Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
February 19, 2009
In the years following World War II, suburbs sprouted up across the United States, giving millions of Americans the ability to own a home. Levittown, in particular, became synonymous with the suburban dream, attracting young families looking for affordable property with modern comforts.
The Levitts, a Jewish family with roots in Russia and Austria, built the first of these towns on Long Island between 1947 and 1951. The second was built north of Philadelphia in the early ’50s. With their appliance-stocked homes, public pools, and playgrounds, the Levitts proved adept at tapping into the suburban zeitgeist. But William Levitt (whose father, Abraham, founded the company, and whose brother, Alfred, was the firm’s architect) excluded blacks from living in his family’s developments, arguing that potential white home buyers would find racially mixed areas undesirable.
During the summer of 1957, this whites-only policy was challenged when a leftist Jewish family, the Wechslers, secretly helped an African-American family buy a house in Levittown, Pa. After Bill and Daisy Myers and their two children moved into Levittown, racial tensions erupted.
In his new book, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, David Kushner vividly depicts how that battle raged and was ultimately resolved in the courts. Kushner, who grew up outside Tampa, Fla., says he “always has had a soft spot for suburbs,” and is particularly intrigued by their dark underside.
In Levittown, he tells a story that pitted Jew vs. Jew: William Levitt’s myopic and ultimately unsuccessful business strategy against the Wechslers’ refusal to tolerate segregation.
You first learned about this story because your mother-in-law was neighbors with the Wechslers.
David Kushner: What struck me about it was there was this coming together of so many historical themes: civil rights, McCarthyism, the invention of modern suburbia. Levittown was not the first postwar suburb, but it was iconic.
Aside from barring black families, the Levitts imposed a “no-Jews” policy in one of their earlier developments. So was William Levitt focused solely on profits?
Kushner: He was really compartmentalized. The way he looked at it was, “I can either fight for civil rights or I can build houses. And I’m a builder.”
On the one hand, he provided the American Dream for an entire generation of veterans, but he also denied it to African-American veterans. He was a complicated person. It would have been difficult for me to write this story had he been the only Jewish character in the book — that could have perpetuated some unfortunate stereotypes. As a Jewish writer, it’s nice to be able to tell a story where there’s a Jewish family that’s heroic in fighting for civil rights, a movement where Jews like the Wechslers played a huge role.
The Wechslers and Levitts seem to highlight two different strains in American-Jewish history: leftist activists vs. those seeking material success.
Kushner: That’s true. From what I gather, though, Levitt was on the left side of the political spectrum. He was materially motivated for sure, but he was also motivated by ego — he had the towns named after him. The Wechslers were all about helping people. Levitt was ostensibly about helping people, but just so he could be called the king.
Levitt was very philanthropic and certainly very supportive of Israel. When I visited his widow, there was a picture of Golda Meir on the wall.
How does his widow feel about her husband’s legacy?
Kushner: She certainly has reached out to Daisy Myers, and she was there when the town honored Daisy in 1999. Actions speak louder than words. Also, she came in later in Levitt’s life; she wasn’t there when he was building Levittown.
The racial hatred that erupted in Levittown after the Myers family moved in was incredible: the mobs, the rocks, even crosses being burned.
Kushner: I didn’t want to oversimplify it. I took pains to show that while there was a mob in Levittown, the mob represented a small percentage of the people there. The situation also inspired the best in this town — I’m thinking of the scene when Daisy Myers comes home and finds people she didn’t know cleaning her house.
A recent New York Times article on Levittown mentioned that the town is still overwhelmingly white. Is this the Levitt family’s legacy?
Kushner: Yes. Many people are old enough to remember that this town was not welcoming to blacks. This is similar to Jews not wanting to go to Germany. It’s not exactly the same thing, but there are black people who don’t want to live in Levittown.
But I hope I vindicated Alfred Levitt. He’s the real hero. The houses in Levittown were ticky-tacky little boxes, but that was for a reason. People couldn’t afford anything else. People there had brand-new appliances, which was unheard of. And the houses were built to be expanded.
The New York Times also recently reported that Long Island is 94 percent segregated — the highest rate in the country. In Levittown, African-Americans are still very much a minority population, and I don’t see that changing. But one thing people can get out of this story — blacks and Jews can get together because in Levittown, they certainly did.
Peter Ephross’ articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, and Antiques & Collecting Magazine, among other publications. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.