Suburban Pioneer Levittown Thrives as Imitators Falter

Levittown, New York, America’s first mass-produced suburb, spawned postwar imitators throughout the nation. These days, it’s more like an outlier.

While new research shows that U.S. suburbs are getting older, poorer and more ethnically diverse, Levittown’s home prices have risen, incomes have grown, and poverty levels are far below the national average. And the once officially segregated town, about 35 miles east of New York City, remains more than 80 percent white, compared with 63 percent nationwide.

Levittown, which soon turns 65, stands apart from many suburbs where foreclosures, gas prices and falling incomes have damped enthusiasm for the sprawl outside cities. The town of about 52,000 shows how location and local comforts can overcome the obstacles curbing the nation’s love affair with suburbs, which began when Levittown started selling 800-square-foot, ranch-style homes by the thousands in 1949.

“Levittown, for all its schlock characteristics, was designed with more internal amenity than most later-automobile suburbs,” said James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere” who spent part of his childhood in the Long Island suburbs. “Schools, playing fields and even some shops were incorporated within the subdivision. So I’m sure this is a sell,” along with the town’s proximity to New York City, he said in an e-mail.

Losing Luster

While suburbs remain home to the largest share of the U.S. population, they have lost their appeal for millions of Americans. In the wake of the 2008 housing-market collapse that erased about $7 trillion worth of equity, people are returning to cities in record numbers.

The slowdown in suburban growth was illustrated in a 2009 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which found that 15 percent of residential building permits in the New York area were in the city limits in the early 1990s. By 2007, the EPA said, 55 percent of new building permits were in New York.

The plunge in housing prices has led to about 1 in 5 Americans holding “underwater” mortgages, those with balances higher than the market value of their homes. Poverty has risen twice as quickly in suburbs as cities during the last decade, according to a May report from the Brookings Institution. There are now more poor people living in suburbs than cities, the Washington-based research group found.

Defying Trend

In Levittown, the median price of a home climbed to $386,600, as of 2011, up from $252,964 in 2000. The average household in the hamlet makes $94,889, compared with the inflation-adjusted $93,242 in 1999. While that’s an increase of only 1.8 percent, it defied a national trend, where median incomes across the country fell 12.1 percent during the same period, to $52,762.

About 2.2 percent of Levittown’s population lives below the poverty line, roughly one-seventh the national rate.

The suburb was built as a New York answer to the postwar shortage of housing for veterans. In the wake of World War II, more than 6 million U.S. families were living with relatives or friends, and another 500,000 had to take shelter in temporary residences such as garages or barns, according to “Crabgrass Frontier” a 1985 book by Kenneth Jackson, a Columbia University historian.

William Levitt, a veteran who had sold homes on Long Island before the war for his father’s business, used Navy-pioneered assembly-line and inventory techniques to begin building 2,000 Cape Cod-style rental homes around the area’s potato fields.

Postwar Boom

The subdivision, started as a rental community in May 1947, was an immediate success, with as many as 30 homes being built per day. When the Levitts began selling ranch-style homes in the subdivision two years later, more than 1,400 contracts were signed in a single March day.

Levittown, which would ultimately include more than 17,000 homes, became the model for the rapid suburbanization of the U.S., fueled by easy home financing from the 1944 GI Bill and the Interstate Highway System begun in the 1950s. By 2010, about half of Americans lived in suburbs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Levittown has remained considerably less diverse than most suburbs. Federal Housing Administration policies in the 1940s prevented minorities from getting home loans in integrated neighborhoods, so Levittown was completely white through the 1950s.

Even now, 81 percent of the town’s population is white, with another 12 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian. Blacks, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 10.5 percent of Nassau County, account for 0.4 percent of the town’s total.

No Buses

Vestiges of the legal-segregation era remain in Nassau. Robert Moses, New York’s dominant urban planner for decades and a Long Island resident, instructed that overpasses on county parkways be designed so they’d be too low for buses to use. Since many minorities didn’t have cars in the 1940s and 1950s, the unique design reinforced segregation.

While Levittown’s household income is higher because whites are generally paid more than minorities, recent studies show that diverse suburbs tend to do better in harder-to-quantify economic categories. A July 2012 University of Minnesota Law School study found diverse suburbs are more walkable, have higher graduation rates for minority students, better chances at landing a middle-income job, and greater civic engagement.

More than 90 percent of Levittown’s 17,407 homes were built before 1960. Polly Dwyer, president of the local historical society, said there’s no such thing as an original Levittown house any more, since they’ve been remodeled or expanded.

Modest Deterrent

The size of the homes has proven only a modest deterrent to buyers. Aileen Manton, 86, who moved there in 1969, said raising six children in a tiny residence was challenging. She agreed with Kunstler that Levittown’s closeness to New York and its parks and schools made the trade-off manageable.

Manton volunteers at the Levittown Historical Museum, a collection of town memorabilia ranging from vintage Bendix washing machines and sections of white picket fences to toys that would draw howls of protest from child-safety advocates today. While praising the quality of life, she said the area has undergone profound changes since her family moved there.

“The traffic!” she said. “All the cars. And the taxes!”

A drive through Levittown’s neighborhoods confirms there’s no shortage of traffic or cars, parked headlight-to-taillight along suburban thoroughfares. Almost one-third of all U.S. households have three or more vehicles; in Levittown, the percentage climbs to almost 45 percent.

Car Enclaves

The days of such car-dependent enclaves may be numbered as a younger generation looks for more energy-friendly alternatives to distant suburbs, said Lawrence Levy, director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

Levittown, he said, “will probably continue to limp along with the old-fashioned model of suburbia where you can’t walk anywhere, where the streets are choked with cars, and where there are extra garbage cans along the sidewalk on trash day because of all the renting that’s going on under the table. Eventually, a new generation is going to realize this isn’t a sustainable model.”

Dwyer, who moved to Levittown in 1954 and raised three children there, said families will likely continue to buy homes in the area for many of the same reasons her family did.

“We loved it,” she said. “It was ours. And the best part? It had a washing machine.”

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