Living In: Levittown, N.Y.: The Original Starter Community

Living in

Levittown, N.Y.: The Original Starter Community

Praised for offering the American dream of homeownership, the hamlet has also been derided for its cookie-cutter suburbia. But residents find it hard to leave.

By Julie Lasky

Eight years ago, Jean Holland moved with her family from West Hempstead, N.Y., to Levittown, about seven miles east on the Hempstead Turnpike. Drawn to the legendary Long Island hamlet by its reputation for safe streets and good schools (her son, Brandon, was a teenager at the time), she settled in a 3,000-square-foot house. It was a far cry from the modest two-bedroom boxes that the developers, Levitt & Sons, had built from 1947 to 1951 for returning World War II servicemen. But it was typical of what Levittown has become in the decades since: a collection of more than 17,000 snowflakes customized with dormers, bay windows, porticos, shingles and garages.

Ms. Holland, a paralegal, found the house had more space than she needed, and the $3,200 monthly mortgage was a strain. So she and her family moved again. And again and again and again. As life threw them curves, or they simply got itchy, they changed addresses, but always within the community. Now Ms. Holland, 67, is on her fifth Levitt house, a circa-1950 extended ranch on Blacksmith Road with five bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool. She and her husband, John, 63, a waiter, paid $432,000 for the property in 2016. Brandon has the second floor to himself.

“Even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t leave here,” she said. “I may build my dream house, but I wouldn’t leave Levittown.”

Levittown has been lauded for offering the American dream of homeownership, and derided as a model of suburban monotony and intolerance. But a key trait of the 71-year-old development in Nassau County is its stickiness.

Many children of the original homeowners have grown up and grown old in these seven square miles. The needs of older residents have become so pronounced that one of the suburb’s two bowling alleys is being replaced by an assisted-living community. At the same time, a new generation is turning up in search of an affordable place to start families.

“If you’re a young couple getting married, and you want to live in a good community and can only spend around $400,000, Levittown is the only place to go,” said Nancy Kalberer, an agent with Century 21, who has been selling real estate in the area for 28 years. “You sacrifice your basement, but so what?”

Yes, Levittown has no basements. The mass-construction methods that yielded more than 30 houses a day at the peak of development left no time to dig foundations. The houses were built on radiant-heated slabs.

Levittown’s houses do not align, but are set slightly back or forward along the street, so that neighbors can avoid looking into one another’s windows.CreditBeth Perkins for The New York Times

Buried oil tanks are another quirk, Ms. Kalberer said. And she often broods over the poor planning that, as she sees it, left no reasonable place for a washing machine.

But Levittown still has its original nine community swimming pools with playing fields and playgrounds, as well as remnants of the seven intimate shopping strips known as village greens. It also still has active VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and American Legion posts. And volunteerism is strong in traditional service clubs like the Kiwanis and Lions.

“People are very attached to this community, even the people who move away,” said Louise Cassano, who grew up in the original Levitt house her parents bought in 1951. In 1964, she and her husband moved into their own home, on Lilac Lane. Now 74 and president of the Levittown Community Council, which organizes festivals and anniversary celebrations, she has never lived anywhere else.

But attachment comes at a steep price: Levittown, which lacks a commercial or manufacturing base, has painfully high property taxes. For instance, the taxes on a 1,200-square-foot house on Lilac Lane currently listed for $459,000 are $10,849. And now, after an eight-year freeze, reassessments are expected to raise taxes for 52 percent of Nassau County’s homeowners.

Also, the community’s much-documented history includes ugly chapters of racial exclusion and book banning. The early leases barred homeowners from renting or selling to those who weren’t “Caucasians,” although they stipulated that people of color could work as domestics. Bill Griffith, the cartoonist who for more than 40 years has revisited his Levittown childhood in his “Zippy the Pinhead” strip, recalled ethnic blocks of Italians and Jews (“I was neither,” he said) reflecting the makeup of settlers from Queens and Brooklyn.


354 WHITTIER AVENUE | A four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom colonial, built in 1953 on 0.14 acres, listed for $699,000. 917-733-3059CreditBeth Perkins for The New York Times

Today, Levittown is more diverse. According to 2017 census estimates, the population of nearly 52,000 is 14.6 percent Hispanic or Latino and 7.3 percent Asian, an increase of 7.8 and 4.5 percent since 2000. In that same period, the percentage of black or African-American residents rose from 0.5 percent to 1.4 percent.

The demographic shift is pronounced in local churches. The building on Periwinkle Road that was once the Unitarian Levittown Community Church has since 2016 been home to the India Christian Assembly.

Mr. Griffith, who left Levittown after high school, recalled knocking on the door of his old home on Harbor Lane a decade ago, just to say hello. It was opened by a Chinese family, who “immediately tried to sell me the house,” he said.

Developed on 4,000 acres of potato farms, Levittown is a hamlet and census-designated place in the town of Hempstead. Its boundaries are commonly identified with the 11756 ZIP code.

Ms. Kalberer, the real estate agent, estimated that 80 percent of the housing stock is modified versions of the 750-square-foot Cape Cods and 800-square-foot ranches built by the Levitts. The remaining 20 percent, she said, was built by competing developers or on the sites of teardowns.

You won’t find many stoop-huggers seeking protection for the original buildings. These houses were meant to be altered, with their unfinished attics and roomy 60-by-100-foot lots. A close example of a pristine Levitt house, on Oak Tree Lane, lost bragging rights when its owners replaced the original asphalt shingles.


116 COACH LANE | A four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, built in 1950 on 0.15 acres, listed for $588,000. 516-587-9113CreditBeth Perkins for The New York Times

What you will find are structures that spread out over their lots, bumping out at the sides and back, and growing upward from the original rooflines.

Local commercial establishments have similarly expanded. “When Levittown was built, each section had a village green, and those businesses were all owned by small-business owners, with the exception of a supermarket,” Ms. Cassano said. “Even the major shopping center on Hempstead Turnpike was basically small stores.”

Today Hempstead Turnpike, the main consumer corridor running east-west through the hamlet, is lined with big-box outlets like Staples and fast-food spots like Dairy Queen. Retail at the village greens — which were designed to be within walking distance, so housewives left stranded by their commuting husbands in the age of one-car families could buy necessities — has grown spotty or been supplanted by housing. Many small businesses, Ms. Cassano said, are now based in the owners’ homes, like her own public-relations and marketing company.

Locals say they can find everything they need within Levittown or in shopping centers like the Broadway Commons mall in neighboring Hicksville. For recreation they enjoy the community pools, block parties, league sports and a branch of Governor’s Comedy Club. The Levittown Community Council holds a February Winterfest and a July event called Lazy Days of Summer.

“Around the Fourth of July, it’s like a war zone with all the fireworks,” said Ms. Holland, the peripatetic Levittown resident. “Oops, I guess I shouldn’t say that.”

Levittown’s housing inventory is mostly single-family. Among the 114 properties on the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island website as of Dec. 17, the least expensive house in good condition (and not in foreclosure) was an expanded Cape Cod with three bedrooms and one bathroom, priced at $379,000 (taxes: $11,506). The most expensive was a colonial-style house built in 2015, with four bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, priced at $729,000 (taxes: $34,774).


85 ACORN LANE | A three-bedroom, one-bathroom Cape Cod-style house, built in 1948 on 0.16 acres, listed for $389,000. 631-872-1566CreditBeth Perkins for The New York Times

Cambridge Village/Yorkshire Village is a rental complex on Bowling Lane with 122 one- and two-bedroom units starting at $2,060 a month. Rentals are also available at the 44-unit Brixton Lane Apartments, where one-bedrooms start at $1,850 a month.

According to Trulia, the median sale price of a home in Levittown, as of Oct. 18, was $449,000, a year-over-year increase of 8 percent, based on 1,378 transactions.

Bob Koenig, the vice president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum, who has lived in the hamlet since 2002 and has composed and recorded affectionate songs about it, described Levittown as “a starter community.”

It set the tone for suburban America and keeps a tight hold on old-school values like civic responsibility and neighborliness, he said: “You feel like you walk out of your house and you see a real enactment of ‘Father Knows Best’ or ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ But not necessarily in a bad way.”


Patrons gather at the bar in Governor’s Comedy Club, on Division Avenue.CreditBeth Perkins for The New York Times

The Levittown Union Free School District serves about 7,100 students and has a 2017-18 budget of $210,218,722, or about $29,600 per student; 65 percent of its revenue comes from property taxes.

The district covers about five and half square miles of Levittown and parts of neighboring Wantagh and Seaford. It has six elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and the Gerald R. Claps Career and Technical Center, a two-year technical high school open to all 11th- and 12th-grade students in Nassau County.

Levittown residents “get really a lot for their taxes,” said Tonie McDonald, the superintendent. She described a panoply of Advanced Placement classes and athletics programs, a full continuum of special education and a highly regarded music curriculum.

On 2017-18 state tests, 61 percent of students in third through eighth grades met standards in English districtwide, versus 45 percent statewide; 70 percent met standards in math, versus 47 percent statewide. But Ms. McDonald noted that more than 70 percent of the district’s elementary- and middle-school students opted out of the examinations, so the results might not accurately reflect the schools’ academic achievements.

The 2017 SAT scores for the district’s two four-year high schools, Division Avenue and General Douglas MacArthur, averaged 558 in reading and writing and 561 in math, versus 480 and 530 statewide.

A number of homes in northeastern Levittown fall into the Island Trees Union Free School District, which has 2,250 students and lower taxes. The district, which extends into Bethpage and Seaford, encompasses two elementary schools (one kindergarten through first grade, the other second through fourth grade), a middle school (fifth through eighth grade) and a high school.


Levittown Veterans Memorial Park, on Hempstead Turnpike at Shelter Lane, reflects the continuing support and affection the community bears for servicemen and –women.CreditBeth Perkins for The New York Times

On 2017-18 state tests, 68 percent of students in third through eighth grade met standards in English districtwide, versus 45 percent statewide; 66 percent met standards in math, versus 47 percent statewide.

Average 2017 SAT scores for Island Trees High School were 553 for reading and writing and 551 for math, versus 480 and 530 statewide.

Levittown is about 35 miles east of Manhattan. The Long Island Rail Road station in Hicksville is three miles from the heart of Levittown; travel time to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan averages 44 minutes. The one-way peak fare is $13.50, and a monthly pass is $297.

Many residents opt to drive to the train stations in Wantagh, Bethpage, Seaford or Merrick, where parking is usually easier and cheaper.

Before there was Levittown, N.Y. — the first of seven Levittowns in the U.S. and Puerto Rico — there was a grove of pitch pine trees that grew at the present-day intersection of Hempstead Turnpike and Jerusalem Avenue. The pines looked so anomalous surrounded by a sea of grasses that the area was known as Island Trees. Mr. Koenig of the Levittown Historical Society said that before World War II, pilots who flew into the three nearby airfields used the trees to navigate.

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Published at Wed, 19 Dec 2018 15:50:40 +0000