I have never been to Levittown. Like many transplants to New York City, I am guilty of treating that section of Long Island the way that many New Yorkers treat the middle of the country (South Dakota) where I grew up: something one must pass through on the way to somewhere more desirable. Even if I were to visit Levittown today, I would not find the quintessential postwar suburban development portrayed in The Babylon Line. The majority of houses have been so altered that the bones of the prototype dwelling – a one-floor wooden dwelling on concrete slabs – would be difficult to detect.
Look to fiction for the truest history of the community. “Sure, they were little boxes when we first started,” says a character in WD Wetherell’s 1986 short story, “The Man Who Loved Levittown.” But “the minute we got our mitts on them we started remodeling them, adding stuff, changing them around.” The character recalls “the 50s. The early 60s. We were all going the same direction … Thanks to Big Bill Levitt we all had a chance. You talk about dreams. Hell, we had ours. We had ours like nobody before or since ever had theirs. SEVEN THOUSAND BUCKS! ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS DOWN! We were cowboys out there. We were the pioneers.’”
If the structures – and the pioneering -- have morphed radically since Levitt and Sons began building the development after the war, the demographics have not. According to the 2010 census, the community is 89 percent white, and less than one percent black. Originally, the community was even more homogenous. According to David Kushner’s 2009 book, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, Levittown’s original whites-only policy came under attack almost immediately. An opposition group was formed: the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown. This group protested the sale of Levittown homes and pushed for an integrated community. In 1948, the United States Supreme Court declared that property deeds stipulating racial segregation were unenforceable by law. The “restrictive covenant” in the original rental, and then sales, agreement stipulated that houses could not be rented or sold to any but members of the "Caucasian" race. By 1960 Levittown was still a completely white suburb. Only well after the 1954 racial-integration decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education, was Levittown even nominally integrated.
In The Babylon Line, we see the rigidity of the developer’s methods. Lawns must be tended, messiness is frowned upon. And we see how the town’s residents, such as the play’s Frieda, project the rules under which they suffer or have suffered – as Jews, as Levittonians – onto other residents. The character of Joan is suspected of poor citizenship: she stays in her house for long stretches, has no children, does not take part in community activities like the PTA. She is suffocating for lack of creative oxygen, responding to what Time magazine said in an otherwise flattering 1950 profile: “The community has an almost antiseptic air.”
But many residents experienced the postwar period more fondly. That character in the Wetherell story speaks for many of them: “There wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do for each other. Babysit, drive someone somewhere, maybe help out with a mortgage payment someone couldn’t meet.” Not only did the first generation of Levittown life have its communitarian aspects, it had actual regulations, such as Levitt’s insistence that no homeowner fence off a private yard from the shared green. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen in Levittown today.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com