The role of the Federal Government in the housing industry, especially after the creation of the Federal Housing Authority in 1934, has always been a subject of intense debate in suburbia. Over the next 20 years, as Levittown transforms from a community of homeowners to a community of renters (deny it all you like), this debate will only intensify. What, historically speaking, has been the role of government in creating suburbia? To what extent is suburban Levittown and the surrounding communities owed to governmental policies and to what extent is it a private sector affair?
Hugh A. Wilson in his Social Security: Visions and Revisions (1968), whilst writing as something of a Great Society ideologue, cited the role of the U.S. Government "as a broker, mediator, and senior partner in all spheres of economic life after 1945" with particular interest, where suburbia is concerned, to the Federal Housing Authority (1934), Serviceman's Readjustment Act (1944), Hill-Burton Act (1946), Housing and Rent Act (1949), and National Defense Education Act (1958).
Okay. Fair enough. I don't discount the significance of these congressional acts and credit that Levittown and environs would have a different socioeconomic profile for want of them. But in seeking post-World War Two suburbia's roots, it's impossible to underestimate the importance of the state highway system as automobiles began to be mass produced in the late 1910's and as the population surged and, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of people dwelling in cities and towns equaled the number living on farms (1920 U.S. Census).
Robert Mosses highway system was a New York State undertaking for which the Federal Government had a superficial role. Too, the impact of the railroad that made hitherto remote regions accessible to agriculture, and thence, the planting of rows of houses instead of corn and potatoes. While these venues utilized some federal funds and took advantage of favorable federal policies, the Federal Government could hardly be considered "a partner". The Island Trees/Jerusalem area, situated thirty miles from Times Square, would have become suburban by 1970 anyway - the process was in the works. Just consider the often overlooked building boom of the 1910-40 era.
Riding on the crest of the exploding stock market before the Crash of '29, the growing population, the burgeoning middle class, and the proliferation of the automobile, the suburbanization of Long Island was already well underway whilst William Levitt was still in elementary school. Maps and photographs of central Nassau County in the years between 1910 and 1940 show a landscape peppered with small-scale suburban developments - in some cases, on older undeveloped 19th Century streets. These include Hicksville Manor, Highland Gardens, Waldolf Park, and Cantiague Park in Hicksville; Westbury Terrace in New Cassel; Wheatly Villa in Westbury; Green Acres in Island Trees; Hempstead Lawns and Aviation Park in East Meadow; and Central Park Estates in Bethpage. Some of these real estate developments were created by builders on several sites: Nassau Gardens had two developments in Plainview and one in Hicksville.
Beyond Hicksville, East Meadow, Westbury, and Island Trees, the mini-suburban boom created a kaleidoscope of Tudor, Regency, and Georgian-style homes in Nassau and Queens. A few were known as "strathmores" and whilst scarcely more substantial, more noticeable than the aforementioned tick-tack-toes on the map - and popping up in Great Neck, Rockville Centre, and Manhasset - they were the ancestors of Levittown. Certainly they were a far cry from the vast circuit-board landscapes spirited into being in the 1950's and 60's. But their developer seemed to weather the uncertainties of the Great Depression better than the rest and that developer, the new kid on the block in 1926, was Levitt & Sons.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org