My great uncles returned to Brooklyn after military service in World War II and quickly discovered American cities were in a terrible state of disrepair. No one had money for maintenance in the decade long Great Depression of the 1930s. The war years of the 1940s saw rationing and shortages of every kind including a tremendous lack of housing. There were ten siblings in my grandmother’s generation and the men, being typical New York Sicilians, went in to the building trades. Among their numerous employers were Abraham, William, and Alfred Levitt of Levitt & Sons.
The Levitts were to post war housing what Henry Ford was to automobiles. They pioneered mass production, standardization, economies of scale, and innovative financing. At the peak of production new Levittown homes were being finished at the rate of one every sixteen minutes. And the Levitts built a lot of these homes all over the country. They grew rich while providing genuinely affordable housing people actually wanted. People of my grandparents’ generation grabbed hold of these homes with both hands and couldn’t imagine returning to the city which continued to decline.
This was only made possible by enormous federal subsidies for returning soldiers and huge investments in public infrastructure by the federal government. The private sector and the government were in alignment when it came to solving big national problems for mutual benefit. Ironically it was Big Business and Big Government that created the environment for individuals to achieve their dreams of an independent and secure home life.
Built in 1952, these particular homes are now sixty seven years old. Some of the Levittown homes have been modified and upgraded over the decades. Others limp along fair to middling.
As these homes age so do the pipes, pavement, and other infrastructure that keeps the community functioning. The associated sewerage treatment plants, water supply systems, landfills, power stations, and schools are all aging out. Replacing them is an expensive endeavor. And that doesn’t include the accumulated pension obligations for teachers, police, fire fighters and administrators. The money simply isn’t there beyond a certain date.
The commercial strips that served the Levittown population well for an entire lifetime are now played out. The Levittown Shop-O-Rama was eclipsed when the Oxford Valley Mall opened in 1973. It’s been a long slow ride down ever since in spite of multiple attempts at retail retrofits. The department stores of the Eisenhower and Kennedy era are long gone, replaced by the Dollar Store.
Meanwhile the Oxford Valley Mall is half empty and on life support with nurses eyeing the bedside plug. Venerable stores like Sears have gone the way of the buggy whip after a century. The once mighty Macy’s empire is circling the drain. Without anchor stores malls are just giant concrete boxes with florescent lighting.
And there it is. The dreaded wig shop. Flagship of retail desperation and harbinger of doom. Next stop, evangelical day care centers and government offices to fill the void.
An attempt was made to create a professional office center to compliment the mall. Perhaps it worked once some decades ago. Now it’s killing time waiting for yet another round of redevelopment. The trouble is there are hundreds of such failing malls everywhere in a massively overbuilt retail environment. A few are attracting upscale tenants and new construction. But most simply don’t have a population with sufficient income to support much beyond what’s already here. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This is what passes for a transit hub in the Levittown area. Desperate people standing out in the open next to a dead mall waiting for a bus to somewhere that’s probably equally bleak. The buses only exist because the federal government mandates them as a condition of continued highway funding.
Levittown served two or three generations very well and that should be celebrated. But Levittown has various trajectories it could follow from here on out. It can hold on tight to what’s there now and keep up appearances for a while longer. Fudge the numbers, kick the can down the road, extend and pretend. That can go on until the underground utilities and pavement fail entirely due to lack of sufficient tax base to maintain them. Flint, Michigan. Ferguson, Missouri. They arrived at their destinations first not as anomalies, but pioneers to a new reality. Or Levittown could rebalance its tax revenue with its obligations with some combination of infill development and/or re-ruralization. Time will tell.
(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)