Geoffrey Mohan, Long Island Newsday
FAST-US-2 American Institutions Survey (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
At the time, no one could have known what the dust clouds rising from the Hempstead Plains would mean. Not the young veteran Herb Kalisman, who regarded them from a train in the Hicksville station as he headed from his rented Brooklyn attic to the relief of a Suffolk County beach.
(Left) Before becoming the most studied, criticized and mythologized community in America, Levittown, then known as Island Trees, was farmland. (Right) A few months later, potato fields had been transformed into suburbia (see house photos).
Bob Abrams was a brash former combat correspondent, and his wife, Eleanor, was in the last trimester of pregnancy. They lived with Eleanor's parents in Brooklyn.
``It was a fairly large apartment for two people,'' Eleanor Abrams said. ``It was not fairly large for four people.''
As he rode the subway to his typesetting job in Manhattan, Abrams spied a story in the Herald-Tribune, his favorite newspaper, about a rental development on Long Island.
``By the time I got to work, I'd written out a postcard, and I put it in the mail,'' Abrams said.
Abrams never even saw the white Cape Cod he agreed to rent for $60 a month until he walked up to it on Oct. 1, 1947, the day the first 300 residents moved into Levittown's first phase, north of Hempstead Turnpike, east of the Wantagh Parkway.
Edgar and Pat Daniels waited until 1949 to come to Levittown. Edgar was a Marine Corps veteran from Chester, Pa., fresh from a three-year hitch in the South Pacific. Pat was from Omaha.
They can tick off the meager details of their pre-Levitt life in Queens: ``Seventy dollars a month, hardly furnished, stall shower, ice box,'' Edgar Daniels said. ``The door down to the basement got water rats. They were banging on the door.''
Daniels stood on a frigid line outside a model of a Levitt ranch in Roslyn. Warmed by fires in barrels, he made new friends who would become neighbors when the Daniels family moved into a house at 37 Hook Lane on July 26, 1949.
Pat Daniels didn't get the exact model she wanted, but it didn't matter.
``I was so happy to get out of Flushing I would have taken anything that was clean and neat,'' Pat Daniels recalled. ``And I mean it was; it was like a little doll house.''
In 1949, Mildred Glaser and her husband, David, a graphic artist and poet, were just as happy to get out of a Brownsville walk-up and into a house with $80 to spare.
Downhill Lane was just a muddy track when they came out to check the progress on the house they had bought.
``They just paved it, but it was covered with mud,'' David Glaser said. ``And I said, `Oh, that's our house right there.' We walk up. `Downhill [Lane], thirty-three, there it is.' We walk up and there's this slab in the ground, and believe it or not, we're looking at it, and I said, `Well, let's see: The bathroom's over here; there's where the bedroom is. And I laid down right on it. The wet slab. She said, `Get up, you fool.' I said, `Nah, look how wonderful it is.'''
They had a house but not much else. There were no personal telephones in the early days, and the pioneers went to Hicksville to pick up their mail. Many had no cars. They could not afford babysitters. They had no churches, no schools, no front lawns.
What they had was each other.
``There was a spirit that I've never seen since,'' said Frank Wolff, who moved to Gardiners Avenue in the summer of 1948 from a basement in Jamaica. ``There was an automatic neighborliness which is completely lost today.''
Levittown tested pioneers early and often. Over the community's first Christmas, a record-setting blizzard buried the stubby saplings Levitt & Sons had planted at each home. The following year, 1948, another storm hit.
Mary Heron Quinn, who moved into Levittown in November, 1947, left work in Manhattan at 2 p.m. and arrived the next day at 5 a.m., walking the last leg from Hicksville with fellow commuters, behind a plow truck.
``There was a lot of people sick here with the flu,'' Quinn recalled. Levittown's first druggist, Lester Smith, managed to get hold of a snowplow. ``He hired it himself, and he got in the plow with the guys who drove it, and drove to all of these houses where the people were so sick, and got the prescription filled. Saved their lives, actually. He was out all night trying to get through that snow.''
Levittown's settlers, fresh from the hard living in the city, started early trying to personalize the sturdy boxes they now called home.
In the summer of 1948, Wolff watched residents ``borrow'' lumber and materials from homes being built along Gardiners Avenue to floor their attics or convert them to bedrooms. A man who traipsed through his yard one twilight, with several children in tow, explained he was ``improving Mr. Levitt's property.''
Finally, Levitt & Sons hired a retired New York City cop who patrolled the area in a black 1936 Chevrolet with dimmed lights. Wolff resisted temptation until the very end. Then he went across the street and stole the sign warning residents not to steal.
``I thought that was the ultimate theft,'' Wolff said. ``They didn't need it anymore anyhow.''
There were other petty larcenies that fall in the category of getting by. One involved the pay phone on the lane behind Wolff's house. The phone's coin box was inadvertently left unlocked.
``Everybody got wise and they just pulled the drawer open, took the nickel out, put it in the slot, got connected, then walked away,'' Wolff said.
``It sounds like larceny, but it wasn't,'' said Wolff, his voice still tinctured by his native Breslau, Germany. ``You must remember one thing. Ninety-nine percent of the people were veterans, right? All about the same age. All with growing families, or trying to have growing families. And all struggling. And it was actually no different than it was in the service, you know. If you'd get away without doing KP, OK.''
Getting by and making do quickly built new friendships.
Like many residents fresh from the city, Wolff had no car. Each day, he'd walk to Hempstead Turnpike and Loring Road and put out his thumb to catch a ride to Jamaica, where he worked at a trucking company. No more than two cars would pass before he got a ride. Pretty soon, the same guy started picking him up.
``He said, `Instead of standing out here -- you know it may rain or anything like that -- why don't you just come to the house and we'll start from there?''' The two soon were playing chess together in a chess group.
Levittowners knew how to join. There were more than 200 groups, from Kiwanis to knitting, by the 1950s. Scouting was big. Little League was huge. There were soap-box derbies on the few roads that offered any elevation.
Children roamed the open yards -- Levitt prohibited fences. While parents lamented an infestation of Japanese beetles -- an unintended result of plowing up the fields for houses -- kids collected them.
``I can remember the children, you know what the boys' favorite pastime was in the summertime? It was beetle time,'' Connie Nisito, who moved into a Levitt ranch in October, 1951, recalled. ``How many beetles can they get in a mayonnaise jar with a little oil in it. And then they would fill these jars up and at the end of the night, they would count the beetles.''
Levittown houses were housewife-centered. For that matter, so was America. Advertisements touted a mother's ability to mind her children from the window of the kitchen, which was well-appointed with a Bendix washer, a General Electric refrigerator and stainless-steel cabinets.
``And we've put the kitchen in the front where it belongs, where it's just a step for your wife to answer the door, and where she can see who's there and what's going on,'' read a Levitt & Sons advertisement from 1949.
Levitt laid down the law with his tenants. Laundry could be hung only on umbrella-stand dryers, and it could not be hung at all on weekends.
If lawns weren't cut, Levitt would send a crew and bill the tenant. On weekends, the men learned to share their lawn mowers, and they chipped in to do repairs.
``Nobody knew how to change a fuse; nobody knew how to repair an appliance,'' Abrams said. ``If you had to do something, you'd have 15 guys over watching because they wanted to know how to do it when they had to do it themselves . . . Everybody was there to share whatever they knew with everyone else.''
One of it could have happened without a massive federal program that steered developers toward affordable housing, providing them with up-front, government-guaranteed financing.
The Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, was piggybacked with housing legislation that had created the Federal Housing Administration a decade earlier. The two operated in tandem to put the government in the business of guaranteeing financing for developers first, and then risk-free individual mortgages for GIs that required little money down.
It pumped $20 billion into the industry in its first four years and was the closest thing to free money the housing trades had ever seen.
The GI Bill also gave veterans the shot at a college education.
For the first time, two ingredients of the American dream were placed within the grasp of an entire generation -- higher education and a house. They took them and ran, crossing over into a territory we now recognize as the modern middle class.
It brought the common person to a place called suburbia, and made suburbia commonplace.
With the provision that also sent soldiers to college, the GI bill erased the image of the leafy suburbs as a blue-blooded domain, and the definition of the middle class changed with it, according to Barbara Kelly, a Hofstra University assistant professor whose 1993 book, ``Expanding the American Dream,'' chronicles Levittown's social and economic evolution.
``The markers of education and home ownership were so strong that, even if you worked at Grumman or Republic, nobody referred to you as a factory worker,'' Kelly said.
With Bill Levitt at the helm, Levitt & Sons was ready for the wave, and they rode it.
``He saw housing for workers was the place to be, and he went there fast,'' Kelly said. ``There was a lot of it going on everywhere. But he managed to get the credit, cornering the market on the media. He was the Barnum of the postwar suburbs.''
Out in California, David Bohannon had built large-scale suburbs from 1939 through 1944 in the exact way that Levitt planned to do it in Levittown -- on slabs, by assembly line, at a rate of one every 45 minutes at its peak. But he never built more than 1,492 in one year. Levitt was aiming for 2,000 and would later surpass even that.
Levitt's original Cape Cods weren't new, either. They came almost whole cloth from FHA manuals on affordable housing, according to Kelly.
``The idea of large-scale suburban housing developments -- everything that Levitt did, practically, was discussed in the Thirties,'' said Elizabeth Ewen, a State College at Old Westbury professor of history working on a book with colleague Rosalyn Baxandall about suburban development on Long Island.
But no one had put it together like the Levitts.
William Levitt built and stoked a brassy house-building machine that stretched from a California lumber mill to a Roslyn assembly shop. It was a process that would be studied and copied for decades to come.
Alfred Levitt, as introverted as he was intellectual, wrestled with the limits of a Cape Cod cottage and came out with more airy ranches. He centered them around neighborhood pools and small village greens that people could walk to and apportioned them lots that started at 60 by 100 feet and often ranged longer and wider. He left vest-pocket parks and ballfields like scraps from a textile cutter -- and everywhere, Abraham Levitt adorned them with his beloved fruit trees and shrubs.
The Levitts would abide no fences, no curbside utility poles, and no clotheslines to break up the pastoral effect they desired.
They had both time and money to develop their plan, and paths that led them to Island Trees.
Before the war, the parkways of Robert Moses made the idea of living in the suburbs and commuting to the city seem possible for a growing number of people. Levitt & Sons had entered the housing business in the late 1920s with relatively upscale homes called Strathmore, in Rockville Centre and Manhasset.
Just before Bill Levitt left for a stint in the Navy Seabees during the war, the Levitts took out options on 1,200 acres of land in Island Trees held by the Merillon Corp. -- part of the old estate of A.T. Stewart, the department-store magnate who built Garden City.
By the end of the war, the Levitts had capital ranging into the millions, had exercised their option in Island Trees, and were talking big.
Upon Potato Fields
When Levitt got there, Island Trees was a flat and dusty prairie with a one-room schoolhouse amid a patchwork of farms and fallow land. Except for a small colony of a dozen homes built in 1933, houses were scattered. The old Vanderbilt Motor Parkway had fallen into disuse. There was an aviation club and a skeet-shooting range.
Dutch and German farm families, many of them linked by marriage or distant kin, had farmed in Island Trees for generations. But a wormlike pest called the golden nematode put their land in quarantine, and kept their potatoes off anything but local markets.
Levitt may have seen the golden nematode as his golden opportunity. But farmers saw suburbia coming, and it was only a matter of time before they sold, according to some who were there at the time.
``That was the talk, that nematodes forced them out, and in a sense maybe it is, but they were ready to go,'' said former farmer Ernie Knoell Jr.
There were still potato fields when Levitt got to Island Trees, Knoell said, but many farmers had switched to vegetable crops.
Knoell's wife, Muriel, comes from a farm family, and can remember the trips to Hunts Point, where prices set by middlemen often didn't cover the cost of the crates that held the squash or spinach.
``The truth was, the farmers weren't getting anything for their produce, so to them this was a godsend,'' Muriel Knoell said. ``They sold. At least they put money in their pocket.''
Ernie Knoell's father had seen it before. He had been a tenant farmer in Queens before suburban development pushed him out to his own 12.5-acre plot beside what then was called Jerusalem Avenue -- now Gardiners Avenue.
Knoell waited until Levitt's back yards came up against his farm before he sold his acreage for about $30,000 in 1948 -- to a Levitt competitor who built his own homes in the middle of Levittown. The same land today would be worth about $3.5 million.
Levitt didn't buy all the land at once for what would become Levittown. After the first purchase, he hitched his wagon to Milton Levin, a young real-estate broker working for his father-in-law, Max Gruber, in Roslyn Heights.
Levin and Levitt got along famously. Each year, Bill Levitt would ask Milton Levin what he had available. If it didn't border his project, he wasn't interested. Even if it turned out later that he'd need that land.
Levin got wise, and started buying whatever he could in and around Island Trees, at first for as little as $300 an acre but later for 10 times that much.
``We kept buying in advance of his progress and became an unofficial holding company,'' Levin said. ``He didn't want to give up his cash to buy a lot of land.''
And when it came to buying land, Max Gruber knew how to talk to farmers. They chewed the fat about potatoes, beans, weather. It drove Levin nuts to watch.
``I said, `What are you doing talking about vegetables and farming? We're here to buy and sell land,''' Levin said.
``He said, `That man knows why I'm there, and he knows that I know that he knows.' He says, `The time will come. He's not ready to give me a number yet. The time will come.'''
Some held out, and some sold quickly. But the time came for all of them.
``They sold their farms there and went five miles further out and bought one of the farms at farm prices,'' Levin said.
The Levitts took the land and began laying out streets, dictated more by the boundaries of the old farms than by any sense of a master plan for traffic.
The winding lanes were an old touch, borrowed from earlier suburbs, that lent a country air and slowed traffic. Each section had thematic names. There were the tree streets, the bird section, the tradesmen streets, the celestial section. By the end, they resorted to alphabetical sections. Every so often, the Levitts penciled in a village green or a school.
Because they never got control of prime patches of land along Hempstead Turnpike, residents watched as other developers lined what once was a dusty one-lane road with strip malls and asphalt meadows that siphoned business from the village greens and created the need to expand Hempstead Turnpike into the six-lane highway that now bisects their community.
The Levitts donated land for churches and a temple. But they didn't donate land for the schools, as folklore has it.
Property records show the Levitts and other property owners sold the land well above its original cost to the school district, which had to float bonds and raise taxes to pay for it. All told, taxpayers in Levittown School District 5 paid $772,325 in the first decade of the community for land for schools within the boundaries of the Levitt development, according to school and property records.
The Levitts admitted later there was no grand design for Levittown. They planned it a section at a time and made corrections as they went along.
``On Long Island, we never knew from one year to the next how much more we could build, so we never had an overall master plan,'' Alfred Levitt wrote in Architectural Forum years after Levittown was finished.
``Levittown has no through-road system. That is its most glaring deficiency,'' Bill Levitt told Newsday for the 10th anniversary of his creation. ``If we could have planned Levittown, L.I., at its present size, we would have provided different price classes to appeal to a greater market, and to make a better, more well-rounded community,'' Levitt added.
The original ``plan'' simply was repeated in pieces with modest changes until it had multiplied out to more than 17,000 homes.
Basements or Slabs?
When Levitt & Sons built its first 2,000 homes in 1947, the project had already set a national record for houses built in a year.
The houses were for rent only, though Levitt told newspapers in May, 1947, that the homes would be available for purchase at $6,990 at some future date. Most veterans could move into Levittown for a total monthly cost of $60.
The Levitts waited to see what would happen. By May 22, they had 4,495 applicants who forked over a $60 deposit, and Bill Levitt, before a single house had been built, announced plans for 2,000 more.
When the veterans handed Levitt their deposits, he gave them a letter enlisting their help in overcoming the last obstacle to actually building the houses -- the local building code. There would be no houses in Island Trees, Levitt knew, if the Hempstead Town Board did not approve Alfred's proposal to use a shallow cement slab embedded with copper hot-water heating tubes instead of a basement and conventional heating system. Both were crucial to the Levitt formula for a house costing less than $7,000. It would cut out material that was hard to get and decrease labor costs.
``This is the most important part of all: Be at the public hearing at the town hall in Hempstead on Tuesday, May 27th at 10:30 a.m. for the public hearing to determine whether these houses can be built as we have designed them,'' he wrote to the veterans. ``The town board has called this public hearing, and unless you and your friends are there, it may not be approved. If you want modern, comfortable, beautiful housing at a rental within your reach, you must be there! We're doing our part; you must do yours!''
With every new house meaning a potential new subscriber, local newspapers, including Newsday, got behind the Island Trees development from the beginning. The same day Newsday reported Levitt's plans, on May 8, it ran an editorial that portrayed cellars as outdated lairs for rotting apples, coal bins and floodwaters.
``Maybe it was good enough for grandpappy to live in a baroque chateau, propped up over a hole in the ground, but it is not good enough for us,'' Newsday wrote.
A Young Veteran
A young veteran named Paul Townsend was on separation pay from the service, working for local veterans groups. Newsday Managing Editor Alan Hathway enlisted his help.
``Alan Hathway was very much in Bill Levitt's corner,'' Townsend said. ``Newsday asked us to get behind it. We met with Bill Levitt and Alan Hathway. They were working very close.''
By the time the hearing came around, pressure was intense. Years later, political insiders told Newsday biographer Bob Keeler that Levitt softened the opposition in a back-room deal that shuttled business to politically connected insurance firms.
Eight hundred people attended the hearing, which lasted only 20 minutes. Levitt and two veterans made impassioned speeches before the vote was taken. The board, led by Presiding Supervisor A. Holly Patterson, capitulated.
William Levitt bragged to the Christian Science Monitor in April, 1948, that he had used the press to drum up support for his project at the hearing.
``It was a joke,'' Levitt said. ``The place was stormed, jammed every inch. Veterans with their wives and babies overflowed into the streets demanding homes. Very quickly, breaking all precedent, the building code was changed. A small builder could not have brought that about.''
Levitt had the endorsement of the board. Now he had to face the old-time union system that had a lock on the construction trades.
William C. DeKoning Sr. was the most powerful labor boss on Long Island -- before he was jailed on extortion and grand larceny charges in 1954. DeKoning headed Local 138 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
As the project got under way, the unions picketed Levitt's construction site, but after a few days, inexplicably broke off the picket and allowed workers to cross the lines.
Some 40 years later, Local 138 reformers lamented the deal to Keeler for his history of the paper.
``It was the most drastic blow that he could deal to labor,'' said John DeKoning, the union boss' nephew. ``We could have broke Levitt.''
Contractors paid off the union for the ability to operate machinery with nonunion labor, explained William Wilkens, a Local 138 reformer. ``There were union machines on the job in Levittown, and he was letting the contractor use them without [union] engineers and having people go there and collect from the contractor,'' Wilkens said.
Levitt now was free to set in motion a system that eliminated dependence on union labor.
He broke tasks down to their simplest components, providing pre-cut materials at each house site. Contractors worked directly for Levitt and got paid on a piecework basis. The more roofs they shingled, the more they earned.
``Even if they didn't have the skills, by the time they built the fifth house, they had the skills,'' explained Ralph DellaRatta, a vice president in the Levitt organization for 39 years. ``He didn't set the system up to get around a union. He didn't need a trained person. And by the way, you couldn't get the production any other way.''
The last thing veteran Tom Pepper wanted to do was shell out money he didn't have in order to get a union card. So building Levittown looked like a good deal to him in the summers of 1947 and 1948, between semesters at Syracuse University.
``That's why it was so popular -- you didn't have to join the union,'' Pepper said. ``We used to get $28 a roof in 1947. Then we went to the interior, where we'd put the shelves up, and the trim around the window. We got $45 for that. There were guys in there from Finland.''
The Levitts had their construction method figured out.
Inside the Roslyn warehouses of the Levitts' North Shore Supply Co., workers gathered and assembled elements of the houses for Island Trees -- trusses, planks, gypsum board, nails. Levitt's own trucks brought the material to the work sites to await the roaming construction gangs. To eliminate waste, all building elements were in multiples of 4 and 8, a notion that has since become standard practice in the industry.
Levitt inspectors prowled the sites, taking measurements, counting nails, watching the contractors like hawks.
``Sometimes we would make a mistake and make the wrong cut,'' Pepper said. ``Everything was lined up in front of the houses. We would sneak across the street and steal it from the other houses.''
Help From Washington
The Levitts began attracting attention.
Even as the rental phase of the Island Trees development was going up in 1947, Congress began fumbling for a better solution to the housing crisis, which still vexed the Truman Administration and became a successful re-election issue.
At the forefront of the movement were the American Legion, at the time the strongest lobby involved in the housing issue, and an obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy, who was looking for a spotlight issue.
Levitt courted them both at Island Trees.
Newly elected to the Senate and four years away from the days as a vetter of Americanism, McCarthy wanted to ensure America kept a promise it had implied to veterans before the war began: a home.
McCarthy bullied his way onto a select committee investigating the housing shortage and convened a series of hearings that would set the terms of the housing debate.
Island Trees was one of his first stops.
Levitt led McCarthy, the American Legion National Housing Committee and top FHA officials on a tour of his project in August, 1947. He was photographed with McCarthy peering into one of the Bendix automatic washers that were standard equipment in the Levitt capes.
McCarthy, who hated unions and public housing, favored the Levitt model of single homes on suburban plots. He believed ``that public housing projects were nests for communism. They produced it environmentally,'' said Richard Fried, a Cold War historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Like most builders, Levitt wanted to keep government from competing with the private sector. He also had a distaste for the government's methods -- he testified that those methods ensured defense housing Levitt built in Norfolk, Va., in the early part of the war turned out to be ``junk.''
Levitt wanted federal officials to extend and further liberalize the FHA program that so far had provided the up-front financing for developments such as Levittown. He wanted help easing building codes. He wanted rationing to be lifted on building materials. He wanted to cement his reputation as the foremost builder of economical housing.
Levitt served McCarthy's purposes, and McCarthy served Levitt's, eventually penning the 1948 legislation that helped spur the homeownership phase of Levittown.
Levitt also wanted to sell to nonveterans, who did not enjoy the same financial preferences at the time.
``I can build houses for eighteen and nineteen thousand dollars, if I want to, and I cannot give them to a nonveteran, who can afford it, and vacate a $50-a-month apartment,'' Levitt argued during a January, 1948, hearing before McCarthy.
``You let me clear a thousand or two thousand families within the city of New York who want to come out, the nonveteran, and the veteran now has accommodations available to him.''
During frequent trips he made to Capitol Hill, Levitt adopted the rhetoric of anticommunism to further his cause, repeating slogans like, ``No man who owns his own house can be a communist. He's has too much to do.''
Levitt got much of what he wanted from McCarthy and the 80th Congress. The 1948 Housing Bill, written as a replacement amendment by McCarthy, liberalized lending, making it possible for anyone to buy a home with 5 percent down, and extending mortgage terms to 30 years. Veterans could get in with no money down.
But Truman also extended rent control.
These changes, and the fact that Levitt needed to get his capital out of houses and into the next phase of land purchases, pushed Levitt out of the rental market.
Together, they inspired the creation of the homeowner phase of Levittown -- the ranch models of 1949, 1950 and 1951, all of which were for sale right from the start.
As Levitt tried to make the transition from Long Island's biggest landlord to its biggest home seller, his image as a savior became tarnished when he pressured residents to rename Island Trees in his honor, boosted their rents and pushed tenants to buy their homes.
A New Name: Levittown
Levittown pioneer Robert Abrams had begun publishing the Tribune in December, 1947, while a few blocks away, his neighbor, Ira Cahn, began publishing the Eagle.
To both men, Bill Levitt was a news mill -- announcing new plans, stores, village green shopping centers and pools.
They covered every move. When Ira G. Goldman, a vice president of Levitt & Sons, celebrated the 1,000th family to move into the Island Trees development on Dec. 1, 1947, the Eagle quoted Goldman referring to ``a Levitt town'' that would house 20,000 residents.
A week later, a mysterious letter to the editor, signed ``Mac,'' appeared in the Eagle, suggesting the community take on the name of its builder.
``Each month we honor the Levitts with our check for rent,'' wrote Mac, ``but how about something to show how much we appreciate the good deal we've gotten?''
In its next edition, the Eagle said Levitt had an ``informal poll among several companies and organizations'' and some 300 letters in support of the name change.
On the last day of 1947, Levitt announced his Island Trees development would henceforth be known as Levittown. Abrams told him it was a lousy idea. Island Trees was a more romantic name.
``I wanted the new name as a kind of monument to my family,'' William Levitt told Coronet Magazine in September, 1948. ``And, by gosh, I wasn't going to brook any interference.''
In February, 1948, Levitt announced a rent increase, from $60 to $65, which would go into effect when leases expired by the end of the year. At the same time, he broached the idea of selling the homes to tenants -- for $7,990, a full $1,000 higher than what he advertised when he announced the ground-breaking of Levittown on May 7, 1947.
Veterans groups accused Levitt of breaking his promise to war heroes. The Island Trees Civic Association also rebelled, and in March refused to adopt Levittown in its name, a symbolic slap at Levitt.
Levitt moved to buy one of the newspapers -- making an offer for the Eagle that Cahn rebuffed, but finding Abrams more than willing to sell out of his struggling operation and stay on as editor. As he did with other tenants he found undesirable, Levitt later refused to renew Cahn's lease.
Abrams said Levitt never interfered in the editorial content. But thereafter, controversy over the name and rent increase on the pages of the Tribune died down.
Levitt then moved to pacify another hotbed of dissent. He took aim at the Island Trees Civic Association, going so far as to packing a meeting with Levitt employees to incorporate Levittown in the group's name.
Another mysterious missive appeared. This one promised an organized effort to oppose the rent hikes. It was signed, ``Island Trees Communist Party.''
No such party ever existed, and no one ever was able to find its author. It set the stage for a pamphlet Levitt delivered to tenants' doorsteps in July, 1948, in which he branded dissenters as communist dupes by referring to a Cold War essay by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, called ``The Way to Win Without War.''
``Too often idealistic people are seduced because they find the Communists again and again on the reform side of current arguments,'' Douglas wrote.
``Sound familiar?'' Levitt asked. ``Despite the skeptics and the professional critics and the communists,'' he continued, ``we believe in Levittown, in its honesty and goodness. What's more, we believe most of the tenants feel as we do.''
Levitt also branded as communists anyone who challenged his decision not to rent to blacks, a choice he defended as one forced upon him by the free market.
``Our policy as to whom we sell or do not sell is the same as that of any other builder in the metropolitan area,'' Levitt said when a group of Levittowners complained about the policy to the FHA in Washington.
Eugene Burnett paid a visit to Levittown in December, 1949. He was an Army veteran of World War II, living in Manhattan. He also was black.
``We got there and looked at the house, the model house,'' Burnett said. ``There were other persons looking at the model house. I didn't see any blacks. We were the only ones . . . and we walked around the house and then I walked up to the salesman and I said to him, `Pretty nice house. I'm interested. Would you give me an outline of the procedure, how do I apply? Do you have an application of some sort?'
``And he became very solemn, he looked me in the eye, braced himself and said, `It's not me.' He wasn't hostile at all. So, don't get that impression. But he said, `It's not me, but the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether or not they're going to sell these homes to Negroes.'
``I left,'' Burnett said. ``I will never forget that long ride back to Harlem . . . How I didn't start World War III is beyond me. Because that was the feeling I had.''
Levitt had decided not to sell to blacks from the outset. At first, he wrote that restriction into the leases -- a practice recommended at the time by the FHA, which was backing the financing and preferred ``homogeneous'' neighborhoods.
After the Supreme Court in 1948 declared racial covenants ``unenforceable,'' Levitt dropped the restrictions against occupancy by ``non-Caucasians.''
But he kept the unwritten policy.
``Levittown has been and is now progressing as a private enterprise job, and it is entirely in the discretion and judgment of Levitt & Sons as to whom it will rent or sell,'' Levitt explained in a 1949 announcement in the Levittown Tribune. ``. . . The elimination of the clause has changed absolutely nothing.''
Picketers were beginning to appear at Levitt & Sons offices, angry over the restrictive covenants. They were quickly labeled communists by Levitt, residents and Newsday.
``Organizations which appear to be either Communist-dominated or Communist-inspired have been attempting to raise a racial issue at Levittown,'' Newsday wrote in an editorial on March 12, 1949. ``The issue did not exist until it was fostered by people not immediately affected by it. Their only real motive seems to be to set race against race, and if possible, to bog down the Levitt building program, which means homes for thousands of people.''
In September, 1950, Levitt told two renters who had begun an interracial play group that their leases would not be renewed. Gertrude Novick and Lillian Ross did not need to be told why they faced eviction.
``We decided to have a little play group, an integrated play group, so we had families from Hempstead bring children in,'' Novick explained. ``It was just two houses on the same street. Our neighbors loved it. Their kids came and played, too. It was just a fun thing. The neighbors enjoyed it and had a fun time. Obviously someone told Levitt about it.''
Novick was active in Levittown's Committee to End Discrimination, a small group that met in living rooms and occasionally protested the racial covenants.
``Nobody went out to look for it; you just happened to meet some people who had the same ideologies,'' she said of the group. ``A few people asked us why we moved there if we knew about those covenants.''
Novick said she moved in knowing all about the covenants, which she found repulsive, for a simple reason: ``We really had no place to live . . . Sometimes your hands are tied, and you hope you can get in and change the world a little bit.''
From 1950 to 1953, a handful of black families managed to quietly buy or sublet Levitt homes without his knowledge.
Levitt was losing control of his community because he no longer owned much of it. Enticed by the $7.50 monthly difference between his newly hiked rents and a mortgage, tenants leaped into ownership.
The Herons were first, in the fall of 1948, and like everything about Levittown, they were celebrated. When Phil Heron and his sister Adele went to Levitt's Manhasset office to sign the papers, Levitt greeted them at the door.
``They said who they were, and he said, `Oh, I'm so glad to see you, I didn't think anybody was going to buy these things,''' Mary Heron Quinn recalled of her siblings' trip. ``He knew how many he had, and he knew that it would be better to sell them.''
By the end of 1949, Levitt moved to divest what remained of his stake in the rental Levittown in a deal that let him avert a steep tax. The mystery transaction was revealed three months later, in March, 1950. By selling a subsidiary that controlled the remaining 4,020 rental houses to a Phildelphia-based educational group, Levitt paid a long-term capital gain of about 25 percent rather than income taxes of up to 77 percent.
By 1951, THERE were 6,000 Cape Cods, and almost 12,000 ranches sprawling over the boundaries of two towns and three school districts. Island Trees was reduced to a school-district designation, and Rand McNally gave Levittown a dot.
Traffic was outgrowing Abe Levitt's prized trees, and the yards and streets were filling so quickly with children that Levittown acquired the nickname of ``Rabbittown.''
It had no central governing body, no group of elders to look to for guidance, and no industry to share its tax burden.
Social and architectural critics looked at the endless expanse of cookie-cutter homes and similar families and shuddered.
There were subtle variations in style -- the Lookout Cape, the Snug Harbor Cape, the Green Hills, the Mariner. There were differences in color. From 1949 to 1951, Levitt also offered ranch houses in five varieties.
But the similarity and scale couldn't help but inspire the cartoon of a drunken commuter stumbling into the wrong house to commit an accidental infidelity.
A subdivision in California would inspire the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song, ``Little Boxes,'' which described tract houses ``all made of ticky tacky and [that] all look the same.'' But the line stuck to Levittown.
Social critic Lewis Mumford accused the Levitts of using ``new-fashioned methods to compound old-fashioned mistakes.''
``It's a suburb, and suburbs are just an expansion of a mistaken policy to build without industry,'' Mumford said. ``We have to build complete, well-integrated `new towns,' not monotonous suburbs with great picture windows that look out onto clotheslines.''
Other critics thought that Levittown lowered both the standards of the housing and the standards of the culture.
Levittowners were stung by the criticism, and the persistent prediction that their new town would become a slum.
Eight months after Pat Daniels moved in, she went to Manhattan to Trader Vic's with a friend. ``We were talking to the bartender, and he says, `Hey, where you young ladies from?'''
Daniels tried to think of something other than Levittown.
``I said I was from Hicksville,'' she said, laughing. ``I should have said Wantagh. Hicksville was worse than Levittown.''
When William Levitt gamely defended his creation in Good Housekeeping 10 years after he broke ground for Levittown, he summed up his critics:
``The new postwar suburbs are stereotyped, drab and dull. The people who live in them, adapting like chameleons to the color of their surroundings, tend to become stereotyped, drab and dull. There is no privacy. To get along with neighbors, conformity is a must.''
Levitt admitted the uniformity of his houses. It was what people could afford, he argued. America should ``glory in'' its ability to mass-produce everything from houses to the furniture and appliances in them, he said.
``Too much has been made of the goldfish-bowl-picture-window notion,'' Levitt complained. ``All they have to do is hang draperies and maintain a decent reserve in personal manners.''
Residents confounded the critics. They loved their homes. They believed all you needed to live in the new suburbia was faith in the future and an imagination.
Connie Nisito put up sheets until she could afford draperies. She furnished her Levitt ranch with the same bed, two chairs, two dressers, coffee table, desk and hooked rug that graced her apartment in her mother's house in Jackson Heights, Queens.
``I had no sofa, but that was all right, we didn't need a sofa,'' said Nisito, who still lives in the ranch she purchased with her husband in 1951. ``I had a rocker, and two velvet chairs . . . a bed with no headboard, and two nice mahogany dressers.
``It was adorable,'' Nisito said. ``Really cute. It really was like a little doll house, and I wish it was that way again.''
As families grew, doll houses sprang dormers, garages, breezeways and wings. Thousand Lanes, a publication put out mainly by contractors and designers, filled its pages with tips, from ``Beauty at Bedtime'' to ``Attic Conversions.''
Sunrise Lumber Corp. sold ``attic room material'' for $109, or 95 cents a week. Botto Brothers, then on Broadway in Hicksville, was an authorized dealer for the stainless-steel Tracy cabinets and sinks.
An interior decorator for J.C. Penney wrote ``Live Better, Eat Better in a Well-Decorated Home.''
Ben Zino, who lived just east of Levittown, started in the home-renovation business in 1952, and Levittown became his specialty. By the time he retired in 1992, Zino Construction had done about 4,000 projects in Levittown.
``One of the first things they needed was a little more space in the kitchen,'' said Zino, now retired and living in Fort Myers, Fla. ``There was this little outside foyer that we took out and enlarged the kitchen, that was done for $230.
``The next thing we did was put in a bedroom in the attic and put in a stairwell. There was nothing but a trapdoor.''
With some innovation and help from people like Zino, Levittowners remade their houses and remade themselves. Thousand Lanes was full of self-effacing references to the new suburbanites' humble beginnings and sendups of the patrician suburbia it was replacing. There would be no antique furniture, paisley shawls or lustrous silver culled from their grandparents' attics, Helen Gregutt wrote in one edition.
``Our grandmothers counted themselves lucky if they could make house room for their numerous offspring, the goat and the cow,'' Gregutt wrote. ``One day we would have the capital and space for power tools and a sewing machine. One day we might even learn to use them to our mutual advantage. Meanwhile, we yearned for pleasant surroundings.''
By 1951, when Levitt sold his last house on the aptly named Tardy Lane, the Census Bureau decided it had found the ``average'' American, and he lived in Levittown. He was male, 30, married with two children, earned $3,000 year and owned a refrigerator, a radio and a telephone as well as a stake in a mortgaged home.
But another feature was creeping into the picture of middle America -- high taxes. Levittowners faced the task of raising funds for 15 schools in a decade. They also faced the upkeep of the swimming pools and parks Levitt deeded over to local jurisdictions -- all of which required special tax districts.
The cost of building those amenities had already been figured into the Levitt profit margins, a Levitt & Sons secret. ``You can't tell people you're charging them for things they consider free,'' Alfred Levitt told a Regional Planning Association meeting in December, 1950.
The Levitts, who had touted their creation as the ``complete community concept,'' only sketched in schools before packing up and moving their formula for suburbia to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and beyond.