Postwar Dystopia or Family Paradise?

By Von Blum, Paul | Tikkun, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Postwar Dystopia or Family Paradise?

Von Blum, Paul, Tikkun


Review by Paul Von Blum

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 ofthe 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 ofthe 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. …

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