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Second Suburb

Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania

Edited by Dianne Harris
Foreword by Dell Upton
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    Second Suburb
    Book Description:

    Carved from eight square miles of Bucks County farmland northeast of Philadelphia, Levittown, Pennsylvania, is a symbol of postwar suburbia and the fulfillment of the American dream. Begun in 1952, after the completion of an identically named community on Long Island, the second Levittown soon eclipsed its New York counterpart in scale and ambition, yet it continues to live in the shadow of its better-known sister and has received limited scholarly attention.Second Suburbuncovers the unique story of Levittown, Pennsylvania, and its significance to American social, architectural, environmental, and political history.The volume offers a fascinating profile of this planned community in two parts. The first examines Levittown from the inside, including oral histories of residents recalling how Levittown shaped their lives. One such reminiscence is by Daisy Myers, whose family were the first African Americans to move to the community, only to become the targets of a race riot that would receive international publicity. The book also includes selections from the syndicated comic stripZippy the Pinhead,in which Bill Griffith reflects on the angst-ridden trials of growing up in a Levittown, and an extensive photo essay of neighborhood homes, schools, churches, parks, and swimming pools, collected by Dianne Harris.The second part of the book views Levittown from the outside. Contributors consider the community's place in planning and architectural history and the Levitts' strategies for the mass production of housing. Other chapters address the class stratification of neighborhood sections through price structuring; individual attempts to personalize a home's form and space as a representation of class and identity; the builders' focus on the kitchen as the centerpiece of the home and its greatest selling point; the community's environmental and ecological legacy; racist and exclusionary sales policies; resident activism during the gas riots of 1979; and "America's lost Eden."Bringing together some of the top scholars in architectural history, American studies, and landscape studies,Second Suburbexplores the surprisingly rich interplay of design, technology, and social response that marks the emergence and maturation of an exceptionally potent rendition of the American Dream.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7782-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Dell Upton

    In retrospect, it is hard to imagine that so little was made of so much. The aerial views—endless, tiny, indistinguishable houses scattered across a bare landscape to the horizon—set the tone. Three varied developments in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were reduced to a single collective: Levittown. It was a place where one “sleepwalk[ed] into home ownership,” seizing a bit of the timeless “American Dream,” the desire to own a single-family house that is apparently built into Americans’ DNA, since it appears to have had no beginning and no cause and since it can be fulfilled only...

  2. 1 Introduction: A Second Suburb
    (pp. 1-14)
    Dianne Harris

    Like millions of Americans, on Tuesday evening, November 4, 2008, I sat with my neighbors and eagerly watched televised returns for the election of the forty-fourth president of the United States. As areas of the map turned red and blue, I kept my eye on Pennsylvania. When Bucks County turned blue on the map, I knew I was witnessing an important turning point in American culture and politics. To extrapolate so much from the voting results of a single Pennsylvania county may seem strange, but Bucks County, after all, includes Levittown, a location that had attracted some national attention during...

  3. Part I Looking at Levittown from the Inside

    • 2 Revealing the History of Levittown, One Voice at a Time
      (pp. 17-40)
      Chad M. Kimmel

      Between 2002 and 2007, I interviewed a number of Levittown residents who had contributed to the building of their community, both physically and socially. Al DiGiovanni was a baker from South Philadelphia when he moved into Levittown in 1952. He was short, stocky, and had a quick tongue (still does). Al’s deep love and respect for his home, his work, and his community flows from the limitations and opportunities placed upon working men like him in the postwar period. Indeed, the story he tells of getting a job on the Levittown project reflects much about the period: an unstructured application...

    • 3 Reflections on Levittown
      (pp. 41-59)
      Daisy D. Myers

      All we ever really wanted was a normal life. We moved to Levittown because the house had everything we wanted—it was a rancher with a third bedroom for our baby girl, a garage for Bill, and a yard for the children to play in.

      And despite what was going on around us, we did have a normal life as much as we could. I was working part-time as a playground supervisor and volunteered for the League of Women Voters. Bill worked at C. V. Hill.

      We weren’t the kind of people to seek the spotlight. We were more the...

    • 4 Levittown, My Levittown
      (pp. 60-66)
      Bill Griffith

      Although Levittown, Long Island, was technically my “hometown,” it rarely felt like one to me. I grew up there from 1952 to 1962, living in two different Levitt houses, one a Cape Cod, one a ranch. Tract-home suburban life didn’t really agree with me, I guess, with the exception of a few early years when I was focused entirely on playing “soldier” or flipping trading cards with nearby friends. As soon as I became aware of my larger surroundings, and the beckoning call of New York City, only thirty-five miles away by train, I started to feel alienated from the...

    • 5 Levittown in Photographs
      (pp. 67-120)

      The photographs included in this section are intended to provide a more complete visual picture of Levittown and to supplement the photographs that accompany the chapters. They are organized to illustrate Levittown at a range of scales, from the macro scale of the development itself to the micro scale of home interiors and back out again to include Levittown institutions such as parks, schools, places of worship, and shopping centers.

      Levittown may be best known for its affordable postwar houses, but it is equally a museum of postwar religious architecture and of public school architecture. The Levitts imagined the religious...

  4. Part II Looking at Levittown from the Outside

    • 6 The Levitts, Mass-Produced Houses, and Community Planning in the Mid-twentieth Century
      (pp. 123-174)
      Richard Longstreth

      When plans for Levittown, Pennsylvania, were announced in late August 1951, the name was already famous across the nation and abroad. Levitt & Sons had emerged during the post–World War II years as the largest builder of houses in the United States. The first Levittown, in Nassau County, Long Island, begun in May 1947 and now nearing completion, consisted of 17,447 freestanding, single-family houses forming an unincorporated community of some 75,000 people—the biggest such endeavor to be consummated by a single developer. The size of that project, the speed and efficiency with which it was built, the quality...

    • 7 Jim Crow’s Last Stand: The Struggle to Integrate Levittown
      (pp. 175-199)
      Thomas J. Sugrue

      For a few months in 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania, attracted national attention as a civil rights battleground, but it was quickly forgotten, and our histories of the African American freedom movement have remained disproportionately focused on the South. A vast body of books and articles focuses on Dixie, commencing with the Montgomery bus boycott, led by seamstress Rosa Parks and the young Martin Luther King Jr. The conventional story follows a compelling narrative arc, usually through the life of King and the organizations he created or led. The road from Montgomery to Little Rock to Greensboro to Birmingham to the Mississippi...

    • 8 “The House I Live In”: Architecture, Modernism, and Identity in Levittown
      (pp. 200-242)
      Dianne Harris

      In 1945, Frank Sinatra starred in a short film that focused on questions of racial and ethnic difference and acceptance. TitledThe House I Live In,it featured a song of the same name that became a patriotic hit for Sinatra, and the film won a special Academy Award in 1946.¹ As the film opens, a young boy—whom the audience can identify as Jewish because of his two long locks of hair orpayes—is chased through a city street by a gang of boys his same age. The young hoodlums, all white, taunt the boy and are about...

    • 9 Pink Kitchens for Little Boxes: The Evolution of 1950s Kitchen Design in Levittown
      (pp. 243-280)
      Curtis Miner

      On Easter weekend in 1958, Sally and Jack Sondesky took possession of their new three-bedroom house in Highland Park, one of the last of the forty neighborhood sections to be completed in the eight-square-mile development of Levittown, Pennsylvania. Like many of their neighbors, the Sondeskys were first-time home buyers and unexpectedly so at that. The couple had married in 1954, after Jack returned from the Korean War, and had resigned themselves to renting. But by 1957, the Sondeskys had saved enough for a down payment on one of the last few hundred models to be erected in the burgeoning housing...

    • 10 Suburban Nature, Class, and Environmentalism in Levittown
      (pp. 281-313)
      Christopher Sellers

      David Marable, a nearly life-long Levittown resident, led our team of historians on a tour of his town’s neighborhoods in the spring of 2006. In addition to familiarizing the group with house types, neighborhoods, and the overall planning of the town, Marable insisted that we see some trees. A Levittowner since age four and now a grandfather, Marable has made it his personal mission to serve as keeper of this Levittown’s local heritage. We saw buildings and artifacts aplenty, but Marable wove throughout his exposition a theme, consistent with the subtitle of his own self-published book on Levittown’s history, that...

    • 11 More Than Ticky Tacky: Venturi, Scott Brown, and Learning from the Levittown Studio
      (pp. 314-339)
      Jessica Lautin

      In 1972, twenty years had passed since the founding of Levittown, Pennsylvania. But one needed to read a local newspaper or actually visit the development, rather than listen to the critics, to grasp how things had changed. At that time, roughly seventy-five thousand residents—diverse in occupation, political persuasion, and religious belief—occupied architecturally distinctive homes.¹ Very few of the houses still resembled those Levitt & Sons initially constructed on vast tracts of undeveloped land. By one estimate, fewer than a quarter had exterior additions, but half had remodeled interiors. Alterations, ranging from room expansions to lawn decorations, reflected both...

    • 12 “No Gas, My Ass!” Marking the End of the Postwar Period in Levittown
      (pp. 340-353)
      Chad M. Kimmel

      On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech to the nation. The topic, energy, could no longer be ignored. Carter had postponed the speech for ten days because he lacked an answer to a question that, he admitted, “I know has been troubling many of you: Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy [problem]?” What ultimately weakens us, what keeps us from solving our problem, he said, is a “crisis of confidence.” Such a crisis, he continued, poses a “fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . It...

  5. Epilogue: The Suburbs of Desire
    (pp. 354-362)
    Peter Fritzsche

    Fifty years after the founding of Levittown, Pennsylvania, local historians identified the “moments that define a community.”¹ The 1951 groundbreaking for the “New City” inaugurated a timeline that took measure of the high hopes of newly arrived Levittown families, who were among millions of Americans to move to suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. But the timeline eventually marked their vulnerabilities and anxieties as well. In 1957, just five years after the first homeowners moved in, an African American couple, Bill and Daisy Myers, bought a house, thus setting the stage for the “incident on Deepgreen Lane.” As Levittowners angrily...