The Legacy of Levittown.

15 Oct

After finishing Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights by David Kushner, I have spent the past week educating myself in the Levitt Brothers and their enormous contribution to housing, land use, and race relations in America.

By David Kushner

The Levitt family were a team of three men: Abraham (father), and William and Alfred (sons.) Historian Kenneth Jackson described them as,”The family that had the greatest impact on postwar housing in the United States…who ultimately built more than 180,000 houses and turned a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process.” Veterans returning from World War II met an enormous shortage of affordable housing. Having served in the military himself, Bill encouraged Abraham and Alfred to invest in over 4000 acres on Long Island and use innovative building techniques to meet the housing needs of veterans. They built the first Levittown in New York in 1947, the second in Pennsylvania in 1952, and two more in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Alfred designed homes that could be built on an “assembly line” as such. Pieces of the home would be delivered to the site and over two dozen construction teams would move from house to house, doing just one task (ex: installing windows, painting walls, etc.) This allowed the Levitts to build 30 houses a day, and sell them for very affordable prices. William marketed these towns not just for their attractively priced homes, but for their strength in community. With the FTA subsidizing mortgages, Levittown in New York and Pennsylvania, were extremely popular and offered a “lifestyle” to young families. As seen in the video below, this was revolutionary home building:

The “legacy of Levittown” is huge. In addition to the innovative construction techniques that builders are challenged to match today, these developments were America’s first suburbs – William Levitt has been coined as the “Father of Suburbia.” The Levitts developed a construction/marketing machine that saw a massive consumption of countryside, quickly. They sold a lifestyle where commuting 40 miles one way was not only acceptable, but desirable. In a way, the Levitts helped build the foundation of suburban sprawl that we have today.

construction of Levittown

The delivery of housing materials to the building site waiting for construction. (Source:University of Illinois at Chicago)

Perhaps the Levitt’s legacy that is not as well-known, and certainly not celebrated, is racism in the housing industry. While racial segregation in housing was not unknown during this time, the Levitts put in place a restrictive covenant that only allowed houses in Levittown to be rented or sold to a member of the Caucasian race. He believed that higher property values were related directly to the developments being all-white. Unfortunately, so did the people who bought the houses. They all used that defense in preserving the restrictive covenant, even when the federal government enforced integration with cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education. David Kushner’s book, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, details the Myers Family who bought their house Levittown, PA, despite the restrictive covenant, from a man desperate to sell. The result was months of violence against not only the Myers, but their next door neighbors, the Wechslers, a Jewish, equal rights activist couple. The case, especially after involvement from the KKK, gained international recognition. The endurance of Daisy Myers and her family against non-stop threats and violence, coined her the “Rosa Parks of the North.” Below is a condensed summary of a documentary made at the time, chronicling this civil rights struggle. Definitely pick up David Kushner’s book to get a personal account of the story, it truly is fascinating.

My book club had the great pleasure of speaking with the author, David Kushner, via Skype. When I asked him what the urban planning legacy of Levittown is, in addition to the obvious, he suggested the innovative design of architect Alfred Levitt. While Levittown, PA offered 6 different house models for purchase, Levittown, NY only provided two. However, they were designed in a way that allowed personalization and extension over time. Alfred recognized that his clients would be looking for the most affordable home immediately after the war and offering only two models would achieve this. He also realized that over time, those people would become more financially secure and would want a larger house. By designing the models in a way that could be easily adaptable, people with emotional ties to Levittown could remain, strengthening the community, and the identity of the town would evolve, adding to the place’s character. David Kushner was right –  this is revolutionary in it’s own right.

Levittown two model houses

The two house models offered in Levittown NY: the colonial and the ranch. (Image: University of Illinois in Chicago)

The result is that now, Levittown, PA remains almost identical to its 1950s self. Homes were not adaptable, and in combination with what is perhaps little regional growth, the town has not evolved to offer the lifestyle required of contemporary living. Property values did drop, not because of racial integration, but because the town’s lack of ability to remain relevant. It has also suffered from crime, and even acquired the reputation of being the “meth-lab of America.”

Levittown, NY, however, transformed over time and remains a healthy suburb. No doubt it’s proximity to Manhattan is responsible in part, but it is impossible not to attribute some of its success to Alfred’s design. As he had imagined, practically none of the original model homes can be found in the town of 6,000 houses. They have all been adapted, not demolished, over time. The fact remains, that while now Levittown, PA only offers 6 types of houses, Levittown, NY offers an infinite number.

Suburban development in America has definitely happened in waves. White flight, followed by returning vets and the contemporary suburbs we have today. They do not share the same physical characteristics: Levittown was built on a connected street network and modern development is organized around disconnected cul-de-sacs. In addition, houses in Levittown were modest in size, while McMansions today sprawl across large lots. Even though this great book was primarily based on the civil rights struggle in Levittown, as I read, I kept looking for those correlations between suburbs through time.

As soon as David Kushner stated that the greatest urban planning legacy of Levittown was Alfred Levitt’s allowance for personalization, I realized that this was the connection I had been searching for. It appears that through the evolution of suburbia, we’ve actually designed it in progressively more destructive ways. Most recently, property values in modern suburban developments have been the least able to sustain the economic recession, in comparison to urban neighborhoods.

One characteristic that modern suburbia most has in common with the Levitt’s less successful town in Pennsylvania, is it’s lack of personalization. Personalization is important to the physical, economic, and social sustainability of a place, as I detail in this earlier post: Holy HOA. The ability for people to personalize their own house, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Today, when we’re in a gated community off a belt loop interstate, we could be anywhere in America. And when you’re standing on a street corner in Levittown, PA, you could be on any street corner in the town. Anonymity = unimportant. This is not an unreal correlation to make.

Houses in Levittown NY

Houses that have been personalized over time in Levittown, NY

Therefore, in light of Levittown, NY’s climb to a town of pride and Levittown, PA’s descent to mediocrity, as well as their seemingly similar physical characteristics and social, historical context, it is not unreasonable to attribute the difference in their success on the ability, or lack thereof, of properties to evolve.

It’s ironic that after decades of similar suburban development, we fail to make the correlation between their design and the effects that they have on society. Today in the most recent developments, where cost of production and sale price is as important as it was to post-war growth, customers still pick their house out of a pattern book. Lack of personalization is still one of the biggest plagues of sprawl.

There is no doubt that the Levitt Family received credit where credit is due in their influence on American housebuilding. While this is mostly painted in a positive light I am devastated at the little publicity of the racism that served as the foundation for their all-white communities. The same week as I was finishing up David Kushner’s book on Levittown, I watched Bill O’Reilly defend his hometown as the product of American entrepreneurship at it’s finest. He put the Levitts on the pedestal where they seem to remain in the media long after their passing.

After reading, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, it’s hard to look past the misery that the Levitts created for two brave families, and an entire race. As an urban planner, it’s hard to look past the propagation of urban sprawl and unsustainable growth, that set a norm for development in our country for decades. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I propose we try to find the positive in the Levitt’s contributions. It seems ironic that the brother that took the least credit for his family’s success, Alfred Levitt, is the man whose vision is the most relevant to the urban design challenges we face today.

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5 Responses to “The Legacy of Levittown.”

  1. Highland Park June 7, 2013 at 9:43 AM #

    Just wanted to comment on how untrue this blog truly is and post the question: have you ever been to Levittown, PA? As a native (born and raised here for 20 years now) it amazes me that someone could not see the improvements and differentiation that have occurred in the recent decade. I remember a time when what your saying is true, that all Levitt houses looked the same. Growing up I never had to ask “where is the bathroom?” because all houses were pretty similar inside and out; however, in the past decade, I have seen an immense change in Levittown, PA houses. No longer can I assume everyone’s bathroom is to the right past the stairs; not everyone has a crawl space anymore because some have a spare bedroom there; some have transformed their upstairs to an extra living area rather than bedrooms. The modifications go further. The two major problems with this blog post is these who statements:

    “The result is that now, Levittown, PA remains almost identical to its 1950s self. Homes were not adaptable, and in combination with what is perhaps little regional growth, the town has not evolved to offer the lifestyle required of contemporary living”
    –if you look at other pictures than google (where you clearly got from those your post) and actually drive around Levittown (all 3 townships that it includes: Middletown, Bristol and Falls Townships) comparing it to the pictures from it’s initial development….you cannot claim that Levittown has not changed.

    Secondly, I have never heard of Levittown referred to as “the meth-lab of America.” Granted, there are drug problems in some sections, moreso than others, but that statement is 100% created by yourself. Levittown, PA is very close to center city Philadelphia, Trenton and Camden which all have MUCH higher drug problems, particularly with meth, than Levittown.

    In all, I just wanted to give you the perspective comments from a native Levittowner. It is very hard for outsiders to see how much Levittown has to offer and how different it has become over the past decade. Next time you write an article, try researching the place, talking to natives and going there before just making assumptions based on a book. Although Levittown is a very large suburb, we are a close group of people. In highschool, Levittown kids went to three different highschools (Middletown Township–>Neshaminy, Bristol Township–>Truman, Falls Township–>Pennsbury) but there was always a sense of connection and willingness to help other LTown kids in moments of trouble…whether they were from your “section” or township or neither.

    Please do some hands-on research next time (:

    –Highland Park Native

  2. Michelle June 7, 2013 at 12:26 PM #

    Seriously??? I was raised in Levittown, PA – 1974 – 1988 and I still frequent Levittown, PA almost every day of my life since then! I do not know where or who you researched or interviewed to get your information about how life is in Levittown, PA today, but I do believe that you need to find a better source. Crime and “Meth-lab of America”???? Seriously??? I’m sorry, but your information or may I say, your opinion is dead wrong.

    • Erin Chantry June 7, 2013 at 12:43 PM #

      Thank you both for your comments. A blog is a platform of reflection, musings, and opinions – not of expertise, so I apologize that my blog was personally offensive to you or your home town. That of course was not my intention. I do believe that if you read my post, I am clear that my experience with Levittown is through reading the book and speaking with the author of that book. I of course did not spend years researching the town, but he did, and it was he who discovered it was once referred to as the “Meth Lab of America,” from his sources. Also through his research, he studied the design of the houses and how the Levittown communities compared to one other. He had intimate conversations with current and past residents of Levittown. When the author and I spoke, we spoke in detail about this. My post was my understanding of my conversation with the author and his book. If you haven’t read it yet – I suggest you do! It’s a great read. I hope I was able to clear up my perspective in writing this blog entry and I appreciate you reaching out.

      • Dee June 7, 2013 at 2:06 PM #

        Levittown/Bristol is the last PA Turnpike exit before entering NJ and from what I’ve heard there WAS a time in the 80’s when truckers would get off at the Levittown/Bristol exit to get to ANOTHER nearby town and visit a particular diner/truck-stop, where they could get some rest, a meal, and “supposedly” a little something to help stay awake on the next leg of their trip. If this information is true, I don’t really think THAT makes Levittown PA, THEN OR NOW, the “Meth Lab of America”.

        I’m in my forties and I LOVED growing up in Levittown PA. There was such an enormous sense of community, I remember a time as a young girl when I could tell you the last name of every family living on our street, and it was a LONG street. Sure, things are not exactly that way nowadays as people’s lives sometimes take them to different places, but I can still go to any store or restaurant, or any other place, and run into an old friend or see a familiar face. I feel so extremely lucky to have the friendships that I do in my life, friendships that, along with me, were born and raised in Levittown, PA. I’ve lived in other places across this country and can say firsthand that NOT having those things (which I personally feel living in Levittown gave to me), can make life pretty mundane and actually, sometimes somewhat lonely.

        I imagine that some of the MANY lifelong friendships I have to this day would never have been formed had I lived in a place other than Levittown PA. Close, tight, help you out of a bind, have cookouts together, kids play together, kind of friendships that only a place like Levittown PA could create.

  3. Janine Penfield June 7, 2013 at 9:39 PM #

    Too bad you didn’t visit Levittown to witness the “personalization” of the homes over the years. Our family moved into a new home in 1957 and while I have since moved to New England, my sisters still live in Levittown. When we went to the exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Levittown in 2002 at the Michener Museum, there was a photographic display of current homes. We could not for the life of us identify which home model they were and it turned out THEY WERE ALL JUBILEES. If that doesn’t speak to personalizing homes, I don’t know what does. During my visits, I’m constantly amazed by the changes that have been made to all the models.

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