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Levittown USA - dream homes for families? or communist hell?

In 1929, Abraham Levitt founded a real-estate development company called Levitt & Sons who built mostly upscale housing on Long Is­land NY. Pre-WW2 first son William Levitt (1907–94) became company president, and the house designs were done by second son Alfred.

From 1946 there were two urgent pushes to the housing market: America's post-war prosp­erity and the baby boom of 1946-51. Mass product­ion strategies William had learn­ed building military housing could work for domestic housing, so they purch­ased a 7 square mile tract of Long Island’s fields New York. Levittown’s very existence was dependent on an important act of American community development: the 1948 Housing Bill, which freed up bill­ions of doll­ars in credit and gave many families the chance to get a 5%-down, 30-year mortgages in the first place.

Starting as America’s proto-­typical post-war planned community, the Levittown project began mass-producing single-family homes, fore­sh­ad­owing a wave of migration from cities. For middle-class WW2 ex-servicemen on G.I loans, Levittown was an affordable dream, a chance to escape the city’s crowded blocks.

Advertisement for beautiful Levittowner houses
Note the support for ex-servicemen

Building one house every 16 minutes at its peak, the company used mass manufactur­ing systems. Non-unionised and unskilled workers moved from house to house, each performing one of the highly specialised steps in the total assembly process, using standardised materials. It was certain­ly efficient; they completed Levittown’s 17,311 detached family houses by 1951. 

The Levitts’ American dream had an aesthetic uniformity, each house being based on one core architectural plan. The development event­ually con­tained carefully laid out symmetrical roads, public swim­ming pools, baseball fields, parks, shopping clusters in the cen­tre, churches and schools. And a Veterans Memorial Park.

By mid 1952, families were moving in at 500 per month. The first homes sold for $7,990 with a 5% down payment (0% for ex-servicemen). Most of Levittown’s male residents happily commuted to good jobs in Manhattan. But crit­ics had grave reservations: Harper’s called the lit­tle Levitt house “American suburbia reduced to its logical absurd­ity”, and a “uniform environment from which escape is impossible”. Did the critics not understand that ex-servicemen needed peace and security for their families, above all else? 

Each house was differently shaped or differently oriented on the block

The critics were wrong. Houses in these developments were less alike than the blocks of flats and the old pre-war bungalows which lined the city streets. In any case, though Levitt built cheapish, fully funct­ioning houses and built them well, he left almost every­thing else to the new home owners. They were encouraged to custom­ise their homes, whether of the standard utilitarian Cape Cod de­sign or another. Excited families focused on their own int­erior décor­ation, windows, rooflines, land­scaping and paint colours to show their ind­ividuality and creat­iv­ity. What families most wanted was a sun­ny, grassy back yard for their children, free from city poll­ut­ion.

Levit­town life had its comm­unal aspects and shared regulat­ions eg no homeowner could fen­ce off a private yard from the shared green and the lawns had to be mow­ed every week. And they had a strong sense of shared resp­on­sibility. They would babysit, drive neigh­bours around, help out with mortgage payments if needed.

British and Australian historians always had trouble understanding the intense American loathing of Levittown. The “general lust for con­formity”, and a “blind, desperate clinging to safety and sec­ur­ity at any price” was the equivalent of calling the Levitt project as socialist and dangerous. Based on the horrors the ex-servicemen had seen in WW2, safety and security sounded like ideals, not a socialist threat. To my baby-boomer ears, bedroom communities of housing developments in the ind­ust­rial­ised North sounded enticing.

Why did Levittown become known for its “complacent racism"? The Federal Hous­ing Administration, established in the 1930s, had refused to insure mortgages in black neighbourhoods; they incentivised the construct­ion of suburban communities with the promise of fin­an­cial help, provided that they exclude black buyers. William Levitt cooper­at­ed, partially ensuring that Lev­ittown was quickly successful. It was a question of economics, not racism, he said. Now note the following Levittown clause: The ten­ant agrees not to permit the premises to be occupied by any person oth­er than members of the Caucasian race. But the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted.

As William Levitt personally rejected racism, there could have been only two explanations to Levittown’s racist entry laws. Firstly Levit­town was following the powerful soc­ial customs of the era, since it would certainly fail to at­t­ract residents if he rejected those cus­toms. Secondly the growing power of Sen Joseph McCarthy and his col­leagues was controlling peoples’ views, by terror, from late 1940s on.

War memorial
and open park land

As a result Levittown’s population was 100% white. It seemed that Brown v Board of Education (1954) and the nation­wide racial integration that followed hardly touched Levittown.

In 1957 the Wechsler family members were committed humanist activists who found a perfect black family to buy their Levittown house; Bill and Daisy Myers were a young, educated couple with children and a GI loan. The Myers purchased the 3 bedroom house for $12,150. They moved in secretly, but very soon a mailman knocked on their door and asked to see the owner. “It happened. Niggers have moved into Levittown”, the mailman screamed.

Nearby a house was rented out to serve as Confederate Club House for the racist resid­ents of Levittown, who saw the arrival of non-whites as an end to their idyll. This Lev­ittown Bet­terment Comm­it­tee flew the Confederate flag and “prot­ect­ed” an all-white Levit­town! It wasn’t long before the Wechslers’ ex-home was defaced by the KKK and crosses were burned on lawns.

The Myers had support from Quakers, the American Jewish Congress and William Penn Centre. White couples baby­sat the Myers’ children and helped clean up the wreckage. Finally the State Att­orney General got involved, issuing a formal complaint against the racists in Confederate House.

Calling Levittown “communist” was not as laughable as I thought. Though the American government tried to address the severe housing short­age by launching public housing programs, they were vic­iously vil­ified by right-wingers as a form of social­ism. Sen McCarthy him­self called housing projects “breeding grounds for commun­ists”. Furthermore critics compared the architectural uniformity of Levittown as reminiscent of the conformity of Communist China.

Shopping Plaza, the open-air complex at the centre of Levittown New Jersey 
Built 1958-60

To many, suburban Levittown became a symbol of American modernity; to others, Levittown was a symbol of conformity and exclusion. At least the children who grew up in Levittown New York (1947-51) and its descendants (Penn­sylvania 1952, New Jersey 1958 and Puerto Rico 1963) were shaped by very secure and innovat­ive environments.


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