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).
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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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
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
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
employ it not merely to publish company information but to stave off criticism
in the op-ed page.
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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