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When the dream turned ugly

GI families poured into homes in Levittown. But the first black residents got a harsh reception.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

Two Families, One Tycoon,
and the Fight for Civil Rights
in America's Legendary Suburb

By David Kushner

Walker & Co.

256 pp. $25

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Reviewed By Steven Conn

Once upon a time, there were potato farms on Long Island, and the nation was at war. As that war drew to a close, the Levitt boys - brothers Alfred and Bill and their father, Abe - looked at those potato fields and saw instead houses for returning GIs and their families.

By 1947, as if by magic, they had opened Levittown, and a joyous, victorious nation watched as those families moved in. By 1951, Levittown boasted 17,447 houses, and the potato fields were gone.

By that time, the Levitts had found 5,000 acres of broccoli and spinach fields just north of Philadelphia and quite close to the new Fairless Works of U.S. Steel. By 1952, they had turned that land into the second Levittown.

The towns made the Levitts, and particularly the company's public face, Bill, national heroes. They also made them very rich. Levittown instantly became a symbol of postwar American prosperity and all its promise. The American dream, priced at just under $8,000.

But as the Levitts always made clear, that dream was racially exclusive. Levitt sales agents were instructed not to sell to African American buyers. Likewise, the rental houses were not to be "used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race," as the leases put it. And so in 1957, when Bill and Daisy Myers moved into their new Pennsylvania Levittown house at 43 Deepgreen Lane, in the heat of a drought-stricken August, the vicious and ugly side of the Levitt dream became a national symbol as well.

The Myerses found hostility, then anger, then violence in quick succession waiting for them in Levittown, as bigoted white residents grew increasingly apoplectic that their all-white idyll might be sullied by a black family with two small boys and an infant daughter. Rocks were thrown, crosses were burned, and the Klan started recruiting. Eventually the Commonwealth stepped in to restore order - the local constabulary seemed largely sympathetic to the white rioters - and to prosecute the worst of the perpetrators.

The still-shocking story of those weeks in the late summer and fall of 1957 occupy most of David Kushner's Levittown. He tells the story from the Myerses' point of view and from that of their supportive and sympathetic neighbors, Lew and Bea Wechsler. Kushner does a nice job of conveying the real tension of that anxious time. Fifty years later, it is hard not to feel outraged reading in such detail everything the Myerses had to endure.

Kushner has chosen to tell this story as a simple and straightforward morality tale. There is no question that the good guys here - the Myerses and the Wechslers - are good, the bad guys are unambiguously bad, and the whole episode has a happy ending. The bad guys are all found guilty, the Myerses resume their life, and when a second black family moves into Levittown, most people yawn.

Kushner decided not to stray very far from 43 Deepgreen Lane in this book, and that's too bad, because he glances at much that is more interesting and complex, and certainly worth exploring in more detail. James Newell, the ringleader of Levittown's segregationist mob, is presented as a largely two-dimensional villain, complete with a Southern accent, a flat-top haircut, and thick triceps. We don't learn much about him or about what became of him and the others in the mob who were obviously and egregiously on the wrong side of history.

In this book the good guys aren't fleshed out, either. At one point in the midst of the standoff, Daisy Myers complained to the press that it was covering only the violence and controversy and not the considerable support the Myerses were also receiving. Ironically, Kushner does the same thing. He mentions that the Myerses had the help of local Quakers, met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Pearl Buck, and attracted international attention, but does not explore those connections in any detail.

Nor do we learn much about how Bill Levitt reacted to this racial explosion in the middle of his suburban utopia, or why he clung to his all-white vision long after the courts had declared it illegal.

As it happened, the Myerses moved into Levittown at exactly the time U.S. troops had to force the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas. While the edifice of legal segregation was crumbling in the South, the Levitts were creating geographic segregation by inventing the model for the all-white, postwar suburb in the North. Fifty years after the Myerses won their battle, Levittown remains, like so many suburban areas, overwhelmingly white. In the half-century since the Levitts dreamed up the suburban fairy tale, we have still not fully reckoned with the racism that sits at its foundation.