Throughout the trip, most good radio stations come and go too quickly. Out of Philly, I found a good one on 107.9. Good tunes, deep cuts. The signal lasted for a half hour on Route 13, heading to New Jersey. If I would’ve planned my outward bound a little better, I could’ve taken the Walt Whitman Bridge over to Camden and got a gander at the Walt Whitman House. Though I missed out on both of them, I was at least able to have a moment of reflection at the famous Whitman Square:
The Philly/NJ/NYC area is a tough one to get into a road trip state of mind. Lots of stops. Lots of starts. But what it lacks in meditative drives and highway scenery, it more than makes up for with cultural richness. And though there’s many many treats of historical and cultural significance, I decided to skip it all to instead see the sidewalks where baby boomers learned to play hopscotch, the most famous of American suburbs, Levittown.
William Levitt and his company Levitt & Sons envisioned a place for returning World War II vets, a nice alternative to cramped city living. A small town, a planned community. Over the course of sixteen years, they built four different Levittowns. Construction on the first Levittown, in New York, began in 1947. To keep construction costs low, the houses were built assembly line style. The VA and FHA helped with financing. Houses came with all modern amenities, a driveway and a fine green lawn. When they were first put on the market, 1400 homes sold within the first three hours.
I’m close to the second Levittown, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. North of Philadelphia. Exit 44 off of 95. I take a right on Veterans Highway.
In this development, six models were offered: the Colonial, the Country Clubber, the Jubilee, Levittowner, the Pennsylvanian, and the Rancher. Construction began in 1952 and ended in 1958. Over 17,000 homes were built.
Not sure which this is:
The town had almost everything: pools, parks, baseball fields, churches, supermarkets. One of the few things it didn’t have, however, was black people. Levitt & Sons would not sell homes to black folks. William Levitt apparently did not consider himself a racist, he merely thought of housing and racial relations as two separate matters. They are not.
Though the Levitts would not sell to blacks, they had no control as to whether or not the houses could be resold to blacks. In 1957, Levittown’s first black family moved to Deepgreen Lane. Daisy Myers was a teacher and her husband William a heating and A/C engineer. At the time of the move, they had two children and a third on the way. From the moment they moved in, there were demonstrations, mob gatherings, burning crosses. From an unoccupied house next door, a Confederate flag waved and music blared around the clock. The Myers refused to move. They asked for help. The Governor sent in state police to protect the family. A judge ordered an injunction. The neighbors eased off. For the family, the good times finally had a chance to outweigh the bad.
In five years, William changed jobs and the family relocated to Harrisburg.
These are pictures of random homes:
Sixty years after they were built, the developments at Levittown don’t seem any worse or better than the thousands of other suburbs spawned across the country. It feels like just another working class ‘Burb. Kids playing. Different ethnicities.
I was expecting the homes to have a more pronounced uniformity but that was a ridiculous presumption. Over the years they’ve obviously changed hands many times, every owner making their own customizations to their ‘Country Clubber’.
I cruise down Clover, Coral, Charity, Chesnut and Crimson King. I think of the original people who bought into the idea of Levittown, the vets who fought in a war of unimaginable horror. The war ends. They come home. Babies booming. Newborns everywhere. The tenement suddenly becomes a lot smaller. Screaming all the time. Above, below, outside. Pick up the newspaper. Front page. The city is getting more dangerous every day. Open up the newspaper. An advertisement. Smiles. Space. Levittown.
I drive up Pinewood, down Pensive, up Palm, down Peartree, up Primrose, down Poplar. I think about post-WWII America. The model homes. The fast food joints. The mighty interstate connecting all of the Levittowns with ease. It’s a strange thing to consider. In those years, the country once known for its rugged individualism chose to define and brand itself as the exact opposite.
I used to look at the pictures of Levittown and smirk at the cultural landmark of conformity. But I suppose I could point to plenty of brand new downtown condos anywhere and say the same thing. More efficient? Sure. I imagine some condos must name their wings or floors with generic home-y sounding words. A soothing voice in the elevator: ‘First Floor – Pinewood. Second Floor – Pensive. Third Floor – Palm. Primrose Wing is to the left, Poplar to the right’.
Incidentally, the third Levittown is in New Jersey. The fourth, in Puerto Rico.
On the way out, I met my second monument to a Walt.