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Jake Epping's Levittown

A look at the history of Levittown from historian Paul Manton.

There's a school of thought maintaining that horrible events in history, the sort etched in dates like Nov. 23, 1963 and Sept.11, 2001, are not anomalies but the norm and that moments of stability and tranquility are merely temporary bubbles churned up from the turmoil.

That's what Jake Epping from Stephen King's recent travel-back-in-time-and-change-history considers when he discovers a portal that connects his 2011 world exclusively with September 9, 1958. He goes back several times before he realizes that he might have the opportunity to save JFK from Oswald. Most extraordinary to me, however, are the scenes of a grown man traveling through the streets of his hometown before he was born. What, I wonder, would it be like to revisit Levittown on that day in 1958; to meet younger versions of people I've known for years and see, microcosmed in this community, a very different America in a very different world.

 The Levittown of Jake Epping - and simply getting a Newsday from the newsstand and reading of Nikita Khrushchev's entreaty to Ike to recognize Mao's China - would confirm the date and Hempstead Turnpike with its rush-hour cavalcade of tail finds and elaborate hood ornaments would have confirmed it no less than back-to-school Bobby socks, poodle skirts, and contentious leather jackets and dungarees at Division Avenue High School, was in its heyday.

 Life featured the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands on its cover that week, Nabokov released the shocking Lolita, and Dean Martin's Volare was up on the top of the charts. On Hempstead Turnpike, Grant's, Lobel's, Woolworth's, J.C. Penney's, and Loft Candies were next to the coffee shop, just west of Thom McCann Shoes and May's Department Store. Farther down was the Quinn Funeral Home on the site of a massive oak tree employed as a landmark by pilots out of Nassau Airport back in the 1930's; a lone patriarch that grew at the edge of the Seligman farm.

Until 1967 when it was removed to make way for Dunkin' Donuts (now Rite Aide), the farmhouse sat here in waving distance of the Dutch Colonial style Robricht farmhouse now used as St. Bernard's rectory. Beyond, and past the Israel Community Center, was the blue-and-white brick Henshaw's Furniture Store on the northwest corner of the Jerusalem Avenue intersection dominated in 1958 by TSS.

 Across the street was the massive 3000 Building that'd burn down a decade later to be replaced by a structure of like size and configuration, the Levittown movie house that was playing the newly-released A Touch of Evil with Orson Welles and Charlton Heston, and the original St. Bernard's Church building retrofitted from an old aircraft hanger - although by 1958 no vestige of that former incarnation existed.

Exteriors, superficial glances, cursory examinations notwithstanding, the most salient features of Jake Epping's Levittown were socioeconomic in nature. Divorce was for Hollywood types, single-parent homes were uncommon and from the death of a spouse, careers ended with a gold watch and handshake for twenty years of dedicated service, chewing gum in class was the most distressing discipline problem faced by teachers, and a college degree was virtually a golden ticket to a good job. Somebody- and I kick myself for not catching his name - once said that conservatives are people who want to go back and live in the 1950's whilst liberals are people who want to go back and work in the 1950's.

Our parents and grandparents did both as did Jake Epping in King's novel; as he awaited the opportunity to abort Oswald's entry into history and what he, to his reckoning and our symbolic understanding, the day when the American Dream took a wrong turn.     

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org

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Concerned American January 10, 2013 at 09:28 AM
Nice trip down memory lane - just a couple of comments - TSS was put in place in the early 1960's - it was an empty lot in '58. Also JFK was killed on November 22, 1963. I sure would like to see Levittown Center (the area around Tr-County was called that originally) restored to that early luster - the gleaming tile in their entry ways, the stores like Grants, Lobel's, even May's were so bright inside.

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