Levittown for APUSH
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
Following World War II, in 1947, Abraham Levitt and his sons had the idea to build a massive community of single-family homes on Long Island, New York. Ultimately, Levittown boasted more than 17,000 thousand homes with more than 80,000 inhabitants. The homes were designed to be inexpensive and available to both white and blue-collar workers. Soon, Levittowns appeared in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the term became synonymous with a great American migration to the suburbs and the American dream of home ownership during the 1950s. While the communities were praised for creating a nurturing environment and being a stronghold against communism, Levittowns were also criticized for contributing to the creation of a conformist and racist society.
Levittowns appeared in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the term became synonymous with a great American migration to the suburbs and the American dream of home ownership during the 1950s.
Where Will All the GI’s Live?
In the aftermath of World War II there was a significant housing shortage, brought on by the limited allocation of resources during the war.
In the aftermath of World War II there was a significant housing shortage, brought on by the limited allocation of resources during the war. Particularly, there was a need for low-cost single-family dwellings to house returning soldiers and their families close to job opportunities near major cities. Abraham Levitt and his sons developed an assembly-line approach to building suburban communities. Instead of completing the entire construction of an individual unit before moving on to the next, the Levitts developed a 27-step process where each step in the construction process would be completed for the entire community before moving on to the next. The result was affordable, yet similarly designed, homes for middle-income buyers.
Aiding demand for these mass-produced homes was the federal government’s offer of low interest loans to home buyers through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill) and the FHA (Federal Housing Administration). The growing “baby boom” (Levittown, Long Island was nicknamed “Fertility Valley” and “The Rabbit Hutch”) caused many Americans to move their families away from the bustling, unsanitary conditions of urban areas, leading to what came to be known as “white flight.” Levittowns were neatly manicured, with curving streets that kept neighborhoods separate from highways. This migration to the suburbs did not escape the notice of anti-communist zealots of the early Cold War. William Levitt himself noted, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” When the federal government constructed low-cost public, rather than private, housing projects, Joseph McCarthy ridiculed them as “breeding grounds for communists.” Thus, the suburban lifestyle came to demonstrate a commitment to patriotism.
The growing “baby boom” caused many Americans to move their families away from the bustling, unsanitary conditions of urban areas, leading to what came to be known as “white flight.”
The American Dream
If Levittowns and their offspring reflected the affluence and realization of the American Dream in the 1950s, they also generated criticism on several fronts. Critics pointed out the look-alike houses promoted a dangerous conformity that devalued diversity and looked down upon independent thought, much as the “Red Scare” reflected the notion that it was un-American to be different. Songwriter Melvina Reynolds ridiculed them in her songs “What Did You Learn in School Today,” and “Little Boxes,” portraying suburbs as “little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes all the same.” Levittowns were also blamed for creating a second “cult of domesticity” where the women were trapped in a “velvet ghetto.” Most young woman of this time who went to college never finished their degree, and those who dropped out joked that they did so to pursue their M.R.S. degree (i.e. getting married and becoming a Mrs.). While these critics certainly didn’t represent the majority opinion of the time, their concerns would later give rise to the counter-culture and women’s rights movements of the 1960s.
Levittowns were also blamed for creating a second “cult of domesticity” where the women were trapped in a “velvet ghetto.”
A more potent criticism of Levittowns was their underlying promotion of racism, even in the North.
A more potent criticism of Levittowns was their underlying promotion of racism, even in the North. Initially, African-Americans were prohibited from buying homes in Levittowns. Written into leases was the stipulation that, “the tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be sued or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive contracts were unenforceable, they did not inhibit residents from “voluntarily” adhering to them. Additionally, the lending policies of the FHA and the HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation), both agencies of the federal government, enforced segregation as public policy by denying loans to African-Americans seeking to buy homes in white communities, according to one historian. Not until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in any dwelling bought with federal government assistance was the policy slowed. Levittowns highlighted the overt separation of white and black society.
Levittowns weren’t the main catalyst of the “white flight” shift to suburban living, but they became the model for rapid suburban expansion of the 1950s. Partly as a cause of the rise of the “affluent society,” and partly because of it, Levittowns were a symbol of the post-war prosperity of the 1950s and the realization of the American Dream. However, they also defined a conformist society and a divisive force in race relations.