From 1950 to 1960 an estimated 20 million Americans moved from the inner cities to the suburbs. Mass suburban “sprawl” was the post World War II’s “new frontier.
June 23rd 1952 (60 years ago) marked the first settlement in what has been called the “great social experiment.” Levittown, PA was promoted by the Levitt’s as the “most perfectly planned community in America. Streets were intentionally curved to slow traffic and to break up the inhabitants’ site lines. A critical component to the “master plan” was the schools. Land for schools had to be set aside near the center of each “master block”. The concept was that no child would need to walk more than a ½ mile to school. Land was also made available for Little League fields, community swimming pools, and parklets in an effort to encourage families to identify with other families.
While the term Levittown was coined to depict both the best and worst of suburban living it also became the catch phrase for the post war consumer driven society that gave rise to the notion and promise of upward mobility and more importantly homeownership.
The Levitt’s had planned to develop a community in Long Island NY but their plan failed to get off the ground. It was not long thereafter that Mr. Levitt read that US steel was planning to build the “Fairless Works” in Morrisville PA. The idea behind their “community plan” was to tap into the labor market. They purchased 5,750 acres encompassing four municipalities for their “perfectly planned community”.
The community consisted of master blocks with some 1,400 homes surrounding elementary schools, recreational facilities and replaced the local shops with a grand one mile long shopping center. There were deed restrictions that went as far as to not allow a clothes line. There were six different style home designs that were varied by alternating the placement and by offering different pastel color patterns so nothing looked the same. Levitt was soon considered the Henry Ford of home building. The process by which he approached the 17,311 homes was that there were a little more than 100 tasks for each home assembly. Teams of workers would work on one house then move to the next. No basements saved time and radiant heating was state of the art in 1950.
During the opening weekend 30,000 people converged on the sale site to buy the American dream for $7,990. The reflections of one of a later homeowner who moved to Levittown, PA in 1952 as a child and later raised his family in the same neighborhood was “I immediately had 20 friends the day I moved in. Every other house had a boy my age.” When finished 70,000 people made Levittown, Pennsylvania’s 10 largest city. It is today the largest self contained planned community in the United States.
Happy 60th Birthday Levittown!