Day 814: Little Boxes Made Of Ticky-Tacky

originally published March 24, 2014

I was perusing through the November 1952 issue of Popular Science magazine yesterday (yes, I’m a little behind in my reading), when I came across an interesting article. It boasted the proud promise of a fresh residential concept: cozy in its cohesive uniformity, a respite from the urban blues, and built for the future. This cookie-cutter community would come to be known as Levittown, Pennsylvania, the inevitable sequel to Levittown, New York, which had opened up five years earlier.

This was the dawn of the modern suburb, the great-grandpappy of today’s seemingly endless sprawl. Originally proposed as a fully inclusive solution to the post-war housing shortage, complete with parks, schools, pools and shopping districts, Levittown came to be a civic archetype. Its bones have since been copied onto the fringes of pretty much every major city on the continent. It boasts consistency, predictability… and no black people.

But we’ll get to that later. I’m going to do my best not to be too hard on William J. Levitt and his vision, in spite its initial dollop of explicit racism, and in spite of how I feel the overused splatter of pre-planned communities has ravaged the heart of my own city. He did solve a significant societal problem, even if that solution may have been somewhat crusty around the edges.

Abraham Levitt founded Levitt & Sons in 1929. Their specialty was in building upper-middle-class homes on Long Island, but while serving overseas in WWII, William Levitt (one of the sons) learned all about how to slap together some quickie military structures. He also saw the impending need for new properties once all the GIs returned home. William persuaded his architect brother and his father to put together a plan to mass-produce a swath of utilitarian one-floor homes on the cheap so that troops could move in with their families right away.

The trick to Levitt’s genius was in the construction. He borrowed from Henry Ford’s infamous assembly line process, except it was the workers hopping from house to house, doing their specialty on each one. The framers were followed by the electricians who were followed by the window guys and so on. With this smooth system, Levitt was popping out 30 houses per month by 1948. Eventually the process would be so slick, the company was completing a new home every 16 minutes.

The initial 2000 home community on Long Island, New York was set up as rentals. The government pitched in through the Federal Housing Administration, making it easy to set up mortgages for the returning troops, or for anyone who wanted to scoot out of the city and surround themselves with quiet banality. Renters were given the option of switching to a 30-year mortgage with no down payment and no increase in monthly cost. Houses could be bought for between $6,995 and $8,000, with monthly rental/mortgage payments of $57. Fifty-seven bucks – even by 1947 standards, that was fantastic, the equivalent of about $617 dollars today.

It was truly the American Dream realized for thousands of families. Community centers popped up, land was donated by Levitt & Sons to be used as schools, and though Levittown’s positioning across and between municipality borders created some confusion when it came to sewage and utilities, everything was worked out. Levittown, New York was seen as a brilliant solution to a nation-wide problem. Not only that, but the Levitt boys became rapid millionaires; the demand for a sequel was immense.

Levittown, Pennsylvania was designed with bendy, traffic-calming cured roads with no four-way intersections to be found. The community was built with only six different home styles, with just a few color tweaks on the outsides to differentiate them. Interior surfaces of all homes were coated in a green-flecked cream-colored enamel that made it hard to hang artwork, and many featured 3-sided fireplaces and over 100 square feet of double-glazed picture windows. Residents were happy to abandon their homes’ individuality for the low cost solution; while under construction, there was up to a six-month backlog of aspiring Levittowners waiting for a new home.

By 1950 all homes featured a carport and a built-in television. The company couldn’t hope to keep up with demand, and other developers around the country were swooping on the idea and building their own Levittown knock-offs along the outskirts of major cities. In William Levitt’s flagship communities, there was only one catch: if you wanted to move in, you had to be white.

Levitt & Sons owned all the property in Levittown, New York before the Federal Housing Association stepped in to fund mortgages. When that happened, the FHA made it quite clear that they would only provide mortgages in communities that were exclusively white. Because of this, all mortgages sold in Levittown came with a clause that stated the home could not be rented or sold to anyone who was not specifically Caucasian. William Levitt insisted these practices were not discrimination, they were in place simply to maintain property values. Right – not discriminatory at all.

Even Jews were off the table. This one hit close to home – William Levitt’s grandfather was a rabbi and he’d been raised as a Jew. But business was business, and it wasn’t until a number of anti-segregationist laws were passed in 1954 that the whites-only clause was yanked from Levittown mortgage papers. Still, it took until 1957 for the first black family to move into Levittown, PA, while the town’s Long Island counterpart (and predecessor) didn’t see a person of color on its streets until well into the 60’s. Even today, Levittown is 94.15% white, 2.85% Asian, and 0.5% black. This may have been the American dream, but only for certain Americans.

William Levitt had invented the American suburb. After Pennsylvania, his company built massive developments in Willingboro, New Jersey and Bowie, Maryland, then in the 1960s they built Strathmore, New Jersey and another Levittown in Puerto Rico. Levitt sold his company to International Telephone & Telegraph in 1968, and they helped to spread the suburban trend to Europe. Levitt and his family earned $90 million in the sale, most of which Levitt lost through subsequent bad investments.

It’s hard to decide where to land on William Levitt’s contribution to our society. On the one hand, it helped to provide affordable housing to a huge number of returning troops and fresh families – in total, Levitt & Sons erected over 140,000 houses around the country. On the other, he inspired the trend of bland, predictable suburbs that would subsequently siphon much of the populace from a city’s urban core, leaving it bereft of the cultural density and personality it once had. Coupled with the racist policies of the FHA, this process bred a whole host of new societal problems.

The Smithsonian Institution is currently seeking a seller in Levittown, New York – someone who still owns an unmodified original Levitt home. They want to tear the home down and rebuild it on display in Washington DC as part of an exhibit on post-war American life. Like it or not, Levitt’s contribution to our world was incalculably immense.

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