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Levittown Turns 50

Joel Rose

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The original Levittown model home.
(Joel Rose)
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This weekend, the residents of Willingboro, N.J. are throwing a semi-formal banquet to celebrate the town's 50th anniversary. But you might know Willingboro by its original name: Levittown. This was the third Levittown, after similar planned communities in New York and Pennsylvania. The name isn't the only thing that's changed. What started in 1958 as an all-white town on the edge of the Philadelphia suburbs is now a diverse community of people from all over the world. As Joel Rose reports, the transition wasn't always easy.

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Willingboro Township, N.J., was mostly woods and farmland when Levitt and Sons moved their operation here. Starting in the summer of 1958, the company built 11,000 houses, in exactly three different styles: Colonial, Ranch and Cape Cod.

"These homes were model homes. There's a Rancher, there's a Cape….Rancher, Cape…" says Harry McFarland, as he leads a trolley tour of Willingboro - a.k.a. Levittown - in honor of the town's anniversary. But the most striking thing about the tour isn't McFarland, who used to run the town's recreation department. It's the people on the trolley. Most of them - the clear majority - are African-American, which is both an accurate reflection of Willingboro today, and a sign of how much things have changed.

"Of course, Levittown was at the beginning lily- white," says Herbert Gans, a professor emeritus at Columbia University. Gans was a graduate student in sociology when he bought a house in the shiny new post-war suburb. He later wrote about the experience in his book "The Levittowners."

"They were raising families. They'd lived with their parents or in their neighborhoods. They had to get out. And Levittown was the most widely known brand name, and it was the cheapest," he says.

Advertisements at the time touted: "This is no mere collection of homes, but a carefully planned community. Modern schools, playgrounds that leave nothing to be desired…"

That pitch appealed to Doris McSweeney.

"When my husband and I saw this model, we said this was the house we wanted," she recalls. "Even though, as cheap as it was, when we were signing those papers, our hands were shaking. 'Oh, are we going to be able to make the payments?'"

McSweeney's husband was in the Navy, stationed in Philadelphia. The McSweeneys had four young kids when they moved to Levittown. She still lives in the same three-bedroom Colonial they bought in October 1958.

"Levitt came along at a time when families needed homes for their kids. Just a great place to live. Never locked a door. Our kids came in and out. Just was a perfect planned town, I think," she says.

And planned to be 100 percent Caucasian. Sociologist Herbert Gans says William Levitt deliberately excluded blacks from his third Levittown.

"In Levittown, Pa., there had been a race riot. A black family moved in. Nobody got seriously hurt. But it was pretty nasty. And he wanted avoid that, because it got into the press, made him look bad, made Levittown look bad, and made it harder to sell his houses," Gans says.

But Levitt's policy was on a collision course with state law and a man named William James, Sr.

"I was an officer stationed at Fort Dix, N.J. My wife and I decided we would try to find a home to live in," James recalls. He'd faced a lot of discrimination. But none as overt as William Levitt's.

"I'd been to other places. They would be cordial and everything, but you never heard from them again. He was the only one who told me that they were not selling homes to blacks," James says.

James knew that was technically illegal in New Jersey, so he sued Levitt Brothers. Two years and several appeals later, the New Jersey Supreme Court sided with James. And he picked out a house in Levittown.

"He had to sell it to us. He had no choice."

James lived in Levittown until 1973. Meanwhile, other changes were afoot. In 1963, the residents voted to switch the name back to Willingboro. And the demographics continued to change. During the 1970s and 80s, Doris McSweeney watched as most of her white neighbors packed up and left.

"Willingboro just got such a bad name. And it's a shame. It really is a shame. A lot of people moved out because the black people moved in. I always felt that if they had the money to afford the houses, they deserved to live here. They wanted their kids to go to good schools, as we did," she says.

"We were looking for a place where kids could grow up. Schools weren't far. And they could grow up in a healthy environment," says Carol Newman, who was on the historical trolley tour of Willingboro. Newman and her husband moved here from Bethlehem, Pa., in 1973 and raised three kids. At first, Newman says they were thrilled with the schools, the parks and the swimming pools. But she says the schools have gone downhill. And she finds it all--

"Sad. They used to have events where the community would come together. That's all gone. The pool that every park had - the pools are not there. They're there, but not functioning."

These days, Willingboro is changing again. And the newest arrivals are coming from a lot farther away than Pennsylvania.

Johnson Kolawole is the head of the Greater Willingboro Association - basically, the chamber of commerce. Kolawole was born in Nigeria, though he moved here from South Carolina in 1995. He says other immigrants are arriving directly in Willingboro from Liberia, Asia and the Middle East.

"People of different background, racial background. It's a melting pot. A little United Nations, so to speak," he laughs

Some of the town's newest residents are sending their kids to an elementary school named after William James, Sr. James spoke at the re-dedication a few years back.

I asked him what was it like to see all the kids there of all colors.

"It was an excellent experience. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it'd have a school named after me. Because I went to segregated schools all my life," he replied.

James says he's especially proud that his granddaughter is a student at the school.

Comments

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  • By Doris McSweeney

    From Staunton, VA, 07/25/2012

    In March 2011 I moved to Virginia because of my age and it was the hardest decision of my life. I loved my home in Willingboro and all my great neighbors. My family was among the first families to live there. What a great experience!

    By Doris McSweeney

    From Willingboro, NJ, 01/27/2011

    Some of my statements are mentioned above.
    I would like to correct an incorrect entry. My husband was a M/Sgt. in the
    USMarine Corps not in the Navy. Please make the correction. Thank you.
    Doris McSweeney

    By Frank Kilcoyne

    From Edgewater Park, NJ, 01/18/2009

    The house in the picture is not an "original" Levittown sample house.
    The sample houses. The house in the picture was probably one of the Garfield houses (the sample houses were moved sometime 1964. The original somerset sample homes were at Rt 130 and VanSciver (Then Levittown) parkway. I don't believe any of the original sample houses still exist. The Willingboro town center is there now.

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