In their The Giants of Science (1959), Philip Cane and Samuel Nisenson noted that "Aristotle was a great man of science, The tragedy was that he was too great. The lesser minds that followed him accepted his errors along with his achievements". Perhaps the same could be said of William Levitt. His genius, in acting like a powerful lens, served to magnify him into a larger-than-life character and consequently, over time, made his imperfections all the more conspicuous.
Levitt, at the end of World War II, saw what few people saw or had the technical skills, financial means, or political prowess to address: the greatest housing shortage in American history in confluence with a demographic surge that'd create an equally extraordinary demand for new housing. He addressed the problem in a manner that's legendary and rightly so.
But what of the limits of his prognostications, the extent of his vision? The critiques accumulated over the years are valid, I believe. But many of the critics themselves were unfair. It's of paltry spirit to praise Levitt for foreseeing the needs of the 1950's and '60's only to condemn him, in the same breath, for not anticipating the socioeconomic trends in subsequent decades. Levitt was grand visionary, but hardly a prophet.
Levittown has its built-in flaws to be sure: Lack of sizable commercial tax base, lack of diverse housing stock, and a failure of the village greens and Hempstead Turnpike's "main street" to compete with the malls. These flaws do, indeed, reflect the limitations of William Levitt's vision. But to what extent can we really hold him into account?
In 1947, William Levitt was responding to the needs of 1947, not the needs of 2012. He could hardly have imagined an exponential growth-like increase in housing costs (let alone property taxes) that'd far outdistance income growth after 1980 or that the expanding Baby Boom would experience a crunch in the 70's and taper off, or that population ageing would come to mean something very different by century's end. While he was building Levittown, America was experiencing the greatest economic expansion in its history wherein even a blue collar worker could anticipate a strong and dependable job and a collage degree was a ticket to an even more lucrative opportunities. How could he have reasonably have anticipated the technology-driven forces of globalization that would lead to the outsourcing of entire industries overseas, chronic unemployment - and even poverty- amongst well-educated people, and socioeconomic dislocations wrought by the resumption of mass immigration? Or the political forces behind the aforementioned?
Many have attacked the village greens, for example, as venues failing to attain a reliable customer/tax base due to competition with the malls. They have failed to appreciate the fact that "the draw" of he greens was always the bowling lanes, parks for public events, and swimming pools and that the commercial aspect was ancillary in nature. The failure of Hempstead Turnpike to reach its full potential as "downtown Levittown" - and that's debatable- can scarcely be foisted upon William Levitt as it's a problem being experienced by suburban communities all over the country.
If there's any limitation of vision that bedevils Levittown today, it's the failure to adequately address these issues right now in 2012; the tendency to steadfastly apply mid-20th Century housing, tax, educational, and commercial solutions to 21st Century problems.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org