Friday, August 19, 2005

The Birth And Death Of America's Oldest Suburb

Historical Marker In Levittown Denotes "Birth Of The Suburbs"

Much of Nassau County, America's oldest suburb, is now beginning to feel its age - infrastructure failing, economic growth creaking, green spaces balding, and more than just a little "hair" growing out of its ears.

Levittown, springing up as the post-WWII answer to urbanization - the affordable houses for our returning GIs - is often heralded as America's first suburb, a bedroom community of quaint single-family homes, many with white picket fences, exemplifying to many what was, some sixty years ago, an attainable and sustainable American dream.

Recently, Town of Hempstead Supervisor, Kate Murray - joined by representatives of the Levitt Corporation and a local Boy Scout (you always need a Boy Scout), as well as other dignitaries -"planted" an historical marker at Levittown Village Greens, same commemorating the birth of the suburbs. [SEE Town News, The Birth of the Suburbs Happened in Levittown.]

Supervisor Murray, in her address at the planting ceremony, called her hometown of Levittown America's first planned suburban community. "Levittown is the product of an enormously innovative vision that helped define the suburban lifestyle," said Murray. "William Levitt actually was a pioneer of smart growth principles, creating walkable communities that featured convenient village green shopping and recreation."

Indeed, Levittown was a prime example of both planned development and smart growth, its favorable mix of retail, residential and recreational uses serving as models for planned communities throughout the nation.

Smart growth, as we envision it today, was born in the heart of the Town of Hempstead, with Levittown its shining beacon. What a shame that such planned development languished in Levittown, destined to die a slow, torturous death before Zoning Board and Town Board, where "smart growth" was and remains but an oxymoron.

What should have been the basis for a visionary master plan for the development of the rest of the Town of Hempstead, Levittown stands as an almost timeless monument to innovation lost and creativity gone awry.

Juxtapose the neat rows of houses with their stately lawns, the community parks, the pools, bowling alleys and retail shops of Levittown, with the sprawl, blight and catch-as-catch-can "development" of communities that de-evolved in the post-Levittown era. The Baldwins. The Elmonts. The Roosevelts. The Uniondales. The West Hempsteads. To name but a few of the unincorporated areas of the township where eyesore trumps vision.

While, as Jack Abdo, Vice Chairman of the Levitt Corporation, observed, "The same principles of quality and value that guided William Levitt in the creation of Levittown are still at the essence of everything Levitt Corporation does today," it is pitifully obvious that those guiding principles have neither been adopted by, nor so much as made passing reference to in the "planning" of, America's largest township.

Where are the village greens (or, for that matter, any green) - so prevalent in Levittown - in the "step-child" communities of Hempstead Town? Where are our tree-lined boulevards down which we could take a pleasant stroll on any given Sunday? Where is the "dynamic forethought" of a William Levitt? Whatever became of the "planning" of that "great American hamlet?"

The marker planted by the Supervisor in Levittown's East Village Green reads as follows:

"The dream of owning a home came true for thousands in Levittown, America's largest suburban development. Designed to provide returning World War II veterans and their young families with convenient shopping and recreation, the East Village Green was one of seven greens built between 1948 and 1951. The East Village Green opened in April of 1950, contributing to a suburban fabric that made Levittown an innovative and uniquely American community."*

That "dream of owning a home" on our Long Island has faded to memory for most - home prices rising out of reach; taxes soaring out of control; the vision of a suburban community abruptly turned nightmare by longstanding oversight, benign neglect, and outright abandonment.

"As a Levittowner and a local public official, I am proud of the legacy that has come out of William Levitt's vision," concluded the Supervisor. "This community continues to represent the very best of the suburban experience. Just as I spent much of my idyllic childhood at this and other local village greens, future generations will also be the beneficiaries of all that comes with growing up in America's largest suburban development."

Yes, the idea and ideal of the American suburb was born, right here in Hempstead Town, lo those many years ago when William Levitt and his crew broke ground on those not so fertile plains of Hempstead. For little more than $8000, you could own a piece of that American dream, and buy into the hope that this dream of suburbia would grow, would endure, would fluorish for generations.

The legacy of Levittown should never have ended where it all began. And that great American Dream should never have been set down the path to the great American tragedy. Perhaps the marker planted in Levittown should have read: "Here Lies The Dream Of Suburbia - Born 1945 ~ Died Slowly And Prematurely, 1951 - 2005."

We have seen the vision of Levitt's suburbia - its birth, its maturity, and its now waning life. It is tough, almost unbearable at times, to watch the dream die, especially when it never had to be this way at all.

*It has not been reported whether the historical marker as planted bears the inscription, "Kate Murray, Supervisor."

1 comment:

  1. You KNOW it's gonna have her name on it. NOTHING gets put up in TOH w/o her name emblazoned on it.
    I would expect her name gilded in gold on the marker.