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Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb Hardcover – 3 Feb 2009


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Amazon.com: 18 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
From a Jersey Girl... 2 July 2009
By Ang - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Passé words like riveting, remarkable and even shocking come to mind when you think about describing this book. But Levittown is far too good to use such canned vocabulary. I was born in Willingboro, New Jersey in 1970 - while our nation and that area of the U.S. were still on the cusp of dealing with racial divides. My Mother moved into Levittown during the Summer of 1960, her family trying to escape to suburbia from the city of Philadelphia and what her family perceived as an area heightening in crime and diminishing in a quality place to raise children. This story struck me on levels I am both ashamed and proud to speak of.

Reading the language and racial slurs in this book were difficult. It was difficult because you can't imagine that just a mere 50 - 60 years ago people (old and young) felt so strongly about other human beings all because of the color of their skin. Page after page is punctuated with the `N'-word and it just hangs there in the air and pierces your moral fiber. My shock is juxtaposed by having grown up with family members who then, and to this day, still say that word - I like to think it's merely a generational thing because I know the people saying this word are kind and wonderful. But they grew up in a time of ignorance and closed-mindedness and some people just don't shirk those feelings.

As shocking as the story of Levittown is, I couldn't help but ponder a message that defines the generations and races of even today: (nearly) everyone has a dream they hope to attain. Bill Levitt, in the eyes of the (white) nation and Levittown residents was living the American dream: huge house, gorgeous wives, big boat and he was (viewed as) generous. Bill Myers and his family sought the American dream as they saw it: to own property and live freely. Levitt reflected the times of that period in America. Yet, consider how individual groups think of their American dream today - think of it in terms of black and white - it almost makes you wonder how far we have not come. That's the one thing I really loved about this book: it made me think.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
This is a story well worth telling and one well told in an affecting account 25 Mar 2009
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
To some, the name "Levittown" conjures up images of crushing conformity spread out in row upon row of soulless Cape Cod "boxes." To others, it represents the ingenious entrepreneurial spirit of Levitt & Sons, the dynamic homebuilder embodied in the person of William Levitt, who enabled the wave of World War II veterans to purchase comfortable, if modest (two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom) mass-produced dwellings for less than $8,000. Without question, the story of Levittown reflects fundamental elements of America's post-war ethos.

Whether it was Brown v. Board of Education's challenge to the segregated classrooms of Topeka, Kansas, or the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the 1950s likewise brought forth the first determined statements of the modern civil rights movement in America. In his stirring new book, David Kushner weaves these strands with Levitt's story to illuminate a lesser known but no less dramatic event in those tumultuous years --- the struggle to integrate the whites-only community of Levittown, Pennsylvania.

In 1957, Daisy and William Myers, an unassuming African-American couple living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, dreamed the simple dream of millions of Americans of their generation: a new home in a good neighborhood in which to raise their growing family. That spring, their wish coincided with the political agenda of a group of Levittown residents led by Communist-leaning, Jewish political activists Bea and Lew Wechsler, who sought to shatter the racial barriers of the community. When the Wechslers' next door neighbor's house went on the market, they approached the Myerses about moving in. Their arrival, in August 1957, sparked an outpouring of protest, often violent, severely testing whether blacks and whites could live peacefully in the country's fast-growing suburban communities.

The protests of the ironically named Levittown Betterment Committee (some 1,200 members strong at one point and supported by the Ku Klux Klan) featured everything from a cross burning, to relentless noise and vandalism, to purchasing the home behind the Myerses (the protestors called it the "Confederate House") as a base for harassing operations. The attacks on the Myerses and their supporters came to a head in September 1957, the same month President Eisenhower called on the National Guard to oversee the integration of the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas. Effectively exposing the deplorable passivity of the local police, Kushner also chronicles the involvement of law enforcement authorities of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, tentative at first, but later applied with full force in a dramatic trial in December 1957.

Kushner sketches contrasting portraits of the politically motivated Wechslers and the quiet but no less determined Myerses, whose courage made the integration of Levittown possible. There's something especially moving in the account of the heroism of the Myers family, including that of their children, forced to confront both the extremes of harsh treatment and the loneliness that came from having only a handful of friends in a hostile environment.

While the picture of Bill Levitt that emerges from Kushner's book is decidedly unsympathetic, it's nevertheless a multifaceted and nuanced one. Levitt was a hard-driving, at times unscrupulous, businessman whose morals were dubious (for years he carried on an affair in a secluded estate in Levittown, Pennsylvania) but who gave generously to Jewish causes. There's no doubt his Levittown communities made homes available to hundreds of thousands who, in some cases, had been living in chicken coops before those developments sprouted from what once had been farmland. But the dark side of Levitt's brilliant success was his determination to maintain the racially segregated communities he believed (with the support, at least for a time, of misguided federal housing policies) were the only way to preserve home values. Levitt left behind a complex legacy," Kushner concludes, "a man who both provided the American Dream to a generation of veterans and denied it to an entire race."

Kushner employs a low-key, journalistic style and never becomes polemical or judgmental. Still, it's clear where his sympathies, as would those of any right thinking person, lie in the contest between the mindless mob and the strong-willed protagonists of this modern morality play. "By standing up for their rights, and for each other, the Myerses and Wechslers --- two families from different worlds --- showed the power that neighbors can conjure up when they choose to come together." This is a story well worth telling and one well told in an affecting account of humanity at its worst and ultimately triumphant best.

--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Should Be Required Reading for History/Sociology Classes 4 Nov 2013
By Virginia E. Webb - Published on Amazon.com
I just finished reading this book and could not put it down. I lived in Willingboro (Levittown) NJ from 1959-1974. I grew up there and graduated HS in 1970. None of the history of what happened in Levittown, PA was ever discussed in all the time I lived there. When you think about the Civil Rights movement, you think about Martin Luther King, Little Rock and the riots and unrest down South. We were fighting our own important battles regarding housing rights right in our own backyards. I went to HS with the daughters of one of the first African American families who settled in Willingboro. I was appalled by the behavior of the Meyers neighbors, but inspired by the Wechslers. The demographics of Willingboro/Levittown NJ is very DIFFERENT from that of PA or NY. Many of our residents came from Fort Dix and the surrounding military bases. We were used to quite a bit of "transients" and a more integrated populace. Today, most of Willingboro's population is African American, so the pendulum has come full circle. I loved the planned community which included walking to schools, local pools, etc. I feel strongly this book should be INCLUDED in High School/College reading lists in History/Sociology. We should all remember the valiant effort of all involved, and be encouraged to fight for what is right and just in our own lives.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Having Lived It 7 Mar 2009
By Frederick Weintraub - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Kushner has accurately portrayed the bigotry that existed in Levittown. As a teenager living several blocks away and knowing the families involved, it was shocking to see the hatred and violence of my neighbors and classmates. I remember delivering medicine to the Myerses and having to walk through the crowd and listen to the epithets and threats from people I had thought of as friends.
As my class prepares for our 50th anniversary of our high school graduation. I hope that all will read this book and reflect on hopefully how far we have come
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
SHOCKING 25 Oct 2013
By L.I. LINDA - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
As I read this book,it seemed like a work of fiction.Unfortunately,it is a true story. I live on L.I. near Levittown.It is a happy integrated community.
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