December 01, 2017

This is one of the 17,400 houses Bill Levitt constructed after World War II as part of his new community, Levittown. Credit: Marc Filippino

When people get sick of urban living, there’s a clear alternative: the suburbs. But how did the suburbs become so popular in America? After World War II, Bill Levitt cleared a few potato fields on Long Island, New York, and created an orderly suburb, Levittown. We talk with the Executive Dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, Lawrence Levy, about how Levittown, and the advent of the modern suburbs, changed the nation.

Three Takeaways 

  • Bill Levitt took Henry Ford’s assembly line and turned it on its head. Levitt liked the idea of mass production, but he couldn’t exactly build houses on a conveyor belt. So he had specialized workers assemble the house piece by piece. And it worked. At the height of construction, crews could put together a house at a rate of 16 minutes per house.
  • The Levitts ran a tight ship. Levittown had ordinances requiring people to keep their shrubs a certain height, and it barred residents from hanging laundry on Sundays.
  • For many years, Levittown, didn’t allow black families, due to restrictions by the Federal Housing Administration. Levitt could have pushed back, but chose to keep Levittown a whites-only community.

More reading 

  • Take a look at Bill Levitt's obituary from a 1994 edition of The New York Times.
  • Just like many other developers, Levitt and Sons went bankrupt during the Great Recession. NPR reported on the fallout
  • Levittown, N.Y., often gets all the attention, but Levitt and Sons also created Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Levittown, N.J., eventually changed its name to Willingboro.

suburbia, Levittown, Lawrence Levy, Bill Levitt, innovation hub, Kara Miller, WGBH, pri

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