In 1947, the first Levittown was built in New York State, then in 1952, an even bigger one was erected in Pennsylvania. Marketed as “THE MOST PERFECTLY PLANNED COMMUNITY IN AMERICA,” Levittown was the prototypical American suburb. For only $10,990, or $100 down then $67 a month, you could own three bedrooms, two bathrooms, front lawn, back yard and garage, plus access to five Olympic-sized pools, with free swimming and diving lessons thrown in. Most soothingly, you no longer had to deal with strangers above, below or abutting you, or dark skinned neighbors who may alarm or irk you as you went about your white routines. Government, banks and developers all agreed that suburban living was a white proposition, so if you weren’t pale enough, it didn’t matter if you had risked life and limbs for Uncle Sam, for he wouldn’t back your mortgage should you want to move into a mixed neighborhood, not that anyone would sell a wholesome, Leave it to Beaver house to your Ma Rainey ass anyway.
The American Dream was understood to be white, and in Levittown, white living precluded even selling and buying nearby, for all businesses were banished from the residential enclaves. To get a cup of joe, it was necessary to drive a few miles, and to down a handful of beers, you might end up flying through the windshield, but it was definitely worth it, for no Negroes were in sight. That’s just how it was, and in more subtle ways, still is, but to what degree? You tell me. A braham Levitt explained, “As a Jew, I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice. But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change. I hope it will.”
Just over half a century ago, most Americans were convinced the races should be kept apart. In my teens, I spent three years in suburban Virginia, and there, I was told by a friend, schoolmate and neighbor, W. Salo, that blacks had been kept out of the neighborhood until the early 70’s, “Realtors just wouldn’t sell to them, and even now, many people don’t like to see them around.”
Salo and I were among a group that played basketball regularly. There was Kelvin, a black kid and son of a lawyer. Kelvin would go on to graduate from the University of Virginia, become a real estate broker and move to Dallas. He made a bundle during the housing boom.
Since Salo was a fan of the Washington Bullets, I said to him, “What if Wes Unseld moves in?”
“Get that nigger out of here!” Salo laughed.
In 1957, a Jewish Levittowner alerted a friend, World War II vet and aspiring electrical engineer William Myers, that a Levittown home was for sale, but when Myers moved in with his wife and three children, an American hell opened up, for the Myers were black. For more than a week, up to a thousand people protested nightly in front of their new home. An ice cream man serviced this enraged mob, and reporters and photographers also showed up. Sticks of dynamites landed in the Myers’ driveway and rocks were thrown, with one hitting a white policemen, knocking him out. Windows shattered. A Confederate flag was unfurled from an unfinished house nearby, and racially charged music was blasted day and night. “Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay/Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away.” Mrs. Daisy Myers heard footsteps in the dark outside her children’s bedrooms, and picked up the phone to receive threats, such as “Do you want to die in that house?” A woman sneered, “I’ll never let my children drink chocolate milk again!” A nearby neighbor bought a black dog and named him “Nigger.”
The Myers also had many supporters, white and black, who brought flowers and food. A white woman showed up and offered to clean their house. These allies were also threatened, naturally, with some having crosses burnt in front of their own homes. Finally, state troopers were brought in to snuff out this dangerous and embarrassing situation, and the Myers were left alone to live in Levittown for four years. Many of their neighbors did apologize and Mrs. Myers was even made President of the Dogwood Hollow Neighborhood Association. Contrary to rumors, the Myers had not been brought in by Communists or Jews to stir up trouble, but simply wanted a decent place to live, and when a job opportunity for Bill Myers opened up elsewhere, they moved away.
Levittown also made international news when a gas riot, this nation’s first, erupted in 1979. When OPEC pushed gas price to $1 a gallon ($3.25 in today’s money), 60 truckers decided to block a Levittown intersection, Five Points, to protest, and there, they were cheered on by thousands of locals. “More gas! More gas!” They chanted. Soon, though, the mood turned ugly, with gas station windows smashed, gas pumps broken and cars and car tires set on fire. A rig plowed into a line of cops, injuring several. Cops beat up protestors, sending a hundred to the hospital. Two-hundred people were arrested.
Americans have come to accept high gas prices, but as their incomes continue to shrink while inflation rises, they will wish they weren’t marooned in a place like Levittown. Without the car, this place would be dead. Walking 25 miles through Levittown this week, I often felt like an intruder, as well as a rat trapped in a maze. There, most streets are curved to slow down traffic, and many arc and loop in loony ways, making orientation difficult. Further, many sections are without sidewalks. B ewildered and even edgy, I became acutely aware that Levittown had been built for the automobile and not pedestrian. Levittown hates the human body, frankly. Denuded of a four-thousand-pound steel carapace, one feels silly and obscene just wandering around. I crossed the street to avoid disturbing a flower-pruning housewife, ignored the stare of a man in a muscle-T, drinking a beer on his porch, while four girls in their early teens eyed me curiously. As dogs barked at me from behind wire mesh or picket fences, I looked at my shadow on the asphalt and did my best to keep going East and North, but those serpentine roads were seriously messing with my head. This layout is designed to deter through traffic of all kinds, for Levittown does not want outsiders. It chases visitors and their money away. Waiting for their kids to be released, a long line of cars waited outside an elementary school.
To encourage neighborliness, fences were originally banned in Levittown, but they went up almost immediately, and the Levitts had to relent. Folks move out of the city primarily to distance themselves from other people. Though many Levittowners loved the public swimming pools, others set up tiny ones in their fenced-in back yards. In 2002, four of the Olympic-sized pools were finally closed. In Levittown, you often see portable basketball hoops set up side by side on the curbs, so kids from adjacent houses can shoot in solitude. If moats and draw bridges were more affordable, I’m sure there would be thousands in Levittown.
Irrationally walking, I ended up at a spot I thought I had left behind permanently, just like Jonah after he had been spat out by the whale, but unlike him, I needed not preach, for there were churches all over Levittown. Among their signs, “JESUS SAID YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN. DELIVERY ROOM OPEN.” Another, “PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PRACTICE.” At St. Michael the Archangel, I saw a sign for an upcoming flea market. A spot could be rented for $15, and a table for $5 if you didn’t have your own. The day itself would likely be festive, and it is exactly this kind of small time selling that’s missing from so much of America, not just Levittown, so why not make it all the time, all over, and not just in a church parking lot once a year? By eliminating zoning laws that ban commerce, Americans can earn cash in these difficult times, and keep money in their communities besides. With people selling on their front lawns, porches and stoops, and others wandering around offering potato chips, iced tea, beer, cigarettes, socks, hats and pirated DVDs, etc., each neighborhood will be enlivened, and neighbors will finally get to know each other as they haggle over a ratty couch, beat up hair dryer or set of baseball cards of the 2010 Seattle Mariners. They can discuss the dada farce of electoral politics after swapping Xanax for Oxycodone, for example, or perhaps a shoplifted bottle of cough syrup. A pop up restaurant can appear in any kitchen or beneath any tree. Instead of pushing rancid tacos with brown shreds of lettuce for a monster conglomerate, you can be your own boss by offering chili and corn bread on a sidewalk table behind a hand-scrawled sign, “TEXAS CHOW.” It better be great, though, because not ten feet away, there’s a guy dishing up some mind-blowing squirrel po’ boys.
Since small time selling also develops business skills, it would be an excellent alternative to a bankrupting college miseducation, since we don’t need more majors in ambulance chasing, speaking in tongues economics or tattoo-art appreciation, etc., but simply people who know how to survive by squeezing a dollar out of 50 cents. Ah, but we’re living under a government that sucks all money upward, towards the biggest banks and corporations, so if they don’t even allow the mom and pops to survive, how are they going to tolerate this kind of freewheeling commerce? Further, Americans have been well-conditioned to despise the busy sidewalk. Sure, they might go to New Orleans to drink, holler and vomit in the French Quarters, but when they get home, they want everything to be placid outside their bay window. Destitution, though, will change behavior for sure, and I’m sure Americans will come out of their isolation to not just sell or barter, but also to establish common cause so they can fight back, at last.
In the here and now, though, all is superficially pacified, with many citizens still eagerly displaying their allegiance towards one or another of our bank-jerked marionettes, Obama, Clinton or Romney, etc. Walking around Levittown, I also encountered many flags, including POW/MIA and Marines Corps ones. The US must lead the world in patriotic flag display per capita, and I can’t imagine too many other countries where countless citizens erect flag poles in front of their homes. God, country and racial purity were the concrete foundations of Levittown, except that it’s 2014 now, so I did see a few black children getting off school buses. I also ran into a Turkish-American Muslim Cultural Association, a Turkish-American Social Club and a Liberian restaurant, the last two side by side at a strip mall.
Originally, there were only six different types of houses in Levittown, but after half a century, each has been modified enough to appear reasonably unique, with a different landscaping in the front yard. Here, there’s a miniature windmill, and there, yet another fake well. Cutesy flags with birds, lady bugs, sunsets and such abound. On a little pole, a cartoon frog rides a rainbow colored bicycle. Maybe he’s a queer amphibian, but to each, his own, man. It’s none of my business. At some homes, though, overgrown grass, weeds and dandelions have taken over, even if there’s still an old car in the driveway. A handful of large apartment complexes have also sprung up, but hey, when you have no taxes from manufacturing, and not that much from local commerce, you can’t say no to more tax-paying residents, even if they’re just low-income renters. At Five Points, I saw four check-cashing joints, with one that’s also a pawn shop, then I passed American Dream Realty, with its flashing sign that promised to save you from your life-sinking mortgage. Unattended, two used lawn mowers and a lawn tractor were for sale, with the last priced at $450. That can easily buy a month’s grocery for a family of four, and you can’t eat grass.
Levittown was born during a time of unprecedented confidence and hope among average Americans. This country was on top of the world. Eager to move up, thousands of Joe Sixpacks lined up to buy Levittown homes. There were no FOR SALE signs baking in the sun day after day among the dandelions. To observe, and hopefully meet, a few contemporary Levittowners, I decided to duck into a bar, as usual, but the first one I chanced upon, Cazz’s Sports Bar and Grill, didn’t quite do the trick, since I could only overhear, and not talk, to anybody. Still, it was very instructive, for at one point people were discussing their lunch breaks.
First dude, “I don’t even have a lunch break. I work right through, seven hours straight, and I don’t mind it, since they wouldn’t pay if I stopped to eat anyway. I’d rather go home early.”
Second dude, “You should feel lucky to have a job.”
Third dude, “But that’s the wrong attitude, man! Everyone should have a lunch break, a paid lunch break, and a couple of smoke breaks too.”
Second dude, “Good luck with that.”
Woman, “I use my lunch break to run errands. I’d go to the bank or something. I get an hour.”
They also mentioned a young man who had died of a drug overdose, another who had hanged himself and a recently deceased old fart who was a pack rat. Though the jukebox was quiet, three televisions stared at me from the opposite wall, and as I was seated at some distance from the conversing group, I couldn’t catch everything. It was clear, though, that several of the men were Army veterans, for they started to talk about Okinawa, sake, Vietnam, “Me love you a long time” and getting coochie coochie in the Far East. With so many overseas “commitments,” it was practically an American male’s rite of passage to catch syphilis or gonorrhea from a foreign whore and/or leaving his likeness behind in the forlorn face of a bastard child.
At the same strip mall, however, there were two other bars, including My Brother’s Pub, and I’m very glad I discovered it, for here I was able to make the acquaintance of Brian, Dave, Rob and Joy. Soon as I walked in, I could tell it was my kind of dump. Rob explained, “Cazz’s is like a family bar, while Rio attracts a younger crowd. You’ll find some nice chicks in there. Here, you’ll hardly ever see a woman. This place is like, I don’t know, maybe this place is a gay bar.”
“Hey, speak for yourself!” Another patron piped up.
Picking up my pint, I noticed the beer mat said, “The only lasting peace between a man and his wife is a separation—Lord Chesterfield.” Beneath a large TV on the opposite wall, there was an image of a flag, with “HONORING THOSE WHO SERVED,” and another of Uncle Sam pointing, with “This finger wasn’t made to press ‘One’ for English.”
Fifty-three-years-old, Rob wore a faded tanktop and an old polyester cap. Stubbles invaded his lined face. For 18 years he owned a printing shop, with the last eight in Manhattan, in the West Village. Now he clips hedges, cuts grass and sells earnestly kitschy paintings of landscapes, one of which was propped on the floor at the bar, “It takes me four hours and a half, on average, to do a painting, and I can sell it for 65 to 75 bucks, but then you have to subtract the cost of the materials, which comes to about $13 a painting.”
“Hey, maybe you can cut your cost by using cheaper paints? Paints are expensive!”
“I know, I know, but I only use the best! I only use Windsor Newton.”
“That is the best, but most people won’t know the difference if you use something cheaper. A tube of Windsor Newton can run you $20!”
“Cheaper paints have a different consistency, and I can tell when I mix them or slap them onto the canvas.”
“Man, you’re really picky.”
“And the colors are different, too, I know, but you’re not making that much from these paintings in the first place.”
“If I charged more, no one would buy them. I know what people are willing to pay, and also what they want. I can’t use too much blue, for example.”
“Hmmm, I never thought of that…Who buy your paintings, by the way?”
“Mostly the people from this bar. Dave, the cook at Hurricane Jack’s, told me his boss wanted a large painting of palm trees in a hurricane, so I made 150 bucks from that deal! It took me seven hours, man, wore me out! Palm trees always sell well. Hawaii scenes.”
“You ever been there?”
“No, of course not! But I can picture palm trees without seeing them. I have them in my head.”
“You never paint from life?”
“I don’t need to!”
“Well, you’re lucky to sell anything, because most people won’t touch any painting, period. Tell me more about your printing shop. How did you lose it?”
“Simple. The landlord sold the building in 2009, so I lost my business, but it was partly my fault for not paying attention. If I had found another place before that happened, I wouldn’t have lost all of my clients, and I was raking in the bucks too, man. After all the expenses, I was making $6,000 a month! I was eating well, drinking well and I took vacations when I wanted too.”
“You can’t start it up again?”
“No way! My clients are gone. At this point, I’d be happy with anything. It used to be, you could always get a job that paid $10 an hour, but you can’t even do that any more. You see Brian there?”
“He bartends here three or four nights a week, but Brian also has a day job. Brian is a drummer so he works at a music store, and you know how much he’s getting paid? Eight dollars and fifty cents an hour. After tax, that ain’t shit!”
“I know people who are making less than the minimum wage.”
“Is that legal?”
“It is if you can’t find another job. I mean, you’re not going to sue your boss.”
“About the printing business, you said you weren’t paying attention, but what do you mean?”
“Personal shit, man. My girlfriend was leaving me, so I was very distracted.”
“Hmmm. How long were you two together?”
“Eleven years! And we had a kid together! I also treated her son like my own. We were a family.”
Before this girlfriend, Rob was married for 16 years, so he has three kids altogether. With his business gone, Rob couldn’t keep up with the mortgage, so he took in renters. Even though he only charged $550 a month, none would stay long. The place has become rather run down, Rob intimated, and the cable TV has long been shut off, “I was paying $95 a month for television, but now I just watch the same DVDs over and over.”
“The Sound of Music?” I joked.
“Yeah, The Sound of Music!”
Rob figures he has four or five months before he’s kicked out. Before that happens, though, the electricity will have been turned off, for he hasn’t paid those bills either. Sitting in the dark, Rob will have to sing these lines to himself, “Doe, a deer, a female deer. Ray, a drop of golden sun. Me, a name I call myself. Far, a long long way to run.”
“What will happen then?” I asked. “Where will you go?”
“I guess I’ll have to move in with Joy,” his current girlfriend.
“Does she have kids?”
“Four, but only two are living with her.”
“Twenty-six and seventeen. The older one is a manager at Home Depot.”
“Will they like you moving in?”
“Probably not, but what can I do? I’m not going to lie on the street.”
Though going broke, Rob goes to the bar everyday, where he spends $20 for beer. If you tip properly, that’s only five pints. Rob also smokes two packs of L & M daily, so that’s another $10.50, “But I can’t just sit home and brood, man. I’ve got to come out and talk to people. What do you want me to do?”
To make matters worse, Rob hasn’t managed to finish a painting in a year, though the urge to depict snow capped mountains and tropical beaches may just resurface tomorrow, or at least Rob hopes so. In any case, the Hawaiian sunset has been sitting on the floor for a while, so maybe Rob has stopped because he’s tapped out his small roster of Medicis.
Suddenly, some orchestral music came on. I had no idea what it was, but was later told that it came from the soundtrack of Gods and Generals, a film about Stonewall Jackson. Rob’s reaction, though, was immediate, “Hey, what is this shit! Don’t you know how to put a good song on the juke box?!” The guilty party was also a regular and, to spite Rob even further, played Los Tigres del Norte afterwards.
“Oh, great, now we get to hear some Italian shit!”
“It’s Mexican, Rob,” a couple of people shouted in near unison.
To purge these insufferable sounds from memory, Rob then played some John Lennon. By this time, his girlfriend, Joy, had shown up to become the only female in My Brother’s Pub. About Rob’s age, she was cheerful enough yet worn out. When I told her I liked to walk around and hear people’s stories, Joy said, “I’ve got a story for you! You should hear my story!” And she leaned over Rob, who was between us, so I could hear her better, “You know I raised two kids by myself because my husband died three days after our wedding!”
“Jesus, that’s like the worst luck ever! How did that happen?”
“He had health issues, he was a crack addict, but I had no idea he was going to die like that! I had to write thank you notes to the guests for having come to both the wedding and funeral!”
“People did give me money, though. I’d get, like, fifty bucks per person.”
If Rob dies, Joy can pocket another round of bereavement contributions, after deducting the minimal burial cost. A cardboard coffin will do. Unemployed and still awaiting to be certified as disabled, in body and mind, Joy can certainly use the cash. As for Rob, he can still frequent My Brother’s Pub post mortem, just like George, a deli owner when alive. Brian has seen this ghost, and Dave will swear that a stool got knocked over without anyone touching it. This happened just before I walked in.
“So you raised two kids by yourself?” I continued.
“Yeah, we already had two kids. I have four altogether, but my oldest two are not talking to me. I haven’t seen them in 17 years. I can’t do anything about it. It’s a long story.”
“So now you have this guy!” And I patted Rob on the shoulder.
“Yeah, so I guess it’s working out in the end, because this is true love,” and Joy looked at Rob with tenderness.
Rolling his eyes, Rob said to me, “Look at who I’m stuck with!”
“Ah, he loves me!” Joy said.
“It’s not like I have a choice,” Rob smiled.
“You know, I didn’t even like Rob in the beginning, but he kept following me around. He kept saying, ‘You want to party? You want to party?’ And I don’t even do drugs, but after a year, I finally went with him.
“That’s not how I remember it.” Rob grinned.
Rob’s parents moved to Levittown in the early 60’s, then he himself bought a house here. Joy, however, can’t be counted as a true American Dreaming Levittowner since she’s only living in an apartment complex, and perhaps the worst in this frayed, perplexing and faux arcadia. Online, I found several comments along this line, “This apartment complex is filled with reasons of why you should not live here! I can’t wait until my lease is up. The neighbors are loud and disrespectful at all hours and the facilities are dirty and dangerous (ex: broken glass pieces, rusty metal, roaches). I cannot get rid of the roaches, ants and centipedes in my studio! My bathtub and toilet actually have filled up, from the drain, with sewage […] Over a month ago someone broke into all four buildings’ laundry facilities and ruined the machines to steal the quarters, the machines haven’t been repaired yet. They haven’t even cleaned up the broken glass from the windows and the sharp metal from the broken machines.”
So that’s where Rob is moving in four months, and where a Home Depot manager must live with his mom and kid sister. Rob said that many locals have come to refer to Levittown as “Leave it Town,” but where does one go now to find a decent job and home in a national landscape that’s increasingly leeched of possibilities? At Five Points, I saw an armed forces recruiting station, but Rob is too old to be shot at by Russians, Chinese, Iranians, Syrians or whoever our masters decide we must fight next. In the meantime, all he can do is drink away his worries, and his last pennies also, for old habits die hard. When the Founding Fathers wrote “the pursuit of happiness,” perhaps all they meant was having regular access to bad beer, but this simple, working class pleasure has become out of reach to many Americans.
Not long ago, nearby Trenton, Camden and Philadelphia were world-class industrial centers, adjacent Bristol had factories and even tiny Fairless Hills, next door, had a steel mill. Now there is nothing. Without high-paying manufacturing jobs, Levittowners are reduced to serving beer and cheese fries to each other, or mowing each other’s lawn. If this continues, soon there won’t be just a ghost or two at the local bar, this entire town will turn ghostly.
It is dark and I’m alone on the train platform, waiting for my Philly-bound. Hearing sounds of bottles and cans clacking, I turn to see, in the dim orange light, an apparition pushing a shopping cart. Leaving this at the station, he carries several plastic bags of what he’s managed to scavenge this day and enters a tunnel. Less than a minute later, he appears on the other side, then quickly vanishes into the inky dark. I wonder how much he will get for his trouble?
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on May 17, 2014, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.