Thomas J. Campanella is director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at Cornell University and Historian-in-Residence of the New York City Parks Department. He is the author of The Mythical Dominion: A Secret History Of Brooklyn, forthcoming in 2019.
The small community of Gerritsen Beach was a pioneering cookie-cutter suburb in the 1920s.
Levittown, brainchild of the brilliant, doomed real-estate developer William J. Levitt, was the opening act of a great American tragedy—the postwar explosion of suburban sprawl that turned us into a nation of motorists and plunged our cities into a bitter cycle of disinvestment and decline.
Levitt, who served with the Seabees during World War II, foresaw a huge demand for housing once the war ended. In 1946, he and his family began buying up vast tracts of farmland in Hempstead, Long Island; the farmers were eager to sell due to a nematode infestation that ruined the potato crop. The land was soon carpeted with thousands of little Cape Cod houses designed by William’s bookish brother, Alfred, a self-taught architect. They went up fast. Within a year of breaking ground, about 3,000 houses were ready for occupancy; a decade later, 82,000 people were living where spuds once grew.
Levittown's homes were well built and easily expandable. They were also cheap: the houses originally sold for $6,990, the equivalent of about $72,000 today, which gave working-class GIs—white ones, at least—a shot at the American Dream. The key to the low price point was a streamlined supply chain and mass-production methods borrowed from the automobile industry. “Production was standardized to churn out homes like cars on an assembly line,” writes David Kushner in his book chronicling the founding of the pioneering suburb, “except, in this case, the assembly line came to the product”—teams of non-union workers each with a specific job to do.
With his men completing as many as 30 houses a day, Levitt was branded “the Henry Ford of the housing industry.” As David Halberstam wrote in The Fifties—erroneously, as we’ll see—“It was Bill Levitt who first brought Ford's techniques of mass production to housing,” making possible “inexpensive, attractive single-unit housing for ordinary citizens, people who had never thought of themselves as middle class before.”
But though he built on an unprecedented scale—17,447 houses were ultimately erected at Levittown—William Levitt was not the first to apply techniques of mass production to create affordable homes. Nor was he America’s first “Henry Ford of housing.” That honor must go instead to a long-forgotten Brooklyn builder named William M. Greve. Greve rose from office boy to the executive suite of one of the early giants of the American homebuilding industry—Realty Associates, founded in 1901 with an office on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. The firm erected thousands of homes prior to World War I—“semi-suburban” row houses in Borough Park, Crown Heights, and Bay Ridge, along with charming bow-front limestones in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens (for “families who want an entire dwelling without being under the necessity of keeping servants”). Greve took the reins of the vast company just as the city’s biggest residential building boom got underway, set off by a ten-year tax holiday on new construction introduced in 1921.
The very next year Greve launched Realty Associates’s most ambitious project—a sprawling community of kitten-cute bungalows—“good and cheap homes for the masses”—at Gerritsen Beach, a salt marsh on Brooklyn’s Shellbank Creek smothered with seven feet of dredged sand. A canal was cut through the center to “provide a Venice-like water front,” according to project engineer Harry Burchell. The homes, Greve proclaimed, would be built “on the same principle that Henry Ford had developed his automobile—that is, on the basis of strictest economy through standardization of plans.”
An on-site cement plant produced concrete foundation blocks. Trucks cycled through dropping off loads of lumber, roofing, windows and trim to each building site—kit houses “all in parts, sashed and ready to be erected over the concrete-cellared foundations.” A corps of 500 laborers, each with a specific set of tasks, moved from station to station on the sandy assembly line. “As soon as the carpenters are through,” Burchell explained, “the plumbing fixtures are installed. Then the painters and paper hangers follow.”
By September 1924, some 600 houses were ready for occupancy—stick-built boxes set in 12-packs on miniature city blocks (about a third the size of those standard elsewhere in New York). Greve’s houses came in five architectural flavors—all with roughly the same floor area and none costing more than $5,750 (a mere $80,500 today). To emphasize their affordability, he initially advertised the homes as “Ford Houses”—until Henry Ford learned of this and threatened to sue for trademark infringement. Unfazed, Greve simply began using his own name and kept on building. All told, some 1,500 “Greve Houses"” were erected at Gerritsen Beach. The company offered financing, too; on a $4,950 house, buyers could close with a mere $350 down and a monthly installment of $65—less than renting.
In 18 months, the instant town boasted a population of 5,000. Gerritsen Beach had its own water plant, with 570-foot-deep wells, a 145,000-gallon storage tank and five miles of water main. Two churches were erected—St. James and Resurrection—along with a community clubhouse (today the Tamaqua Bar and Marina). The city erected several portable classrooms to handle the surging numbers of school children. The buzz attracted other investors. By 1925, two dozen shops and stores had opened on Gerritsen Avenue, and celebrated Brooklyn restaurateur Nicholas Satersen commissioned none other than William Van Alen—architect of the Chrysler Building—to design a 1,500-seat “moving picture theater and dance palace” at the corner of Cyrus Avenue. A victim of the Depression, it was sadly never built.
Isolated on the edge of the metropolis, linked by a single bus line, Gerritsen Beach developed a social fabric as tightly knit as its streets. It had its own Chamber of Commerce, Civic Association, and Citizens Protective Committee, a Lily of the Valley Garden Club—even its own elected “unofficials,” including a mayor and commissioners of parks and public welfare. When the city failed to fix a massive sewage backup in Shellbank Creek, citizens organized a pick-and-shovel army to cut a channel across the Plum Island sandbar to Rockaway Inlet, allowing tidal action to flush the waters.
This insularity also had a darker side. Though I’ve not found evidence of restrictive racial covenants of the sort that barred African Americans from Levitttown, Gerritsen Beach was—then as now—almost exclusively white. The initial population was working-class Irish, Swedish, and German (hence the two churches, one Lutheran and one Catholic). The tight-lipped town with streets dead-ending on backwater canals proved ideal as a base for rum-runners during Prohibition, and stories of basement speakeasies abound. A police shootout with bootleggers on Devon Avenue in 1931 yielded 3,500 bottles of whiskey (1,200 of which the cops promptly spirited off).
Gerritsen Beach was badly battered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and many of the original homes have been torn down, or rendered unrecognizable by mammoth additions. But it’s managed to retain much of its original scale and charm. Its street names are among the most evocative in all New York—Melba, Ebony, Dare, Opal, Joval, Dictum, Just. As late as the 1980s there were still commercial trawlers working out of Shellbank Creek, and chickens and horses on one street. Guarded by Brooklyn's last volunteer fire department, Gerritsen Beach remains an extraordinary urban village, a provincial pocket of working-class Hibernia on the edge of Gotham.
Greve himself ultimately landed far from Brooklyn’s sea-lapped shores. His business practices often attracted legal scrutiny. He was indicted in 1913 for bilking the city for the land for Jacob Riis Park, which he sold at a shameful profit. Similar charges were raised later when Greve tried to convince the War Department to buy an adjacent site for a coastal defense installation—the future Fort Tilden. In 1932 Greve was hauled before the Senate Finance Committee for shorting stocks through a front called “Greva Compagnia,” and two years later he and other officers of a bankrupt Realty subsidiary—Realty Associates Securities Corporation—were charged with conspiracy to defraud creditors. In 1938, Greve managed to escape his predicament by renouncing his American citizenship and emigrating to Lichtenstein, where he and his fortune were safe from Uncle Sam.
It is a virtual certainty that Gerritsen Beach was the prototype for Levittown. A builder as savvy as William Levitt—a Brooklyn man himself—would surely have known of Greve’s pioneering project. Realty Associates was, after all, the largest homebuilding outfit on Long Island for close to a generation. Levitt was a creative dynamo, but as a fawning Time profile put it in 1950, he was also “quick to pick up good ideas.”
There was also an intermediary by which Greve’s Fordist approach to homebuilding may have reached Levitt—a builder who ultimately erected some 2,000 “brick bungalow” homes in Flatlands, Marine Park, Brighton Beach, and Brownsville. He did so applying the same principles of standardization and mass production that Greve worked out years before—often on land acquired at Realty Associates fire sales. He, too, was called “the Henry Ford of the home-building industry.” His name was Fred C. Trump, father of America's 45th president.