Levittown: The home of suburban development

For our "Town Focus" series, the Levittown Historical Society talks about how the Levitt family's development remade suburbia. Videojournalist: Erin Geismar (March 16, 2012)

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In 1948, the Levitts were not the only people building in Levittown.

Pete Ryan, 9 years old at the time, his brothers and their friends were working on building things of their own - forts made with lumber they would steal from Levitt construction crews after dark.

“They’d be in the tall grass and weeds,” said Ryan, now 72 and still living in Levittown. “Nobody could see them.”

Ryan and his family were one of the first waves of people to move into the historic suburban community, even when much of it was still dirt and grass.

The country was in the middle of a national housing crisis as 16 million men were returning home from war, and builders Levitt and Sons were hoping to provide a solution. Father Abraham Levitt and sons, William and Alfred, purchased a vast expanse of farmland - then called Island Trees - after a blight took over the local potato crops. On it, the Levitts vowed to build 2,000 homes for returning veterans. But the homes were claimed quickly and demand continued to rise, so the Levitts continued to build, eventually transitioning from rental to ownership homes.

In the span of four years, Levittown, as it was named, became a bustling community of more than 17,000 homes.

The community made history books and remains in them today. It was the first suburban development. It was the first community created for veterans. It was produced quickly and produced well. It was affordable for young families - the epitome of the American Dream.

Polly Dwyer, president of the Levittown Historical Society, moved to Levittown with her first husband in 1954. She said they put down $100 and paid $65 a month toward their mortgage.

“It was a remarkable achievement,” said Dwyer, 83. “They built the houses up so fast that everyone said they are going to fall right down. Well, here I am 57 years later living in the same house.”

The identity of Levittown, even today, is the Levitt house - built in two styles, the Cape Cod and the ranch. Dwyer said the houses were innovative because they did not have basements and they were built assembly-line style, with each work crew specializing in one element of construction.

But critics worried that Levittown was the beginning of a homogenized society, said Steve Bergsman, a former Levittown resident and author of “Growing Up Levittown: In a time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis”.

“The veterans loved it and the homes filled up immediately and everyone who lived there was happy,” Bergsman said. “But the intellectuals and urban planners and everybody else just disliked it.”

He said “the intellectual left” complained of conformity, and the “Republican right” complained that it was a hand-out for the working class.

The biggest controversy surrounding the community was the fact that it was only open to whites.

Louise Cassano, who moved to Levittown in 1951 with her parents and for years worked as a reporter for the local papers, interviewed William Levitt for the 40th anniversary of Levittown. She recalls him speaking candidly about the issue. Cassano said because the Federal Housing Authority had put up the money necessary to build the community, Levitt was bound to their rules.

“Looking back, he had regrets about what happened,” Cassano said. “But the FHA would not put up the money for the houses if they allowed black families to move into them.”

While the community is a part of history, to the people that lived there it was just a carefree, spacious place to call home.

“It was like freedom,” said Ryan, who is one of seven siblings. His family was united under one roof for one of the first times in his life upon moving to Levittown.

Ryan’s father left his wife and kids to fight in World War II but never returned.

“Not for the good reason,” Ryan said, because his father survived the war but didn’t want to return to the burden of a large family.

Before moving to Levittown, Ryan’s mother and youngest sister lived with an uncle in New Rochelle; Ryan and two of his brothers lived in an orphanage; his other siblings lived with extended family.

In Levittown, his mother could eventually afford to buy their home, where all eight of them and Ryan’s grandmother lived together.

“Levittown was the only place anyone would take all of us,” he said. “Living there meant we had a life back. We had a place we could just grow up.”

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