Levittown, David Kushner's dramatic examination of America's original suburb, suggests that two families in the Pennsylvania version of Levittown were key characters in the civil rights movement.
The prototypical suburb Abe Levitt and his sons Bill and Alfred developed on Long Island in the 1950s symbolized both ingenuity and conformity. A community based on the dream of escape from the city, it epitomized a decade often associated with blandness. There was a darker side.
Kushner's book brings to vivid, infuriating life how that suburb replicated in Pennsylvania and Maryland, racism always at its core. The Levitts were Jewish, but Bill, the force behind Levittown, was also singularly prejudiced. In crosscutting the Levitt story with the saga of the Wechsler and Myers families — the first Jewish, the second black — Kushner illuminates a little-known aspect of civil rights history.
He notes that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation in 1933 effectively legitimized racism even as it protected homeowners from foreclosure. Because HOLC assigned extra value to homogeneous communities containing "American business and professional men," it contributed to the redlining that kept so many communities white.
This is less the story of the Levitt family than of Bea and Lee Wechsler and Daisy and Bill Myers, who became far more than neighbors in Levittown, Pa. The Wechslers, former Communists from the Bronx, didn't anticipate that Levittown excluded African-Americans.
In 1957, the Wechslers secretly arranged for the Myers family to buy 43 Deepgreen Lane. By the day the Myerses moved in, neighbors were circling their home, and cars with Confederate flags were driving by. Basing his narrative on memoirs from the Wechsler and Myers families and contemporary media accounts, Kushner delivers his story with verve. It's an appalling and timely one.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.