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Recalling the suburban gas riots of 1979

This much can be said for the advent of the $4 gallon of gas: It has not driven anyone to run riot. Yet. But Steve Lankin, whose Levittown station survived the gas riots of 1979, is calling it quits. Adjusted for inflation, gas prices are now as bad as then. He's had enough.

In business since 1964, Steven Lankin says he'll call it quits in a few months. His gas station remained open during the 1979 Levittown riot, which he called "pretty horrifying."
In business since 1964, Steven Lankin says he'll call it quits in a few months. His gas station remained open during the 1979 Levittown riot, which he called "pretty horrifying."Read more

This much can be said for the advent of the $4 gallon of gas: It has not driven anyone to run riot. Yet.

Twenty-nine years ago, service-station owner Steven Lankin watched as a summer-night Levittown crowd seething over gas rationing, two-hour lines at the pumps, and a then-stunning hike to $1 a gallon turn violent.

What began as a truckers' gas-crisis protest lasted two nights, June 23 and 24, 1979. It drew thousands of people and left 100 people injured, nearly 200 arrested, and one Shell station shattered in the first gasoline revolt in American history.

When inflation is considered, today's drivers are paying more for gas; $4 in 2008 is equivalent to $1.35 in 1979 terms. Even so, the gas-buying crowd remains civil, though unhappy, at Levittown's Five Points intersection, where the riots broke out in front of the Getty station Lankin has run since 1964.

"I don't know how they expect us to live," said John Brooks, a construction worker for Amtrak, filling up his motorcycle at Lankin's pump Friday for $3.86 a gallon.

Every few days, a phone call from Getty's central offices instructs Lankin to raise prices a few more cents, and as he dutifully does, tempers at the pump rise, too. But neither anger nor prices are climbing as they were in June 1979.

"In those days, it wasn't like a degree at a time," Lankin said. "It was, like, boom! And the public, they got . . . [angered] good."

In the riots, car tires and a junked car were burned in the streets, Philadelphia and state police officers were bused in, and most of the gas stations at the intersection were vandalized. Police-brutality lawsuits were filed and eventually settled for $154,000. And national attention was drawn to a community founded as an iconic planned suburb in the early 1950s to embrace a car-centric vision of the American Dream.

"Social disorder in Levittown? The postwar era really has ended," George F. Will wrote in Newsweek after the riots.

In Levittown now, the car is still vital; any price difference between Lankin's pumps and those at a station across the street will draw in a line of customers even during a quiet weekday afternoon.

But two key changes to Levittown's car culture over the decades are helping take the edge off the economic pain of today's motorists.

Fuel efficiency has improved notably. Five Points had seven gas stations in the late-1960s heyday of gas-guzzling "muscle cars"; it was down to four before the riots, and has just two today. Lankin and other station owners said after the 1979 riots that better gas mileage had cut into business even before prices shot up. At the time, 20 m.p.g. was good. Today's hybrids get 50 or more.

Credit-card gasoline purchases, once a sliver of the market, now postpone the need for most drivers to come up with money. At Lankin's station, credit cards account for 55 percent of gas purchases, and the numbers nationally are similar.

"Because of the price of gasoline, everyone's using a credit card," said Paul Fiore, executive vice president of the Service Station Dealers of America trade organization.

The reliance on credit cards delays the bite of price increases for customers, but it also cuts into stations' profits because of processing fees that run up to 12 cents a gallon, Fiore said.

Isolated gas stations have begun charging more for credit-card purchases than for cash. That quiet shift and the arrival of gas-spiked credit-card bills have provoked plenty of expletives - but no talk of rioting.

"People seem like they're taking it in stride," said Darrell Moyer, whose Shell station was shut down in 1979 when the rioters broke the pumps and all but one pane of glass.

Moyer is retired; he left the gas business in the 1980s and sold his repair shop a few years ago. Lankin plans to follow suit by the end of the year, which will reduce Five Points to one gas station and end Levittown's last institutional tie to its gas riots.

Lankin was 39 at the time of the riots, which began on a Saturday night and shut down every station but his. On Monday morning, hundreds of cars were lined up at Lankin's pumps.

At 68, Lankin has a shock of white hair. As a half-dozen cars waited for gas Friday, he pointed with a mechanic's swollen and creased hands across the intersection where rioters drank, smoked, chanted "More gas," and set fires.

"It was pretty horrifying to see people like that," he said.

At his pumps, Theresa Ziehl peaceably waited with her 13-year-old daughter for an attendant to finish filling up their SUV. To her, the ever-climbing gas prices in a car-dependent community are a pain with no recourse.

"You've got to pay it," Ziehl said. "It's not a choice, especially when your kids have a lot of activities to go to."