Lab | Log

A Suburban Pilgrimage, Part I: Learning to Like Levittown

A Pilgrimage to Levittown (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Burbs) from ResilientPLANET on Vimeo.

Almost everyone has a secret pilgrimage destination tucked somewhere in their own personal book of dreams. For many these are, as Ryszard Kapuściński once wrote, “certain magical names with seductive, colorful associations—Timbuktu, Lalibela, Casablanca.”

They are places to which we attach wonder, mystique, and fascination; places that we dream of one day exploring, with the subliminal hope of finding an exotic understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place within it.

My secret place is Levittown. I have always wanted to go to Levittown.

My fascination with Levittown is a morbid one. Dubbed the birthplace of the American sprawl suburb and the blueprint from which suburbia as we know it today was built, the town has always inspired ominous music in my mind.

It started with a modest goal. In 1947 William Levitt and his two sons announced their plan to build two thousand homes on recently purchased farmland about thirty miles outside of New York.

As thousands of veterans flooded home at the end of World War II with the dream of starting families and settling into a peaceful life, the demand for housing was immense.

Two days after the announcement of the planned community, newspapers reported that one thousand of the Levitts’ homes had already been rented. And when the two thousandth was gone, thousands were still knocking.

And so Levitt and Sons built. They built and built and built, a rumored thirty houses per day, until, fewer than five years later, Levittown boasted over seventeen thousand tiny, identical, ticky-tacky boxes, row upon row.

Each, of course, decorated with the most important accessory of all—parked in the driveway, a four-wheeled ticket to freedom that made it all possible.

So it was much to my own surprise that I found myself travelling to Levittown last week, on the suburban pilgrimage of my dreams, in the most inappropriate of ways: by bicycle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Levittown is neither easy nor pleasant to reach by bike. But my travelling companion (probably the only person in the world more excited to visit Levittown than I— Greg Greene, director of the award-winning documentary The End of Suburbia) and I were up for the challenge.

Indeed, no pilgrimage is complete without a fair amount of hardship.

After a forty-five-minute ride on the Long Island Railroad, we found ourselves dropped in the appropriately named Garden City—a lovely prewar railway suburb boasting the name of the movement that communities of its type were a part of: town–country living with all the benefits of the nearby city and none of the hardships.

We mounted our bikes—glorious emerald-green touring cruisers on loan from BMW—and wheeled our way along the shady streets lined by stately homes with modestly sweeping manicured lawns.

We pedaled until we came to an abruptly unpleasant intersection, a T-bone capped by a tundra-like parking lot framing a distant strip of big-box nodes.

“I guess this is our turn,” Greg said. I glanced at my directions, gave him a nod, and pushed off into the stream of traffic heading east.

The misery of the ride thrilled me. I had, after all, come to reaffirm my contempt for suburban living at its root, and as we pedaled mile after mile the journey became, as Greg yelled gleefully from behind me over the roar of motors, “awfuler and awfuler.”

A four-lane street gave way to a six-lane highway and we slammed our brakes in narrow misses attempting to cross cloverleaf off-ramps.

Hollowed-out strip malls began to line the margins of the highway—strings of shabby-looking businesses offering discount Halloween costumes, great deals on pet supplies, and ten pieces of fried chicken for only $7.99.

We moved from the road to the malls’ great linear swaths of asphalt lots—hopping curbs from one to the next to avoid the traffic that was beginning to terrify us, making us wonder if this was such a good idea after all.

Then we saw it in the distance. Just below the crest of a sloping intersection, a baby-blue sign glinting in the late afternoon sun, bearing the swooping white letters we’d been waiting for: Levittown Welcomes You.

We had arrived.

I shrieked when I saw my first white picket fence.

“Quick Greg, take a photo!” I called out.

“Don’t worry, there will be more,” he said. And he was right.

We sailed through the gracefully arching streets, from Pasture Lane, to Rolling Lane, to Pebble Lane, to Shelter Lane, past the long, flat, single-story Wisdom Lane Middle School, where students boarding a bright yellow school bus waved at us through the window.

And we tried to hate it. We really did.

“The houses look all the same!” we said cynically. But they really didn’t.

After more than sixty years, nearly every house had been modified, added onto, somehow retrofitted to the individual needs of the families who lived there. Some had front awnings, some second floors, or extra garage space added onto the side. Some had erected fences or now overgrown hedges, or planted extra trees.

And they were small, a modest 1200 square feet at the very most with additions—a far stretch from the 3000-square-foot McMansions we’ve come to associate with modern suburbia.

And the trees that had been planted sixty years ago? They were big: broad grown-in umbrellas bearing tree forts and shading the slightly cracked sidewalks.

“It’s so quiet,” I said. The sun had begun to drop in the sky, and the birds’ soft chirping was slowly being replaced by the sound of crickets humming in unison.

“So peaceful,” said Greg.

We’d lost our sarcastic tone. We looked at each other with a hint of embarrassment, as if we’d just shared a moment we both knew we should keep as a secret between the two of us.

Our eyes locked in silent shameful confession: we liked Levittown.

Without speaking much, we steered our bikes back to the turnpike and filtered into the stream of taillights oozing west, glowing red against the deep orange sunset.

And as we waited in the dark for the train that would take us back to the city, I thought about what awaited us when we arrived. The honking, noise, the crush of crowds on the sidewalk, the homeless asking for change, the heavy heat hanging in the air as we would descend to the subway, and the seats we probably wouldn’t get once aboard.

I wasn’t completely ready for it.

I had come to Levittown expecting to find grounds for my dislike of what it had borne—an even firmer base for my steadfast urbanity, appreciation for rurality, and disdain for everything in between.

But really, it made me feel empathetic. It helped me understand not only how, but why we got to where we are now.

It makes sense that the first of thousands of suburbs was built outside of New York, I realized. After years in the battlefield, who would want city life that puts every sense under attack?

The suburbs of today are not like Levittown. They are not grown in, they are not modest, nor are they built to last sixty years.

Yes, Levittown is completely constructed on the assumption of individual automobile use. It is the skeleton of a development trend we now know to be one of the most environmentally and financially destructive in American history.

But the meat around those bones was simple, meager even, in 1947—a mere 750 square feet of freedom, independence, peace, and quiet.

It was time, greed, and the irresponsible abuse of abundance that morphed the early suburban impulse into the monstrous sprawl that we know today.

Watch highlights of the pilgrimage, filmed and edited by The End of Suburbia‘s brilliant and talented Greg Greene, above. Many thanks, Greg, for your hard and fast work.

In my next post, Retrofitting Suburbia’s June Williamson and the Sprawl Repair Manual’s Galina Tachieva will sit down to give me on-the-spot suburban retrofit solutions for some of the tragic sights I saw along the way on my journey to Levittown. Stay tuned!

  • Anonymous

    This week this post also ran on TheTyee.ca, a great British Columbia based online news magazine, and has sparked some great commentary and debate on their site.

    Here are a few of the comments that popped out at me:

    From doublespacemanbill:

    My favorite Bill Levitt quote: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”

    Terrific article. I’m still grappling with the concept that many of
    the suburbs of the 40s and 50s have developed into human-scale
    almost-cities. This is more noticeable in eastern cities (Toronto’s
    west end, Wellesley outside Boston, Bethesda) then on the west coast,
    but it’s there if you know what you’re looking for.

    In response to the above comment, from RickW:
    “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist….”

    Au Contraire! That is the aim after all, of communism. After all,
    how much do we actually OWN our own pieces of ticky-tacky – especially
    when “progress” expropriates that property for some “greater good”?

    And in response to that, from snert:
    Try not paying your taxes, Rick. Then you’ll find out who really owns your property.

    From firefox007:

    *pwlg*

    Great post, full of the feel of neighborhood; that is lost in many
    of Vancouver’s areas. I grew up in Kerrisdale in the early sixties and
    man, that area has changed, people don’t know their next-door neighbor
    now.

    Also, some great critique from grapeman:

    As someone who has actually lived in small coastal resource towns
    (some under 500 people), large cities like Vancouver and Toronto, and
    suburbs/exurbs like Langley and Chilliwack, I find all this “sturm und
    drang” over suburbia quite amusing. Why are so many urban types so
    obsessed with the suburbs? Are they ex-suburbanites trying to establish
    their urban street cred? Whatever it is, get over it. You’ll be happier
    and healthier! If you’ve actually lived for extended periods in all
    three worlds like I have, you’d know that urban and rural worlds have
    many real environmental, economic and cultural deficits – different
    from the suburbs, perhaps, but just as problematic.

    I’ll give McLaren some credit, though. She at least admits to her
    preconceptions and tries to deal with them. However, her last
    paragraphs betray her bias, as she seems desperate to regain her
    comforting world view of the Other. Of course, her hyperbole makes me
    giggle, particularly as I think about the leafy suburbs in southern
    Langley where I spent my adolescence, or to the leafy back yard of my
    current home here in the ‘Wack.

    And my own response to grapeman:

    Hi Grapeman,

    Thanks for your response to my article. I always appreciate
    thoughtful critique that makes me re-examine my own writing and ideas,
    and want to be engaged in dialogue around them.

    First off: We have something in common! I too, grew up in the burbs!
    One of the reasons I feel comfortable writing about the suburbs with
    some degree of perspective is that I am not just, as you say, an
    Urbanite writing about the Other. The suburban reality is one I am all
    too familiar with.

    That said, you bring up a very important point – that there is no
    one environment that suits everybody. Some people are city people, some
    people are country people – those are the environments where they are
    the happiest.

    But you’re absolutely right that we rarely acknowledge the fact that some people – many people, in fact – are suburban people.

    Part of the reason I wrote this piece was to begin a dialogue around
    just that. While suburban critics love to portray the burbs as great
    sprawling swaths of desolate sterility, that is certainly not always
    the case. Suburbia is the ideal environment for many, and there are
    good reasons for that.

    This is an important reality that must be taken into consideration.
    It is the reason that the suburbs will be around for a very long time.

    They are not going away, nor would I argue that they should.

    However, there are serious problems with suburbia, and we know that
    the suburbs in their current form are neither environmentally nor
    financially sustainable.

    Therefore just like we need to be finding solutions to the many many
    problems that you speak of plaguing our cities, we also need to be
    finding ways to make suburban living more sustainable and responsible.
    That way we can live the lifestyle that makes us comfortable and
    happy – whether rural, urban, or suburban – and be free to make that
    choice without unloading the consequences onto the shoulders of the
    masses.

    I encourage you to check out the follow-up article that I wrote to
    this piece on the blog where it originally appeared, where I sat down
    with Retrofitting Suburbia co-author June Williamson and The Sprawl
    Repair Manual author Galina Tachieva for an on-the-spot retrofit of
    some of Levittown’s less pleasant, more pedestrian un-friendly parts to
    offer an example of a few ways that the burbs can become more
    sustainable places to live. You can see it here: http://blogs.guggenheim.org/2011/10/a-suburban-pilgrimage-retrofitting-levittown/

    And as for those urban problems – well, they actually make up about
    98% of what I discuss on the blog normally, so I encourage you to
    follow along at http://blogs.guggenheim.org/

    Thanks again for reading, and responding.

    Thoughts from anyone else?