Levittown is a hamlet and census-designated place (CDP) in the Town of Hempstead located in Nassau County, New York, on Long Island. Levittown is midway between the villages of Hempstead and Farmingdale. As of the 2010 census, the CDP had a total population of 51,881.
Levittown gets its name from its builder, the firm of Levitt & Sons, Inc. founded by Abraham Levitt on August 2, 1929, which built the district as a racially segregated planned community between 1947 and 1951. Sons William and Alfred served as the company's president and chief architect and planner, respectively. Levittown was the first truly mass-produced suburb and is widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs throughout the country. William Levitt, who assumed control of Levitt and Sons in 1954, is considered the father of modern suburbia in the United States.
The building firm, Levitt and Sons, headed by Abraham Levitt and his two sons, William and Alfred, built four planned communities called "Levittown" (in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico), but Levittown, New York, was the first. Additionally, Levitt and Sons designs feature prominently in the older portion of Buffalo Grove, Illinois; Vernon Hills, Illinois; Willingboro Township, New Jersey; the Belair section of Bowie, Maryland; and the Greenbriar section of Fairfax, Virginia.
The Levitt firm began before World War II, as a builder of custom homes in upper middle-class communities on Long Island. During the war, however, the homebuilding industry languished under a general embargo on private use of scarce raw materials. William "Bill" Levitt served in the Navy, and developed expertise in mass-production building of military housing using uniform and interchangeable parts. During this same period, he was insistent that a postwar building boom would require similar mass-production housing, and was able to purchase options on large swaths of onion and potato fields in undeveloped sections of Long Island.
Returning to the firm after war's end, Bill Levitt persuaded his father and brother to embrace the utilitarian systems of construction he had learned, and with his architect-brother, Alfred, designed a small house on one floor and an unfinished "expansion attic" that could be rapidly constructed and as rapidly rented out to returning GIs and their young families. Levitt and Sons built the community with an eye towards speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction; these methods led to a production rate of 30 houses a day by July 1948. They used pre-cut lumber and nails shipped from their own factories in Blue Lake, California, and built on concrete slabs, as they had done in a previous planned community in Norfolk, Virginia. This necessitated negotiating a change in the building code, which prior to the building of this community, did not permit concrete slabs. Given the urgent need for housing in the region, the town agreed. Levitt and Sons also controversially utilized non-union contractors in the project. On the other hand, they paid them very well and offered all kinds of incentives that allowed the workers to earn extra money, making them often earn twice as much a week as elsewhere.
The planned 2,000 home rental community was quickly successful, with the New York Herald Tribune reporting that half of the properties had been rented within two days of the community being announced on May 7, 1947. As demand continued, exceeding availability, the Levitts expanded their project with 4,000 more homes, as well as community services, including schools and postal delivery. With the full implementation of federal government supports for housing, administered under the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Levitt firm switched from rental to sale of their houses, offering ownership on a 30-year mortgage with no down payment and monthly costs the same as rental. The resulting surge in demand pressed the firm to further expand its development, which changed its name from Island Trees to Levittown shortly thereafter.
Levittown was designed to provide a large amount of housing at a time when there was a high demand for affordable family homes. This suburban development would become a symbol of the “American Dream” as it allowed thousands of families to become home owners. But Levittown would also become a symbol of racial segregation. The discriminatory housing standards of Levittown were consistent with government policies of the time. The Federal Housing Association allowed developers to justify segregation within public housing. The FHA only offered mortgages to non-mixed developments which discouraged developers from creating racially integrated housing. In accordance with this policy, the buying agreement signed by all those who purchased homes in Levittown stated that the property could not be used or rented by any individuals other than those of the Caucasian race. Before the sale of Levittown homes began, the sales agents were aware that no applications from black families would be accepted. As a result American veterans who wished to purchase a home in Levittown were unable to do so if they were black.
William Levitt attempted to justify their decision to only sell homes to white families by saying that it was in the best interest for business. He claimed their actions were not discriminatory but intended to maintain the value of their properties. The company explained that it was not possible to reduce racial segregation while they were attempting to reduce the housing shortage. Though the Levitts were Jewish, they did not wish to sell homes to Jewish families: “As a Jew, I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice. But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change. I hope it will.” The Levitts explained that they would open up applications to blacks after they had sold as many homes to white people as possible. They believed that potential white buyers would not want to buy a house in Levittown if they were aware that they would have black neighbors.
In response to the discrimination of Levittown an opposition group was formed named the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown. This group protested the sale of Levittown homes and pushed for an integrated community. In 1948 a legal proceeding by the United States Supreme Court declared that property deeds stipulating racial segregation were unenforceable by law. The "restrictive covenant" in the original rental agreement, which migrated to the sales agreement, stipulated that houses could not be rented or sold to any but members of the "Caucasian" race. The Levitts did not undertake efforts to counteract the racial homogeneity of the suburb and thus the racial composition of Levittown did not change. By 1960 Levittown was still a completely white suburb. Only well after the 1954 racial integration decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education, was Levittown racially integrated, and even as late as the 1990 census only a tiny fraction of the community was non-white, a stigma that still exists until this day.
While the Levitts are generally credited with designing a postwar "planned community", with common public amenities such as swimming pools and community centers, they were quick to release these high-maintenance, low-profit elements to the surrounding towns; the development sprawled across municipal boundaries, causing legal and administrative difficulties and requiring major initiatives within those existing municipalities to provide for and fund schools, sewage and water systems, and other infrastructure elements.
In 1949, Levitt and Sons changed focus, unveiling a new plan which it termed a "ranch" house. Larger, , and more modern, these homes were only offered for sale, with a planned price of $7,990. The ranch homes were similar to the rental properties in that they were built on concrete slabs, included an expandable attic but no garage, and were heated with hot-water radiant heating pipes. Five models were offered that were substantially identical with differences in details such as exterior color and window placement. Again, demand was high, requiring that the purchasing process be streamlined as the assembly process had been, reaching the point that a buyer could walk through the process of selecting a house through contracting for its purchase in three minutes. This ranch model was altered in 1950 to include a carport and a built-in television. In 1951, a partially finished attic was added to the design.
Levittown proved successful. By 1951, it and surrounding regions included 17,447 homes constructed by Levitt and Sons.