Saturday, July 3, 2010

Levittown

Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb.
David Kushner (2009, Walker & Company)

The 1950s saw hundreds of battles over desegregation across the United States. The battles over lunch counters, buses, and schools were famously fought in the streets, in the press, and in the courts; all these venues were also significant in the story of housing desegregation. David Kushner’s Levittown tells the story of one such battle on an intimate scale: what happened when, in 1957, a black family moved into previously all-white Levittown, Pennsylvania. Without attempting to cover the entire history of the era, Kushner also casts a useful light on the larger economic, governmental, and social forces at work.
The tale starts with Abe Levitt and his sons, Bill and Alfred, who started building housing developments on Long Island during the Depression. Levitt & Sons went on to build housing on military bases in World War II, and they were primed for bigger things in the postwar housing boom. On thirty-five hundred acres of nematode-ravaged potato fields, they constructed an entire town, complete with parks and shopping centers. Under the influence of Bill Levitt’s considerable ego, the town of Island Trees was renamed Levittown. Veterans swarmed to rent, then to buy, and move in with their families.
White veterans, that is. In addition to Abe Levitt’s strictures about landscaping, about which he was something of a martinet, the rules of the new community excluded ‘any person other than members of the Caucasian race.’ Such a clause was permitted, indeed encouraged, by Federal Housing Administration regulations that had, from the FHA’s founding in 1934, specified that ‘business and industrial uses, lower-class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups’ all qualified as adverse influences that would lower property values.
The Supreme Court overturned such explicit restrictive covenants in 1948, calling the clause “unenforceable as law and contrary to public policy.” But the policy was still in effect in many places, including the second Levittown development, outside of Philadelphia, where Lew and Bea Wechsler lived with their daughter and son. The house next door to them had been up for sale for two years when the Wechslers met Bill and Daisy Myers, who were living in nearby Bloomsdale Gardens, and looking for a house. What the Myerses wanted in the spring of 1957 was a three-bedroom house for their growing family, with a garage for Bill to use as a workshop; 43 Deepgreen Lane fit the bill perfectly.
Kushner’s book is partly based on memoirs written by Lew Wechsler and Daisy Myers, based in turn on the journals they kept, so he can give us a day by day record of the mayhem that ensued in August, 1957, when Bill and Daisy Myers took possession of their charming pink house. A vociferous group of neighbors dedicated themselves to a campaign of harassment and intimidation that included rock-throwing, name-calling, cross-burning, and harassing phone calls, without any particular hindrance from various contingents of police who were ostensibly there to protect the newcomers. The Levittown Shopping Center sold Confedarate flags, and one faction of the neighborhood mob made inquiries about joining the Ku Klux Klan.
The story was catnip to the press, both because of its resonance with the integration of the Little Rock schools, which took place the same autumn, and because of the iconic nature of Levittown: “Papers from Moscow to London covered the standoff in what had long been viewed as America’s quintessential suburban dreamland. Life magazine had just run a long spread on the story that week, including dramatic photos of the Myerses and Wechslers under siege in their homes.”
Other neighbors supported the Myerses, repairing the damage done by vandals, bringing food, and sitting up nights in the Wechslers’ kitchen, standing guard. In October, Thomas McBride, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania filed an injunction to stop the “unlawful, malicious and evil consparacy...to force the said Myers family to leave Levittown;” McBride himself took part in the trial, two months later, and the transcript, which Kushner quotes liberally, is gripping.
The injunction served its purpose, and the Myerses remained safely in Levittown till they moved to York, Pennsylvania, a few years later, but-- how did this crisis happen? There’s plenty of blame to go around: certainly a few of the neighbors were unreconstructed racists, and the local police response was a failure. The court records show that Levitt and Sons made promises to buyers that Levittown would be whites-only. Bill Levitt claimed that he was just giving the buying public what it wanted, and that any other policy would have put him at a disadvantage to competing developers. Or perhaps it was the banks, the realtors, the FHA, Congress--it’s turtles all the way down. Be that as it may, the upshot, as Kushner says, is stunning:“... from 1934 through 1960, less than 2 percent of the $120 billion in new housing underwritten by the U.S. government went to minorities.”
Kushner’s writing style is a little too breezy for me in places, but the scope of the book is beautifully judged. Within the broader story of the great migration to the suburbs, he makes the Levitts, the Myerses, and the Wechslers distinct personalities and consequential actors. He can’t quite make me understand why some of the people of Levittown thought they had a legal right to deny other people their right to live there peacefully, but that kind of thing goes on today, and I don’t understand it yet.
Another thing that’s important to remember, because it now seems so strange to those of us who didn’t experience it, is the Red-baiting that was attached to civil rights activism. The Wechslers, as it happened, had actually met through the National Student League, a group with ties to the Communist Party, though their faith was severely damaged by Krushchev’s 1956 revelations about the Stalin era. To hear Senator Joseph McCarthy tell it, anyone who opposed racial discrimination was a Communist. Really? Communists were the only people who were fighting to extend the promises of America to all Americans? Where were the Christians?
I guess that’s a story for another time.


Email, July 2010

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