Say the name “Levittown,” and you’ve just opened the cover to an American postwar picture album. Go ahead, flip the pages: the aerial photograph of a landscape of identical houses looking like a black-and-white checkerboard…down below, a young ex-GI and his family smile broadly in front of their new home, a Chevy sedan in their driveway…inside the front door, Tupperware parties and paint-by-number kits…out the back door, a new power mower, pitcher of lemonade and a smoky backyard barbecue. Hear the saxophone?
Levittown, Long Island, the most famous American postwar suburban development, was a household name, the “Exhibit A” of suburbia. It came on the eve of the baby boom and just before the 1948 Housing Bill liberalized lending, allowing anyone to buy a home with 5 percent down and extending mortgage terms to 30 years. Millions of families needed homes. Housing starts were down during the Depression and World War II. Returning vets armed with their GI Bill of Rights and guaranteed Veterans Administration low-interest loans wanted to move into places of their own. The Federal Housing Administration was guaranteeing loans from bankers to builders, and Long Island farmland was going cheap.
Real estate developers Levitt & Sons saw an opportunity in the potato fields near Hempstead, N.Y., and they bought up the land, envisioning small, affordable homes there. They also rethought home building: Cut out the middlemen suppliers, streamline construction, circumvent local zoning codes and keep labor unions at arm’s length. When the last nail was driven in 1951, 17,447 houses stood in Levittown.
But Levittown was about more than just the houses. As the largest and most influential housing development of its time, it became a postwar poster child for everything right (affordability, better standard of living) and wrong (architectural monotony, poor planning, racism) with suburbia.
Levittown, right from the start, was famous. It was also an intensely image-conscious place. “It is a poor week when Levitt houses aren’t featured in at least one full-column story in the New York newspapers,” wrote a reporter in Fortune magazine in 1947. In the early days, everyone from Levitt & Sons’ P.T. Barnum-esque president, William J. Levitt, to the community’s residents was in on the promotion. In 1951 Levittown was featured by Collier’s magazine in “the biggest flash photograph ever attempted.” The picture was snapped from the top of Levittown’s 200-foot water tower, using 1,500 flash bulbs. Volunteers were not hard to find. “Nourished on national publicity,” the magazine reported, “the suburbanites pitched in.” Residents gleefully blocked off streets and raised the flash bulbs. “If this isn’t the biggest, brightest, most ambitious birthday card ever presented to a four-year-old,” gushed Collier’s, “what is?”
Levittown’s portrait may have been carefully staged, but it was in demand. Americans soon found echoes of the place everywhere, as overnight suburban communities mushroomed up from Park Forest, Ill., to Lakewood, Calif. Its seemingly magical creation—just a few years earlier, there were potato plants where those carports now stood—perfectly captured the pace of a hurry-it-up decade. Patience had been killed by 15 years of economic depression, war and an epidemic housing shortage. People wanted the full package—the affordable house, the new appliances, the suburban lifestyle—and they wanted it right away.
Levittown’s promotion was also a defensive reply to criticism. Attacks were launched by architectural critic Lewis Mumford; John Keats, author of the scathing antisuburbia novel A Crack in the Picture Window; and a handful of other writers who never set foot in the place but were content to lambaste it from their city offices. Ironically, Mumford’s complaint that Levittown was a “uniform environment from which escape is impossible” ignored the architectural sameness (block after block of overcrowded apartments) many new suburbanites were fleeing from in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
Certainly for the inhabitants of Levittown, more disturbing complaints came from their Long Island neighbors. Wealthy Gold Coast residents were concerned with property values and a decline in prestige with the arrival of the urban working class in their “boxy little” houses. An editorial in a local news-paper, the Island Trees Tribune, noted this as early as December 4, 1947: “It seems that the people of the surrounding areas were a bit afraid of what sort of people would move into [Levittown].”
Helen Hooper, 27 years old when she moved from Queens in 1949, remembered similar attitudes in long-settled nearby villages: “They resented it when they knew you came from Levittown.” She frequently felt icy, awkward stares: “When you went in there to shop, they kind of looked at you funny.” Even some of her own relatives felt she’d made a mistake. “They’d look around…bang the walls. And they all told us, ‘In ten years they’re going to go through this place with a bulldozer and knock it down, it’s going to be a slum.’ ”
Competing builders made the same criticisms. Fortune reported Levittown’s critics proclaiming their doubts over “rotten masonry, green lumber, inferior workmanship.”
The houses, however, were well made, a fact that longtime residents continue to point to with pride. George Merritt, a U.S. Navy veteran who moved into the community in 1955, was impressed with his original house even as he added on to it. The Levittown carpenters “did a job, man, I’m telling you,” he said. From copper coil radiant heating to brass-zinc covered nails, the builder didn’t scrimp—at least not on materials. Merritt was astonished when he pulled the doorway out of his kitchen: “That door must have had 40 nails in it! When I finally got it ripped off it said on the back ‘Treated with Woodlife.’ I didn’t even know they made that then, but he [William Levitt] really…did a good job. Unbelievable.” As with many other residents, Merritt’s considerable sweat equity improved his home over the years, starting with a front bay window.
Levitt & Sons was in its 18th year of business when it started the neighborhood of Island Trees, renamed Levittown in 1948. Abraham Levitt, a real estate lawyer, had founded the company in 1929 and appointed his son William as president, and son Alfred as vice president, chief architect and planner. In 1941 the family had won a wartime contract with the navy to build 2,350 homes in Norfolk, Va. To meet the deadlines, the Levitts divided the building process into 27 separate steps—a mass production technique that would serve the company for years to come.
In Levittown, as in Norfolk, work crews were dedicated to specific tasks—plumbing, electrical wiring and roofing—that streamlined construction and kept costs down. Nonunion workers were employed as “unskilled” laborers, not craftsman. They made their money through piecework, not the hourly rate that unionized construction workers were accustomed to getting in the nearby city. A roofing crew, for example, made $60 per finished roof, usually split three ways. “It was a well-oiled machine and you could make more money that way,” remembers Edward Konop, a construction superintendent for the Levitts from 1947 to 1954.
To evade one of the more difficult demands of the Town of Hempstead’s zoning laws—that all homes have basements—William Levitt engineered a community meeting in front of the town board, and several hundred people showed up. One resident stood up and shouted: “You want basements? I’m living in a basement. It’s my mother-in-law’s.” The code was rescinded, and the company had its easier-to-build slab foundation Cape Cod homes. At the top of its game, Levitt & Sons was capable of building one house every 16 minutes. That became part of the sales pitch.
The first homes were available for rent only, with an option to buy after one year for $6,990. Rent was $60 a month. In March 1949, Levitt & Sons began selling the houses upfront, and more than 1,000 couples arrived at the sales office. Levitt plastered the newspapers with advertisements designed to attract one and all, especially young war veterans. The first homes were just 4 1/2 rooms: 2 bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, bathroom and an “expansion attic”—not much bigger than some of the city apartments the GIs were leaving behind. As one reporter put it, “They might not be considered the ‘dream homes’ soldiers thought about in the foxholes across the world a few years back,” but they were enough. The Cape Cods and each successive Ranch remodel offered in 1949, 1950 and 1951 sold out even before the developers finished building them.
In some ways, Levittown resembled the ethnic composition of the military during World War II: Jews, Italians, Irish and Poles living side-by-side. But also like most of the military, African Americans were unable to enter this melting pot. As with many homebuilders in his era, William Levitt didn’t question the demands of his financial backers, the FHA, which supported nationwide racial covenants and “redlining”—or devaluing—racially mixed communities. Every Levittown rental lease and homeowner’s contract barred those that were “not member(s) of the Caucasian race.”
Levitt defended the housing restrictions long after the first residents moved into Levittown, stating that he was just following the social customs of the times. “This is their [the white customers] attitude, not ours,” he once wrote. “As a company our position is simply this: ‘We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.’ ”
Even after the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer made racial covenants unconstitutional, the FHA continued to underwrite loans only to white neighborhoods. Although Levitt dropped the restrictive language from his leases, he kept up the policy in practice and fought the court’s ruling for years afterward. “The elimination of the clause has changed absolutely nothing,” he announced in the Levittown Tribune in 1949. In 1958, a lawsuit charging discrimination was brought against Levitt in New Jersey, where his third planned community, Willingboro, was being built. In 1960, to avoid public hearings on the case, he agreed to desegregate Willingboro, though the sale of homes to blacks was highly orchestrated. Racial covenants were not specifically criminalized until the Civil Rights’ Fair Housing Act of 1968.
At least some of the incoming white residents were uncomfortable with the restrictions. Betty Spector, who had lived in an interracial neighborhood in Washington Heights, N.Y., remembered thinking, “ ‘My God, I’ve moved to Bigot Town!’ ” Spector found the lack of diversity appalling, and she was hardly the only one. As early as 1947, a committee to end discrimination was formed in the community and such efforts, while failing to change William Levitt’s policies, continued well into the 1950s. Gertrude Novik, a renter who faced eviction in 1950 because she had begun an interracial play group, recalled, “We really had no place to live….Sometimes your hands are tied, and you hope you can get in and change the world a little bit.”
Eugene Burnett, a young black ex-GI, and his wife Bernice drove out to Levittown in 1950, unaware of the ban on African Americans. “It’s not me, but the owners of this development have not yet decided to sell to Negroes,” said the salesman. Burnett eventually moved his family to the Suffolk County suburbs and became a police officer and small businessman. Like many black professionals, he chose a racially mixed community, Ronek Park, in Amityville, which was advertised especially to people who had been turned away from Levittown. Still, for Burnett, the sting of the blow stayed with him. “I think that William Levitt and Levittown had an opportunity to do something here. In fact, not only an opportunity but a responsibility,” he said some 50 years later.
Burnett’s experience can be contrasted with that of Thurston Gaines, a young black doctor who moved to the community in 1955 (shortly after the racial covenants were rescinded) and lived there until about 1961. Gaines, a former Tuskeegee Airman, actually worked on Levitt homes one summer after the war. Wanting a place closer to his residency, Gaines jumped at the offer of a former white classmate willing to sell his Levittown home for $8,500. Unhappy neighbors offered more money to keep Gaines out, but the transaction went through. “We never became close with the neighbors,” he said, “but we were also not interested in socializing.”
A busy young doctor, Gaines found Levittown more a place to sleep than anything else, although two of his children were born there. By 1961 he had moved his family to Rockville Centre, a higher echelon economically than Levittown. To this day, Levittown’s black population remains below 1 percent, but the Gaines’ story also speaks to another trend. Like many other Levittown residents who were moving to more affluent parts of Long Island, the Gaineses were trading up.
Writer Michael Pollan remembered that “by 1960, when my parents went house hunting…Levittown was passé, and the next new place—the un-Levittown—promised to be the Gates of Woodbury, where lots were generally a sprawling acre.” Like minor league ballplayers hitting the big time, some Levittown residents were jumping to the next level by the late 1950s, finding bigger homes in swankier new developments. Plainview, Huntington and other places along the new Long Island Expressway grew exponentially. Some moved east to other Levitt developments in Suffolk County, the Strathmores of Stony Brook and Coram, by the mid-1960s.
Driving through Levittown today on its miracle mile Hempstead Turnpike, you’d be forgiven for missing history’s mark. Passing the big-box retailers and local operations like the Tri County Flea Market, which claims to hold “the largest selection of jewelry anywhere,” you feel in fact you could be anywhere. You will search in vain for that original, untouched Levitt house. These days, Home Depot has taken the reins of local home improvements, and you’ll find everything from Moroccan-inspired columns to a full three-story faux Mount Vernon.
The Levittown dream still exists but in much altered form. Skyrocketing real estate prices and some of the highest property taxes in the nation have pushed many out. By 1967 the basic Levitt home was valued at more than twice its original purchase price, and improved houses had almost tripled in value. Then came the go-go real estate climate of the past two decades. Levitt homes originally priced at $7,900 were selling for well over $400,000 by 2007.
Dorothy and Fred Johs, residents since September 1948, often marvel at the changes. Originally “we were all in the same boat, nobody had a lot of money,” said Dorothy, a nurse during World War II who had met her future husband while serving in Europe. “When we moved out here, we used orange crates for end tables until we could afford to buy end tables.” When they purchased the home they had been renting for six years in 1954, a $400 loan from a neighbor gave them just enough for the $1,000 down payment. “It was such a different time,” said Fred. Over the years, the couple has seen most of their old friends and neighbors move away.
Levittown Movers started its business in the 1950s, trucking young couples and their possessions to the suburbs. But these days, the company’s trucks have been headed out of town. “We’re seeing an increase, not only the retirees but also families and younger people, moving to South Jersey, upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Florida,” said company president Sal Randozzo. “They get job offers, and the bottom line, when they do the math, is it’s cheaper to move out, even with no pay increase…to a bigger house,” he said.
Still, on its 60th anniversary, Levittown holds a place on the national stage. In popular history books such as the late newsman Peter Jennings’ The Century, it shares the American postwar memory landscape with the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech. Television personality Bill O’Reilly frequently mentions his upbringing there to burnish his common-man image. The story is familiar and understandably nostalgic: Few early residents remain; all are getting on in years. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now struggle to enter a very different housing market.
And as early American postwar suburbs everywhere “grow to maturity,” it’s an episode worth remembering. Like the early residents still living there, the country has moved on, but the lessons—the importance of large-scale federal housing support, the painful, awful mistakes of racial exclusion and the fulfillment of a dream for working-class people—are still there for us, beneath all those new brick facades and layers of paint.
This article was written by Joshua Ruff and originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!