Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series.
Daniel Ludwig, his wife and four children arrived in New York Harbor in 1955 with little more than a homemade wooden crate containing his most valuable hand tools.
Ludwig had been trained as a master woodworker in his homeland of Romania, having come to the United States by way of a German refugee camp. Within two years of arriving in America, he’d saved enough money to buy an old house with a big backyard in a suburb of Oakland, Calif.
As soon as he’d achieved the American dream of homeownership, Dan Ludwig turned his attention to setting up his own shop. He filled his first cabinet and furniture orders from a cramped one-car garage that stood along one edge of his property.
Ludwig’s business quickly outgrew those tight quarters, and 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, 10-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 handiwork.
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 family and bringing his Old World skills to 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 could put Dan Ludwig in a time machine to replay his life in present-day America, the outcome might be quite different.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. in 2011 instead of 1955, it’s likely that he’d never have become a homeowner at all, but rather 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 managed to get his house and its big backyard, just as he did in the 1950s. And let’s say he set out to build his big yellow workshop in 2011 instead of 1961.
Where once he obtained a permit over the counter, got some friends together, and got down to pouring concrete, today’s process is a bit more complicated. Next time, we’ll see just how complicated.