The long-lasting consequences of the original conditions in Levittown

When subdivisions or communities are built, conditions at their starting point can have long-lasting effects. See Levittown.

Levittown was built on rules. No fences around the yards. Grass had to be maintained and trimmed. Clothes could only be hung to dry in the backyard on weekdays. Only white people could live there. Though these rules no longer apply, their mere existence has continued to shape and permeate the town’s culture today, particularly for Levittown’s teens, who speak about traditions and customs and the deep-rootedness of certain conservative mentalities…

Today, the museum features a model Levitt kitchen, bedroom, and living room from the 1950s and a sports memorabilia collection. Paul Manton, the president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum, says the school kids learn about the farmland, Levitt’s mass-production techniques, and suburban expansion. When I ask about the whites-only restriction, he says, “We don’t talk too much about the deeds and restrictions because it’s a small part of Levittown, really.” His response parallels the one Kushner, the writer, heard at the museum. “Levitt was the largest real estate developer in the country, but each state you went to had those kinds of restrictions,” Manton continues. “Levitt himself was personally opposed to it. He was a progressive man. He would hire large numbers of black workers and he had a black sales manager.”…

The layouts were more or less uniform, which provides a familiar comfort still today. Things can get tricky if the design veers off course. “My front door opens to our living room in front of the stairs and I remember my friends getting lost and not knowing where anything was,” says Jacqueline Testamark, a senior at Division Avenue…

When Bill Griffith’s family moved to Levittown in 1952, it was “an old white world.” By the early ’60s, he started to feel suffocated and broke several Levittown molds. Most teens ride their bikes within the town limits. Griffith rode his to Walt Whitman’s birthplace an hour away. He didn’t learn one piece of Levittown history in school, he says. “I grew up in a time when we were being handed myths and legends. History was full of blank spaces or made-up stories.”

The character of a suburb can last for a long time, particularly if later decisions reinforce earlier conditions and choices. Some quick thoughts in reaction to the conditions in Levittown discussed above:

  1. The legacy of no blacks in the community is a long-lasting one. According to the Census, the Levittown CDP is less than 2% black (though the community is nearly 15% Latino).
  2. It would be hard to change either lot sizes or significantly increase the footprints of the original homes. And because Levittown was all roughly built at the same time, it does not offer the level of variation in housing stock that many suburbs might offer.
  3. In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans noted that teenagers are limited in Levittown and similar suburbs because so much driving is required and many of the social activities are geared around raising children in the home. This may still be the case in many suburbs as teenagers need rides and spaces friendly toward teenagers and young adults can be hard to find.

Going further, this article suggests continuity marks Levittown. Would it be possible to find signs of change or significant alterations from the original conditions? The Levittown of today could be more similar to the original Levittown but communities can follow significantly different paths given certain decisions and social forces.

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