America's suburbs grew dramatically in the years after the Second World War, and the developer William Levitt was a key figure in the expansion. In Levittown, David Kushner paints a compelling picture of the inexpensive housing developments that gave war veterans a small piece of the American Dream, while chronicling challenges to the policy of selling homes solely to whites that threatened to tear apart at least one of the model communities. As the US civil rights movement hotted up in 1957, a black family moving into Levittown, Pennsylvania, sparked a violent response that became an important part of the wider struggle. In vivid and readable prose, Kushner relates that largely forgotten story.
Kushner focuses on the Levitt, Wechsler and Myers families. The first featured the patriarch Abe Levitt and his sons William and Alfred. Abe was a builder who brought his sons into his company. Alfred was the designer who dreamed about planning a community; William was the outgoing promoter who sold the dream. Lew and Bea Wechsler were white radicals with Communist connections who lived in Levittown with their children and felt that racial equality was a necessary part of American life. Daisy and Bill Myers were African Americans who, along with their children, simply wanted a comfortable home that would accommodate their family and let them live in peace. But these goals soon came into conflict.
Levittown does a good job of describing how the Levitts began to use mass-production techniques to produce homes intended to meet a severe housing shortage in the postwar years. He notes William Levitt's belief that his entrepreneurial efforts were playing a part in supporting American interests in the Cold War. As he said: "No man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist; he has too much to do." And he shows how Levitt put his own business interests ahead of social concerns by preventing African Americans from buying his houses.
The book is at its best when describing the trajectory that brought the Myers and Wechsler families together in the Pennsylvania suburb, and it offers a riveting account of the rioting and disruption that followed the Myers family's move into the formerly all-white community. Mobs of people massed on their front lawn. They threw rocks through the windows. They burnt a cross on the grass. And they did whatever they could to taunt and heckle their new neighbours, who wanted nothing more than to live quietly.
In the end, Kushner notes how those under attack managed to bring Thomas McBride, Pennsylvania's Attorney-General, into the case. In time he filed suit and courts ruled that the perpetrators, including the Ku Klux Klan, had to desist. The story becomes bogged down in detail as Kushner describes the court cases, but then picks back up as he follows the families in the aftermath. William Levitt finally had to back down, even as he overextended himself and ended up broke. Lew and Bea Wechsler saw the episode through to the end, and provided crucial support to the Myers at every stage of the crisis, although they later moved away. Daisy and Bill Myers found themselves hailed as heroes in the civil rights movement, and met Martin Luther King Jr after the upheaval was over. "It's so nice to meet you," Daisy said to the great man. "No, it's so nice to meet you," King replied. All in all, a fitting end to an engaging and informative account.
Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb
By David Kushner
Walker and Company, 256pp, £17.49
Published 3 February 2009