Levittown, which was founded in 1947, has been dubbed America’s first suburb. Some have labeled it the model for American suburbs, while others have referred to it as the lethargic product of middle-class desire.
All of the above could be said to be true. As part of postwar efforts to house an increasingly educated and fast-money-making generation, Levitt and Sons, a building company, developed this New York community. Soon enough, this Long Island location became a symbol of what the American dream promises.
Levittown, on the other hand, was very much a 20th-century American invention, in that its vision of the American dream was limited to a very specific group of people – white people. One could argue that racism is ingrained in everything American, but Levittown is in a class by itself.
For whatever reason, this neighborhood, which today includes more than 17,000 detached homes, has become synonymous with whiteness and white America. It’s extremely deliberate that Levittown has remained roughly 95% white in cosmopolitan New York.
In Levittown, there was a set of rules for homeownership. Levittown homes could not “be used or occupied by anyone other than members of the Caucasian race,” according to Clause 25 of the rules.
It’s almost unthinkable now that private developers would explicitly deny Black people access. That is not to mention redlining and other issues that have hampered Black Americans’ efforts to become homes. According to a USAFacts.org report.
In 2019, 73.3 percent of white non-Hispanic Americans owned their homes, compared to 42.1 percent of Black Americans. This 31.2 percentage point disparity was the widest since the Census began collecting data in 1994. Between 1994 and 2019, the white homeownership rate climbed by about 3.3 percent, while the black homeownership rate fell by 0.2 percent.
However, private money accomplished as much as private capital desired during Levittown’s founding, which is why Levittown is unique. Levittown was developed in such a way as to benefit primarily the white majority as the first private commercial house project.
White money was given room to expand, but Black people and other minorities were excluded from the benefits of property ownership.
The town’s developers were obliged to eliminate the segregation clause by the United States Supreme Court in 1948. In another decision dealing with segregation, the court decided that such racial limitations were “unenforceable as law and opposed to public policy.”
After failing to impose segregation through the legal system, the Levittown developers resorted to plain elimination measures. A Black person wanting to buy a home in the seven-square-mile area was told either that the residences were not for sale or that the sellers had not chosen whether or not to sell to Blacks.
“When I hear Levitown,’ what comes to mind is when the salesman said: ‘It’s not me, you see, but the owners of this development have not yet decided whether they’re going to sell these homes to Negroes,’” a former Suffolk County police sergeant Eugene Burnett told the New York Times in 1997 during the suburb’s 50th anniversary: “When I hear Levitown,’ what comes to mind is when the salesman said: ‘It’s not me,
Burnett was a former soldier who was not even saved by the generous American combination of patriotism and militarism.
By simply and cunningly avoiding giving homes to Black people, Levittown was protected from all of the demographic upheavals that occurred in New York during the 1960s.
In a New York suburb of roughly 60,000 people in the 1990s, there were fewer than 200 Black people.
How can anything like this go unnoticed for so long in “liberal” New York?
”In those years, even liberal people like ourselves tended to take residential segregation for granted, without approving it,” said Dr. Herbert D. Rosenbaum, a Hofstra University political science professor who died in 2016. We didn’t go out into the street to do something about it.
As a result, the status quo was preserved and Black people were kept out due to the unwillingness of “good” people to fight evil and the resolve of evil to succeed. Indeed, Nassau County, New York, where Levittown is located, is still one of the most segregated areas in the country.
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