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The Levittown Legacy

Ellen Leopold was an economic policy advisor at the Greater London Council until it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 352 pp., $27.50, cloth. (Due out in paperback in January 2001.)

Judging by the number of column inches now devoted to the subject in the national press, suburban sprawl has at last come of age. The sudden popularity of the topic may reflect the fact that suburbanites now constitute a majority of Americans. The impact of 132 million Americans on the landscape is hard to ignore. If, as environmentalists claim, more than four thousand acres of farmland are being devoured by suburban sprawl every day, then the prospect of a countryside bereft of open space can no longer be dismissed as alarmist. Sprawl is so pervasive and its predations so disturbing that its dynamics appear as almost a force of nature, inevitable and uncontrollable. So it is good to be reminded, as we are in the pages of Picture Windows, that the origins of large-scale suburbs were, in fact, anything but accidental and that the prime mover behind their massive postwar expansion was the federal government itself.

In the wake of the Depression, just one in six Americans lived in the suburbs. Housing in cities and in borderland areas at their fringes was characterized by tremendous diversity—in its design, financing, and patterns of tenure as well as its philosophy. The first half of Picture Windows provides a fascinating overview of the controversies that raged during this period. Played out in the pages of newspapers, architectural and real estate journals, housing committee proceedings (all generously cited), the debates reveal the ideological underpinnings of the arguments that would eventually win the day for the large-scale developers. The fundamental issue to be resolved was the role of government in the provision of housing.

The 1920s had witnessed the development of a variety of experimental nonprofit housing projects that seemed to extend the possibilities for rental accommodation rather than home-ownership in cities. Particularly in New York, unions and progressive real estate developers took advantage of new tax abatements to build cooperative or so-called limited dividend housing projects (the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in the Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the City Housing Corporation in Sunnyside, Queens). Also on the Lower East Side, First Houses, built by the New York City Housing Authority in 1936, became the nation’s first housing project, incorporating many improvements and communal features for its working class tenants, who paid exceptionally low (subsidized) rents.

Perhaps most ambitious of these experiments, at least in the context of suburban development, was the creation of Greenbelt, Maryland, a planned community masterminded by Rexford Guy Tugwell for the New Deal. (There were two other “green towns,” one in Wisconsin and another in Ohio). In laying out the details of the “total physical, environmental, and social preplanning” of Greenbelt, Picture Windows demonstrates that alternatives to the Levittown, Long Island model of sprawl did exist, not just in theory but in practice. At every level of design, the Greenbelt solution took an approach that was antithetical to that associated with the private suburban development introduced by the Levitts a decade later.

The overriding organizing principle of Greenbelt’s new town plan was the community itself, not the individual house. The use of safe pedestrian interior walkways to connect housing with the activities of the town center exemplified the designers’ integrated approach to design. Commercial enterprises at the town center were all set up as cooperatives. Prospective tenants—low- rather than middle-income families—were canvassed about the kind of community amenities they wanted, as well as about their housing preferences. The housing itself (all rental) utilized seventy-one different floor plans behind identical facades and was arranged in long rows of town houses or lowrise apartments (of the almost nine hundred families that were accommodated, only five lived in detached single-family homes). Greenbelt residents took their civic responsibilities seriously, forming and running their own town government almost immediately. As Baxandall and Ewen put it, “Greenbelt illustrated how a model community built with government funds could serve the needs of the working class and poor and encourage a democratic, cooperative way of life.”

All the early subsidized housing experiments, and particularly comprehensive planned communities like Greenbelt, were seen as a direct threat to private building interests. Wherever possible, agents for the real-estate lobby tried to undermine the provision of any kind of public housing as the first step towards “the destruction of our democratic, free enterprise system.” A nation of renters, they argued, “was unstable and un-American” (66). Joseph R. McCarthy, a prominent player in the Senate’s housing investigation of 1947 and 1948, further disparaged public housing by branding it “with the stigma of poverty” (91). He described a veterans’ housing project in Queens as “a deliberately created slum area, at federal expense…a breeding ground for communists.”

The problem, for private building capital, was that it could offer no credible alternative; its own production and financing methods were incapable of generating a profitable solution to the national housing dilemma. What they needed was exactly what they condemned as communist and un-American when applied to the nonprofit sector—massive government support. Thanks, first to the Depression and then to the Second World War, they got it.

Picture Windows makes clear that the financial success of the postwar suburbs and particularly of Levittown (whose history anchors the second half of the book) owed a great deal to the government’s response to what it perceived as a national housing crisis at the time. It was the specific measures that the government took to cope with these emergencies that first opened the door to the development of large-scale suburbs. Levittown could not have happened without them. But what began as a solution to an interwar and then a postwar crisis has become, fifty years later, a problem of global proportions whose origins, for many, are all but forgotten.

Baxandall and Ewen’s reconstruction of the circumstances that created the Levitts’ opportunity provides a valuable antidote to our amnesia. The Levitts (a father and two sons) had been active housebuilders on Long Island since 1929. Although extraordinarily successful, the scale of their activity was limited. The many far-reaching changes introduced by government in the 1930s and 1940s changed that. They effectively transformed the private housebuilding sector, from one plagued by inefficiencies in production and forced to operate at a modest scale in a limited and often speculative market for upscale houses, to a relatively risk-free large-scale operation with a potentially unlimited market. The government’s wholesale intervention, in other words, eased the conversion of firms like the Levitts from housebuilders to developers by streamlining their conditions of both supply and demand.

The process began fifteen years or so before Levittown broke ground. First, the New Deal rationalized the organization of mortgage lending, refinancing more than a million homes threatened with foreclosure during the early years of the Depression and then introducing a system of mortgage insurance that took a great deal of the risk out of speculative development. The G. I. Bill guaranteed loans to returning veterans for the purchase of homes, putting home-ownership within the grasp of thousands for the first time. In 1941, Congress passed Title VI of the National Housing Act to promote housebuilding for defense workers. Immediately after the war, the limit on Title VI loans was raised to 90 percent of a nine-thousand-dollar house, effectively supplying housebuilders with all the working capital they needed to carry out large-scale construction at minimal risk. (Early Levitt homes cost around eight thousand dollars). Federal highway-building programs guaranteed that workers newly displaced to the outlying suburbs would have easy access to jobs in the city. Shamefully, government insistence on racially segregated developments added a further spur to suburban housing demand—white fright propelling white flight.

In this context, Levittown can be viewed as the physical embodiment of government intention. The Levitts were more than willing to serve as facilitators, exploiting every advantage offered to them; in the process of building more than seventeen thousand homes between 1947 and 1951, they made themselves a fortune. The state sponsorship of their achievement, however, has been almost universally downplayed, along with their profits. In the public imagination, Levittown speaks to our interest in the consumption of suburban housing, not its production. It arouses debates on the aesthetics and social impacts of housing, not on its economics.

There have been endless arguments about the baleful influence of Levittown’s architectural determinism, the presumed “connection between architectural and behavioral conformity,” as one of the very early critics of suburbia put it. Those on the left have been wary of the elitism behind much of this criticism; it’s hard, they argue, to miss the snobbery involved in sneering at those living a “cookie-cutter” lifestyle in a “ticky tacky” house. Many of the left, then, have been at pains to demonstrate the success of suburbanites, in rising above the limitations of design to forge real communities in practice where none existed in plan. Picture Windows, as its title suggests, offers more of this countervailing view from the inside looking out, based on the perspectives of Levittown residents themselves.

Baxandall and Ewen reproduce the narratives of many longterm residents eager to convey the real satisfactions of suburban life and their success in overcoming its inadequacies. Particularly interesting are the eyewitness accounts of racism in the high school in Freeport and the rise of a local black-white alliance determined to grapple with it. Equally well-documented are the lives of women, the round-the-clock residents of surburban communities. Their efforts to develop and sustain childcare networks and other mutual support groups are impressive, although they may be as much a reflection of human resourcefulness as they are of Levittown’s adaptability. The authors also include surprising testimony from a few African-American women whose embrace of the feminine mystique seems to have accompanied their assumption of home-ownership in the 1970s.

The experiences recounted here do help to redress the bias against suburban life that has been fostered, for the most part, by inveterate city dwellers. But dominating the second half of the book as they do, they inevitably crowd out some of the important and interesting issues raised in the first half. The authors do not investigate the wider longterm impact of suburban development—on the subsequent evolution of public housing or land-use policies, on the surrounding regional economies, or on the distribution of wealth. Instead, they shift the level of discussion from the aggregate to the individual, crafting a more nuanced portrait of suburban life from the layering of personal reminiscences.

The authors have written an engaging social history, not a polemic. As their subtitle indicates, they want to explain “how suburbs happened.” Unfortunately, suburbs are still happening, at a furious pace. Inevitably, then, this book raises the question of whether the original bargain struck between government and private enterprise, which has had such profound and lasting effects, was a good one for the American public. After all, the government, at great expense, cleared away all the obstacles facing housebuilders like the Levitts and assumed all their risks. What conditions did it impose in return? As it happens, very few strings were attached to this massive public underwriting. There was certainly no attempt to impose any sense of community values on the planning or design process nor, critically, to interfere with production methods or building standards.

What cemented the bargain was the fervent commitment of both sides to the concept of home-ownership whose blessings were most perfectly realized in the detached single-family dwelling. The original Levitt house, packaged as the embodiment of the American Dream, was, in reality, more the embodiment of a comprehensive exercise in cost-cutting. The idea of home-ownership, then, served as a kind of Trojan Horse, brought on site as cover for the introduction of retrograde building practices that would quickly set the standard for almost all suburban development. Following Taylorist principles applied to mass production, on-site building activity focused on the assembly of prefabricated materials and parts by largely unskilled and nonunion labor.

What made this process practicable was a house plan that permitted direct access to the interior (by man or machine) from any point along its perimeter. It also helped that the services, appliances, and finished interiors were all restricted to the ground floor. (Levitt managed to get the local building codes changed to allow him to build houses without basements). In other words, the simplified assembly process Levitt devised depended for its success on the use of a freestanding, essentially single-story, house built on a slab on a flat site. Its universal application was, therefore, less a case of form following function or planning philosophy than one of form following financial imperatives.

Fifty years later, the opportunity costs of the Levittown solution to home-ownership seem immeasurably high. The proliferation of suburbs has reinforced an anti-urban bias whose economic and political repercussions have been profound. Their ubiquity has helped degrade the very concept of “public” housing, which has became a choice of last resort for the poorest members of society, just as Senator McCarthy had hoped. Home-ownership, by comparison, has been privileged. Allowing owners to deduct mortgage interest payments and property taxes from their taxable income has been a massive subsidy to the well-off. Among the wealthy, the greater the investment in property and the higher their income-tax bracket, the greater the benefits they receive. There is no corresponding tax break for renters. Aggravating this inequity is the increase in property value accruing to investment in private property. In the late 1940s, the federal government made no attempt to capture any of the prospective appreciation in land values that would spring from the suburban developments they sponsored. Their willingness to renounce this planning gain, to open the door to private speculation among homeowners, was built into the G. I. Bill; the federal guarantee protecting home loans awarded to veterans remained in force even after the original owners sold their homes on to nonveterans. This, no doubt, helped to keep sales prices rising (a Levittown house that sold for eight thousand dollars in 1947 changed hands in 1990 for three hundred thousand dollars).

The development of suburbia, in other words, leveled the countryside, not the playing field. As Baxandall and Ewen remind us, fifty years ago it was still possible to argue for the provision of housing as a universal right. The many experiments in the 1920’s and 1930’s, backed by unions and by local, state, and federal governments, reflected the belief that housing working-class tenants was a public responsibility and redistribution on behalf of the poor was an acceptable strategy. What won out in the end, however, was redistribution on behalf of the prosperous.

The costs of the suburbs have been borne as much by those who remain excluded from them as by the taxpayer at large. Suburban homeowners continue to reap windfall tax breaks while those who cannot afford any kind of decent housing remain totally outside the magic circle. Federal policies perpetuate the gross inequities that its subsidies have wrought while failing to address the scale of housing need at the other end of the income scale. There is no justification for continuing these massive subsidies to the rich at the expense of the less well-off. Their repeal would not only help to redress the gross inequities in housing investment; it might also help to protect the remaining open landscape from utter despoliation. Surely it is reasonable to expect federal housing agencies to intervene once again, to put the brakes on the suburban sprawl they did so much to encourage—and to apply the accelerator to programs that have been allowed to wither away in its shadow.

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