By Brian Summerfield, Online Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
Whether it’s McMansions or manufactured homes, chances are you’ve dealt with at least one property that was influenced in some way by William Levitt. What’s that? You’ve never heard of William Levitt? Well, that’s not too surprising. Even though he was the closest thing the housing industry had to Henry Ford, the vast majority of Americans probably have no idea who he is.
But most of them are almost certainly familiar with his handiwork. That’s because he was responsible for turning a potato field in western Long Island into Levittown, N.Y., the first post-World War II suburb, and a town widely considered to be the progenitor of “Suburbia” as an American cultural institution.
Real estate writer Steve Bergsman explores Levitt’s legacy in his new book, Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis (Dancing Traveller Media, 2011). Bergsman is more intimately familiar with that legacy than most: His family moved to Levittown in 1954.
Despite that familiarity — or perhaps because of it — there were some surprises for Bergsman as he was doing research for the book.
“When I moved there, I was a young child and didn’t know the history,” he explains. “I had a happy childhood and enjoyed living in Levittown. But as I researched Levittown, I realized it had a bad name in the 1950s and 1960s.”
The reason? Public intellectuals across the political spectrum saw Levittown as an abomination, Bergsman says. Left-leaning thinkers viewed it as artificial and conformist, while many on the right attacked it out of something like snobbery for its apparent lack of style and quality.
But criticism from elites notwithstanding, the idea caught on like wildfire. This was more out of necessity than anything else.
“There were no new homes built during World War II,” Bergsman says. “Millions of veterans were coming home and starting families, but they were still living with their parents. America needed homes. That’s why it was built.”
According to Bergsman, there were two other factors in addition to new demand that led to the rise of Levittown and, by extension, Suburbia: the federal government’s role in easing credit and loan guarantees, and a visionary who could provide the model that would meet the massive appetite for new houses. Levitt’s genius was seeing that demand and responding by applying mass-production principles to home development.
Prior to Levitt, houses were typically built one at a time, and at considerable expense. But his company, Levitt & Sons, constructed thousands of homes in just a couple of years during the late 1940s. These were not palaces — most of them were 750-1,000 square feet structures with no basements.
“That was one of his innovations,” Bergsman says. “He built on concrete slabs, and that allowed him to build homes very fast.”
The people moving to Levittown didn’t seem to mind the size or simple, uniform design of the homes. For most of the new residents, who were largely blue-collar, second-generation American families whose patriarchs had just returned from years of combat overseas, this was a dream come true, Bergsman says.
And Levittown and other suburbs weren’t nearly as dull and stifling as intellectuals and artists made them out to be, he adds.
“I didn’t find it boring,” Bergsman says. “As a teenager, I had a large group of friends, and we were doing things all the time. I think we took advantage of everything the suburbs had to offer.”
Of course, Levittown wasn’t Shangri-La, either. There were a few problems, one of which was the exclusion of African American buyers. Without excusing Levitt’s fallacy in this regard, Bergsman points out that the decision was made at a time when the turbulent Civil Rights movement was about to get underway.
“Levitt took a pragmatic approach to this issue,” he explains. “He said, ‘I can solve the racial problem or I can solve the housing problem. I can’t do both.’
“On the other hand, he was a genius,” he adds. “He solved the problem of mass housing development by producing hundreds or thousands of houses at a time. Nobody before then went out and built even 20 houses at once. For better or worse, he created the modern suburb.”