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[Book review] Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb by David Kushner

By Fergus Bordewich. Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, December 2009.

WITH THE INAUGURATION of the nation's first African-American president just days away, it is easy to forget that not all that long ago hard-wired racism underpinned communities all over America—not just in the states of the old Confederacy—and that acquiring a home was a process often fraught with humiliation and danger for black families. In this sprightly and often surprising narrative, David Kushner journeys into the dark and racially charged heart of what newspapers once trumpeted as "the most perfectly planned community in America"—Levittown. The term today serves as condescending shorthand for suburban conformity. But just after World War II, Levittown, New York and its sister community of Levittown, Pennsylvania symbolized liberation from crowded urban neighborhoods for families whose idea of the American dream was a private home and a patch of grass. The Levitt brothers—Bill, a born showman and promoter, and introverted Albert, who focused on design - were both visionaries and brilliant businessmen, a winning combination. "In contemporary terms," writes Kushner, "they had the kinetic chemistry and renegade brash of a Silicon Valley start-up."

Home buyers signed a statement saying they would 'not permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race'

By adapting the techniques of mass production to homebuilding, the Levitts brought cheap, well-made homes within reach of returning GIs and the aspiring middle class. They mass-produced concrete septic tanks, pre-formed plumbing trees and chimneys, and framed entire walls on the ground, then raised them in place. They installed in every house then-novel amenities such as brand-name appliances, closets with automatic lights, built-in television sets, carefully landscaped lawns, and even a birdhouse painted to match each home's shutters. Both Levittowns were conceived from the start as complete communities, prefabricated, so to speak, with shopping centers, churches, pools, parks, curved streets for a rural feel, and cul-de-sacs where children could play safely. The Levittown customer, declared Bill Levitt, was "not just buying a house, he's buying a way of life." By 1952, the Levitts were building one out of every eight homes in the country. TIME Magazine dubbed their company the "General Motors of the housing industry."

But there was a snake in paradise: racial segregation. Buyers of Levittown homes were required to sign a statement which declared, in bold capitals, that they would "NOT PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE." Like many developers, the Levitts believed that racial integration was commercial suicide. Kushner suggests, however, that there was such a demand for housing in the years after the war that the Levitts could likely have integrated their towns from the start, and thus set a national pattern. Instead, they capitulated to Americans' darkest fears, and to their own bigotry. "The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities," Bill Levitt repeatedly declared.

The core of Kushner's story focuses on the campaign to desegregate Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, deftly splicing together the experiences of two families at the center of what became a terrifying ordeal. Bill and Daisy Myers and their children were educated, friendly, quiet people —just the sort of folks anyone would want to have next door—except that they were black. Their staunchest local allies were Bea and Lew Wechsler, labor organizers, longtime members of the Communist Party, and among the few whites who remained uncowed by the venomous racism that gripped Levittown that summer. With the support of local Quakers and the NAACP, the Myerses moved into their Cape-Cod-style "dream house" on Deepgreen Lane. They got more than they bargained for. Crosses were burned. Mobs waving Confederate flags staked out their home night and day. Rocks were thrown through their windows. Malicious callers rang their phone around the clock: "I will not let my children drink chocolate milk again as long as I live!" one irate woman yelled at Daisy Myers. Threats were made to burn them out. The local authorities refused to intervene. The police, for the most part, claimed they were helpless to control the mobs. Many in fact blamed the Myerses for provoking all the "agitation."

Similar desegregation battles were taking places in many other communities at the same time, including the one in which I grew up, in Yonkers, New York. But Levittown was a national symbol of the good life for all Americans. "The very people of Levittown considered the standoff as nothing less than the fight for the soul of new suburbia," Kushner writes.

The Myerses' battle to stay in Levittown made national, and even international news. When the press began to condemn Levittown as "a disgrace to America," Americans everywhere began to question what kind of communities they had really created. (123) In the end, with the state attorney general behind them, the Myerses won their battle. Several of their tormenters were convicted of harassment, and the demonstrations soon petered out. The mass flight that racist whites feared never took place. The Myerses suffered no further abuse, but they never felt at ease in Levittown after the summer of 1957. Five years later they moved to Harrisburg. Their story is a reminder that facing down segregation required from ordinary men and woman a degree of heroism that few white Americans have ever been asked to exhibit, except in war.

Other black families followed the Myerses to Levittown—but not many. Levittown's lingering reputation tended to keep African-Americans away. According to a recent census, only 2.45 percent of the town's residents were black.