Suburban Legend WILLIAM LEVITT

His answer to a postwar housing crisis created a new kind of home life and culture: suburbia

  • So long as you don't count sex and violence, there's no human impulse older than the urge to find a nice, affordable house, something outside of town but not too far. In Crabgrass Frontier, the essential history of suburbanization, Kenneth T. Jackson quotes a letter to the King of Persia, inscribed on a clay tablet and dated 539 B.C., that describes the pleasures of the Ur-suburb. (Literally. It was in Ur.) "Our so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust."

    Ur shriveled. But the inclination to get out of town survived. Ancient Rome had its surrounding settlements. Chaucer mentions the 'burbs in The Canterbury Tales. All the same, it wasn't until the later 20th century that suburbia was imagined as the ideal human habitation, an arrangement of houses and lives so fundamental, it was taken for granted that the Flintstones lived there.

    Suburbia required cars, highways and government-guaranteed mortgages. It also required William Levitt, who first applied a full panoply of assembly-line techniques to housing construction. That insight enabled him, and the many builders who copied him, to put up houses fast and cheap. Levitt's houses were so cheap (but still reasonably sturdy) that bus drivers, music teachers and boilermakers could afford them. And the first place he offered them was Levittown, N.Y., a town that is as much an achievement of its cultural moment as Venice or Jerusalem.

    That moment came right after World War II. When the servicemen and -women headed home, there wasn't much home for them to come to. Wartime shortages of everything had crippled the housing industry. Returning veterans, their libidos fully charged with the ambitions that would create the baby boom, found themselves doubled up with parents and in-laws. To publicize their search for an apartment, one New York City couple camped out for two days in a department-store window.

    In those years, the American housing industry was not so much an industry as a loose affiliation of local builders, any one of whom completed an average of four houses a year. What Levitt had in mind was 30 to 40 a day. Before the war, Levitt and his brother Alfred had built a few houses on land their father owned in Manhasset, N.Y. And in 1941 the Levitts won a government contract to provide 2,350 housing units for defense workers in Norfolk, Va. Once the fighting ended, they brought the lessons of that experience to 1,000 acres of potato farms on New York's Long Island 25 miles east of Manhattan. On July 1, 1947, Levitt, then 40, broke ground on the first of what would be 17,000 homes.

    He could build fast because he had broken down the construction process into 27 operations, then mustered specialized teams to repeat each operation at each building site. Twenty acres were set aside as an assembly point, where cement was mixed and lumber cut. Trucks would deliver parts and material to homesites placed at 60-ft. intervals. Then the carpenters, tilers, painters and roofers arrived, each in his turn. There was a team for white paint, another for red. One worker's sole daily task was to bolt washing machines to floors.

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