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Long IslandHistory

The new frontier: Veterans head east to claim a home of their own, creating a place called suburbia

Several of the original Levittown homes are seen

Several of the original Levittown homes are seen under construction in this undated Newsday photo. Credit: Newsday

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

In the years after World War II, Long Island had become a frontier once again.

In the 1950s, builder Andrew Monaco would stand on the edge of the frontier looking across a vast expanse of farmland. Fields of potatoes, corn and wheat. He could almost see the future in as-yet unbuilt subdivisions: New homes. Men going to work. Children on their way to school. Little League fields. Nearby shopping centers.

"We had a vision of it," Monaco, now 80 and still involved in the business of building homes, recalled a few days ago.

Soon, an entry road into the property would be built and utilities run to the edge of the tract. Then two or three model homes would go up. A split-level, a ranch, a Cape Cod. Modern kitchens with built-in ovens. "On opening day, you usually got the feeling whether you had a success or not - which of the models would sell," Monaco said. "Then you'd extend the roads as the lots were sold."

Along this new frontier, a generation of settler-families transformed many of the villages and hamlets of Nassau and Suffolk - for better or worse - into a predominant American form: the sprawl called suburbia.

These settlers would establish patterns that reverberate profoundly into the present - a preoccupation with home ownership, a veneration of local government, an acceptance of pervasive racial segregation, and a toleration of jumbled residential and commercial development.

The 1950s and early '60s were a time of familial togetherness and social homogeneity, a time when most women stayed home to raise children and men found new fields of combat on the traffic-jammed highways of the expanding look-alike suburbs. There was also something Jeffersonian in the air.

"It was an old ideal," says Long Island historian Barbara Kelly, "a return to Jefferson's vision of the yeoman-farmer owning his home and a piece of land of his own."

The image of the yeoman-commuter was etched everywhere, in newspaper and magazine ads, on television and in motion pictures. The message sounded loud and clear - and inexpensive: You too can own a single-family home in the suburbs. Then you can hop on the Long Island Rail Road or zip down the nearby highway to your job in the city.

It was the right message for thousands of returning servicemen in search of a decent place to begin long-delayed family life.

When Bill and Marie Baum moved to Long Island in 1949, they were surrounded by young people. "It seemed wonderful to have so much support," Bill Baum reflected. "We were all the same age, with the same situations, the same backgrounds. Looking back, maybe it did influence our lives. But at the time, we weren't even aware of it."

Pat and Kay Catapano waited until the late '50s to make their move to the suburbs, buying a house in East Northport on the eastern fringe of suburbia.

"I was making a good living as a civil engineer," Pat, now 79, said recently. "We had watched the transition: a lot of couples moving from Brooklyn to Queens, then from Queens to Valley Stream and Malverne and the like. I said to my wife, Let's wait and make one big jump and then everyone else will have to catch up to us.' I knew what I wanted and I didn't want a Levitt house for $7,999. I didn't want to move once and then move again."

By the time they did move, the Catapanos would add a pair of 8-year-old twins and a 10-month-old girl to the Baby Boom on Long Island.

Through the years of the Great Depression and the war, America had placed its biological urges on hold. By the late '40s, the number of marriageable people had swelled with men and women from age 20 into their early 30s. Predictably, says historian Kelly, "The nation's dammed-up reproductive cycle just burst."

By the 1950s, Long Island's rate of growth was the highest in the nation. In 1960, Nassau County's population rose to 1,300,171, compared to 406,748 in 1940. In Suffolk, the 1960 figure of 666,784 was more than three times the prewar total of 197,255.

After Levittown, there were babies everywhere. By the '60s, children abounded, with 40 percent of Long Island's citizens under the age of 21.

The focus was on the care and feeding of children. Adults devoted long hours to attending PTA meetings, organizing Little League. Fathers managed teams, mothers chauffeured kids from ballet to ballfield. Hundreds of new schools opened, and neighborhood playgrounds were built throughout Nassau and western Suffolk.

New York City native Pat Catapano recalls the stunningly different street scene.  'In Brooklyn or Queens, there were always kids out on the street, playing by themselves no matter how bad the weather. On Long Island, everything was organized in leagues for the kids." There was little attention paid to facilities for older people. "There were just young people with children in the neighborhood."

There was also traffic everywhere. Construction of the Long Island Expressway had begun in 1953 and crossed the Suffolk border in 1962. Ten years later, the road reached Riverhead. The expressway and the Northern and Southern State Parkways had heightened the suburban dream: A working man could move swiftly along new roads between work and home.

But for tens of thousands of daily commuters, the postwar dream would turn into a nightmare. Lost in the excitement of this idealized "World of Tomorrow," - the promise of the 1939 World's Fair - were unheeded warnings from urban planners that the new highways were likely to create more traffic rather than less. And they did.

But the future looked so bright in the early postwar years. With the passage of the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 - better known as the GI Bill of Rights - 5.5 million veterans were able to obtained low-cost federal housing loans by 1960. The legislation, approved by Congress just a few weeks after D-Day, created the biggest building boom in the nation's history as well as enabling tens of thousands of former GIs to attend college.

For the first time, government-supported housing for working class Americans was in place. By 1997, more than 248,000 home loans under the 1944 legislation were made to veterans on Long Island - 165,522 in Nassau and 83,105 in Suffolk.

The GI Bill certainly reshaped the Long Island of the future, said Kelly, curator of Hofstra's Long Island Studies Institute. With low-cost loans, veterans were able to buy inexpensive single-family homes with a bit of greenery, she said. "You suddenly had a whole new cohort of people who were college-educated and landowners, who prior to World War II would have been high-school-educated and renters."

The loan program, administered by the Federal Housing Administration, guaranteed developers with up-front financing to mandate affordable housing. Returning GIs could obtain low-interest mortgages with little money down. By 1950, the government had pumped $20 billion into the building industry and helped to redefine the nation's postwar middle class.

But the business of building subdivisions was always risky, recalled Andrew Monaco, now living in Fort Salonga. In the early '50s, even with many homes built under the GI Bill, Monaco said, "There was still a great deal of anxiety, as there is today. Many of us had limited cash, so we always worried if our homes would sell."

As a developer, Monaco estimates his company, Pinewood Manor Inc., built more than 2,000 homes on Long Island, including a series of New England Village subdivisions. "We put them up in Hauppauge, Stony Brook, Centereach, so many, many more."

As subdivisions spread across Nassau and into Suffolk, dealers of autos and appliances followed the new consumers. Shopping malls sprang up everywhere. In 1956, Roosevelt Field Mall opened in Garden City, and Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, and Broadway Mall, formerly Mid-Island Mall, in Hicksville. The Walt Whitman Mall opened in Huntington in 1962, and seven years later, the Smith Haven Mall opened in Lake Grove.

With a new frontier growing out of control, the challenge was met at the grass roots level by village and town agencies and suburban school boards - but often, not very well. Suburban problems were becoming clearer and local political jurisdictions were failing to meet them. Lack of strong zoning policies led to the ugliness of suburban sprawl and the dullness of cookie-cutter subdivisions.

"Through the 1950s, zoning was archaic, planning was virtually nonexistent and developers could to do what they wanted," recalled Lee Koppelman, longtime director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board. By 1960, the first remedial steps were taken. "But by then, the horse was out of the barn. Nassau and Suffolk had 19th-Century governments at the same time that their growth rate was approaching the 21st Century. The two fastest-growing counties in the country were led by the slowest-thinking politicans, still living in the past."

History might have been reshaped, Koppelman said, if the electorate had been aware of the inadequacy of the political system. But the newlyarrived settlers remained "totally oblivous" that the population explosion was the problem. "Or they might have elected people to address the new problems, instead of officials who'd keep taxes down, who'd keep factories out, who'd keep other' people out."

"By 1960, there were at least a thousand subdivisions, big and small, maybe more," says Bob Wieboldt, executive director of the Long Island Builders Institute. Suddenly, potato fields had become potentially expensive property for home sites.

In the 1950s, a potato farmer could sell off his land for $5,000 an acre, Wieboldt said. In turn, developers could build four to five houses on this acre, selling the houses and land for a total of $60,000 to $75,000. "If you wanted to buy a developed lot to build your own house, a quarter acre might cost you $3,000, or $6,000 for a half acre, so the value per acre was up to $12,000." Today, he noted, a half-acre lot in a subdivision might cost a home-builder $40,000 or more.

This stunning rise in the cost of land would summon greedy dreams of overnight fortunes and lead inevitably to political corruption. Rezoning land for commercial use was another of the suburban roads to wealth.

In the late 1960s, Suffolk County was rocked with land scandals in the Towns of Islip, Brookhaven and Babylon in which corrupt public officials manipulated rezoning powers for their own profit. A three-year investigative effort by a team of reporters led to indictments and brought Newsday its second Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

Today, the legacy of those boom days and the fast-and-loose zoning practices is still visible along arterial roads such as Hempstead and Jericho Turnpikes with their endless succession of service stations and fast-food restaurants, and a jungle of neon signs.

Despite the sprawling ugliness, for some young people, life in the suburbs seemed like a block party.

Raised in Rockville Centre, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled her suburban childhood last year in a loving memoir, "Wait Till Next Year." Her tree-lined street was filled with playmates in the 1950s, she remembers, and she and her best friend ran a string across a narrow driveway to pass notes between their second-floor bedrooms.

It was a time when every house seemed like a part of an extended family, Goodwin said during a visit to her old block last fall. "We didn't have to knock on the doors. We just raced in, gathering up our gang, as if the block was one big house. There was no need for play groups or day care or camp. There was always someone home and we knew the inside of their houses as well as our own."

At the time, Goodwin was a drop-dead fan of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier with the old Brooklyn Dodgers. But in most Long Island communities, old and new, almost everyone who owned or rented a home was white. And the de facto segregation would establish housing patterns which have persisted to this day.

Diversity was barely in the political language in those days and hardly anyone fretted over ethnic homogeneity. Black residents often voiced complaints but they were ignored or generally unheard in white communities.

In a 1961 interview with a black resident, for instance, Newsday reported that the woman resented the fact that, "I might drive past a house that was for sale and know that I couldn't buy it because I'm a Negro. Nobody likes to be told where you must buy."

With major Supreme Court decisions in the offing, some builders might have attempted to break the old color barriers. But the opportunity to change history was ignored.

One of suburbia's masterbuilders, William J. Levitt, for instance, made no secret of his view on the racial status quo when Levittown opened on Oct. 1, 1947.

In his contract with the earliest Levittown home buyers and renters, Clause 25 spelled out a "white only" policy in no uncertain terms: "The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race."

"The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities," Levitt stated at the time. "This attitude may be wrong morally and some day it may change . . . I hope it will. But it is unfair to charge an individual with the blame for creating this attitude or saddle him with the sole responsibility for correcting it. The responsibility is society's."

Until society is willing to confront these racial issues, Levitt said, "it is not reasonable to expect that any builder should or could undertake to absorb the entire risk and burden of conducting such a vast experiment."

A half century later, Lynda R. Day, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brooklyn College, finds Levitt guilty of poor business judgment. "If he didn't think the houses would sell if African-Americans moved in, he was wrong. I think they would have. I think people were ready to move from Queens and Brooklyn. They had the money and they wanted the houses."

One of the African-American veterans who was rebuffed by Clause 25 was Eugene Burnett, a Wheatley Heights resident whose Levittown application was rejected. "Levitt had a moment in history to set an example for the rest of Long Island but he didn't seize it . . . He is the reason why Long Island is now so segregated," Burnett, a former Suffolk County police sergeant, said recently.

Exclusionary policies - written and unwritten - slowed the growth of Long Island's non-white population from the 1950s to the present.

In Nassau County, for instance, the black population was just over 13,000 in 1940, or about 3 percent. In 1960, despite the population explosion, nonwhite residents totaled only 42,132, still 3 percent. Suffolk's nonwhite population in 1940 was 8,700, or about 4 percent. In 1960, the figure rose to 34,787, about 5 percent. Today, the old patterns of segregation persist, even as the nonwhite population has slowly risen to just over 408,000, or 18 percent of the bi-county population of 2.6 million.

For many of the white settlers on Long Island, race was not a conscious issue in the 1950s. But in middle-class communities, residents did note how similar they were to their neighbors - and most of them seemed to like the idea.

Bill and Marie Baum, who bought a house in Huntington in 1953, after renting a Cape Cod house in Levittown, recalled that the makeup in their neighborhood seemed natural. For the women of Marie Baum's generation, with their growing entourage of preschoolers, it was a memorable time. "We were all so excited to be together - it was like a big party. We were only too happy to have a safe place for the children to play."

Bill and Marie were members of a bridge group that gathered once a month. They were all in their 20s or early 30s. Most of the men were former GIs who commuted to jobs in New York City. By 1949, most of the women had had their first or second child.

"There were 12 of us, meeting in each other's homes - and someone was always having a baby," Marie, now 73 and living in Huntington Bay, recalled. "Every month somebody else would announce a pregnancy. After a while, we were afraid to show up. I'd walk in and say, Who's pregnant tonight?' We ended up with 33 children!"

Most of their friends also moved on to larger houses, another Long Island pattern. But their group has retained their friendships for more than four decades, attending the weddings of each other's children over the years. In 1953, the Baums had come a long way from the Bronx, where they once shared a tiny apartment. But more than 40 years later, Marie Baum remembers the friendly but still rueful reception they received when they moved eastward. "The residents who grew up there called us the new people who ruined Huntington,' " she said.

When Pat and Kay Catapano moved to East Northport, they heard no such criticism. They were, after all, pioneers.

They had been married in 1948, when the housing shortage in Brooklyn was so acute they lived in a furnished room with a hot plate for 15 months. Then Kay became pregnant with their twins and they decided to move into the upstairs apartment of her parents' two-family house in Queens. They considered a Levittown-type solution but decided to skip the first rush to the suburbs.

In 1958, they bought their first home in East Northport for $18,250, an exact figure that Pat Catapano has never forgotten - and he and his wife still live there.

At the time, the Long Island Expressway had not yet reached the Nassau-Suffolk border, but the Catapanos enjoyed the serenity of country roads. Like other settlers, they instantly felt the lure of this new space age - the delight of living space.

There was never a doubt about the rightness of it. "People would come out to visit, they'd stay for the weekend. It was too far to come for the day. There was hardly a car on Larkfield Road in those days," he remembers. "Now the traffic is horrendous."

Their subdivision was called Lenard Homes, where buyers chose one of the number of model homes on display. Pat and Kay selected a split-level. "It was expensive at the time. Another company was putting up homes for $14,000 in Deer Park Avenue. But we were relatively young and, I told my wife, We'll make it.' "

Like the Baums, the Catapanos found advantages in the shared interests of the neighborhood. "All of us had children; that was the nice part of it. We all had the same worries: having good schools, trying to meet the mortgage payments, making a living, getting the kids into college, doing the best we could. We didn't really think about social problems until the late '60s and '70s."

Years later, as Long Islanders grew older, there would be taxpayer rebellions in the 1980s and '90s, protesting school budgets and the high cost of education. But in the euphoric '60s, Pat Catapano recalled, he paid only $123 a month, which covered mortgage, insurance and taxes, including school taxes. "I don't think anyone started complaining about taxes until the '70s."

His neighbors were friendly but not too friendly. Everyone knew each other and shared an occasional cocktail. "But if anyone needed help, we were there," he said. "Because we had the same problems: How are the kids doing? Are the grubs eating your lawn? Are you planning to paint your house?"

That feeling of camaraderie vanished later. Children grew up and moved on. Now there are new neighbors with children. "I see the school buses come down the streets again. A new generation. I see mothers doing the things our wives did," he said. But then, in 1958, there were no people in their 70s and 80s who lived down the block.

Catapano had grown up in a Brooklyn apartment above a store with a shared bathroom in the hall. "But I worked hard all my life - and I was very fortunate," he reflected. Like many others, he felt he had traveled a long way to suburbia - and he has loved where the road has taken him.

Author Alice Hoffman, who grew up on Long Island, drew upon her childhood experiences to examine the magic and the mistakes of suburban life in one of her best-selling novels, "Seventh Heaven."

The work is set in the 1950s in a community similar to her own hometown of Franklin Square, where Hoffman was the only child on the block whose mother was divorced.  Her closest friend was not permitted to visit her house since her friend's father thought a divorced mother, even a social worker, might be a bad influence. In the novel, Hoffman's heroine, Nora Silk, is also the only divorced mother on the block. There, the wives on the block refuse to talk to their divorcee neighbor.

A few decades later, of course, single parents would become commonplace on Long Island.

Hoffman also remembers the magic in this era, as new suburbs sprawled along the Southern State Parkway. "Most children feel the magic of the place they grew up. Only they've forgotten. For me, Long Island was enchanted," Hoffman said in a Newsday interview.

Like her heroine, she was mesmerized by summer evenings when children captured fireflies in glass jars, playing games on safe streets late into the warm evenings.

"The kids had a community. All the houses were new and they looked alike, as if they all had been put under a spell," she said. The fathers disappeared during the day while the mothers stayed home and baked cookies, Hoffman remembered. "And that was kind of magical, too."

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