"Up From the Potato Fields"

Time 56 (3 July 1950)

Questions to Consider

  1. Who was attracted to live in Levittown?  Why?

  2. How was a suburban mentality shaped in this community?

  3. What enabled suburban communities like Levittown to develop?

  4. According to the article, what were some of the criticisms of Levittown?

  5. What impact would the suburbs have on America?

        On 1,200 flat acres of potato farmland near Hicksville, Long Island, an army of trucks sped over new-laid roads.  Every 100 feet, the trucks stopped and dumped identical bundles of lumber, pipes, bricks, shingles and copper tubing - all as neatly packaged as loaves from a bakery.  Near the bundles, giant machines with an endless chain of buckets ate into the earth, taking just 13 minutes to dig a narrow, four-foot trench around a 25-by-32 ft. rectangle.  Then came more trucks, loaded with cement, and laid a four-inch foundation for a house in the rectangle.

        After the machines came the men.  On nearby slabs already dry, they worked in crews of two and three, laying bricks, raising studs, nailing lath, painting, sheathing, shingling.  Each crew did its special job, then hurried on to the next site.  Under the skilled combination of men and machines, new houses rose faster than Jack ever built them; a new one was finished every 15 minutes.....

        Levittown is known largely for one reason:  it epitomizes the revolution which has brought mass production to the housing industry.  Its creator, Long Island's Levitt & Sons, Inc., has become the biggest builder of houses in the U.S.

        The houses in Levittown, which sell for a uniform price of $7,900, cannot be mistaken for castles.  Each has a sharp-angled roof and a picture window, radiant heating in the floor, 12-by-16 ft. living room, bath, kitchen, two bedrooms on the first floor, and an "expansion attic" which can be converted into two more bedrooms and bath.  The kitchen has a refrigerator, stove and Bendix washer; the living room a fireplace and a built-in Admiral television set....

        The influence of Levitt & Sons on housing goes much further than the thresholds of its own houses.  Its methods of mass production are being copied by many of the merchant builders in the U.S., who are putting up four of every five houses built today.  It is such mass production on one huge site which is enabling  U.S. builders to meet the post-war demand and to create the biggest housing boom in U.S. history....

        At war's end, when the U.S. desperately needed 5,000,000 houses, the nation had two choices:  the Federal Government could try to build the houses itself, or it could pave the way for private industry to the job, by making available billions in credit.  The U.S. wisely handed the job to private industry, got 4,000,000 new units built since the war, probably faster and cheaper than could have been done any other way.

        The Government has actually spent little cash itself.  By insuring loans up to 95% of the value of a house, the Federal Housing Administration made it easy for a builder to borrow the money with which to build low-cost houses.  The Government made it just as easy for the buyer by liberally insuring his mortgage.  Under a new housing act signed three months ago, the purchase terms on low-cost houses with Government-guaranteed mortgages were so liberalized that in many cases buying a house is now as easy as renting it.  The new terms:  5% down (nothing down for veterans) and 30 years to pay.  Thus an ex-G.I. could buy a Levitt house with no down payment and installments of only $56 a month.

        The countless new housing projects made possible by this financial easy street are changing the way of life of millions of U.S. citizens, who are realizing for the first time the great American dream of owning their own home.  NO longer must young married couples plan to start living in an apartment, saving for the distant day when they can buy a house.  Now they can do it more easily than they can buy a $2,000 car on the installment plan.

        Like its counterparts across the land, Levittown is an entirely new kind of community. Despite its size, it is not incorporated, thus has no mayor, no police force, nor any of the other traditional city officers of its own.  It has no movies, no nightclubs and only three bars (all in the community shopping centers.)

        And Levittown has very few old people.  Few of it s more than 40,000 residents are past 35; of some 8,000 children, scarcely 900 are more than seven years old.  In front of almost every house along Levittown's 100 miles of winding streets sits a tricycle or a baby carriage.  In Levittown, all activity stops from 12 to 2 in the afternoon; that is nap time.  Said one Levittowner last week, "Everyone is so young that sometimes it's hard to remember how to get along with older people."

        The community has an almost antiseptic air.  Levittown streets, which have such fanciful names as Satellite, Horizon, Haymaker, are bare and flat as hospital corridors.  Like a hospital, Levittown has rules all its own.  Fences are not allowed (though here and there a home-owner has broken the rule).  The plot of grass around each home must be cut at least once a week; if not, Bill Levitt's men mow the grass and send the bill.  Wash cannot be hung out to dry on an ordinary clothesline; it must be arranged on rotary, removable drying racks and then not on weekends or holidays....

        Actually, Levittown's uniformity is more apparent than real.  Though most of their incomes are about the same (average:  about $3,800), Levittowners come from all classes, all walks of life.  Eighty percent of the men commute to their jobs in Manhattan, many sharing their transportation costs through car pools.  Their jobs, as in any other big community, range from baking to banking, from teaching to preaching.  Levittown has also developed its own unique way of keeping up with the Joneses.  Some Levittowners buy a new house every year, as soon as the new model is on the market....

        The most frequent criticism of Levittown and most other projects like it, is that it is the "slum of the future."  Says Bill Levitt:  "Nonsense."  Many city planners agree with him, because they approve of Levittown's uncluttered plan and its plentiful recreational facilities.  Nevertheless, in helping to solve the housing problem, Levittown has created other problems:  new schools, hospitals, and sewage facilities will soon be needed; its transportation is woefully inadequate, even by Long Island standards....