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The Island Trees Communist Party

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

 Not a few have suggested that the supreme irony of the post-War suburban boom is that it took the "socialist" initiative of the Federal Government - via what Hugh A. Wilson called "the second wave of the American welfare state - to create the quintessentially capitalist culture in the form of suburban consumerism and individual homeownership (The first wave being the New Deal).

Certainly the student of suburban studies has the obligation of dialectic on his/her hands: the stimulation of the housing industry via such governmental programs as the Serviceman's Readjustment Act or GI Bill (1944), the Housing and Rental Act (1949), and the National Defense Education Act (1958) counterbalanced with the entrepreneurial initiative of Levitt & Sons, Anthony Villett, Jerry Spiegel, and Sam Kellner; the impact on major post-War employers like Grumman, Republic, and Sperry matched with the U.S. government's military policies and requirements during the Cold War. There's enough grist for the mill here for the advocates of the socialist welfare state and free market capitalism to claim suburbia as their own. 

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The suburban ideology has always been capitalistic in hue. "No man who owns his own house and garden could ever be a communist,” William Levitt once quipped, "he's got too much to do.” Indeed, there was a general perception in the 1940's and 50's, and not without merit, that communism (especially the Marxist-Leninist variety with its emphasis on an industrial proletariat) finds more fertile ground amongst urban, working class renters than middle class homeowners. 

 Perhaps, but the generally "conservative" outlook of most Levittowners - FDR Democrats who became Eisenhower Republicans in the 50's - is attributable, in part, to the fact that families of second generation Americans hailing from the ethnic enclaves of Brooklyn and the Bronx where there was an "Italian section" and an "Irish section" came to a melting pot Levittown but retained many traditionalist tendencies and those tendencies were transferred into anti-communism during the Cold War.
 
Taking the lead was William Levitt's own outspoken anti-communism and it fed into such curious episodes as a visit by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy anxious to see this triumph of capitalist ingenuity first hand and a massive anti-communist rally held at Division Avenue High School in 1950 - a time when the Soviet menace must have loomed as large as the threat from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan a decade earlier.

 It's in this context that we appreciate another curious incident. A year before the rally, on March 7, 1949, Levitt & Sons announced that they'd be selling their houses and getting out of the rental business. It was an unpopular move in many circles, paradoxically, because many families were still sufficiently traumatized by the hardships of the Depression and WWII as to consider home buying too risky an investment.

Moreover, some of the pre-1947 residents in the community objected to the Island Trees name being replaced by "Levittown" with no public input on the matter. Thus, early in 1948, flyers began to appear around town; distributed by disaffected residents - or so it would seem - who called themselves the Island Trees Communist Party. To this day, the identity of the ITCP has never been determined. It must have seemed, however, like a good way to get up William Levitt's goat and certainly fed his decision to purchase The Levittown Tribune and employ it not merely to publish company information but to stave off criticism in the op-ed page.

 Today the overheated rhetoric about communism seems as relevant as the religious conflicts of 16th Century France. What remains, nonentheless, are serious considerations about the role of government in the suburban endeavor in a future when the working and middle class might not enjoy the seemingly limitless possibilities they knew in the 1950's when Levittown led the way.  

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

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