I once lived in Levittown, Pennsylvania for a few months. My tiny accessory dwelling was barely an apartment. I do not even remember whether it had been a garage that had been turned into living space or a section of the home that had been converted. The unit was a miniature studio, much too small for a bed. It was furnished with a futon, and when pulled out there was barely space between the end of the mattress and the wall in order to walk. The kitchenette did not have a stove, just a countertop with an electric hot plate and a microwave. My landlord was going through a separation and was overly concerned with what I was doing in the unit. I hated the apartment, and did not really like the town. It was an interim stop in my last year of college after leaving a bad living situation in Philadelphia. The only reason it seemed like a reasonable choice was because it was close to the college I was attending.
Living in Levittown did not seem momentous or significant in any way. In fact, I was relieved when I found another place to live, in a big house with space and roommates. Today I know this town of around 50,000 people encapsulates the history of suburbia. It is still predominately White, which is not at all surprising given its history. Levittown, PA was the second of seven planned residential communities built by Levitt and Sons. Only one of these other communities shares the name, and that site is located in New York.¹ These subdivisions were intended for returning World War II veterans. The Levitts used the same six design templates for all the homes they built, creating a uniformity in architecture that has come to define the suburbs. During my brief stay in the town, my impression was of a cookie cutter inspired middle America. I am sure it was a perfectly fine town for its residents, but the circumstances of my arrival coupled with the uncomfortable living situation made it less than pleasant for me.
There is surprisingly quite a bit to tell about Levittown. The community is best known for the aggressive racial discrimination bestowed upon the Myers’ household when they became the first Black family to purchase property in the subdivision. As a result, Levittown has been featured in documentaries and news articles about the situation. When the Myers relocated to Levittown, PA in the 1950s, half of the town erupted in an angry outcry. The tension in the town revealed the dormant racism in the population when some homeowners determined the family could not stay. The uncomfortable truth of the situation was that this suburb was designed to insulate White families from Black people.
For more, this YouTube documentary is a dive into interviews with residents of the town at the time:
It all goes back to a practice called redlining, which is not well known to individuals who do work not in finance, real estate or housing development or have not researched the history of racial discrimination in the United States. After the Great Depression, the government created the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation. Shortly afterward, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was also formed. These agencies backed, or provided government insurance for mortgages so more people could afford to purchase homes through lower interest, longer term loans.² However, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation also created color coded maps to determine the investment risk of particular communities. The risk ranges varied between ‘safe’ and ‘high risk.’ Not by chance, predominately Black communities were color coded in red, giving rise to the term ‘redlining.’ These red areas were deemed unsafe as a credit risk, so mortgages were largely denied in these areas. White neighborhoods were determined to be the lowest investment risk.
Whether these redlined areas were unofficially used before the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation printed them, or whether these maps encouraged private lenders to deny mortgage loans to these communities later is up for debate. What is agreed upon is that it was difficult to get financing to obtain or upkeep a property in a Black community. Since Americans have historically tapped into credit to help afford retirement, college costs for children, or other major expenses, a major opportunity for leveraging property equity was lost to African Americans. Middle class lifestyles are most often made possible through access to credit. In America, a middle class lifestyle is typically accessible because of financing for housing, vehicles, and education. We also use credit to start businesses, pay for vacations, or to purchase items for which we do not have cash on hand. While overextending one’s financial capacity can be dangerous, denial of credit also has a crippling effect.
Where does Levittown, PA fit into this story? While mortgage loans were being denied in African American communities in nearby Philadelphia, Levitt and Sons were able to use government funding to finance their planned community. Levitt then included a restrictive housing covenant with the deeds to protect the development from credit risk the FHA would deem too risky for a mortgage. Blacks were effectively prevented from purchasing property.³ White veterans could use the GI bill to purchase a property in these new subdivisions, making them rather affordable properties. The Myers were eventually able to buy a property from a private seller after the deeds were made unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, these racially discriminatory deeds were not fully outlawed until the Fair Housing Rights Act of 1968 was passed by Congress.
Although this story might seem outrageous, it was simply a model for the housing markets of the 1950s. When I lived in Levittown, I would have doubted someone if they had told me the town had historical significance. It looked like any other suburb I had ever visited. Small to mid-sized houses, quiet streets, American cars, big box stores, green lawns, and pedestrian sidewalks all seem innocuous enough. Every rule has its exception, but in most cases suburban America was intended to provide continued racial segregation for White families. Jim Crow laws were still in effect during this era, but were beginning to end. The history of housing in the past 100 years is also a history of what is most often referred to as systemic racism. Sometimes when we substitute a term like ‘systemic racism’ instead of describing the actual events that create the system, White Americans can deny the egregiousness of the circumstances. Phrases like these are helpful, but are mostly helpful to those who already understand what lies behind the terminology.
Whenever we leave a system unexamined, we significantly underestimate the implications of our own actions within it. A system is a collective of individual decisions that becomes large enough to have social influence. While we may not feel like our individual actions can make much impact, it is the very failure to question our choices that causes a system to flourish.
This series will explore gentrification over the next several weeks.