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Growing up in Levittown

The quintessential suburb was built on rules, and they still shape the town today

A 1950s-styled white family stands hand-in-hand in front of a blue single family home. The home has a ‘For Sale’ sign out front but they stand as if they are protecting it. Illustration

Some of the tasks on the list were silly. Dance in a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Scream in a store. Lick a park bench. Some, however, were less silly. Sex on the high school turf resulted in an automatic win. As far as Amanda Luque knew, no one had done that. But still, the scavenger hunt intimidated her. She only showed up at the starting point underneath the bleachers because a friend had asked her to.

Yet there was something thrilling about the scavenger hunt, too. Luque was 14 and about to enter MacArthur High School in Levittown, New York. The scavenger hunt was an underground hazing ritual unaffiliated with the school and performed by the incoming sophomores. She had envied the photos of previous teams, and a neighbor of hers had been in the scavenger hunt two years prior, in 2013.

Now, in June 2015, it was her turn. She had been assigned to the red team. For the occasion, she wore a red T-shirt from Party City and red face paint, and she stamped red handprints on her legs.

That day, in an open field, the girls on her team stripped down to their bras and underwear. The boys peeled off their T-shirts. The teens climbed atop one another to form the “naked pyramid.” Luque watched from a distance, declining to participate (another teen who did the scavenger hunt that year told me the list also included performing oral sex behind the Burger King, hooking up with a senior, and kissing someone of the same sex). Someone took a photo to send to the incoming sophomores for proof. Luque texted her mom, asking her to call with a fake emergency: to say that her grandmother had fallen down the stairs.

“My friend said, ‘I hope she’s okay. Run quickly so no one sees you,’” says Luque, alluding to the rule that stragglers got their team disqualified. “And I did, and I made it home.”

Levittown was built on rules. No fences around the yards. Grass had to be maintained and trimmed. Clothes could only be hung to dry in the backyard on weekdays. Only white people could live there. Though these rules no longer apply, their mere existence has continued to shape and permeate the town’s culture today, particularly for Levittown’s teens, who speak about traditions and customs and the deep-rootedness of certain conservative mentalities.

William Levitt, a Jewish developer working for his father’s firm, Levitt & Sons, developed Levittown in 1947 on a patch of potato farm on Long Island. The idea of Levittown was to offer mass-produced housing for veterans returning from the war.

This is a basic Levittown fact that’s typically taught in school, but not one that’s often expanded upon.

“I don’t know the true history of Levittown, of its age and how it began. I know it was farmland and that the restaurants we have were cornfields,” says Michelle Williams, a junior at Levittown’s Island Trees High School. “I know it was white-only. I don’t know how it came about or how long it lasted. I think they talked about it in school, but never to a real extent.”

“We have actually learned a lot about Levittown,” says Isabella Molina, a senior at MacArthur. “We learn about the famous potato farms.”

As part of the social studies curriculum, elementary school students take a field trip to the Levittown Historical Society and Museum. The society was established in 1988 to preserve “the legacy of William J. Levitt” and the “world-famous” town he created, according to its website. David Kushner visited the museum while conducting book research for Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. He asked the woman working there why the museum didn’t have any information about Levittown banning black buyers. “She kind of rolled her eyes and said, ‘Levitt only did what he had to do.’ What she was really saying was that this was the government.”

The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, which created the GI Bill, lent money to builders on the condition that the houses wouldn’t be sold to black buyers. Levittown was subsidized and built under these restrictions. Clause 25 of the Levittown leases and deeds permitted only “members of the Caucasian race,” unless they were “domestic servants.”

Today, the museum features a model Levitt kitchen, bedroom, and living room from the 1950s and a sports memorabilia collection. Paul Manton, the president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum, says the school kids learn about the farmland, Levitt’s mass-production techniques, and suburban expansion. When I ask about the whites-only restriction, he says, “We don’t talk too much about the deeds and restrictions because it’s a small part of Levittown, really.” His response parallels the one Kushner, the writer, heard at the museum. “Levitt was the largest real estate developer in the country, but each state you went to had those kinds of restrictions,” Manton continues. “Levitt himself was personally opposed to it. He was a progressive man. He would hire large numbers of black workers and he had a black sales manager.”

But according to Kushner, even after the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in 1948 to enforce such clauses, Levitt remained steadfast. “Bill Levitt had a press conference and said, ‘We’re removing this racial covenant but our policy is unchanged,’ and that meant he was flipping the middle finger and saying, ‘I’m the country’s biggest builder, what are you going to do?’” says Kushner. “His fear was that if you allow blacks to move into the neighborhood, it would lower the value and whites would leave, but the opposite happened. Once all this started getting out, black families didn’t want to move there.” In 2018, Levittown was 84 percent white.

The demand for a Levitt house was profound. People camped out in tents and hammocks in front of the Levitt & Sons sales office. In just four years, Levitt built over 17,000 manufactured homes. Buyers could choose between a Cape Cod or ranch. The first homes cost $65 to rent and $6,990 to buy with no down payment for veterans, according to an article in the New York Times. By 1949, the ranch-style homes were being offered for $7,990, with monthly payments of less than $60. Each house had a driveway, one bathroom, two bedrooms, an upstairs room, a kitchen, a living room, and no basement. The ranches came with a fireplace.

The layouts were more or less uniform, which provides a familiar comfort still today. Things can get tricky if the design veers off course. “My front door opens to our living room in front of the stairs and I remember my friends getting lost and not knowing where anything was,” says Jacqueline Testamark, a senior at Division Avenue.

It’s rare to find a Levitt in its original condition; most people have renovated. Nicholas Logozzo, a junior at MacArthur, says his family recently leveled their home to give each of the three siblings their own room. Alexis Avedisian lives in a Levitt with an extended living room, but other limits make the home feel cramped. “We only have one shower in our house, which can be tough because my mom likes to [spend time in] the bathroom,” she said.

Levittown realized a utopian dream of affordable family houses with backyards and pools, and ushered in a suburban boom. But it also became the country’s prime example of racial steering, cited in dozens of news articles, books, radio segments, and papers on the subject.

Residents, though, don’t tend to see it that way. “[Restrictions were] widespread and not unique to Levittown, and personally, I don’t think it’s that important and I think people have developed a fetish preoccupation to it,” says Manton, the president of the historical society.

Robyn Rawls, who graduated from MacArthur High School in 1998 and lives in Levittown, says Clause 25 was considered an “urban legend” until someone saw proof of it on an original deed.

Diana Samboy, Rawls’s grandmother, moved to Levittown in the early 1960s. She and her husband had been living nearby, in Westbury, but she says the area had gotten “seedy.” They were expecting their third child and wanted to “move up.” Samboy adjusted well to the small-town mentality and idyllic lifestyle of Levittown. No one locked their door. Every family owned a dog (or cat). When asked about Levitt’s regulations, Samboy waved off the question. “That was before I moved there,” she says.

Levittown realized a utopian dream of affordable family houses with backyards and pools, and ushered in a suburban boom. But it also became the country’s prime example of racial steering.

She maintains a heroic portrait of Levitt, even if he was overly strict at times. “From what I gather, he was a character,” she says. “He loved putting these houses up and dictated no fences, no garbage cans out front, no clotheslines. He was a little Hitler, but nobody paid attention after a couple years. Someone said he came around in a limo and he just was so proud of that, because...potato fields, that’s all that was here. He was so proud of the veterans coming back from World War II and he gave them such a break to get into these houses.”

Andrew Cassano was born in Levittown in 1970 and lived there until he was 26. The big focus of his teen years was “rocking out” at the pool. This meant doing cannonballs or jackknifes off the diving board, which pool rules prohibited. He can talk at length about what it felt like to turn 10 and go to the pool alone or keep a dollar in his pocket for Cosmo, the ice cream man. But Cassano wasn’t exactly sure about the town’s history. “I do recall hearing stories about how William Levitt had a whites-only policy,” he says.

The pools—Levitt built nine—are still the big summer draw for teens. The kids also eat at Wendy’s and go to the bowling alley. Taylor Capicchioni, a senior at MacArthur, volunteers for Wantagh-Levittown Volunteer Ambulance Corps. She’s learned to spot symptoms and how to treat patients. “As a high school student, you’re bound to sports and any clubs, but it gave me an idea of how people on Long Island like to help,” she says. Testamark, the senior at Division Avenue, has a packed extracurricular schedule. She’s a mathlete, a soccer player, a member of the Key Club, and in several honor societies; she’s also on the student council, sings in chamber choir, and performs in the school musical.

Sometimes, there are drugs and alcohol. “I never really drank, but I got into some other things when I was 14 or 15. It never owns me, but it’s really what kids did to have fun,” says Luque. “You can go to the malls or Ralph’s ice cream shops, but mostly at night, there are stumps behind buildings and little ditch areas between properties where kids would hang out, and they’d spend time together doing stupid things.”

Every fall, the teens look forward to homecoming, celebrated at the high schools with football games, parades, float making, and the crowning of the king and queen. Even people who have no affiliation with the three high schools—MacArthur, Division Avenue, and Island Trees—attend. There’s also the Levittown Carnival on Memorial Day weekend, which signals the start of summer and the end of A.P. testing. But most importantly, there’s Spirit Night, a Division Avenue custom that dates back several decades (the Island Trees version is called Battle of the Classes). “You hear about it in elementary and middle school,” says Brandon Martinez, a senior at Division Avenue. For a week in March, students dress up in theme to win points. There’s also a dance competition, a hula hoop race, a scooter relay, a tug-of-war, and an egg run. Last year, for the first year since 2012, the seniors lost. For Martinez, who was on the winning team, Spirit Night is the kind of tradition you tell your kids about.

Levittown was built on rules. No fences around the yards. Grass had to be maintained and trimmed. Clothes could only be hung to dry in the backyard on weekdays. Only white people could live there.

Levittown is not without its scandals, though. Two years ago, an assistant principal at MacArthur was found to have scammed two female teachers at his previous school out of $15,000. “That’s what people talk about in my school,” says Shane Scaffidi, Luque’s boyfriend, who also went to MacArthur. In 2013, swastikas were drawn on Levittown Veterans Memorial Park. Three years later, in 2016, a 20-foot swastika was dug into a baseball field in Levittown. Peyton Fern, Rawls’s daughter and Samboy’s great-granddaughter, graduated MacArthur this past June. She says the incident wasn’t acknowledged in school, but one teacher did give an “inclusion speech” afterwards. Fern still lives in Levittown, down the street from Samboy, but has pondered leaving because of the opioid epidemic and other issues. “It’s mind-blowing because it’s good people who turn out to not be doing much with themselves,” she says. “It’s a small town and people get comfortable and you kind of get stuck.”

“There was a stigma with Levittown,” says Rawls, Fern’s mother, talking about the years when she was a teenager. “People in other areas called it ‘Levittrash.’ The neighborhood was all white. Even now, it still carries over because nobody leaves.”

Luque characterizes her peers as reflective of the town’s roots: conservative, privileged, and “all the same.” Emily, the other teen who participated in the scavenger hunt but declined to give her last name, told me that in Levittown, “There’s no real consequences for anything you do.”

When Bill Griffith’s family moved to Levittown in 1952, it was “an old white world.” By the early ’60s, he started to feel suffocated and broke several Levittown molds. Most teens ride their bikes within the town limits. Griffith rode his to Walt Whitman’s birthplace an hour away. He didn’t learn one piece of Levittown history in school, he says. “I grew up in a time when we were being handed myths and legends. History was full of blank spaces or made-up stories.”

On Luque’s last day at MacArthur, this past June, the Gay Straight Alliance Club set up a display in the hallway that said, “MacArthur High School Pride For All” with descriptions of different sexualities and cutouts of celebrities who identify as LGBTQ. She hadn’t seen anything like that in school before.

It was, perhaps, a sign of change.

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Baffler, and elsewhere. She last wrote for Curbed about the Jersey shore.