many decades now, even though, unlike Dan’s time, most families now have the advantage of two or even more wage earners. So if Dan had come to the United States in 2015 instead of 1955, chances are he’d never have become a homeowner at all, but instead would have remained a tenant-- probably for the rest of his life.
But let’s wave a magic wand and say that modern-day Dan somehow managed to buy that house with its big back yard, just as he did in the 1950s. And let’s say he set out to build his big yellow workshop in 2015 instead of 1961. Where once he obtained a permit over the counter, got some friends together, and got down to pouring concrete, today Dan's life would be more complicated. Next time, we’ll see just how complicated.