Last Saturday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the Levittown Chamber of Commerce 39th annual installation of officers and directors as a representative of the Levittown Historical Society.
Say what we will about the burden of taxes and needless litigation, or the labyrinth of zoning ordinances, licensing laws, and unfunded governmental mandates. Say what we will, too, about the oftentimes strained relationship between the business community and local residents (grossly overplayed, if you ask guest speaker Tom Gulotta who noted that there is an inextrictable link between the two that goes into making communities like Levittown such wonderful places to live, shop, and work). The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Levittown today and, indeed, always has been.
Long before William Levitt came to town and built the largest housing tract by any single developer in history (17,447 homes), the spirit of the free market prospered here. German immigrants from farms along Hempstead Turnpike, Jerusalem Avenue and Bloomingdale Road were frequently seen bringing their produce-ladden wagons to market in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1873, the Stewart Line of the Long Island Rail Road came to town making this task easier. To service the line, there was a coal yard at Newbridge Road (where the East Meadow Fire Department resides) and a telegraph station at Jerusalem Avenue (by the East Green) run by William Place. Down Wantagh Avenue, round and about Cherrywood Shopping Center, there was a blacksmith shop, pickle factory, and flynet factory.
The Levittown-to-be of the 1910s , '20s and '30s had its share of local businesses. Max Gruber ran a nursery at the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Wolcott Road. Across the street, next door to the Rowehl farm, was the Rollin's Dog Kennels. There was a hog farm where Toys R Us is today and a gas station for small aircraft conducted business at the corner of Jerusalem Avenue and Hempstead Turnpike. Three rural airfields operated in the neighborhood between the wars and they too were small entrepreneurial start-ups. South of the Turnpike, off Loring Road, a hunting club maintained a preserve, for, indeed, we were still rural enough for real estate developer Herbert Gould, to build and sell a dozen homes in the country along Wolcott and Sherwood Roads.
History begins to blend with nostalgia with the coming of William Levitt. Old timers - and quite a few not-so-old timers as well - remember the Red Apple, the Gardner's Rest, Jahn's Ice Cream, and TSS. We shopped May's, Grant's, and JCPenney for back-to-school sales and Woolworth's and Genovese for just about everything else. Gone too is Shoe Nuff, La Zingara, Key Food, Dunkin' Doughnuts, and Caruso's. The home improvement industry gave us Zino, Rickle's Home Center, and a magazine called Thousand Lanes. Small businessmen were aplenty in Levittown too. Ice cream man Cosmo "Cozie" Commisso and Center Lane Barber Shop owner Frank DeCava were fixtures in the community as the Baby Boomers grew up.
The passing from the scene of Smith's Pharmacy is lamented not merely for the loss of a fine business establishment, but because its founder, the late Lester Smith, was one of the town's pioneers. Conspicuous by his absence the other night was Thomas Dalton, a leader in many of Levittown's civic organizations and the founder of the Dalton Funeral Home who left this life last year.
If Levittown is losing many of its old timers one passing year and one obituary at a time, it is also in the process of being reinvigorated if the number of new faces in the crowd is any indication at all; a community being made afresh by an infusion of new blood, new talent, and new ideas. Case in point is the Levittown Chamber of Commerce's new president, the youthful and articulate Dr. Jacklyn Nogan.
When old and grey, I will doubltless remember them all with the same fondness with which our senior citizens recollect the Dugan Man, the Welcome Wagon, the brush salesman and the bottled milk delivered to those metal milk boxes that used to grace the doorstep of almost every Levittown home.
Levittown's business community has undergone many changes over the years from the old Hicksville telephone exchange to the www.com of today. The one thing that remains is the status of fond rememberence which service to the public bequeaths. As the Levittown Chamber of Commerce celebrates its 40th Anniversary, it is evident that this spirit of service is alive and well.