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Letter: Past, Present And Future Of Housing In Levittown

Levittown’s history can be periodized into five approximate eras; a Jerusalem Period (1664-1837) in which Quaker and Puritan settlers and their descendants established an agricultural community south of Hempstead Turnpike and thence into present-day Wantagh; an Island Trees Period (1837-1900) in which the arrival of the LIRR on the Hempstead Plains facilitated the establishment of farmsteads from Hicksville southwards to the Turnpike; a Period of Modernization (1900-1936) whereupon automotive technology and aviation and electricity made their appearance; and a Suburban Period (1936-1980) in which explosive population growth, commercial expansion, and residential development remade the face of the land. 

 

Since 1980, we have been in an Ex-Urban Period which might well be nicknamed the “age of agonizing reappraisal”. The fact is, solutions to late 1940’s problems will not help us in 2014. We can either accept that  the one-family suburban home is no longer an economically viable model for our residential needs, and well become less so as we approach the Levittown Centennial in 2047, or we can sustain obsolete zoning codes like the LPRD (at least in its current configuration) and see more boarded-up homes followed up by more boarded-up homes until Levittown looks like the slum its naysayers in the 1950’s predicted it’d become. To wit: the tommyrot and ballyhoo anent low-income rental housing and the accompanying historical amnesia. 

 

Many have forgotten that Levittown in 1947 was low-income rental housing for homecoming GI’s who were just starting out in the job market, had no college degree (oftentimes not even a high school diploma), had no money, and had nowhere to go and nothing they could afford. Some, quite frankly, eighteen years after the stock market crash of 1929 were flat broke. And what’s more, being a Levittown resident in the 1950’s arrived with a social stigma from the residents of more affluent and/or established surrounding communities; people vocal in their opposition to William Levitt and his low-income rental housing. Many have forgotten that the unique LPRD, the brainchild of Mr. Levitt, was also the creation of a visionary who, on May 7, 1947, led a “March on Hempstead” demanding Section 809 Article 8 of the Town Building Code be abolished and replaced with Article XV known as the LPRD because he saw it as an obsolete impediment to future community growth. And many people, especially Baby Boomers and Generation X-er’s who grew up in the 1950-1980 era when suburbia and middle class prosperity was “a given”, have forgotten how Levittown’s “pioneers” in the 1950’s were the same families that, two decades earlier, stood in soup kitchens and on bread lines during the Great Depression. Today’s low-income person—“the forgotten man of 2014”—is not a lazy, shiftless freeloader or a bum. He’s somebody with a college education whose career has been outsourced overseas, downsized, or given to cheap foreign labor; the person who can’t even land a job at a local supermarket because he’s deemed “overqualified” for its welfare wages. He’s somebody toiling in a department store for minimum wage selling items made by twelve year-old girls and boys in Third World sweatshops rather than working class American adults who, back in the 1950’s, could have received an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. 

 

The people in need of low-income rental housing in 2014 are our friends, neighbors, and family and those who sneer at them and sneer at the whole idea of low-income rental housing ultimately are sneering at Mr. Levitt and his vision of a better life for the working family. 

 

Paul Manton