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The birth of modern suburbia

Levittown served as model for U.S. housing, communities

<i>Cover image courtesy of <a href=Cover image courtesy of Dancing Traveller Media.

During the dog days of this past summer, The Arizona Republic newspaper published a multipart essay on the growth of Phoenix. The headline over the first entry screamed with large print: “A City Explodes: Post WWII Housing Boom Pushed Phoenix Into a Mega Metro.”

I had to chuckle when I perused the article, because it was all so Johnny-come-lately to me: I was lucky enough to have grown up in America’s first modern suburb, Levittown, N.Y., an adventurous, groundbreaking development that paved the way for places like Phoenix to grow into huge metroplexes.

The timing of The Arizona Republic’s story was particularly ironic because, as the series was unfolding on the pages of my morning newspaper, I was enjoying the success of having published my fifth book, “Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis.”

I, too, was revisiting the postwar housing boom, but in the form of a memoir and social history.

In the midst of a housing crisis most Americans never experienced before, I suppose, a lot of us have been wondering how we got here — to this moment in history.

To understand the mess we are currently in, we need to have a basic understanding of our housing history. And that all begins on the potato farms of Long Island where the small community of Levittown was to be built.
–Steve Bergsman

To understand the mess we are currently in, we need to have a basic understanding of our housing history. That all begins on the potato farms of Long Island, where the small community of Levittown was to be built.

Most Americans now live in one type of suburban development or another, so it seems almost unfathomable that the concept of the suburb as we know it today is really a relatively recent phenomenon in American history.

Vast expanses of single-family homes beyond urban cores didn’t come into existence until after World War II, and the development of such basic housing staples might have taken even longer to arise if it weren’t for the drive, ambition and huge leap of faith of one man: William Levitt.

Levittown came into existence due to three factors:

  • demand;
  • easing of credit; and
  • singular vision.

During World War II, new-home construction had come to a complete halt because raw materials were needed for the military effort. When the war ended, hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women, many newly married with children on the way, had no place to live but with parents.

The U.S. government realized housing was going to be a major problem and set in motion a series of reforms to make mortgage loan guarantees and easier credit available to veterans.

Starting in the mid-1940s, before the close of World War II, Congress began passing a series of mortgage financing innovations that would make it easier for veterans to buy homes.

The original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 put in place a loan guaranty program. At the time, the sentiment among lawmakers was that government should provide a means whereby veterans could obtain favorable credit, which would permit them to shelter their families.

Subsequent bills liberalized mortgage credit, with a big push coming in the Housing Act of 1950. That law made a number of important changes including stretching the maximum maturity of loans to 30 years.

All this still wouldn’t have made much of an impact if William Levitt hadn’t devised a way to apply industrial mass production techniques to the housing problem.

Prior to the advent of Levittown, home construction was generally a singular, custom product, but Levitt created the first housing development by clearing old potato fields and building thousands of homes in one swoop.

A development with so many homes going up at one time (eventually 17,000 homes were constructed in Levittown) was such an unusual concept that it was immediately attacked by critics, who assumed Levitt was building shoddy product.

But that wasn’t the case at all. Levitt pioneered so many standards still used today: no basements; all homes constructed on concrete slabs; radiant heating coils built into the concrete; all copper plumbing (best product at the time); pre-installed modern appliances; and integral use of Sheetrock.

Probably the biggest criticism of Levittown was that all the homes looked alike. Indeed, there were just a limited number of models, but even when I moved there in 1954, so many of the homes were already customized and everyone planted trees, bushes and gardens idiosyncratically so that the homes really didn’t look the same anymore.

It didn’t stop the critics. Lewis Mumford, one of the great intellectuals in urban planning and the history of cities, simply couldn’t abide Levittown. In one of his many blasts, he wrote:

“A multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless common waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated food, from the same freezers, forming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis.”

Mumford expected Levittown to become a suburban slum. Instead, it became the prototype for the America of the future.

Today, Levittown is a quiet, leafy suburb. The blue-collar workers who originally settled in the first Cape Cod models of 750 square feet have given way to white-collar workers, and many homes have been expanded to twice the original size.

The little Levitt house that cost less than $8,000 to own back in 1949 now sells above $300,000, taking into account the deflationary effects of the current recession.

Although the New York metropolitan area was hit hard by the financial downturn of two years ago and the ongoing housing slump, I recently visited to tally the number of foreclosures in Levittown.

There weren’t any.

Author’s note: Special to Inman News readers, you can purchase the “Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis” e-book for $5.99 (a 25 percent discount off the list price) by entering discount code ZX59A at the following website:

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