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.”
For all the familiar horror, “Levittown” is also a heartening account of how various white allies of the Myerses form a tough enough front to beat back the mighty forces of Levitt and of American exclusion. The front is not without its weak links and ambiguities: Even Kushner’s stripped-down narrative makes it clear that the black-and-white fight is anything but black and white. One local pastor supports the integration effort, then vacillates about the Wechslers’ communist background, then does a background check on the Myerses to advertise the “clean” results to the public. Everyone has their doubts and moments of weakness, including the stalwart Wechslers and certainly the Myerses, an unassuming couple who became reluctant activists. But despite the hesitations and half steps, there is enough resolve overall to move the cause forward.
And that cause proves not so much to be integration as a certain independence. In the end, everybody wants to be left alone. As Bill Myers says over and over, he and his wife just want to be able to live where they want, raise kids and live in peace like everybody else. Achieving that kind of isolation is perhaps the most bliss we can hope for, the American dream of separation that we all still hold in common.