By Tom Thompson-
When I introduced myself at the beginning of class on Thursday, Dr. Manuel mentioned that my hometown was the site of a riot in the late 1970s. While this is true, nobody wants that to be the only thing interesting remembered about his or her hometown.
As public historians, I thought you would be interested in where I grew up, Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levittown is famous for being one of the first large communities of tract housing. In the 1950s, William Levitt did for housing production what Henry Ford did for automobile manufacturing.
Levitt first built Levittown, New York, and then Levittown, Pennsylvania. While there were other homebuilders on the East Coast, at the time no one else built on the scale that Levitt did. Levitt built whole planned communities for the World War Two generation of parents who were having children later to be known as the baby boom generation. These families quickly snapped up all of the housing that Levitt could build. Moving from urban New York City or Philadelphia to Levittown promised the American dream of owning a single-family home surrounded by a bright green lawn.
As opposed to current housing developments, there were no options in a Levittown home. All of the houses in one area were completely identical, even down to the landscaping that came with it. I can clearly remember that each backyard had a peach tree, pear tree, and apple tree. All of the inside walls were white and the appliances were all the same. This made for very efficient construction for Mr. Levitt’s builders.
Let me explain what the community was like by describing where I lived. My home was in the Highland Park section of Levittown. The model house was called a “Jubilee” and most of the other houses in this section (maybe 150 homes) were the same model. In Highland Park all of the street names began with “H.” There was a road (Highland Park Drive) that ran all the way around the section. Each road within the section eventually came out to connect to the drive so it was easy to give someone directions. There were many such sections in Levittown, each starting with a different letter. Each section had a green park area to play in and an elementary school. In this way, no children had to cross busy streets to get around the neighborhood.
At the time of construction, sociologists were concerned that such regimented housing would lead to similar cookie-cutter people. I don’t know about the social results, but as time went on, people naturally added to their own houses and they became individualized. Levittown became a model for other housing developments throughout the country.
Like anywhere else, Levittown does not have a perfect history. Levittown homes were sold strictly to Caucasians. It would be years before an African-American family would attempt to move in and the results weren’t good. In this way, it was like many other towns of this era.
And yes, there was a “riot” there in June, 1979. Amid the gas shortage crisis of the time a protest by truckers turned violent. Perhaps it would have been forgotten, but shortly afterward, President Carter alluded to it in his “Crisis of Confidence” address to the American people. But those two days of protest shouldn’t be the only thing that people remember about this prime example of suburbanization of America in the late 50s and 60s.
Please view this 3-minute video, which will give you a quick history of the town.