WHAT IT’S ABOUT Levittown, the most influential suburb in history, gets its close-up here, along with nine other places that profoundly affected — and continue to affect — the way many Americans live. They include Philadelphia — founder William Penn was bitterly disappointed that early residents gravitated to the rivers bracketing his new city, instead of spreading out across his carefully designed grids — and Salt Lake City, also a grid, with particularly wide streets. The other programs in the “10” series have looked at influential homes and parks.
MY SAY Naturally, you want to know where Levittown stands among the most influential towns in American history, on a scale of one to 10, and (naturally) this edition of “10” decided not to tell you. Ranking towns tends to stoke passions — in some instances parochial ones, or ones relating to civic pride — and who needs that headache? Instead, “10 Towns That Changed America” lists these places in chronological order. Begun in 1947, Levittown is at No. 7 on this list, right after Greenbelt, Maryland, and its pre-World War II government-mandated layout that inspired the cul-de-sac, and right before the huge urban renewal developments of Southwest Washington.
But the chronological order is still informative, particularly when Levittown is viewed on the evolutionary scale of urban planning. Levittown street patterns, for example, are a little closer in design to those of Riverside, Illinois (No. 4), which was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1868, and was a reaction to the rigid grids that had characterized other town plans up to that point. Instead, Olmstead figured that curved streets offered differing views for travelers. Levittown’s parks — the program specifically cites the East Village Green and pool on Jerusalem Avenue — weren’t designed to give residents a sense of nature or the outdoors, but a sense that they lived in a country club.
Meanwhile, the towns that come after Levittown as most influential aren’t suburbs at all but either cityscapes (in D.C. and Portland, Oregon) or a Florida community (Seaside) where “mixed use” neighborhoods predominate.
The discussion here of Levittown doesn’t offer much new — built for returning servicemen and their families, offering government-backed mortgages that were cheaper than rent — nor does it ignore William Levitt’s early mandate preventing African-Americans from buying homes, the so-called “restricted covenants.” Gabrielle Esperdy, an architectural historian, says early homes could be built in about 16 minutes, while prominent architectural critic Paul Goldberger calls Levitt “the Henry Ford of urban development.”
Levitt, the program notes, also believed that a house and yard would prevent the spread of subversive ideologies: “No man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist,” the program quotes him as saying. “He has too much to do.”
BOTTOM LINE A fascinating glimpse at urban planning history, but an insufficient glimpse at Levittown.