Levittown: The Imperfect Rise of the American Suburbs

Posted by on Aug 13th, 2012 | 5 Comments
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In 1947, entrepreneur Abraham Levitt and his two sons, William and Alfred, broke ground on a planned community located in Nassau County, Long Island. Within a few years, the Levitts had transformed the former farmland into a suburban community housing thousands of men—many of whom were veterans returned from World War II—and their families. The Levitts would go on to create two other communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the legacy of the first Levittown has become a legend in the history of the American suburbs. Even at the time, the iconic community represented for many all that was hopeful and wholesome for the estimated twenty million Americans who followed Levittown’s lead and made the trek to suburbia in the 1950s. ((David Kushner, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. New York: Walker Publishing Company, xiii.))

But underneath the uniform houses lining the curved, meticulously gardened roads of Levittown lies a much more turbulent story. Although 1950s suburbia conjures visions of traditional family life, idyllic domesticity and stability, the story of the suburbization of America is also one of exclusion, segregation and persecution. Levittown itself arguably embodied the best and worst of the postwar American story; it was a result of the entrepreneurship and ingenuity that has come to define the American spirit, but it also participated in the violent prejudice that has also been part of American history.

Suburbia in the American Historical Imagination

The suburbs, of course, were not born in the 1950s. The appeal of living beyond the noise, pollution, overcrowding and disease of the city, while still close enough to enjoy the benefits of its industrial and cultural vitality, is an idea that historians have traced back thousands of years to the very first civilizations. ((Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbization of the United States, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 12)) But the delineation between urban and nonurban has particular significance in U.S. history. So much of the American story has involved, literally and ideologically, turning away from the crowded industry of the city to the romantic beauty of the frontier. Thomas Jefferson, for example, dreamed of the U.S. as a nation of small yeoman farmers, and once wrote that he viewed “large cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” ((Kushner, 6))

Despite Jefferson’s vision, cities in the U.S. formed and flourished. Starting in the early nineteenth century, the advent of new forms of transportation (such as trains and steamboats) made commuting to urban centers more convenient. By the 1920s, the first suburban boom was occurring with nearly 900,000 new homes a year springing up in new communities outside city lines. ((Kushner, 7)) Just like Thomas Jefferson had dreamed of farmers with their own land to sow as an essential ingredient of America’s future, home ownership became not only a mark of success, but was perceived as an attribute to both the character of the individual and of the nation. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said later in the century, “A nation of homeowners, of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.”

How and why did suburbia become such an iconic and beloved part of American life? Some historians have postulated that after two world wars—both with staggering death tolls—followed by the uncertainty of the Cold War nuclear age, American families found stability and protection within the suburban home. Advertisers for suburban developments emphasized the green, open spaces of the suburbs and hinted buyers would find a sense of peace and tranquility unattainable in city life. Historian Kenneth Jackson has written that the post-world War II single-family tract house, “whatever its aesthetic failings, offered growing families a private haven in a heartless world.” ((Jackson, 244))

The Construction of Levittown

In the years after World War II, however, not everyone could attain that promised tranquility. One problem was  a severe housing shortage. A combination of unusually high birth rates (which bred the baby boomer generation) and plummeting construction left many families struggling to find any suitable shelters, sometimes living in boxcars, chicken coops and large ice boxes. ((Kushner, 30)) To many of those families, the Levittowns in Long Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were the answer to their prayers.

The Levitts certainly did not invent the business of building suburbs, but in many ways, they perfected it. Abraham, a horticultural enthusiast, was heavily involved in the landscaping and gardening of the community. Alfred, the quieter of the two sons, experimented with progressive ways of designing and constructing homes while his brother Bill marketed and sold them with vigor. Bill later became the public face of the company, loved (and later reviled), gracing magazine covers and dubbed the “King of Suburbia.”

The Levitts experimented with and implemented wholly new methods of building a community, taking division of labor and efficiency to the extreme, transforming “a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process.” ((Jackson, 234)) They divided the construction of each home into twenty-seven steps starting with the laying of a concrete base. Construction workers were trained to do one step at each house (which were spaced 60 feet apart) instead of building each house up from scratch individually.

The Levitts’ homes were affordable, planted in a picture-perfect, carefully controlled community, and were equipped with futuristic stoves and television sets. The houses were simple, unpretentious, and most importantly to its inhabitants, affordable to both the white and blue collar worker. And the Levitts took more than the homes themselves into consideration—they designed community streets along curvilinear patterns to create a graceful, un-urban grid like feel, and directed cars going through the development to the outside of the community so Levittown would not be disturbed by noisy traffic. Even the maintenance of houses and yards were meticulously governed; buyers agreed to a laundry list of rules that, for example, prohibited residents from hanging laundry to dry outside their homes. ((Kushner, 42))

Discrimination in Levittown

Despite such meticulousness in community planning, all was not serene in Levvittown. The Levitts’ level of control over the appearance of Levittown did not stop at the yards and houses, but extended to the appearance of the inhabitants themselves. Bill Levitt only sold houses to white buyers, excluding African Americans from buying houses in his communities even after housing segregation had been ruled unconstitutional by the courts. By 1953, the 70,000 people who lived in Levittown constituted the largest community in the United States with no black residents. ((Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar American. New York: Vintage Books, 2003, 217))

Originally, the Levitts’ racist policy was enshrined in the lease itself, which stipulated that “the tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be sued or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” ((Kushner, 43)) That provision was later struck down in court as unconstitutional, but Bill Levitt continued to enforce racial homogeneity in practice by rejecting would-be black buyers.

Activist groups across the U.S. and even individuals within Levittown, who united under the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown, protested the Levitts’ racist policies. In 1955, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued federal mortgage agencies which had helped future homeowners finance the purchase of homes in the community, basing the suit on the denial of six black veterans from purchasing homes. Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who had successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education, represented the plaintiffs, but a Philadelphia court dismissed the suit after ruling that the federal agencies were not responsible for preventing housing discrimination.

Though the Levitts made it an unofficial policy not to sell homes to minorities, they could not legally prevent an existing homeowner from reselling their home to black buyers. In 1957, William and Daisy Myers, a black couple with young children, bought a house in Levittown, Pennsylvania from the former owners. The Myers family faced endless harassment as well as implicit and explicit threats of violence from other residents in the community, with little help from the local police to keep the mobs of angry racists from congregating outside their home day and night. Through perseverance and courage, however, Myers outlasted their harassers and eventually succeeded in filing criminal charges against the worst members of the mob.

The specter of communism was also heavily implicated in the Myers struggle, as members of both sides of the conflict hurled charges of socialism at their opponents. White residents of Levittown and other still segregated communities across the country took to blandly referencing their “Americanism” as justification for racial exclusivity, and painted those who sought to enforce integration as that which was at the time perceived as the most un-American of allegiances, communist. Indeed, the very charters of Levittown and suburbs across America were closely intertwined with the preservation of the capitalist American way in the face of growing Soviet international influence. Though the government attempted to address the severe housing shortage by launching some public housing programs, those programs were viciously vilified by right-wing politicians as a form of socialism. Senator Joseph McCarthy himself called public housing projects “breeding ground[s] for communists.” ((Kushner, 30))

The Levitts and McCarthy joined forces in promoting Levittown as a more American, capitalist alternative to public housing solutions. McCarthy posed with washing machines to be placed in Levittown homes, and praised Levittown as a model of the American way. ((Kushner, 45)) Bill Levitt himself once said, “No man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist, he has too much to do.” ((Kushner, xiv)) Later, Levitt vilified those who questioned his segregationist policies as communists. It wasn’t only segregationists used the charge of Communism to their advantage. U.S. writer Pearl Buck once compared the architectural and racial uniformity of the Levittown as reminiscent of the conformity of Communist China. ((Kushner, 70))

 The construction and growth of Levittown was a godsend for many houseless families, but it was also a battleground for divisive conceptions of race and political differences in the United States. Journalist David Kushner, the author of a book about the Myers experience, wrote of that less told story of Levittown’s history, “It epitomizes how systematically people can be shut out of a dream—and yet how heroically they can take it back.” ((Kushner, xv))

 A Systemic Problem

Sadly, the experiences of the Myers in Levittown were not unique, but were echoed in houses, apartments and streets across the nation. How was segregation still such a real, persevering and violent part of communities long after residential segregation laws had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1917?

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt had launched a federal agency called the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), meant to protect struggling homeowners from losing their homes. The HOLC later implemented a system of rating neighborhoods with letter grades to help more systematically discern property values. While racially homogenous and primarily white neighborhoods generally received higher grades, the agency deemed those neighborhoods housing minorities or, “an undesirable element,” in the official language, with its lowest ratings. ((Kushner, 17)) Later, the Federal Housing Authority continued to use those HOLC standards when issuing mortgages. As historian Jackson has written, “For perhaps the first time, the federal government embraced the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace. Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy.” ((Jackson, 213))

The rating system eventually contributed to reinforcing segregation as real estate agents and landlords steered white buyers to white communities, and African Americans to poorer developments. The system also enforced the perception that the entry of racial minorities into a community resulted in a drop in property values. As one neighbor of the Myers family told Life magazine during the standoff, “He’s [William Myers] probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.” ((Cohen, 217)) While federal policies encouraged home ownership as a way to reinforce the capitalist spirit of the nation and real estate marketing celebrated home ownership as the key ingredient to an ideal domestic existence, government bureaucrats, real estate agents and landlords all implemented policies which helped exclude a large portion of American society from realizing that dream.

Not all communities replicated the racial tensions of Levittown, however. Quaker-built Pennsylvanian suburb Concord Park, for example, was built under the motto “Democracy in Housing,” and embraced diverse residents. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order prohibiting racial discrimination in any housing developments built or bought with the assistance of the federal government. Though the move was an important step in preventing federal agencies from enabling the racial policies of communities like Levittown, the house-by-house, street-by-street battle for integration of suburban communities and city blocks would last much longer.

The Mixed Suburban Legacy

After the financial success of the Levittown in Long Island, Levitt and Sons went on to build two more Levittowns, one in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey. The uniform houses and immaculate lawns of the Levittown version of Suburbia made an indelible impression in the American mind, and an image of the winding roads of Levittown still conjures associations of a peaceful, wholesome Leave it To Beaver-type existence.

But the legacy of the suburbs that Levittown embodied was not simple, as shown by the struggle of the Myers. Others attacked suburban communities not just for their segregationism, but for a uniformity of spirit some saw as worth struggling against. In 1963, folk singer Malvina Reynold’s song “Little Boxes,” captured what some in the growing counter-culture movement saw as the forced conformity of suburban life. The song has been covered by countless other folk singers since, including Pete Seeger:

The suburbs have clearly come to symbolize more than just collections of white picket-fenced houses outside a city. Jackson wrote in Crabgrass Frontier, “Suburbia…is a manifestation of such fundamental characteristics of American society as conspicuous consumption, a reliance upon the private automobile, upward mobility, the separation of the family nuclear units, the widening division between work and leisure, and the tendency toward racial and economic exclusiveness.” To some, suburbia was a symbol of American can-do; to others, it was a symbol of conformity and exclusion. The story of Levittown captures both the hopeful and darker sides of the rise of the American suburbs.

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About the Author:

Crystal Galyean majored in history and journalism at Northwestern University before earning her MA in history at Rutgers University, where she was a Master Scholarship Award winner. She works in educational publishing and is especially interested in cultural history and finding new, engaging ways of telling historical stories.


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