William Levitt 1954 (AP Photo)
No one questions that William Levitt was one of the most influential real estate developers in American history. He and his brother Alfred helmed the company that created post-World War II mass-housing developments that drew Americans to the suburbs.
Inspired by the auto industry's assembly line techniques, Levitt found a way to build homes quickly and cheaply – about one every 16 minutes during an eight-hour day. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class Americans, including returning soldiers and their families, jumped at the chance to settle in Levitt's homes, located in self-contained communities miles from urban centers. "As much as anyone, William Levitt made the American dream possible," David Halberstam noted in his book The Fifties.
But 20 years after Levitt's death, his legacy is murky. Was he a hero or a villain? Professor Steven Conn, director of the Public History Program at Ohio State University, said both terms could apply.
'"Every piece of suburban sprawl about which we're increasingly upset is a descendant of his, one way or another. The template he created is essentially what we use today. It's easy to look at this and say, 'Oh, my god, what has he wrought?'" Conn said. "But we could also say he responded to a genuine crisis – the need for housing in the postwar period."
During his lifetime, Levitt's company built more than 150,000 single-family homes. The company's first development, Levittown in Nassau County, N.Y., was a 17,000-home suburb completed in 1947. Would-be buyers flocked to the town; on one day alone, in March 1949, 1,400 sale contracts were drawn up, Conn said.
In a 2008 article on The Real Deal website by Matt Schneidman, original residents of N.Y.'s Levittown and their descendants praised the developer. "I thank God for William Levitt," one said. "He gave us a leg up. We couldn’t afford any other house on Long Island."
In 1958, a second Levittown was unveiled in Bucks County, Pa. Levitt said he chose the location because of its proximity to a local steel plant. The employees would make a “very nice nucleus for a new community," he said in a 1972 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In the years that followed, Levitt's company built other, smaller neighborhoods. Levitt's communities served as a template for other builders that is still used today.
Levitt was dubbed "The King of Suburbia." In 1950, he was named Time magazine's Man of the Year. "He was regarded at the time as a transformative force in American life," Conn said.
But was that transformation good or just?
During Levitt's lifetime, African-American people were not allowed to buy homes in his developments. In a 1954 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Levitt famously said that he and his company could try to solve a housing issue or solve a racial issue. It could not tackle both.
“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," he said.
In 1957, when the first African-American family moved into a home in Levittown, Pa., they were greeted by "a howling mob," according to a 1991 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The first night, stones were thrown and windows broken. The mood was so ugly that Gov. George Leader called in state troopers to back up the police and provide 24-hour protection."
Even today, Conn noted, the two Levittown communities are majority white. "If you look at the demographics of suburbia over the second half of the 20th century, it really is racially red-lined and that's part of the model that the Levitt brothers put in place," he said.
Other criticisms of Levitt's legacy:
His homes were called boxy and boring, his developments confusing in their similarity. Levitt's New York Times obituary said he created "the insidious archetype of a dehumanizing world of uniformity." Architecture critic Lewis Mumford called Levitt's work a "uniform environment from which escape is impossible."
The move to suburbia pushed people into their cars, harming the environment and hurting community cohesion. "The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world," author and social critic James Howard Kunstler said. "It was deficient and problematic as a human habitat, even apart from the question of its sustainability."
The exodus to suburbia precipitated the urban crisis. Instead of seeking ways to reinvigorate urban life after the war, the population abandoned the cities, Conn noted. "That's another legacy of the Levitt experiment that we're still dealing with."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."