Levittown is going to be 60

Levittown, NY in 2004

In October 1947, the landmark Levittown affordable housing comunity was founded on a little over 6,000 acres on Long Island, 34 miles east of midtown Manhattan. The Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages in Stony Brook has assembled an exhibit to mark this anniversary. “Living the American Dream – Levittown and the Suburban Boom” opens February 10 and will run until July 8, 2007. Artifacts, photographs, video and text tell the story.

The housing boom that brought Levittown into existence followed nearly two decades of repressed home-building and baby-rearing that were the result of the Great Depression and World War II. The parents of what would become the baby-boom generation got a big boost toward their piece of the long-deferred American Dream with passage of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill of Rights. The legislation unleashed a building boom and enabled tens of thousands of veterans to attend college.

In the late 1940s, a new Levittown house could be as small as 750 square feet and prices began at $8,000 and topped out at $12,000, equivalent to about $67,000 to $101,000 in 2007. As of February 2007, listing prices for resale houses ranged from $300,000 to $500,000. Of course, the price comparison is a bit misleading because almost all of the homes have been remodeled and expanded. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution spent years trying unsuccessfully to find an unaltered Levittown house to buy as a museum.

The centerpiece of the Long Island Museum exhibition is a full-scale re-creation of the first floor of a 1951 Levitt ranch house. There is a kitchen with all the appliances and the stainless-steel cabinets from that era. In the living room, there is an interactive space where visitors can sit down and envision what it would have been like to live in this house. There are couches from the period, a coffee table covered by period magazines for people to look through. Beginning in 1951, Levitt workers mounted 12-inch black-and-white Admiral televisions in the pine paneling under the stairs. The screen at the museum will be showing “I Love Lucy.”

There is a less happy aspect to the history of Levittown. When the large (17,400 home) subdivision opened on October 1, 1947, the contracts contained a clause that stated “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” William Levitt explained the policy to The Saturday Evening Post in 1954: “If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours. We did not create it and we cannot cure it. As a company, our position is simply this: we can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.”

Still, there were a few African-American families moving in and Levitt organization decided to do away with the restrictive covenants at the Long Island Levittown in 1955. However it wasn’t until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, that the racial restriction was dropped at all Levitt projects around the country.


2 thoughts on “Levittown is going to be 60

  1. Levitt Bankruptcy Leaves Homeowners in the Cold

    NPR Morning Edition, February 27, 2008 • Among the many casualties in the distressed home building industry, one recent bankruptcy stands out: the storied developer Levitt and Sons.

    More than a half-century ago, Levitt helped to pioneer the whole notion of suburbia when it built Levittown, a post-war community of mass-produced housing in New York. Other Levittowns followed — in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico.

    In recent years though, Levitt and Sons accumulated debt, and with the downturn in housing sales, its luck finally ran out. When the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November, Levitt halted construction on dozens of projects from South Carolina to Florida. Many of its customers are now stuck.

    Road to Nowhere

    Among those customers is Bill Quattrocchi, who lives in Tradition, a big development for active seniors — those 55 and older — in Port St. Lucie, along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. As he drives a golf cart through the neighborhood, he notes a road that “was supposed to lead to a clubhouse.”
    “It leads to nowhere,” Quattrocchi says as he drives along. “They never completed this road to the other section.”

    While other builders are still selling houses in Tradition, Quattrocchi and his neighbor, Bob Wilson, have the misfortune of living in a section developed by Levitt and Sons. It’s a neighborhood where all construction stopped after Levitt declared bankruptcy; out of 1,200 planned homes, only 90 are currently occupied.

    Quattrocchi wheels his golf cart through an area where residents live across the street from half-finished houses. He notes that “available” signs have been removed from the fronts of the homes.

    Wilson points to a row of empty houses. He says in some cases the homeowners were foreclosed; in others, the buyers “just walked away.” “Either they didn’t get to settlement or they decided to leave — and leave the money on the table.”

    The people who opted for foreclosure or walked away, Wilson says, may be smart. Even if they could sell their houses now, Quattrocchi and Wilson figure they’d face losses of at least $150,000, probably more.

    They’re disappointed in Levitt. Both men owned Levitt homes before and moved here largely on the strength of the Levitt reputation. They were also drawn by promises that this would be a community with unsurpassed amenities: a golf course, a 38,000-square-foot clubhouse, a dozen tennis courts, two pools.

    Bought a ‘Dream,’ Got a ‘Nightmare’

    Now that the development is in receivership, Wilson says the new management is doing what it can. “They’re trying to make the people happy, that’s what they’re trying to do,” Wilson says. “But you didn’t get what you paid for. People say they bought a dream, and they got a nightmare.”

    Despite all this, Wilson and Quattrocchi say they’re happy with their houses. If they wait long enough, they believe another builder will take over Levitt’s development, and eventually, Tradition will be a great place to live.

    But there’s another group of Levitt customers who also are bitter at how they’ve been treated: those who put $40,000 and $50,000 deposits down on a Levitt home. Jerry Greenfield is one of them: He put down $45,000 on a Levitt home at Tradition and included another $25,000 for upgrades. When he heard about the bankruptcy, he figured his deposit was protected because he had put it in an escrow account.

    “I felt that, jeez, I don’t have a problem here,” Greenfield says. He expected to get a refund for his deposit. But he soon found out it’s not quite that easy.

    That’s because Florida law allows a builder to access money in an escrow account if it provides a bond. Greenfield had to hire a lawyer and is now working to recover his deposit from the bonding company. And that’s just the deposit — he doubts he’ll ever see the $25,000 he paid Levitt for upgrades.

    Greenfield says he’s learned that, among the dozens of people who had deposits with Levitt, he’s one of the fortunate ones. Most didn’t put their deposits in escrow.

    The heartaches here in Port St. Lucie are similar to problems playing out in Levitt communities under construction elsewhere in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

    Back at the wheel of his golf cart, Quattrocchi says it’s been a sorry end for a company that once banked on its reputation.

    ” ‘The oldest and most trusted builder’ — that’s their slogan,” Quattrocchi says. How does he feel about it now? “Don’t trust anybody anymore. Like it says on the dollar bill, ‘In God we trust.’ ”

    A bankruptcy judge in Fort Lauderdale is currently sifting through the claims competing for Levitt’s assets. The good news for Quattrocchi, Wilson and other residents in Port St. Lucie: Levitt’s lender here, Key Bank, recently foreclosed on the property and hopes soon to find a builder who will resume construction at Tradition.

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