It’s A Wonderful Life

Pottersville gets a bad rap. It’s the dystopian foil to Bedford Falls, the wholesome setting of the 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Pottersville exists in a parallel universe in which protagonist George Bailey is never born, leaving the community without its moral fulcrum. In the film, the family operated Bailey Building and Loan goes bankrupt and opportunistic magnate Henry F. Potter bails out (or buys out…) Bedford Falls during the Great Depression, which is eponymously renamed for him.

Unlike its quaint counterpart, Pottersville developed an urbanized downtown and vibrant nightlife. Neon, crowds, and jazz overwhelm George Bailey as he frantically runs down Genesee Street. He is horrified that his beloved Main Street has become a “mean street”—at least by the antiquated standards of the era’s censorship guidelines. Pottersville reflects the anxieties of the postwar period, as the secular debauchery of its denizens contradict mainstream mid-century values, particularly regarding the nuclear family.

The cinematic depiction of Bedford Falls and Pottersville plays into a perennial conflict between the country and the city in Western culture. The protagonist develops the Bailey Park subdivision as a tidy alternative to the Potter’s Field slum. The movie presents it as the natural extension of Bedford Falls despite the fundamental mismatch between the prewar town and the postwar suburb. Clear evidence of this contradiction is walkability, which Bailey demonstrates by regularly encountering acquaintances in the streets of downtown. The compactness of Bedford Falls brings folk together, sustaining its small town charm.

Pottersville symbolizes the isolation of the modern condition, though the movie fails to acknowledge the alienating qualities of suburbs like Bailey Park. Where cities breed diversity, subdivisions offer pre-packaged normalcy. It is much easier to stand out as the “other” in a cookie-cutter community. Suburbs are pastiches of towns, but are a different kind of built environment altogether. Towns and cities organically evolve over time; suburbs attempt to realize a quaint image overnight. They are designed to satisfy a yearning for homeownership and independence, though mass production subverts their homages to picturesque American towns.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Like most suburbs, the road to Bailey Park is paved with good intentions. Bailey builds it as an affordable neighborhood where low income families like the Martinis (who previously rented in Potter’s Field) can buy a house. It was actually filmed at a real housing tract in quasi-rustic La Cañada Flintridge, California. This once attainable area is now one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest, and Zillow estimates the modest Martini house is worth well over a million dollars.

Urbanism of nostalgia is a paradox: suburbs try to emulate towns and attempt to insulate this ideal by limiting development. An overabundance of single-family residential zoning in and around desirable cities artificially controls housing supply and drives up the cost of living. As a result, once-affordable suburban neighborhoods become too expensive to foster family formation— betraying their entire reason for being.

Well-meaning but misguided George Baileys still promote an outdated and frankly unsustainable model of urban growth. Developers have built concentric layers of Bailey Parks, creating the sprawling and still-growing conurbation of Greater Los Angeles. County supervisors recently voted to approve Centennial, a proposed 19,000 unit subdivision 70 miles outside downtown LA—with the Grapevine and Tejon Mountain Pass projects planned even farther out in Tejon Ranch. Home prices there are projected to be around $500,000, which is inexpensive for the region but not necessarily affordable. Here, the American Dream comes bundled with hyper-commuting and environmental degradation—a high price to pay for a wonderful life.

Willem Swârt

Author: Willem Swârt

Willem is a designer and writer based in Los Angeles particularly interested in regenerative design as the intersection of history, ecology, urbanism, and architecture. He currently works for David Hertz FAIA and The Studio of Environmental Architecture, where he was on the grand prize winning team of the Water Abundance XPrize. Willem obtained an M.Arch degree from UCLA, with a graduate certificate from the Leaders in Sustainability program. He graduated from UCSB with high honors and a B.A. in English and the History of Art & Architecture.