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'Levittown' by David Kushner

How a black couple's move in the 1950s to a planned community served as one further example of racial tension and inequality in the United States.

February 03, 2009|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

In 1957, the event immediately recognized as a watershed moment in civil rights was the attempted integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. What the black teenagers encountered -- red-faced mobs, harassment that tipped into violence, recalcitrant town bosses, police who stood by and did nothing -- were indelible images that set us on the path to dismantling segregation for good.

But, in 1957, there was also Levittown. The equally harrowing story of how one black family tried to break the color line in that suburb outside of Philadelphia had all the elements of Little Rock, yet it's largely been forgotten by history. In "Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb," David Kushner rectifies that with a spare, brisk but always indignant account of another watershed moment that, while overshadowed by Little Rock and other events, was in many ways more consequential.

Housing stoked racism at its most elemental and formed the basis of just about every other kind of discrimination relegating blacks to the shadows. It was this fear that Bill and Daisy Myers exposed when they decided to move into Levittown, Pa., the second of several planned communities built by the famed company Levitt & Sons. The most startling thing about this book is that it reminds us that the American dream was built not on some vision of equal opportunity but on exclusion. Exclusion is quintessentially American, even proudly American (the Levittown mobs that gathered regularly in front of the Myers' house frequently tagged their "Negro-go-home" sentiments with "This is America!"). The dream is as specific and as homogenous as the Levitts' suburban houses, and the company's segregationist stance, reprehensible as it was, was right in step with much of the country and its traditions.

The somewhat unlikely villain is Bill Levitt, the engine and public face of the team that created the Levittowns in the 1940s. The Levitts were national heroes for helping to solve a severe postwar housing crisis: With their affordable but innovative housing designs built on a big scale, they were the very soul of American ingenuity. Keeping blacks out of these new communities was a little-publicized part of the picture; no one raised any great objections, even those who didn't entirely agree with the practice. No one, that is, until 1957, when one progressive Levittown couple with a Communist past, Lew and Bea Wechsler, helped arrange for the Myerses to buy a house next door. Almost instantly, faceless neighbors materialized into a mob of protesters who kept up an angry vigil, making life virtually impossible for the Myerses -- and attracting worldwide attention. The crisis lasted through late summer and was only resolved in Pennsylvania's high court the following year.

Of all the players, Bill Levitt is the most intriguing. He's a carnival barker, a boundless optimist with an equally boundless yen for power; he's also the son of Jewish immigrants and supporter of many Jewish causes. As race and identity in Levittown became a more pressing issue, however, he plays the business card to the hilt. "As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice," he once said. "But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell a house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into this community." In other words, give the people what they want, even if it's unconstitutional.

The Wechslers, of course, see a bigger picture of social justice and of the American promise. The high-stakes face-off between the Jewish idealists and the business titan makes for a dynamic that is rich and worth exploring -- but not in this book. This is one of many places where I wish Kushner were less lean and the details more numerous and nuanced. Levitt lives, but the same cannot be said for others, including the real heart of the story, the Myerses. Like so many black heroes of such stories, they are rendered as decent, smart and long-suffering, but little else.

Some of this is by design. Kushner says up front that he collected the data, conducted interviews, assembled the story and then "got out of the way." The lack of analysis in favor of a compressed, "Dragnet"-like recitation of facts does have a certain power. The facts are surreal enough on their own -- the tinkling ice cream truck that serves the mob daily, the white agitator who names his black dog "Nigger," the Levittowners who set up headquarters in an empty residence that they dubbed "Confederate House."

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