Integrating Levittown

Kushner's Book Tells Of The Racism One Black Couple Endured In The Pa. Suburb

April 26, 2009|By Eric Arnesen | Eric Arnesen,Tribune Newspapers

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

By David Kushner

Walker & Co. / 256 pages / $26

More than a half-century before our current disaster in the housing market, the United States confronted a very different sort of housing crisis. During the Great Depression of the 1930s and the economic boom of World War II, few private homes had been constructed. With demobilization after World War II, vast numbers of military veterans and their families, flush with cash and G.I. Bill-backed mortgages, were desperate for housing. A generation was ready to move, but a severe housing shortage initially thwarted their desires.

Enter suburbia builders such as the Levitt brothers, Bill and Alfred. Applying mass-production techniques to home construction, they revolutionized housing in America by creating quickly built and relatively inexpensive houses in model communities named for their family on Long Island, N.Y., and in Pennsylvania. In so doing, the Levitts became famous as the nation's largest builders.

With home construction exploding, suburbia - with its promise of tranquillity, space and safety - became a reality for tens of millions.

"The opening of Levittown triggered the greatest migration in modern American history," observes journalist David Kushner in his latest book. "Levittown would become synonymous not just with the prosperity and hope of the 1950s, but the enduring vision of the suburbs that would draw families for decades."

Kushner's concern, however, is neither suburbia in general nor Levittown in particular, both of which have attracted considerable scholarly attention over the years. Rather, he focuses on the experiences of two families, one black, one white, to draw attention to one overriding feature of suburban life: its all-white character. In the postwar years, builders such as the Levitts declared their communities off-limits to African-Americans. Their developments' all-white character, they insisted, would attract working- and middle-class residents who appreciated racial homogeneity and sustained property values.

In highlighting racial discrimination in postwar housing, Kushner is covering familiar ground. But his storytelling techniques capture a drama that is often lacking in academic studies.

Kushner organizes his narrative around the efforts to integrate Levittown, Pa., in 1957. Even though the Supreme Court had ruled "restrictive covenants" barring minorities from purchasing specific homes unconstitutional some nine years earlier in Shelley v. Kraemer, Levittown still managed to bar blacks from owning homes. Daisy and Bill Myers, a young African-American couple, had not set out to become civil rights crusaders when they tested that rule. They simply sought a bigger home for their growing family in a nice neighborhood.

Their arrival ignited a storm of protest. Hundreds of white Levittown residents organized in opposition, hurling racial epithets at the newcomers, throwing rocks through their windows, waving Confederate flags, painting "KKK" on the side of their home and burning crosses, all this despite ostensible police protection for the Myerses.

The Myerses didn't endure their ordeal alone, however, for they were aided by their immediate neighbors, the former Communists Bea and Lew Wechsler, who had planted their roots in suburbia after leaving the party. For their support, they, too, received threats and harassing phone calls and were ostracized by former friends and neighbors.

The story, unlike so many, ended happily. Not just the Wechslers but others - white liberals, Quakers and Jews, for instance - came to the Myerses' aid. The "flip side of hate" was the "love and support" of those who defended the Myerses in word and deed. (During one tense period, Kushner notes in passing, volunteer guards "stood watch at the Myerses' " day and night, while white couples volunteered to baby-sit their children and clean up the mob-inflicted damage).

That story is often ignored by academic historians, who are more interested in white violence than white support.

The Pennsylvania attorney general prosecuted the Myerses' tormentors, breaking the back of the opposition. When the next black family moved in, few took notice.

As for celebrity magnate Bill Levitt, his star fell rapidly. A name once associated with fulfilling the American dream for a generation of veterans became a code word for racism.

Protesters and politicians objected to his all-white communities, and former allies denounced him for his persistent bigotry. His economic fortune collapsed, and he eventually died bankrupt.

The integration of suburbia went only so far. Decades later, the Levittowns in Pennsylvania and Long Island remain heavily if not exclusively white. Explaining the persistence of residential segregation - which cannot be reduced solely to discriminatory real estate practices - lies beyond the scope of Kushner's book.

But the sheer drama of the integration saga that Kushner recounts makes Levittown a compelling read, the one-dimensional character of his heroes and villains notwithstanding.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.