Levit­town: Two Fam­i­lies, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civ­il Rights in Amer­i­ca’s Leg­endary Suburb

David Kush­n­er
  • Review
By – January 6, 2012

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.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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