Saturday, September 29, 2007

Happy 60th Birthday Levittown

Levittown, the suburban utopia on Long Island, turns 60 next month.

Levittown was the brainchild of it's namesake, William Levitt, a real-estate developer who envisioned a community where you don't have to be rich to have land for your kids to play, and schools with playgrounds, football fields and parking lots. His first experiment in this new society came in Island Trees, a rural area in central Nassau County on Long Island.

At it's beginning, it was built as the ideal suburban community for first generation Americans and World War II veterans to raise their families outside of the crowded, cramped urban communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Strangely enough Levittown was built without a commuter rail station along the LIRR. The closest major station is Hicksville, about five miles north. Many of Levittown's residents work in Nassau County and drive, although, as proven by the packed Hicksville station parking lot, many still commute to Manhattan.

In the years after, Levitt build more suburban communities outside major cities in the Northeast. Levittown, Pennsylvania and Willingboro (formerly Levittown), New Jersey, both outside Philadelphia were created by him. Levitt built similar communities in Matawan and Somerset, New Jersey, Bowie, Maryland (outside of Washington D.C.) and even in Puerto Rico.

During the 1970's and 1980's, it became the destination for all those who fled the inner cities during the "white flight" years.

Six decades after Levittown was created as the dream neighborhood of middle-class America, nearly all those who fit the profile of middle-class America are priced out of it. The color of Levittown's collar has faded from blue to a more exclusive whiter shade.

Many of the Levittown houses, which originally had three bedrooms, one bathroom and no basement, have evolved into "McMansions" of four, five bedrooms, three or four bathrooms, two car garages (with a Mercedes in one and a huge SUV in another) and in some cases, an in ground pool you would only find at a five star Caribbean resort. Houses rarely go for less than $500,000 and many go for over a million. Property taxes and school taxes can run over $10,000 a year in some areas.

Levittown itself tells a story of the American dream. In 1947, when it was still reachable, it was a place where any middle-class, blue collar American could go (except African-Americans originally.) As years went by, blacks were allowed in, but few actually did move in. Levittown still remains over 85% white.

By the 1980's, Levittown was becoming more and more exclusive and many lower middle class families in Queens and Brooklyn were priced out of the community. The communities surrounding Levittown; East Meadow, Massapequa, Hicksville, Westbury, Wantagh and Seaford, have all developed a reputation for being fairly exclusive and ritzy. Unfortunately, that's not how Levitt had pictured it. Many of those who grew up in Levittown and it's sister communities are leaving, coming back to the city in many cases or leaving the region altogether for lower taxes and more affordable living. Levittown today is the destination community for mainly white-collar workers. For many, the "American dream" laid out by Levitt is, in fact, unreachable.

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