Postwar Dystopia or Family Paradise?

Edited by Dianne Harris, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010

Levittown. For many, the name of this Philadelphia-area suburb conjures a vision of sterility and conformity -- a postwar dystopia concealed by images of smiling children on bicycles and tricycles, crowded swimming pools and Little League fields, happy consumers at the Levittown Shop-a-Rama, and men mowing lawns and women sitting on outdoor furniture in front of identical but comfortable houses.

Cultural critic Lewis Mumford convinced many that the suburb was a place with bland people leading bland lives with similar tastes and incomes in a parody of the American dream. And indeed, this savage critique contains some truth. I know because I lived in Levittown as a teenager for about five years in the mid-1950s, shortly after its beginning in 1952. My residence in this iconic “planned community” coincided with its most traumatic historical experience: the momentous struggle in 1957 to break the color line that builder William Levitt imposed with his whites-only policy.

My parents, Peter and Selma Von Blum, played a crucial role in this historic civil rights battle as active supporters of the first African American family to move into Levittown, braving widespread hostility, debilitating ostracism, and extensive violence in the process. Many of my 1950s neighbors, however, were deeply conformist, even retrograde, especially on matters of racial equality. Many seemed perfectly content to equate the good life with modest material comfort and middling levels of personal and family consumption.

Still, social reality is complex and nuanced, and there is much more to say about Levittown beyond Mumford’s critique. I have waited for this new book for about half a century. Second Suburb provides a rich and diverse set of essays about Levittown, contributing significantly to such fields as urban/suburban studies, architectural history, sociology, and many others. Editor Dianne Harris has assembled a stellar group of scholars to explore various dimensions of Levittown’s architecture, history, politics, and culture. Essays locate the “second suburb” (described as such because Pennsylvania’s Levittown followed in the footsteps of another suburb by the same name built in Long Island, New York, in 1947) in a broad context of post–World War II suburban growth, with all its demographic, economic, political, environmental, and architectural consequences.

Richard Longstreth’s chapter, “Looking at Levittown from the Outside,” offers a revealing glimpse into the history of the Levitt & Sons Company itself. In the late 1930s, the firm had built a development in Manhasset, New York. Seeking to limit the community to “refined” American families, the company adopted a policy to restrict buyers from “undesirable” elements. In 1936, that also meant prospective Jewish buyers, a bizarre restriction given that the Levitt family was itself Jewish. This perverse choice of profit over principle (not to mention religious and cultural disparagement, perhaps even self-loathing) would emerge again, with equal harshness, in Pennsylvania in the late 1950s.

Longstreth also chronicles the pervasive anti-union animus of the Levitt enterprise. Unlike most other American builders of the era, William Levitt and his associates refused to hire union labor, maintaining that doing so would drive up construction costs -- the historic rationalization for corporations seeking to maximize profit by maintaining lower wages. Longstreth likewise reveals the company’s insistence on various covenants for purchasers of its Levittown houses. Among other restrictions, new owners were not permitted to erect fences and were required to mow their lawns at least weekly. This drive for uniformity reflected a near-totalitarian vision that reinforces the harsh views of Levitt & Sons’ most vigorous critics.

Several other chapters add to the intellectual depth of this volume. Harris’s examination of architecture and modernism reveals how Levittown was designed exclusively for white people. Curtis Miner writes about the evolution of 1950s kitchen design, a topic to which few social scientists and humanists pay much attention. Christopher Sellers provides an account of environmentalism in Levittown, and Chad Kimmel offers an historical narrative about the gasoline riots there during the energy crisis of 1979. These and other contributions reflect the multidimensional historical reality of Levittown, diminishing if not entirely eliminating the stereotypical visions of the place as a conformist, unremarkable lower-middle-class suburban ghetto.

Original comic strips by Bill Griffith and historical photographs of Levittown add an engaging visual component to the book. “Griffy” is a well-known underground comic strip artist who grew up in New York’s Levittown. His strips extend the tradition of comic strip cultural critique, especially in mentioning such anti-establishment icons as Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner as well as The Realist and Mad magazine, publications that inspired the minority of young people who sought transcendence from 1950s social conformity.

The photographs are mostly from the 1950s, but range through the early twenty-first century. They depict swimming pools, churches, schools, and external and interior shots of various model houses, allowing readers to actually see the subject matter of this important book.

Doubtless, the key story in Levittown’s generally unremarkable history is the integration battle of summer 1957. This theme infuses the volume and is the specific subject of two of its chapters. One is a brief and moving reminiscence by Daisy Myers about the 1957 riots. She, her late husband Bill, and their three children were the first African American family to move in. They were “greeted” by howling racist mobs and a systematic attempt to force them to leave, seeking to ensure that Levittown would remain an all-white bastion twenty miles from the nation’s founding at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Thomas Sugrue’s chapter, “Jim Crow’s Last Stand,” provides a scholarly account of the 1957 racist events. His opening comments underscore a point I have repeatedly made in my teaching and writing over the years:

But Levittown deserves a place as prominent as those of Montgomery, Little Rock, Birmingham, or Selma because the history of modern suburbia, embodied by Levittown, is central to modern America. Levittown exemplified (then and now) patterns of entrenched segregation that knew no regional boundaries. Because of that, it became a battleground in the freedom struggle every bit as important as its better known southern counterparts.

Sugrue’s chapter touches on all the salient details of that struggle -- including the heroic resistance of the Myers family and sympathetic whites like my parents and others -- and documents the pervasive hostility that all the participants and their children endured for months after the Myers moved into their Levittown home. Beyond the window breakings, the “KKK” markings, the cross burnings, and economic retaliation, I recall being called “nigger lover” for months afterwards, often by adults who never knew me, my parents, the Myers, or any other participants in this historic struggle.

Sugrue focuses on the admirable efforts of Quakers and other liberal Protestant groups and progressive Jews in Levittown who resisted the massive racism in 1957. The fact that many white residents of Levittown voted for Barack Obama in 2008 does not negate the presence of a deeper racism that still pervades and despoils the national landscape. Its manifestations are sometimes overt, as in police racial profiling, and sometimes institutional, as in continuing discrimination in housing and employment. All people of goodwill -- Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, spiritual progressives, and nonbelievers alike­­ -- can learn from the past in order to address the malaise and misconduct of the present.

Second Suburb is surely a good place to begin. Especially for readers committed to a more comprehensive understanding of race in America, this volume is indispensable. And for others who are more generally curious about the shaping and structure of America from the mid–twentieth century to the present, the book provides a compelling vision of how suburban life contributed to those developments.


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