During the 1950’s and 60’s, the word ‘Levittown’ evoked mass-produced houses made of ‘ticky tacky’ (in the words of songwriter Malvina Reynolds), houses that all looked the same. Levittown was not only the name of three suburban communities — on Long Island, in Pennsylvania, and in New Jersey— but symbolized the easy availability of single family homes on a plot of land where mom could raise the kids while dad commuted and the kids were able to roam freely and play in cul-de-sacs and in their backyards. Initially meeting the enormous pent-up demand for housing for returning World War II veterans who married and began families soon after their discharge, suburbs like Levittown were subsidized by federal programs like the GI bill and the FHA, which allowed families to purchase homes with little money down.
But there was another side to this suburban dream, and that is the subject of this book: The fact that Levittown was built for whites only, a position enshrined in federal policy and William Levitt’s firm belief that whites would not buy homes in racially integrated communities. After all, Levitt reasoned, many neighborhoods were ‘restricted’ (including some that Levitt had already built) so that he himself was limited in where he could buy a house.
Levittown, Pennsylvania, was the first such suburb to become racially integrated with the arrival of the Myers family, a middle class African-American couple, who purchased a home next door to the Wechslers, a liberal Jewish family from the Bronx with Communist allegiances, who facilitated the purchase. This is a multilayered tale of public policy, personal desire for a better life, McCarthyism, and Communist Party support for civil rights. It carefully documents the racist backlash to the Myers arrival which involved broken windows, burning crosses, violence, and a successful court case upholding integration. The narrative evokes an era not too long ago when the arrival of a black family not infrequently led to block busting and the rapid transition of neighborhoods, especially inner city Jewish neighborhoods like Roxbury and Brownsville, which the Levitt family left years before in the wake of racial transformation.
Kushner expertly recounts the events and places them in a broader historical context. The book is a valuable contribution to the literature on suburbia. It is a story of racial backlash but also of the Myers family’s courage and the enormous outburst of support of neighbors and people across the country who recognized the injustice they challenged.