The Birth of the Modern American Suburb

“The land Levitt found was in the largely empty farmland of Hempstead, Long Island, and Levitt amassed thousands of acres. His timing could not have been more perfect. Sixteen million G.I.’s were returning from the war, many needing a place to live. There were abundant hard-luck stories of couples living with parents, sleeping in back rooms, or, worse, in tents, boxcars, or the fuselages of old Army bombers. What’s more, the federal government had passed the G.I. Bill, which, among other benefits, gave ex-soldiers access to cheap loans. Perhaps most important, the banks were rolling out a product that was just as world-changing as the smartphone: the 30-year fixed mortgage. It made buying a house, which, for most Americans, had been a carrot on a stick—always chased but hardly ever caught—suddenly seem like no big deal.

“Levitt broke ground in Hempstead in 1947. His method was the one he’d pioneered in Norfolk—the modern suburb, with its rows of cookie-cutter sameness, is, like so many modern institutions, a relic of the Second World War. He laid the building materials every hundred feet, the 27 teams with their 27 tasks moving across the waste. It took thirteen minutes to dig a foundation. Then came walls, the roof, a refrigerator. By 1948, the Levitts were finishing 30 houses a day. One day in 1949, Levitt wrote 1,400 contracts. He worked the desk himself, says Simone. ‘He was a humble man. As brilliant as he was, he would stand there, take the hundred dollars, thank the customers, and wish them good luck.’ Four years after breaking ground, the last house in the development sold—number 17,447. By then, the village had changed its name from Island Trees to Levittown.”

Rich Cohen (New York magazine) on Simone Levitt, the wife of Bill Levitt, father of the modern American suburb. Read more profiles from the Longreads Archive.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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