As I have nearly finished the 2017 Reading Challenge (I still have to decide on a book with more than 800 pages, and find one from a genre/subgenre I’ve never heard of), I decided to add a few of my own ideas. The first was to read a book that was set in a town/city where I have lived.
I wasn’t sure just what I’d be able to find, at least for the towns I’ve lived in this country. (I know I’d have no trouble finding books set in Valencia or Madrid, the two cities in Spain where I lived while getting my B.A. and M.A. in Spanish.) But in addition to several books about the pearl button industry in Muscatine, Iowa and a murder mystery set in Houghton Lake, Michigan, I found Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb.
I lived in Levittown, Pennsylvania for a year, and in other towns in Lower Bucks County for another six years, but had never heard of any interesting history associated with Levittown. I knew that other towns in Lower Bucks, such as Bristol Borough (where I also lived for a year), had history going back to before the American Revolution, and I had made a point of visiting Washington Crossing more than once. But what kind of interesting history would there be in a fabricated suburban town like Levittown?
I had never even heard of Levittown before I got a job nearby, though my father had obviously heard of it. Reading this book, it is obvious to me now that it would have been well-known to people of my parents’ generation, though whether it was newsworthy more for its assembly-line type creation or the controversy that erupted in the summer of 1957, I have no idea. By the time I rented a room in Cobalt Ridge in 1984, most residents probably knew little of either.
I did learn quickly enough about the small number of different models of Levittown houses. I think the one where I rented a room was a Jubilee, but I am not positive. Where I grew up in Newington, Connecticut, I knew of only one other house in the neighborhood that was the same model as my parents’ house, and I always found it both fascinating and strange to go into the Babcocks’ house and see how much the same it was and yet how differently furnished and decorated. In Levittown, one could easily get to know all the different floor plans and be able to find the bathroom as easily in a neighbor’s house as in one’s own.
What I never heard of while living there was its history of racism. Growing up in the 60’s, I was oblivious to the civil rights controversy, as I was to nearly all that happened in the larger world until the early 1970’s. I vaguely knowing that there were some black students bused in from Hartford, but their presence in our nearly all-white school was a curiosity, not an issue. Racism was something I learned about in history classes, and if it was still a problem it was in the South. There were serious problems in Hartford, but so far as I knew it was due to poverty and crime, not race.
So the idea that people in a peaceful Philadelphia suburb would have rioted because a black family moved in, as recently as in 1957, was surprising. Even after reading the book I don’t really understand why it happened. Were there are few really prejudiced people who stirred up the rest? Were the people all afraid that property values would drop? (And didn’t realize that their own actions might discourage people of any race from wanting to move into town, far more than the presence of a black family?) Or were that many people really repelled by the idea of living near someone with a different color skin?
I can almost find it easier to understand the animosity toward the Wechslers, the Jewish family next door who had helped arrange for the Myerses (the black family) to move in, because of their Communist background. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, people worried about what the Communists in Russia might do. And the idea that someone in my own neighborhood might be Communist? It wasn’t until I got to know socialists in Spain that I came to learn more of the history of the various socialist movements.
Still, to think that burning crosses were once set up on lawns in a Levittown neighborhood where I have delivered pizza (for all I know, I may actually have delivered a pizza to 43 Deepgreen Lane, the onetime home of the Myerses, at one point) seems very strange. Was it because Levittown grew up so fast, with no real history and no shared past to bind people together? Was it Bill Levitt’s fault, for having insisted on a whites-only town? (He claimed it was just to preserve property values.) Is it just that attitudes and values changed that much from the 50s to the 70s and 80s?
Part of my interest in the book, aside from the “reading challenge” aspect and my interest in history, was to see if there were places mentioned that I recognized. I don’t remember a “Shop-a-rama” but apparently that was another name given to the Levittown Shopping Center, where I remember going many times (though probably more often to browse than to actually shop). The Levittown Library is mentioned briefly in the book, but the library I remember spending hours in had been built more recently.
The names of various Levittown sections are of course familiar, but I no longer remember who I used to know in which sections. And I don’t recall any mention of how difficult it could be to find one’s way around the winding streets. My usual tactic when lost, to simply go in one direction until I reach a main road, didn’t work where streets were not laid out on a grid. At least I am relieved to find out that other residents of Cobalt Ridge also have sometimes been lost in their own section of Levittown.
I did learn something of the history of suburbia in general. And one thing I learned is that it was Abraham Levitt who pushed for lush green, weed-free lawns and insisted on residents keeping their grass cut (if they did not, the work was done for them and they received a bill). As the “ideal” suburb, Levittown (not just the one in Pennsylvania, which was the second one built) shaped attitudes of suburban homeowners around the country as to how their lawns should look. (I’m afraid ours fails in that regard – I try to keep it cut but the green comes more from weeds than grass. But I just don’t see the value in spending so much time and money on the kind of lawn that would have pleased Levitt.)
I also was intrigued to learn that the song “Little Boxes” was inspired by the look of cookie-cutter houses like those of Levittown (but in a town in California). I remember hearing the song when visiting my uncle and liking it, though at the time I had little idea what it meant the first time I heard it. Even later, I always assumed that “they all look just the same” was an exaggeration, symbolic of the look-alike lives of their residents rather than a literal description of the houses. But then, back then I had never seen a place like Levittown.