From the Publisher
“Kushner skillfully pieces together a shameful chronicle of racial discrimination during the American postwar economic boom. ...The Levittown fracas, he demonstrates, was a crucial moment in the overall [Civil Rights] struggle. A remarkable story fashioned into a dramatic narrative.” Kirkus
“A riveting account of two families -- one African-American, the other white and Jewish -- who worked together in the summer of 1957 against tremendous odds to begin the inevitable integration of America's first suburbs. Kushner builds a strong case against the creators of such exclusionary communities.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“In Levittown, a vigorous and often surprising narrative, David Kushner journeys into the racially charged heart of what newspapers once trumpeted as ‘the most perfectly planned community in America.' The core of Mr. Kushner's story focuses on the campaign to desegregate Levittown, Pa., in 1957. He deftly spliced together the experiences of two families at the center of what became a terrifying ordeal.” Wall Street Journal
“A propulsive, deft page-turner…Kushner achieves cinematic immediacy in reconstructing the events, focusing on the entwined experiences of Levitt and the two families, and the backdrop of Levittown in a moment when suburbanites chose between everyday evil and their better angels.” Time Out Chicago
“In 1957, the event immediately recognized as a watershed moment in civil rights was the attempted integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark... But, in 1957, there was also Levittown. The equally harrowing story of how one black family tried to break the color line in that suburb outside of Philadelphia had all the elements of Little Rock, yet it's largely been forgotten by history. In Levittown, David Kushner rectifies that with a spare, brisk but always indignant account of another watershed moment that, while overshadowed by Little Rock and other events, was in many ways more consequential.” Los Angeles Times
“[An] absorbing study of racial politics in America's model postwar suburb… Written as a sort of novelistic narrative history, Levittown traces the stories of two sets of disparate protagonists, couples drawn to Levittown as part of ‘the greatest internal migration the country had seen since the western expansion of the 1800s.' …Kushner relates [the drama] with judicious economy and an eye for the effective image” Bookforum
“Kushner relies on memoirs, transcripts, interviews, and newspaper accounts to bring to life the 1957 legal challenge to discriminatory housing practices and the individuals whose lives were affected.” Booklist
“In an entertaining round-robin format, Kushner relays each party's story in the leadup to a combustible summer when the integration of America's most famous suburb cause the downfall of a titan and transformed the nation.” Publishers Weekly
“Kushner has gathered a mass of material, organized it effectively, and tells a gripping story. After reading it, Americans will understand how suburbs became so white in the first place and what two families -- one black, one white -- did to remedy the situation.” James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns
“A gripping, beautifully-written history of a hot summer in one town where so many threads of postwar American history came together–suburbanization, segregation, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism. A real page-turner.” Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were and Marriage, a History
author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Town James Loewen
Kushner has gathered a mass of material, organized it effectively, and tells a gripping story. After reading it, Americans will understand how suburbs became so white in the first place and what two families one black, one white did to remedy the situation.
Migration to suburbia has long been an American ambition, but its allure was never stronger than in the post-WWII years, when the fantasy of a dream house played to the imagination of millions of Americans, especially returning veterans. Already waiting for many of them was a model community on the North Shore of Long Island called Levittown, the brainchild of Abraham Levitt and his sons, William and Alfred, the nation's first real estate tycoons. But Levittown came with its own set of requirements: perfectly manicured lawns, no fences and no black families. In 1957, as the Levitts-by now massively successful and nationally lauded-had already expanded to a second model city, two families challenged the segregationist policy: one, a white Jewish Communist family, secretly arranged for the other, a black family, to buy the house next door. In an entertaining round-robin format, Kushner relays each party's story in the leadup to a combustible summer when the integration of America's most famous suburb caused the downfall of a titan and transformed the nation. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In 1957, Bev and Lew Wechsler, activists and residents of Levittown, PA, welcomed Daisy and Bill Myers and their children to move next door. The Myers thus became the first black family to reside in Levittown, built and maintained as an explicitly "whites only" suburb. Rolling Stone contributing editor Kushner (Masters of Doom) frames the Myers's story within the rise of self-assured entrepreneur developer Bill Levitt, who built wildly successful postwar suburbs and was an unrepentant defender of racially exclusive policies. Kushner also limns the contemporary civil rights struggle but focuses on the immediate fallout of the Myers's move into Levittown: nonstop protests, near-riots, and threats from appalled residents backed by out-of-town white supremacists, which were countered by the Wechslers and other forward-thinking residents with support from local Quaker and human rights groups. Though the Myers family prevailed in the courts, and Levitt's communities would be officially integrated by 1960, the tension of that summer is still palpable in this gripping account. Timing gives this publication an additional layer of historic intrigue: in November 2008, voters in Bucks County, PA, home to Levittown, selected Barack Obama for President by an 8.5 percent margin. Recommended for all public libraries and essential for regional collections.
Janet Ingraham Dwyer
School Library Journal
In 1957, Levittown, PA, was known as a remarkable suburb. It was built by the innovative Abe Levitt & Sons, who used the new mass-production techniques for a planned community that could be constructed quickly, included comfortable homes with state-of-the-art appliances, and was affordable for returning veterans. The covenants, however, implied that the community was for whites only, and this policy was backed up by Home Owners Loan Corporation. When Lew and Bea Wechsler, disillusioned Communists and civil rights advocates, decided to challenge this policy and help a black couple, Daisy and Bill Myers, move next door, mob violence immediately occurred, some of which was instigated by outsiders who were members of the KKK. This account centers on the background of the two families and their growing friendship as they endured vicious attacks by their neighbors and the apathetic protection of the police. It is also the story of the Levitt family: Abe, the brilliant and enterprising father; Bill, the egotistical, power-hungry, and controlling son; and his brother, Alfred, the gifted and unconventional architect. This story of a conflicted, fearful neighborhood is told against the wider background of the Civil Rights Movement and the fallout from McCarthyism. Students may know of Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges and the students of Little Rock, AR. This courageous story is also one that should be heard.-Jackie Gropman, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library System, Fairfax, VA
Rolling Stone and Wired contributing editor Kushner (Journalism/New York Univ.; Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids, 2005, etc.) skillfully pieces together a shameful chronicle of racial discrimination during the American postwar economic boom. The child of Jewish immigrants, Abraham Levitt became a successful real-estate developer in the midst of the Great Depression. He bought land on Long Island, the new frontier of suburbia, with sons Bill (the front man) and Alfred (the designer). They developed housing efficiently and sold it affordably. In 1946, they transformed the farming community of Island Trees, Long Island, into Levittown, a self-contained development geared toward the 16 million returning veterans. Proclaiming that "an undesirable class can quickly ruin a community," Bill Levitt barred blacks from buying into the complex. This discrimination was supported by the ingrained business practices of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which gave higher marks to homogenous communities and "redlined" bad areas. However, after the opening of a second Levittown just north of Philadelphia in 1952, events converged to challenge these policies. Civil-rights groups made integrating the new Levittown a top priority, and Jewish activists Bea and Lew Wechsler invited the African-American Myers family to move in next door at 43 Deepgreen Lane in August 1957. Over the next months, the Myerses and Wechslers endured harassment, heckling, mob violence and cross-burning. Civil-rights sympathizers clashed with anti-integration residents. A KKK-sponsored organization secured a neighboring house for meetings, complete with display of the Confederate flag. Kushner's immediate story of the trial andconviction of the racist mob's leaders occurs within a larger frame of national civil-rights upheavals, including the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the murder of Emmett Till and the integration of Little Rock Central High School. The Levittown fracas, he demonstrates, was a crucial moment in the overall struggle. A remarkable story fashioned into a dramatic narrative. Agent: Mary Ann Naples/The Creative Culture
Read an Excerpt
Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb
By David Kushner
Walker & Company
Copyright © 2009 David Kushner
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Captain and the Kids
Once upon a time on a cold, dark night, a terrible sea lashed the boat of the notorious Captain Kidd. Lightning sliced darkness. Thunder clapped. Water crashed. Brash and bold, Kidd acted as though he had invented piracy and the search for treasure. But now, all around him, a mutinous lot of rebels set out to break him. Sickness had overtaken his men, a plague of cholera ravishing their bodies. And they wanted Kidd dead. They were closing in on him with their cleavers and pistols. Captain Kidd needed help quickly. "Abraham!" he howled into the wind.
From out below the deck shot his trusty sidekick: a slight man with a large nose and a hump on his back. Abraham fought the dastardly crew one by one, picking them off with deftness and ease. When the waves stilled, and the clouds parted, he stood by his captain's side, eyeing a lush island on the horizon. It was a new frontier. And not a pirate in the world could stand in their way.
As Abraham Levitt finished telling this tale, he looked down warmly upon his two young boys—William and Alfred—listening raptly at his feet. They sat in the well-furnished living room of a brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. Musty hardcover books from history to horticulture lined the shelves. The sweet smell of stuffed cabbage rose from the kitchen, as their bosomy mother, Pauline, labored at the stove. A smile spread across Abe's face.
"And of course you remember my pursuit of Wild Ike Mike in the jungles of Africa!" Abe continued. "And how I rescued Buffalo Bill from the clutches of that villain! How I cut open the body of that monstrous whale and found Jimmy, our cabin boy—swallowed by that creature—sitting on a crate of oranges playing 'Happy Days Are Here Again!' All of which is as true as the Gospel."
How was it possible that this diminutive man in his thirties had sailed the high seas with Captain Kidd two hundreds years before? Abe was slender with a wide, balding head, narrow eyes, large, pointy ears, and a slight hunch on his back. Little, nearsighted Alfred in his thick glasses thought of his comic books, and science fiction novels. Had his father invented some new technology to control the space/time continuum? His brother, Bill, four years older, couldn't care less about such things. Bill's mind filled with dreams of swashbuckling instead. They had heard enough of Abe's stories before to get the moral: Anything is possible. This world can be mean and awful. It can suck the marrow from your bones and replace it with fear. But it is up to you to live your dreams and share your bounty with the world. As their father liked to say, "The way to be happy is to make others happy. All else is trivial."
Though he may never have battled alongside Captain Kidd, Abraham Levitt, like most immigrants, had fought hard to get here. His father, a rabbi named Lewis, had fled anti-Semitism in Russia for America in the 1860s. But Lewis's life in the new land with his Austrian wife, Nellie Groden, was tough. The family was desperately poor, and Abe, the youngest of five, was born in the kitchen of his family's home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on August 2, 1880.
Despite his unceremonious beginnings, Abe sought the best for himself at an early age. While the other kids played stickball in the street, he dropped out of school at age ten to earn money washing dishes at restaurants and selling newspapers at the foot of the World Building on Park Row. But he was also a dreamer. In his spare moments, he'd take to the city's parks and gardens, where he'd spend hours losing himself in the natural beauty. His love of nature rivaled only his passion for reading. He started with magazines and newspapers, but soon moved on to books with wide-ranging subjects—history, economics, science, and, of course, the stories of Captain Kidd.
By his teens, Abe had joined literary and scientific societies and would venture over the river to Manhattan to attend classes at Cooper Union in the East Village. The more he learned, the more he began to reject the orthodox religious views of his father, whom he saw as domineering. Among the writings he enjoyed was the work of Ernst Haeckel, a German zoologist and comparative anatomist. In addition to naming thousands of species, Haeckel was a philosopher who posited a controversial and racist theory called recapitulation. In his view, an individual's biological development mirrored the evolution of its species. "In order to be convinced of this important result, it is above all things necessary to study and compare the mental life of wild savages and of children," he wrote. "At the lowest stage of human mental development are the Australians, some tribes of the Polynesians, and the Bushmen, Hottentots, and some of the Negro tribes."
In lieu of a high school degree, Abe took the state regents exam and passed. At the turn of the century, he was twenty and ready to put his self-taught brains to professional use. He entered law school at New York University, where he stood out for his drive and gumption. As a sophomore, he wrote a book on real estate called Levitt's Notes on Law and used the proceeds to pay off his tuition. Abe completed his degree in just two years and conquered the bar exam the next year, in 1903. Abe specialized in real estate law and earned enough to buy a four-story brownstone on leafy Macon Street in Brooklyn.
Though a quiet and contemplative young man, he chose a large and outgoing woman for his wife—Pauline A. Biederman. As his family would later joke, Abe started his marriage at six foot three, but ended up ground down to five four by the time Pauline was done with him. Though not wealthy, the Levitts had enough money to have domestic help and the leisure to stroll through the nearby parks. The once poor immigrant had finally come into his own small piece of the American Dream. It was time to have children. When their first son was born on February 11, 1907, they named him William Jaird.
Brothers fight. And, after Abe and Pauline had their second child, Alfred Stuart, on March 12, 1911, there was plenty of fighting—good-natured and otherwise—in the Levitt home. Abe set the tone. As in building a start-up business, he wanted a snappy, do-it-yourself, bootstrapping crew on his ship. Arguing—both to defend a point and to build one's character—was encouraged. "It is generally a good thing to have a lawyer father who will kick you into college and present you with some social arguments once in a while," Alfred later said. "Self-confidence waxed mightily," Bill recalled. Bill, bold and outgoing, gravitated to the lectures on baseball, particularly on the family's favorite team, the Dodgers. Alfred, introspective and reserved, took to the discussions of art.
From an early age, the boys possessed competitive, though complementary, differences. One day, the brothers snuck up to the attic and found some antique swords. They dueled with each other until Bill inadvertently took a slice out of Alfred's thumb. The thumb was sewn back up, but the split between the brothers would always remain.
Bill had his mother's tough streak. He never hesitated to speak his mind. Upon overhearing his father's business escapades, he would pipe in to say, "You'll never get rich that way." Abe marveled that his eleven-year-old son thought he needed his advice. At PS 44 and Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bill competed in lacrosse and swimming. In his teens, Bill gravitated to the high life, with a taste for money, attractive women, and sports cars. He wore the latest fashions, like tailored plus-four pants, cut four inches below the knees. In one photo, he posed in his plus fours, cockily, leaning against a Model T. One morning, he arrived at breakfast dressed to the nines. "Where you going all dressed up like that?" his parents asked. "I'm off to Manhattan," he replied. "I'm going to buy the Chrysler Building!"
While his older brother chased his dreams of power and fortune, Alfred preferred more intellectual pursuits such as chess, and reading. Fascinated by technology, he'd spend hours reading science-fiction and fantasy stories, particularly those in the pioneering sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories. Before long, the family would find him alone in his room, sketching futuristic buildings on an artist's pad. "Alfred is a genius," his father would say, "and I use that term advisedly." But, at times, it seemed as though their mother, Pauline, played favorites. On occasion, she would call for Alfred from across the brownstone. It's me she wants, he would think. She would pull Alfred close and bring his little ear to her lips. "Where's your brother, Bill?" she would whisper.
But Bill was off. At sixteen, he entered his father's alma mater, New York University, where he made a go at studying English and math. The distractions proved too strong. Bill began dating a pretty girl, Rhoda Kirshner, from the Bronx. He grew restless and dropped out of NYU in his third year at age nineteen in 1927. When later asked why, he replied, "I got itchy, I wanted to make a lot of money. I wanted a big car and a lot of clothes."
His father obliged, taking his eldest son under his wing at his law firm. Around that time, Abe acquired land in Rockville Centre, Long Island, an up-and-coming commuter area on the South Shore, from a client who had defaulted on his payments. The housing market of the 1920s had reached a high point of $4.5 billion in 1925 and had been falling since—as far down as $2.45 billion by 1929. With many losing money, it was a time, as one writer put it, "when anyone who even mentioned building a home for sale was ripe for the booby hatch."
But the Levitts had the guts to roll the dice. In a project that branched out beyond the law firm's ordinary activities, the Levitts completed and sold forty homes on the Rockville property. The experience invigorated young Bill, who had, as he said, been itching to get into industry. It also intrigued his brother, Alfred. After studying art for a year at NYU, he had marched into his dean's office and announced that he was dropping out because the school had nothing to teach him. Designing and selling homes, on the other hand, could let both him and Bill both explore their interests, hands-on. All they had to do was make it official. So they created a company with their father devoted to building: Levitt & Sons.
At just twenty-two, Bill became president and designated front man—tasked with advertising, sales, and financing. He had matured into a tall, handsome young man, with bushy eyebrows, tight, curly black hair, and sad, droopy eyes. Alfred, eager to flex his nascent interest in architecture and art, became the eighteen-year-old vice president of design. He had the look of an artist, with fashionable glasses and a wry smile. Though their differences were still profound, their father saw in them, as a team, something dynamic. "Bill wouldn't be a success without Alfred, and Alfred wouldn't be a success without Bill," Abe would say. "Together they are terrific."
Alfred, with no architectural training, took to the task like a nerd to a chemistry set. He sketched a six-room, two-bath, Tudor-style, half-timbered home, then watched with delight as the house went up over the summer of 1929. Bill brought it to market for a high price of $14,500. On August 2, Abe's forty-ninth birthday, his sons gave him the ultimate present: the company's first sale. Levitt & Sons was in business. And they saw their new frontier: suburbia.
Suburbia was an invention, like any other, but it was hardly new. Through and long past the Middle Ages, the dream of a country home near the city was the domain of the elite. English manor homes in the 1600s gave way to sprawling estates for dukes and duchesses in the 1800s. The dream spread to North America. Thomas Jefferson said, "I view large cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man."
Starting in 1815, innovations in transportation—steamboats, railroads, and horse-drawn carts—gave city dwellers new ways to escape the urban noise and dust. And they did, heading off in droves for what would become the first wave of planned suburbs. Cambridge and Somerville bloomed outside Boston. Brooklyn Heights absorbed movers and shakers from across the river in New York City. Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, would soon define some of the essential features for suburban communities—from the curvilinear roads to the green parks in the center of the developments.
And there were more and more reasons to leave the city. Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and smallpox ravaged the crowded cities, adding to the appeal of living in a spacious, natural environment nearby. As the nineteenth century progressed, life in suburbia took on more allure. Brooklyn bard Walt Whitman wrote, "A man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on." Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York, said, "No great town can long exist without great suburbs."
Books on landscaping and lawn care—aimed at the suburban homeowner—hit the shelves. One scribe, Frank J. Scott, author of The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, wrote, "A smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house." Again, new technologies met the demands, as lawn-mowing machines hit the market in the mid-i800s. And so that homeowners didn't have to busy themselves watering their grass, a patent was issued in 1871 for the first lawn sprinkler.
Suburbia was a desirable destination for those who could afford it. Railroads enabled a new commuting culture, but only the wealthy could have a horse and driver greet them at the station and take them home. With the invention of electricity, their suburban homes were soon filled with gadgets from radios to washing machines. When Henry Ford invented the Model T, they had cars to get them there. "The city is doomed," Ford warned, "we shall solve the city problem by leaving the city."
People heeded such calls, triggering a suburban boom in the 1920s. At the beginning of the decade, less than half of families in the country owned homes. But between 1920 and 1927, an average of 883,000 new homes went up each year—more than double the rate of any other seven-year period in history. Suburbia began to spread rapidly outside the major cities throughout the decade—hitting over 700 percent growth in communities outside Detroit and Chicago alone. One of the greatest booms ran throughout Long Island; Nassau County's population nearly tripled. As the end of the decade neared, one out of six Americans lived in the suburbs.
Speculators, eager to cash in, began to buy up land with hopes of riding the wave. But, despite the boom, the housing market had reached its peak in i925 and slowly swan-dived from there. New housing plummeted to 509,000 units by i929. Prognosticators saw the beginning of the end, and they were right. On October 29, i929, three months after the Levitts went into business, the stock market crashed. The Great Depression had begun.
It was hard times in America in i933, and twenty-six-year-old Bill Levitt needed a shave. As he sat lathered up in a barbershop in Rockville Centre, Long Island, the man with the blade asked him how business was going. "Damn tough," Bill replied, "we can't get a dime of mortgage money."
At first, it hadn't been so bad. As the head of Levitt & Sons, Bill had built and sold eighteen homes for $18,000 apiece in their first year of business and went on to sell forty more in their second year. But with banks in trouble, the times were growing tough, as Bill lamented. He had more than real estate on his mind. He was a father now. The previous year, he had had his first son, William Levitt Jr., with the girlfriend he had married in November 1929, the raven-haired beauty Rhoda. He had a family to support. He needed mortgage money, and fast, he told his barber.
But then, from the stool next to him, came a voice. "Better come in and see me," said the man wrapped in a face towel, "I might be able to help." The man was a local banker, and, as it turned out, a family friend. The next day Bill walked into the bank and left with the loans he needed. While the Depression loomed, he would go on to build six hundred houses in Rockville Centre. By 1934, Levitt & Sons had sold over 250 homes for a total of $2,750,000. Bill was back on track and knew exactly what to do next. He would bring the centuries-old dream of the suburban country estate to the upper-middle-class people of New York.
Excerpted from Levittown by David Kushner Copyright © 2009 by David Kushner. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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