PERSON OF THE WEEK: In the years following World War II, the town of Hempstead, N.Y., became the center of a real estate revolution when developer William Levitt created a new suburban community called Levittown. Levittown had a profound impact on the expansion of suburban markets – often at the expense of the residential markets within the nation's major cities.
Levittown also had a profound impact on veteran real estate writer Steve Bergsman: He grew up in this community, and he recalls these formative years in his new book ‘Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis‘ (published by Dancing Traveller Media).
MortgageOrb spoke with Bergsman about the story behind this historically significant community and his own experiences as a youthful resident in the postwar suburbs.
Q: How did the concept of Levittown come about? And what was the initial public reaction to the project?
Bergsman: Levittown was the first modern suburb in the U.S. – if not the world – and it came about because of three factors: demand, easing of credit and singular vision.
During World War II, new home construction had come to a halt, because raw materials were needed for the war effort. Then, the war ended, and tens of thousands of servicemen and women – many newly married with children on the way – had no place to live and had to move in with their parents. The government realized housing was going to a major problem, and even before the war ended, it set in motion a series of reforms to make mortgage loan guarantees and easier credit available to veterans.
All this still wouldn't have made much of an impact on housing if William Levitt had not devised a way to apply mass-production techniques to the construction problem. Prior to the advent of Levittown, home construction was generally a singular, custom product – but Levitt created the first massive housing development by clearing old farm fields and building thousands of homes at one time.
Q: Would it be fair to say that Levittown and similar suburban developments contributed to the decline of the nation's urban population centers?
Bergsman: Even before Levittown was completed, families camped out at the sales office to get a shot at buying a new home. Levittown proved so successful that suburban developments quickly blossomed everywhere across the U.S. landscape before anyone realized there was such a thing as mass movement out of cities.
The lure of green-grass yards and ownership of one's own home was an astonishingly strong incentive to come to the suburbs, but cities didn't do much to defend their turf. Not all city dwellers wanted to move to the new suburbs, but demand for existing apartments pushed up rents, which led to the blossoming of rent control. In 1952, 12% of the U.S. population lived in housing covered by federal rent control.
This, in turn, created another problem: less new apartment construction in the cities, because developers couldn't create profitable rent levels. That was another reason young families were even more inclined to look at the new homes being built in the suburbs.
Q: When did you live in Levittown, and what was it like to live there?
Bergsman: In 1954, my family moved to Levittown, and I entered kindergarten. My family moved away in 1966, but I stayed an extra year to finish high school there in 1967.Â
During its first decades, Levittown was probably the most reviled community in the country. The intellectual, politically left-wing portion of the U.S. associated Levittown with that particular 1950s concept of conformity (i.e., if you were unlucky enough to grow up in Levittown, you would end up like everyone else around you). The crusty, Republican right-wing hated Levittown for variety of reasons: snobbery, the lowering of aesthetic standards and simply because the suburbs got in the way when they wanted to travel from the city to their country properties.
Personally, I found Levittown to be an idyllic place to grow up. After I wrote my book, many baby boomers who also grew up in Levittown contacted me to tell me they felt their Levittown childhood was also very special.
Q: Levittown had a negative reputation for initially being restrictive to white residents. Did it ever overcome its history of racial bias?
Bergsman: William Levitt, who was Jewish, originally wanted to keep Jews and African Americans out of his development. Jews, nevertheless, were early Levittown pioneers – but African Americans were kept out of Levittown for two decades.
Levitt didn't see this as racial prejudice, but as a business decision. As he told the press in the late 1940s, ‘I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not oursâ�¦we can solve the housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem – but we cannot combine the two.’
Although there were no African American students in my high school until my senior year in 1967, there were Hispanic and Chinese American students.
Q: Do you believe that there will be Levittown-like communities in the post-housing crisis future?
Bergsman: Levittown was developed in the late 1940s, and the country has experienced 60 years of exponential suburban growth since then. In some cities, we may have finally tapped out the limits of geographic expansion.
Already, there has been a limited, but detectable, reverse migration into urban centers and even older suburbs. However, tomorrow's metropolitan hotspots – including places like Houston and Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City; and Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina – probably have decades of more suburban housing developments still ahead.