Construction of Levittown Is Announced Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The building of Levittown, the first large-scale planned suburban community in the United States, signaled an American population shift to the suburbs after World War II.

Summary of Event

In 1947, construction of the first Levittown, a large-scale planned suburban community, began on Long Island, New York. Levittown was a factor in, as well as a symbol of, the mass population shift from the cities to the suburbs in the United States that occurred after World War II. Levittown, New York Planned communities Suburbs, postwar migration to (United States) Urban planning;United States [kw]Construction of Levittown Is Announced (May 7, 1947) [kw]Levittown Is Announced, Construction of (May 7, 1947) Levittown, New York Planned communities Suburbs, postwar migration to (United States) Urban planning;United States [g]North America;May 7, 1947: Construction of Levittown Is Announced[02070] [g]United States;May 7, 1947: Construction of Levittown Is Announced[02070] [c]Architecture;May 7, 1947: Construction of Levittown Is Announced[02070] [c]Urban planning;May 7, 1947: Construction of Levittown Is Announced[02070] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 7, 1947: Construction of Levittown Is Announced[02070] Levitt, William J. Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;veterans Moses, Robert Ford, Henry

The end of World War II produced a large number of veterans with new families in need of housing. The owners of the building firm Levitt and Sons, who, on May 17, 1947, announced their plan to begin construction of the project, recognized this opportunity and bought a large tract of land on Long Island on which the company developed a suburban subdivision of 17,500 houses, priced for working-class and lower-middle-class families.

An aerial view of the second Levittown in Pennsylvania, ca. 1959.

(Courtesy, NPS)

Levitt and Sons was started in 1929 by Abraham Levitt, a real estate lawyer, and his two sons. Alfred Levitt was trained as an architect, and William J. Levitt was the president of the company from its inception. Prior to World War II, Levitt and Sons Levitt and Sons built several small suburban subdivisions on Long Island, as well as other subdivisions in the northeastern United States, styled and priced for upper-middle-class families, which provided a profitable base for the firm. During World War II, Levitt and Sons built U.S. Navy housing, which provided additional profits and technical experience in mass-producing inexpensive housing.

By the time the war ended, therefore, Levitt and Sons had the financial strength to purchase a large tract of land on Long Island and the technical knowledge to mass-produce houses. The construction method used to build Levittown involved building houses on concrete slabs (without basements), using precut materials, and adopting an assembly-line-like process in which crews of workmen would move from one house to the next to do a specific job. By owning as many of the sources of supply as possible and by purchasing in large volume direct from manufacturers, the Levitt organization was further able to minimize costs.

The size of the Levitt firm, which grew to be the largest residential developer in the eastern United States, and the scope of its developments allowed the company to pressure local officials into changing building codes and zoning ordinances. In one of the company’s later developments, it was even able to have the township lines changed. In building Levittown, however, Levitt and Sons strove not only to produce affordable houses at a profit to the company but also to create a community. The houses were built in neighborhoods situated around village greens that included neighborhood shops, playgrounds, and swimming pools.

Suburbia in general, and Levittown in particular, depends on the private automobile as the prime mode of transportation because the population density is too low to make public transportation feasible. Two things were needed before suburbs could develop: private automobiles that the working- or lower-middle-class families who would live in the suburbs could afford, and an automobile-based infrastructure that would facilitate a commute to work and transportation to stores, schools, entertainment facilities, churches, and other places.

The first requirement, the availability of affordable private automobiles, was promoted by the industrialist Henry Ford, who made the decision to mass-produce automobiles on an assembly line early in the twentieth century. This revolutionized the automobile industry, and transportation in general, in the United States. By allowing people to commute to work, the private automobile made it possible for people to live in houses that were some distance from public transportation. The Levitt organization based its construction methods on Ford’s assembly-line concept.

The second requirement for the development of suburbs was an infrastructure that included arterial roads to allow many automobiles to travel to industrial areas during commuting periods of the day. The politically powerful Robert Moses, the president of the Long Island State Park Commission, greatly expanded the scope of the state park program to include the building of parkways. The first parkways that Moses had built on Long Island, although theoretically designed for leisure-time access to the numerous state parks and beaches he had built on Long Island, also provided arteries for commuting.

At the end of World War II, the transportation requirements for suburban development—the automobile and the arterial roads—were in place on Long Island. No company, however, would consider building a subdivision of any size, much less one on the scope of Levittown, unless there was a market for the houses. That market existed at the end of World War II, in the form of the masses of veterans who were starting families. It was not, however, the traditional market that suburban subdivisions had been designed and built for in the past.

Previous subdivisions had been relatively small, and they were targeted toward financially established families in the upper-middle class. The returning veterans were not generally financially established, nor were they, for the most part, members of the upper-middle class. The Levitt organization was confronted by the possibility of building a large number of small, low-priced houses for young, working-class, or lower-middle-class, families. Levitt was uniquely qualified to take on a project of this scope. Its business successes provided the money necessary to obtain a large tract of land for development, and its technical experience gained from building Navy housing gave it the ability to mass-produce housing.

The other significant factor in the building of a subdivision, in addition to the number of potential buyers, was the ability of the buyers to obtain financing. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the support of several veterans’ groups, called for and signed into law several measures that enabled World War II veterans to purchase houses. The most important and best-known part of this legislation was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944)[Servicemens Readjustment Act] of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, or G.I. Bill G.I. Bill . This bill originally guaranteed housing loans to World War II veterans up to the lesser of 50 percent of the home’s value or $2,000, with a maximum interest rate of 4 percent and a term of twenty years. In 1945, the maximum amount was raised to $4,000 and the term to twenty-five years. Another significant law was the Housing and Rent Act Housing and Rent Act (1947) of 1947, which stipulated that newly constructed single-family houses could be sold or rented only to veterans or their families for the first thirty days after completion. The result of these and several related laws was that the returning veterans represented a large home-buying group with the financial resources to purchase many houses.

Significance

The immediate effect of the construction of Levittown was the relocation of six thousand more families to suburbia. These families used the automobile as their prime mode of transportation, which increased the use of fossil fuels and generated air pollution.

Levittown was not merely a group of houses but a planned community, with the houses grouped into neighborhoods around village greens with playgrounds, swimming pools, and shops. Just as the Levitts saw the economic benefits of building houses for large numbers of families, retail merchants saw the benefits of selling to large numbers of families, all of whom were approximately the same age and in approximately the same financial situation. Large stores, which provided more variety and lower prices than the neighborhood stores in the subdivision’s original development plans, were built on the outskirts of Levittown. These new stores were successful in attracting business from the residents of Levittown and surrounding communities, but unlike the neighborhood shops that were within walking distance of the Levittown houses, these new stores required automobile transportation for shopping.

For Levitt and Sons, Levittown was a financial success. The company built a second Levittown in Pennsylvania and a third in New Jersey, both as suburbs of Philadelphia. In business, success does not go unnoticed, and while Levitt and Sons became the largest home builder in the eastern United States, it was by no means the only one.

Levittown was different, however, from earlier suburban subdivisions, not only in its size, construction methods, and planning but also in its target marketing group: working- and lower-middle-class families. Levittown proved that suburban subdivisions could be profitably built and marketed to a whole new class of buyers, much more numerous than the upper-middle-class buyers for whom the first suburban subdivisions were designed. Many more people could thus be lured from cities, creating more and more suburbs, with an ever-increasing dependency on the automobile as the primary means of transportation.

As more and more people used private automobiles, demand for public transportation dwindled, as did the economic viability of public transportation. When suburbs were first developed, the norm was for a family to own one automobile and use it primarily for commuting to work. As people left the cities for the suburbs, businesses followed them. First, retail stores began to move to suburban sites, and later they moved to suburban shopping malls. The retail stores were followed by service businesses, and ultimately by industry.

This relocation from cities, with their population and business densities and public transportation, fostered an increased reliance on the automobile as a necessary means of transportation. The increased reliance on the automobile allowed further spreading out of commerce, which, in turn, increased the average number of automobile miles traveled. One effect of this increased amount of personal automobile travel was the considerable increase in the amount of fossil fuels needed to provide power for the automobile. The environmental effects of increased fossil-fuel consumption range from increased amounts of greenhouse gases to the increased amounts of all types of pollutants associated with the internal combustion engine.

Levittown has been criticized from its inception, most notably by the architectural critic Lewis Mumford, for the supposed homogeneity of its inhabitants. The idea has been forwarded, however, that there was far more diversity in Levittown than was found in the urban neighborhoods from which its original inhabitants moved.

The suburban sprawl initiated by the construction of Levittown has had many other environmental implications. Most notably, the development of ecologically sensitive land areas can affect entire ecosystems. The siting of suburban developments and their ancillary roads, service buildings, and utilities would become increasingly contentious as the environmental movement gained strength in the postwar era. Levittown, New York Planned communities Suburbs, postwar migration to (United States) Urban planning;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beauregard, Robert A. When America Became Suburban. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. A study of the post-World War II shift from life in the city to life in the suburbs, focusing on “the intersection of urban decline, mass suburbanization, domestic prosperity, and U.S. global aspirations.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boulton, Alexander O. “The Buy of the Century.” American Heritage 44 (July/August, 1994): 62-69. This historical article includes a view of Levittown some forty-five years after it was built, as well as information and advertisements from the original sales campaigns. Includes original floor plans and photographs of the houses and the development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Presents the political and funding schemes and battles that allowed the parkways on Long Island to be built, as well as the decisions that changed the prime means of commuting to the private automobile. As Levittown had effects on suburban development across the United States, Robert Moses’s transportation infrastructure also had effects throughout the nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dobriner, William M., ed. The Suburban Community. New York: Putnam, 1958. A collection of articles written while suburban development was still rapidly expanding. Includes articles about suburbia in general and articles specifically about Levittown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gans, Herbert J. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. Reprint. New York: Pantheon, 1982. Presents a sociological study of the development of a community. Contains an extensive bibliography, including references on the political maneuvering that took place to establish Levittowns, their evolution, and technical aspects of the construction of Levitt houses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991. Presents an analytic view of the continuing shift of population away from cities. Describes the interaction between housing and transportation and explains the siting of new communities. Excellent notes and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larrabee, Eric. “The Six Thousand Houses That Levitt Built.” Harper’s Magazine, September, 1948, 79-88. Presents a contemporary, detailed view of the development of Levittown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levitt, William J. “What! Live in a Levittown?” Good Housekeeping, July, 1958, 47, 175-176. The benefits of buying a mass-produced suburban house are presented from the builder’s point of view. Written at a time when the builder was attempting to increase the size and prices of the houses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolaides, Becky M., and Andrew Wiese, eds. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. This reader treats the intricacies of suburban life, its creation, and suburbia’s impact on the making of gender and family ideologies, politics, race relations, technology, design, and public policy. Includes more than two hundred primary-source documents as well as illustrations.

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