Community in History: Levittown and the Decline of a Postwar American Dream
A sociological perspective on the 50-year-old faded American “suburban legend”
by Chad M. Kimmel, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
In Norwood, Ohio, in 1946, five individuals called the local police department shortly after hearing about the arrest of a man who strangled his wife. Their inquiry: Where did he live? They all wanted his house!
The housing shortage following WWII was as compelling as war itself. “Dog-tired soldiers can’t come home,” announced a 1945 Detroit Free Press headline. “There aren’t any houses.” Many individuals doubled up with relatives in small and cramped apartments, awaiting an opportunity to get something of their own. With few homes built during the war, the pent-up demand for housing soared. On February 16, 1946, Collier’s magazine followed one angry and disillusioned veteran around the crowded city streets of Chicago, taking notes as he vented his frustrations. “I want a place to live,” he shouted loudly and publicly. “I want a home, a decent one that I can afford.”
The fortunes of many Americans, however, soon changed. By 1951, the average American male was 30 years old, married, and the father of two children. He owned a refrigerator, radio, telephone, and brought home $3,000 a year. And with the help of a FHA-insured mortgage, he was able to accumulate and store all of his worldly possessions in his own home, in Levittown. And with Levittown, PA, now having passed its 50-year mark in 2002, its revolution in community design is now seen as having defined for many the essence of the American dream of homeownership. Levittown sparked a post-war exodus to the suburbs, and its impact has been both broad and diverse, ranging from ushering in longer commutes to work and contributing to “urban sprawl,” to democratizing home ownership. It placed average families within financial reach of an American dream marred only by its infamously monotonous cookie-cutter-style homes.
Levittown was the creation of Levitt and Sons, Inc. Abraham Levitt, and his two sons William (Bill) and Alfred, formed their company just as America entered the Great Depression. By 1948, Life magazine deemed them “the nation’s biggest housebuilder,” a title held for another seven years. But the Levitts built not just houses; they built entire communities, complete with schools, churches, parks, ball fields, and shopping centers. Between 1947 and 1964, they built 17,447 homes in New York, 17,311 homes in Pennsylvania, and 12,000 homes in New Jersey, naming them all “Levittown.” In France, 20 miles south of the Eiffel Tower, Levitt and Sons created the 700-house development “Les Residences du Chateau,” referred to warmly by the French as “Levittville.” In Puerto Rico, it was more of the same: “Levittown Lakes,” and, well, “Levittown De Puerto Rico.” Not surprisingly, Architectural Forum, in 1950, used the phrase “as Levitt goes, so goes the nation” to describe the success and revolutionary influence of this Jewish family business.
The war years forced the Levitts to find new ways to build faster and more efficiently. Time-and-motion studies, for example, reduced wasteful labor practices, thus increasing productivity. Frederick Winslow Taylor himself would have called it the “one best way” to build homes. The postwar years also provided ripe conditions for mass building: an unprecedented demand for housing; a GI Bill of Rights and a powerful Veterans Association guaranteeing mortgages with the full weight of the federal government; and, as Bill told Harper’s in September of 1948, “banks busting with money.” “The dice were loaded,” boasted Bill in the July 3, 1950, issue of Time magazine. “How could we lose?”
On Tailored Suits and Segregation
Levitt and Sons built low-cost homes for the average worker, but sold only to whites. “We believe that the market for custom housing, like that for custom tailoring, no longer exists,” reported Bill in the same Harper’s interview. “People who want to buy that kind of thing will always be able to get it, but the real market is for the ordinary mass-produced suit of clothes…you can’t build $30,000 houses by the six thousands.” Regarding race, Bill put his company policy in simple terms in the August 7, 1954, edition of the Saturday Evening Post: “We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.”
First-generation Levittown residents vividly remember the opportunity of homeownership afforded them by Levitt and Sons. Many had migrated from Philadelphia or Trenton, NJ. Others came from the coal regions of Northeast Pennsylvania or one of the Pittsburgh steel communities. As in all of these areas, homes were hard to find, often requiring large cash deposits. A typical two-bedroom apartment in Trenton, for example, rented for $85 a month in 1952. That same year, Levitt and Sons offered a three-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot modern home with brand-name appliances for $100 down and $60 a month.
Postwar-period Levittown residents took part in what Thomas Hine called “Populuxe” during a period (1954-1964) of “having things in a way that they’d never had before…an expression of outright, thoroughly vulgar joy in being able to live so well.” No longer living in the shadows of world war or economic depression, people began to enact a new story, one that valued progress and the cheap newness that came with mass-production and standardization. Authors described this elevated social climate with titles like The Affluent Society, When the Going Was Good, When Dreams Came True, Great Expectations, The Best Years, Another Chance, and The Proud Decades. Everything was modern, bright, and unprecedented.
Scholars, however, point to a cultural climax or watershed period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Elizabeth Long’s review of popular novels between 1969 and 1975 revealed unmet expectations, a world-view in crisis, and cultural confusion. President Carter spoke to America about a crisis of confidence. Studs Terkel wrote The Great Divide, and John Kenneth Galbraith—who only two decades before spoke of affluence and security—authored The Age of Uncertainty. And the first gas riot to occur in the nation happened in Levittown, PA. Indeed, the postwar period had ended.
Levittown represents a moment in time when the unimaginable became possible. But this community, whose very existence speaks to a coalescence of ripe social, political, and economical forces, has come of age under less than ideal conditions. Studying the Levittown phenomenon and its societal context has allowed me to begin to live this aspiring “American sociologist’s dream”: to explore the life history of people and places, and to uncover and make real the complex relationship between the two. “All sociology worth the name,” argued C. Wright Mills in 1959, “is historical sociology.”
Kimmel, who himself is a third-generation Levittown resident, is a graduate student in sociology at Western Michigan University, doing dissertation research on Levittown, PA. He is also an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.