The archetypal postwar suburb has less socioeconomic diversity—and hardly more racial diversity—than it did in the 1950s.
When we think of suburbia, we think of Levittown. The neat ranks of houses, each with its own square of lawn, arrayed along gently curving lanes. The neighborhood public school, just a few blocks away, and parks with black tops, playgrounds, and picnic pavilions.
Although the Long Island iteration of this suburban ideal is perhaps more famous, it is in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, to the northeast of Philadelphia, that William Levitt’s vision was fully realized. The farmers of Nassau County, New York, didn’t much care for the idea of a bunch of urban expats making their homes among the fields. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, though, Levitt sent local real estate agents in to quickly and quietly buy up spinach and broccoli farms on the cheap.
The Levittown of Pennsylvania eventually totaled 22 square miles and more than 17,300 homes. One of the 21 elementary schools was named after Walt Disney, who attended its dedication.
The seemingly endless expanse of country allowed industry to stretch out too. In 1952, U.S. Steel opened the Fairless mill, providing 10,000 jobs at its peak and an added draw for Philadelphians eager to leave the city (as well as for suddenly jobless coal miners from central Pennsylvania). Down payments were $100—less than $900 in inflation-adjusted dollars—and zero for veterans with work.
But it wasn’t just the working class who moved to Levittown. Doctors and dentists and lawyers moved in as well, making their homes in the most expensive, “country-club” sections of the development. Some even practiced right in Levittown, which was zoned for both residences and small businesses.
“It was really a wonderful place to grow up,” says Richard Wagner, who was born in 1959 and lived in Levittown until he left for college. Wagner’s father worked as a machinist at the mill, but he can also tick off the jobs of the other men on his block: radiologist, factory owner, plumber, and lunch-truck operator. “Everybody was equal, because everybody’s house looked exactly the same as everybody else’s house. And we all went to the same school in the morning.”
Wagner works as a contractor, but has made Levittown and its history his hobby. His knowledge of the area is encyclopedic. As he drives around the neighborhoods, he makes note of where the public pools used to be (only one remains), who the schools are named after, and which houses have deviated the least from Levitt’s relatively austere vision. Wagner’s love of the place is obvious, and infectious.
“I’m telling you, it was just … the word I always boil everything down to is ‘idyllic,’” he says, as he regards the pool from his car window. “It was an idyllic illustration of the American dream for the middle class. It was just phenomenal. Not so much now. Now it’s more affordable housing, mainly blue collar. But the vision they had of creating this community. It worked. It stills works, but it’s not what it used to be.”
Levittown was the suburban vanguard in Bucks County. Later developments in areas like Yardley, New Hope, and Buckingham lured away the professional class. Wagner’s radiologist neighbor, employed at Lower Bucks Hospital, moved to Yardley in the 1970s. Levittown’s population fell from a peak of 72,000 to about 53,000 today.
Along with the slow but steady decline of middle-class work, new development still poses a persistent threat to the community. Columns of exurban McMansions march into the northern reaches of once-bucolic Bucks County, luring the upwardly mobile. The idyll of Wagner’s youth has become segregated by class.
It is almost too easy to draw parallels between the story of Levittown and the arc of the postwar middle class. Both have fallen from their heyday, when the economy was surpassingly kind regardless of education (if mostly to white men). “You could start one job on one side of the street, quit the next day and start another job the next day right across the street,” as a Levittown steelworker told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1991.
Census data shows that Levittown, while certainly less prosperous than it used to be, does not share the vulnerabilities of some of Philadelphia’s suburbs. Since 2000, poverty and unemployment have both ticked up slightly to 5.5 percent each, while the median income fell by about $3,000. By comparison, the majority-black suburb of Yeadon saw its median income fall by $15,000, and comparable losses have been suffered in once-middle-class city neighborhoods like Overbrook and the communities of lower Northeast Philadelphia.
Levitt famously would not sell his houses to African Americans—not that such a policy was unusual at the time. Between 1946 and 1953, as New York University professor Tom Sugrue notes, 120,000 new homes were built in the Philly metro area. Only 347 were open to African Americans.
In 1957 an African-American couple, William and Daisey Myers, bought a house as part of a plan to begin the integration of Levittown. Two thousand residents signed a petition denouncing the purchase: “[W]e feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community . . . [and] to protect our own.”
Some went further. Mobs of people gathered, overwhelming local police, and smashing out the windows of the Myers’ ranch house. Protesters clashed with the cops and felled a few officers with rocks. White supporters of the couple were harassed as well, and crosses were burned on the lawns of at least two of their neighborhood allies.
The riots against the Myers made headlines across the world. Although another African-American family purchased a house shortly thereafter and was not met with a violent response, Levittown’s integration stopped cold. That continued homogeneity may partly be still related to the community’s reputation, but other neighborhoods that once subjected new black residents to violence have become more diverse, like Upper Darby and Folcroft. But they are also geographically contiguous with long-established and large black neighborhoods. Levittown is not. Today it is 90.4 percent white and only 3.8 percent African American.
After a long driving tour through streets of ranch houses and Cape Cods, Wagner turns towards Levittown Lanes, an old-school bowling alley, and its attached bar. (Pizza slices for $1; beers for $2.) The bar is full of people, mostly men, and all of them white. As Lynyrd Skynyrd plays in the background, Wagner contends that the opposition to the Myers family and to integration more broadly was the fault of, by his estimation, 3 percent of local residents, bolstered by outside agitators.
Asked why Levittown is still so white, Wagner admits that he doesn’t quite know. “I don’t think it is as much, but I don’t have a definitive answer for you,” he says.
According to Census data, the Asian population of Levittown stands at 1.7 percent, the Hispanic population at 5.5 percent. If Levittown is to grow again (or even hold steady), it will need to attract more residents from those groups, as well as more African Americans.
Lower Northeast Philadelphia, a bastion of postwar white Philadelphia, went from 92 percent white in 1990 to 58.3 percent in 2010 as immigration transformed the area. Not only did it become more diverse, it became more populous—a bump that helped Philly grow for the first time since 1950.
Levittown is very affordable, with a median sales price of $163,900 last year, according to Redfin. “As [Hispanics and other recently arrived immigrants] pull themselves up, I think they will come in and I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Wagner predicts.
Hopefully he’s right, for the sake of Levittown’s future. The newer suburbs continue to draw away former and potential Levittowners, as Wagner himself knows too well: When he moved back to the area in the mid-2000s, he settled in Yardley.