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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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About the Author
David Kushner is the author of Masters of Doom and Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Wired, he has also been published in the New York Times, New York, Entertainment Weekly, Parade, Salon, and the Village Voice. He does commentary for NPR, and teaches journalism at New Y ork U niversity. Kushner lives not far from Levittown in New Jersey.
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In August 1957, as Bill and Daisy Myers attempted to move into their newly acquired home on Deepgreen Lane, they immediately encountered racially bigoted neighbors with a dogged determination to keep the first African American family out of their all white Levittown, Pennsylvania, neighborhood. Their Jewish next door neighbors—and political activists—Lew and Bea Wechsler, quickly became good friends in this neighborhood where they had few. On the day the Myers’s moved in, informal clusters of curious neighbors formed around their home. Soon verbal harassment and telephone threats began, and as days and weeks went by, the harassment intensified. Some neighbors tried to maintain neutrality and a few even openly offered their support, but the activities of the most visible racists rivaled those in the Jim Crow South. They soon evolved into a, perhaps inappropriately named, “Levittown Betterment Committee.” Cars and motorcycles, honking horns and bearing Confederate flags, circled the Myers’s home regularly, hateful statements shouted, and stones broke through the Myers’s windows. The local police did little to quell the hateful activity that eventually escalated to cross burnings in the yards of supporters, the Wechsler’s and the Myers’s. Moreover, the Ku Klux Klan began to form a local chapter in Levittown.
Abe Levitt, born to desperately poor Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, worked his way to earning a law degree and running his own law firm. Abe was an inspiration to his two sons, Bill and Alfred. After some initial success speculating in real estate development, Abe and his two sons established Levitt & Sons, and the company sold its first house just before the stock market crash in 1929. All three lent their unique talents to the company, but Bill emerged as the leader. As an entrepreneur, Bill was bold and determined. At nineteen years old, one remembers Bill saying, ‘“I wanted to make a lot of money. I wanted a big car and a lot of clothes.”’ (5) He had a gift for marketing and was not afraid to defy authority if necessary to get his way. The company prospered with Alfred’s self-taught architectural talent and Bill’s keen marketing and management skills. At the end of World War II, Levitt & Sons was poised to master the demand for new housing and was soon propelled to the realm of empire.
Housing development in the United States had been stagnant for the two decades preceding the end of the war. The war years energized economic growth and innovation. With its end, vast numbers of returning veterans needed a home. New marriages and the new families they created—the baby boom generation was being hatched—further exacerbated America’s housing shortage. The newly enacted GI bill and the New Deal’s FHA loans made financing readily available. Bill Levitt and his company seized the moment. They bought up 3,500 acres of potato fields in the community of Island Trees on Long Island, and Levitt and Sons built thousands of houses. In a display of his ego and determination, Bill insisted that the community rename Island Trees to “Levittown, New York.” Next Bill Levitt launched another Levittown in a former 5,000 acre broccoli and spinach field in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The demand was for housing remained strong and the Levitts, by then making a fortune, regarded as captains of the home building industry.
By the mid-fifties, these “Levittowns” had established a sense of community. Levitt & Sons had promulgated authoritarian rules governing sales, leasing, and maintaining the community. If a homeowner did not maintain his lawn properly, for example, Levitt & Sons would send over a landscape crew, and then send the homeowner a bill. A typical white Levittown homeowner not only enjoyed a sense of community pride, but could delight in knowing that his initial $8,000 investment had grown in value.
A more foreboding rule, and one that presumably protected the value of a Levittown home, was the active exclusion of sales and rentals of Levittown homes to African Americans. The standard Levittown lease read, in capital letters: “THE TENANT AGREES NOT TO PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE.” (43) As the author states, “Many of them [Levittown homeowners] made it clear that they had come to Levittown because Bill Levitt had promoted it as [for] whites-only. ‘“Levitt promised!...He should get them out even if he has to buy them out!”’ (91) A 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such discriminatory policies. However, Bill Levitt brazenly defied the ruling stating, “The policy that has prevailed in the past is exactly the same policy that prevails today….it is entirely in the discretion and judgment of Levitt & Sons as to whom it will rent or sell.” (43)
In the late summer and fall of 1957, the Myers and the Wechslers lived in constant fear for their lives, and the lives of their children. Around the clock police protection could not prevent cross burnings and other threats. Finally, after appealing to Pennsylvania Attorney General, Thomas McBride, their predicament began to improve. McBride brought legal action against the ringleaders, dubbed the “Levittown 7” who were eventually found guilty in August 1958—about a year after the Myers first moved to their home on Deepgreen Lane in Levittown.
David Kushner is an excellent story teller. That may be because he is a journalist and not a historian. His book dashes along like a fast moving novel. Kushner does a good job introducing and developing his characters, too. Abraham Levitt entertains his two boys with fantastic tales of Captain Kidd. Daisy Dailey is introduced as a protected youth in Jackson Ward, Virginia. Later, as she marries Bill Myers and moves to the North, she questions her feelings about Jim Crow laws. In the end, Daisy is much the same person even as she meets Martin Luther King, Jr., and is referred to as “the Rosa Parks of the North.” (191) And too, the rise and fall of William Levitt—his ostentatious and indulgent life-style, his bold and confident defiance, and then his financial collapse—provides the reader with a tragic background story of the once arrogant and egotistical icon.
The making of Levittown is an interesting story too. A few years ago, Kuschner’s mother-in-law suggested that he talk to one of her neighbors, Bea Wechsler. Bea was willing to talk about her experiences in Levittown many years ago, and her friends the Myers’s. Bea had a “small dusty cardboard box” full of clippings, photos, and letters. Next, the author met with Daisy Myers who agreed to talk as well and had more materials to share. And so the book Levittown emerged from this cornucopia of primary sources and oral histories. Kushner makes good use of these sources. The only criticism of the book is a minor one. The book has endnotes by chapter that reference the page number, but the corresponding references cannot be found on the page; unusual, but definitely a minor problem. Levittown is an outstanding book for those interested in postwar housing discrimination, urban development during this era, Levitt & Sons, or the civil rights movement.
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.