The birth of modern suburbia

Levittown served as model for U.S. housing, communities

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 15, 2011

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A development with so many homes going up at one time (eventually 17,000 homes were constructed in Levittown) was such an unusual concept that it was immediately attacked by critics, who assumed Levitt was building shoddy product.

But that wasn't the case at all. Levitt pioneered so many standards still used today: no basements; all homes constructed on concrete slabs; radiant heating coils built into the concrete; all copper plumbing (best product at the time); pre-installed modern appliances; and integral use of Sheetrock.

Probably the biggest criticism of Levittown was that all the homes looked alike. Indeed, there were just a limited number of models, but even when I moved there in 1954, so many of the homes were already customized and everyone planted trees, bushes and gardens idiosyncratically so that the homes really didn't look the same anymore.

It didn't stop the critics. Lewis Mumford, one of the great intellectuals in urban planning and the history of cities, simply couldn't abide Levittown. In one of his many blasts, he wrote:

"A multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless common waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated food, from the same freezers, forming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis."

Mumford expected Levittown to become a suburban slum. Instead, it became the prototype for the America of the future.

Today, Levittown is a quiet, leafy suburb. The blue-collar workers who originally settled in the first Cape Cod models of 750 square feet have given way to white-collar workers, and many homes have been expanded to twice the original size.

The little Levitt house that cost less than $8,000 to own back in 1949 now sells above $300,000, taking into account the deflationary effects of the current recession.

Although the New York metropolitan area was hit hard by the financial downturn of two years ago and the ongoing housing slump, I recently visited to tally the number of foreclosures in Levittown.

There weren't any.

Author's note: Special to Inman News readers, you can purchase the "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis" e-book for $5.99 (a 25 percent discount off the list price) by entering discount code ZX59A at the following website:

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books.

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