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Articles of Interest by Jay B. Itkowitz During his Journalism Career

Levittown at 25: Prototype of suburban housing

Long Island Press, November 26, 1972

When Henry J. Ford announced the Model T Ford, the car for the masses, at the turn of the century, people laughed.

When William J. Levitt announced Levittown, the community for the masses, 25 years ago, they laughed again.

But like the Ford, Levittown immediately caught on, and has proliferated. The nation's first large-scale development of one-family homes, at prices most families could afford, has turned out to be a prototype of what could be done with a potato patch.

Levitt's once-lonely houses out in the potato fields aren't lonely anymore. Once Levitt blazed the trail other developers followed, so that today there aren't any more potato patches for miles around - only variations on Levitt's theme.

People said that Levittown, home today to 82,000 people, would become a suburban slum. How wrong they were! Notorious at first for their sameness, few of the homes today don't display evidence of their owners' individuality.

Most have been enlarged and vastly improved. The stick-like trees which were methodically planted as the town grew have flourished and provide relaxing shade even on the hottest days.

It was in the spring of 1947 when Levitt first unveiled his plans for the development which was specifically aimed at filling the dire need for housing for veterans of World War II. He had originally planned only 2,000 houses for the 300-acre tract he had bought in an unincorporated part of Hempstead Town. But he was besieged by house-hungry veterans and soon enlarged his plans. By the time the community was completed in November 1951, Levitt had built 17,447 houses.

Levitt offered veterans, many of whom were packed into tiny apartments in New York City with their families, the opportunity to move into a house - cheap. Veterans could rent a suburban house for $60 a month with an option to buy. Most bought their houses, and when they did, they didn't need a down payment either.

Levitt built two basic house styles - a Cape Cod and a ranch design. The original Cape Cods, which became available in October 1947, offered four rooms and an unfinished attic and sold for $6,990. The four-room ranch also came with an expansion attic and sold for $7,990.

As Levitt expanded on his original plans, he offered a five-room ranch model with a carport which by the end of 1951 sold for $9,500.

All houses came equipped with refrigerators, washing machines and landscaping. Some even had built-in television sets.

Today these same houses, depending on how much they have been improved, bring $25,000 to $40,000 on resale. Rents today, according to one real estate agent, in the most basic unimproved Levitt house, begin at $250 a month without heat or electricity.

At the peak of construction, Levitt put up 21 houses a day, an incredible rate at the time. Levitt was the first to apply assembly-line techniques to the house building trade, which is why some call him the "Henry Ford of the construction industry."

"It was amazing to watch the community go up," said a former newsman who saw Levittown sprout from sprawling potato fields into a community. "Specialized crews moved from house to house, block by block, section by section, laying foundations, paving the streets and planting stick-like trees."

In the beginning, Levittown drew criticism for its uniform character. The freshly built community was often the butt of jokes which often ended with a drunken commuter winding up in the wrong bedroom. But the jokes have long been silenced by Levittown's success.

The precise sameness of the box-like houses seemed to spur the owners to outdo themselves in improving them. And today, hardly a house looks like the one next door.

"Levittown was a dream for people who came from urban areas to build a better life," Angela Rubino, former Levittown School Board president, recently said.

An outspoken member of the community, Mrs. Rubino moved to Levittown from New York City more than 18 years ago.

Even then, she recalls, Levittown spiritually was a different place. "In the early days," she remembered, "there was a certain camaraderie - a thread that kept people a lot closer together."

Now in her 50s, Mrs. Rubino described it as a kind of "pioneering spirit that drew people together. But as the community became more settled that spirit went by the boards."

Few of the original families remain. One long-time real estate broker put the number at about 10 percent. Many of the veterans who moved into the basic Levitts, yearning for more rooms, prospered and moved out as their families grew.

Today, some of the children who grew up there and married have returned. Where Levittown was mostly populated by veterans in the beginning, now there is an interesting cultural mix of people living side by side.

Levittown contains a healthy dose of blue-collar workers who make up a sizeable part of the middle class. It is a favorite of policemen and firemen who work in New York City as well as Nassau County.

Along with them are the young marrieds, on their way up and living in their first home, who, like the times, are changed. Many of these young professionals grate on their elders, who sense a lack of respect for traditional values brought on by the national furor over Vietnam.

This cultural milieu has combined to create what one Levittowner called a "city attitude" in the suburbs where neighbors, although they are friendly, keep their distance.

"Levittown has the advantages of the suburbs but the privacy of the city," said one young housewife.

Second generation Levittown, remarked one satisfied home owner, "is still friendly," though on a more "selective basis."

"I've never heard of anyone being turned down by a neighbor when he needed help," said Mr. Rubino.

One point of comparison that highlights the difference between first and second generation Levittown is the esprit de corps which marked the 10th anniversary celebration with the 25th anniversary in October.

In October 1957 Levittown celebrated its 10th birthday with a weeklong series of events. It was a simpler time, when Americans – Levittowners - were more secure in their accomplishments. And, in a day when parades were more popular, 75 community organizations banded together to celebrate with a march followed on a Saturday night with a grand coronation ball. It was a week to show off Levittown's success in the world.

Today, Levittown's success is taken for granted. Gone is that legendary pride in the community.

"If they held a parade today they would be lucky if a quarter of the people turned out," remarked one long-time observer.

According to Harold Abbot, chairman of the 25th Anniversary Committee, some residents were once thinking of a gala celebration in October that would involve all the stores. The 25th anniversary celebration never materialized, Abbott said, because "nobody wanted to work."

And so Levittown's 25th birthday passed on Oct. 1 without a flourish.

Abbott, who moved to Levittown in 1949, helped raise funds for the 10th Anniversary celebration. Much of the money went for fireworks and parades.

"We worked so hard for the anniversary," he said. "We were real proud. Today, the difference is like night and day."

Abbott said the money raised by the 25th Anniversary Committee would go towards refurbishing Levittown's first school - a three-roomer - which will be used as a cultural center. The committee is picking up the tab for the outside and the landscape, while the school system is fixing the interior.

Levittown was the first planned, large-scale single-family housing development on Long Island.

"Levittown was unique because it signaled the suburbanization of the United States," said Lee F. Koppelman, director of the Nassau-Suffolk Regional Planning Board.

The result can be seen within the borders of Nassau County which in two decades, like Levittown, was transformed from a quiet farming community into a bustling, over-built refuge from the city.

In the late forties and early fifties, Levittown was considered a well-planned community. In addition to the houses, William J. Levitt provided seven village "greens" which were used as local shopping centers, nine swimming pools for recreation, 10 parks and Levittown Hall for community meetings.

But Levitt, planners and many residents agree, made a serious error when he left a strip along Hempstead Turnpike, which cuts through the development, mostly undeveloped.

As Levittown matured, more and more businesses sprouted along the turnpike, leading to what one long-time resident described as a "noon strip which contains grotesque shopping centers and department stores which violated the basic concept."

Interestingly enough, Levitt didn't make the same mistake when he built another Levittown in Pennsylvania.

Aside from the esthetics, the strip is a major source of traffic problems for residents, especially on the weekends. Moreover the commercial development contradicted the need for the village greens where local merchants have had trouble staying afloat through the years.

"In terms of new standards, there are better ways to design communities," commented Koppelman, taking time to indulge in a little "20-20 hindsight."

Koppelman, whose agency is trying to carefully to control the growth in undeveloped areas of Suffolk, views Levittown as a good example of "suburban sprawl otherwise known as wall-to-wall housing." Today, he says, communities should be totally designed.

This means that there should be more than one type of housing available to different income groups. The community should be balanced, he says, to allow for seniors and young marrieds with little money as well as middle-income families. Traffic patterns should be anticipated and controlled and should be related to local and regional shopping centers.

"We learned from Levittown that there are better ways to do it," Koppelman remarked.

No skating for longhairs

Opposition to long hair may be on the wane elsewhere, with more and more people shaping their longer locks, but if the lower reaches of your hair touch the upper part of your collar, you can't just go roller-skating in Levittown.

That may not seem like a tragedy to most, but if you're a teenager, don't have a car and like longer hair, you're excluded from one of the few nighttime activities available to youngsters in Levittown.

The Levittown Arena of America on Wheels stands out on Hempstead Turnpike near the Wantagh Parkway. According to one of the cashiers who has worked there since it opened in 1955, the arena has always had conservative dress rules.

Since it opened, she said, the arena has turned away would-be customers in dungarees and t-shirts in addition to girls with halters, bare midriffs and tight slacks. Skirts must be six inches from the center of the knee and shirts must be buttoned and tucked in.

The arena didn't institute the ban against "extreme hair styles" until the late sixties, when boys started sporting longer locks. The cashier said the strict regulations are designed to maintain the "family" atmosphere of the rink.

"It's our right to establish dress rules," she maintained.

Some youths bemoan the regulation, but will not cut their hair to roller skate. In November 1970 a small group even tried to force the rink to change the regulations by picketing in a bid to start a boycott. The regulations, however, still stand.

Have the rules hurt business? "On Friday nights we have to turn them away because we run out of skates," the cashier said. "A lot of parents have even thanked us..."

A dull place for youth

Levittown may be a dream come true for many of its adult homeowners, but for the teenagers who have no say in where their families live, the opposite is often the case.

"Living in Levittown is a nightmare for any boy or girl from 15 to 18 years of age," says Frederick J. Neist, president of the Levittown-Island Trees Youth Council. "There's absolutely no place to go unless they have a car and an abundance of money."

The burly 49-year-old building and grounds superintendent for the Island Trees School District has been in the forefront of the fight to make Levittown a better place for teenagers.

This past summer Neist, who is also the law-and-order chairman for the Nassau County American Legion, battled to get Hempstead Town to install lights in five Levittown parks so that teenagers would have a place to stay after 9 p.m.

Thus far the Town has only agreed to set up a pilot project at the half-acre Azalea Road Park. Town councilman Anthony Imbarratta has told Neist that if the project works, "we can talk about lighting up some more parks in the area."

Azalea Park has been the scene of a number of confrontations between police and teenagers angry about the 9 p.m. closing time. Some have even been arrested for loitering.

If you don't help the kids," says Neist, "if you don't give them things to do, they're going to get into trouble."

Compounding Levittown's lack of youth services is the trouble its two school districts – Levittown and Island Trees – have had in getting budgets approved in recent years. According to Neist, the districts used to provide a moderately extensive night recreation program for teenagers, but budget defeats resulted in cutbacks.

This past summer Levittown's nighttime summer program was cancelled because of two budget defeats.

One of the few places in Levittown where teenagers are welcome at night is the Levittown-Island Trees Youth Direction Council's center, located in what used to be a supermarket in the Center Lane Village Green, a few blocks south of Hempstead Turnpike. At almost any time, day or night, you can find small clusters of youngsters at the center engaged in either organized activities or just "hangin' out."

The Yours, Ours, and Mine Youth Center offers Levittown youth recreation programs, social group work, community organization, counseling and an anti-drug program.

James Edmundson, the full-time paid director for the state-, county- and town-funded program, says youth can get "constructively involved" at the center.

Among the projects the teenagers have initiated, says Edmundson, is a recycling center for newspapers and glass at the green which has netted $1,500 for the youth direction council.

One small group of 10 to 15 girls, he says, travels to the Suffolk State School in Melville every Sunday to work with retarded children as a group project. Others have raised money for needy families.

But as Edmundson admits, the center's facilities are limited. At most, it serves 2,000 kids in the Levittown area, including a summer day camp for 400 to 500 children in the 7 to 12 age bracket. Not nearly enough, he says, for the well-over 20,000 youngsters in the Levittown area.

'A perfect vision, except...': Exclusions policy barred blacks at first

Riding through the curved, tree-lined streets of Levittown recently, one resident marveled at the vision of William J. Levitt.

"It was a perfect vision," the housewife remarked, "except for one thing." She was referring to one aspect of that vision, one that few talk about - or even know about - in these parts. It was a vision that specifically excluded non-whites.

Racial discrimination is nothing new on Long Island. Most whites will reluctantly acknowledge it when pressed, but few remember - and those who were too young to understand in those days haven't been reminded - the original wording of the restrictive covenant which kept blacks out of what Levitt intended to be a white veterans' paradise.

"No dwelling shall be used or occupied by members of other than the Caucasian race, but the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted," read the original Levitt contract clause, which for so many white veterans meant escape from the dirty overcrowded tenements of the city.

Nobody knows how many black veterans were denied the same privilege. Nobody kept records of those who were turned down because of the color of their skin.

William J. Levitt has since renounced his earlier exclusionary policies. In April 1968, days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Levitt and Sons ran a full-page advertisement in several metropolitan area newspapers proclaiming support for open housing. The ad read in part: "As a tribute to Dr. King this company adopted a new policy - effective at once - eliminating segregation any place it builds."

In 1950, however, it was a different story.

William Cotter was the first and last black man to defy the restrictive covenant. Cotter, who now owns an auto body garage in Great Neck, thwarted Levitt's wishes by moving his small family to Levittown by subletting a rented house.

This didn't sit right with the Levitt firm, which began a series of legal maneuvers to oust Cotter. Meanwhile, some of his more hostile neighbors mounted a scare campaign to force him out.

Cotter was never attacked, but he and his family were often the target of threats and obscene phone calls. So much so that a group of friendly neighbors banded together to form a committee to protect the Cotters.

According to one resident who was active in the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown, volunteers showed up in force the first time a marshal came over to evict the Cotters. According to Victor Sklaire, who still lives in Levittown, the marshal left when he saw the show of support.

The next time, the marshals came in force and put Cotter and his furniture - all the family's belongings - out into the rain. But that wasn't the end of it.

The committee had been prepared for the eviction and consequently a house had been bought by an eligible white man who then sold it to Cotter. Cotter's wife, whom he's since divorced, still lives in that house.

The racial situation has hardly changed since Bill Cotter moved into Levittown. Few blacks followed Cotter's example by moving into Levittown and even fewer remained.

According to the 1970 census, a total of 44 blacks live in the Levittown postal district compared to 65,128 whites. The number is so low that the Census Bureau didn't even release the number of black-owned houses in Levittown. This, an official explained, "is to protect the anonymity" of the people involved.

Despite the open housing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the number of blacks in Levittown dropped from 57 in 1960 to 44 in 1970.

Unemployment makes a "New Poor Area"

Though Levittown is a prosperous community it is distinctly middle-class. That "there are no rich people here" is a frequent observation of residents.

Actually, there are some people who are barely holding onto their houses.

According to Nassau Social Services Department, Levittown is a "new poor area." This means that there has been a sudden rise in unemployment in recent years.

The rise began in 1969 and has continued on the upswing except for the first six months of this year when there was a slight decrease. According to a spokesman for the department, there were 379 cases involving 1,384 persons in 1969. This number rose sharply the next year when the department handled 556 cases involving 1,846 persons.

By June 1971, the department was handling 607 cases involving 2,050 Levittowners out of a community of 82,000. In other words, one out of 40 Levittowners was receiving some sort of public assistance.

The department spokesperson attributed the rise in public assistance to Levittowners to layoffs in the aerospace industries on Long Island in recent years. According to the spokesman those laid off often have trouble finding new jobs. Thus, they must turn to the government for grants to provide shelter and other basic needs including food and clothing.

In the first six months of the year, Levittown's caseload dropped like Nassau County's. In that period, 616 Levittown families involving 1,867 people received assistance. But that was before Grumman announced new layoffs which resulted in the loss of approximately 1,200 jobs.

"Levittown puts the lie to people who say welfare recipients are lazy, black people," said the department spokesman. "Levittown is an example of a white welfare problem."

In a sense, Levittown's economic health, like Nassau County's, has always been tied to the well-being of the aerospace industry. And the news of more layoffs is certainly not encouraging to those who "are just holding on."

Throughout the years, Levittowners have come to the belief that Levittown offered the most for the money; for some, that's a cruel reality today. If you can't be on in Levittown, some believe, odds are you can't be on in suburbia.

"We're prisoners of our homes," observed one resident. "If I sold my house and got the money, where the hell would I go?"