Crisis in Levittown, Pa.
Famous Landmark Documentary On Racism In A United States Neighborhood
The Black middle-class Myers family moves into all-white Levittown, PA in August, 1957, and are snubbed and mistreated, in this powerful landmark documentary showcasing racism in the United States. This movie is part of the collection and courtesy of the Academic Film Archive of North America from www.archive.org; Producer: Lee Bobker/Lester Becker.
Racism, by its simplest definition, is discrimination based on the racial groups to which people belong. People with racist beliefs might hate certain groups of people according to their racial groups. In the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits, or get preferential treatment. Racism typically points out taxonomic differences between different groups of people, even though anybody can be racialised, independently of their somatic differences. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination. While the term racism usually denotes race-based prejudice, violence, discrimination, or oppression, the term can also have varying and hotly contested definitions. Racialism is a related term, sometimes intended to avoid these negative meanings.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, racism is a belief or ideology that all members of each racial group possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another racial group or racial groups. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular racial group, and that it is also the prejudice based on such a belief. The Macquarie Dictionary defines racism as: “the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others.”
According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, religion,descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.’ This definition does not make any difference between prosecutions based on ethnicity and race, in part because the distinction between the two remains debatable among anthropologists. According to British law, racial group means “any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin.”
Levittown is a census-designated place (CDP) and planned community in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, United States, within the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The population was 52,983 at the 2010 census. It is 40 feet (12 m) above sea level. Though not a municipality, it is sometimes recognized as the largest suburb of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania (while Upper Darby Township, Lower Merion Township, Bensalem Township, Abington Township and Bristol Township are municipalities larger in size in the three surrounding Pennsylvania counties). It was planned and built by Levitt & Sons. The brothers Bill Levitt and architect Alfred Levitt designed its typical houses.
The majority of the land on which it is built was purchased in 1951. Levitt and Sons only built six models of house in Levittown, all single-family dwellings with lawns: the Levittowner, the Rancher, the Jubilee, the Pennsylvanian, the Colonial and the Country Clubber, with only modest exterior variations. The homes were moderately priced and required only a low down payment. Construction of Levittown began in February 1952, soon after completion of Levittown, New York, located on Long Island. Levittown, Pennsylvania was the second “Levittown” built by William J. Levitt, who is often credited as the creator of the modern American suburb. To speed up construction, Levitt & Sons perfected a 26-step rationalized building method that was essentially an assembly line type of home building. The house remained stationary, while the construction workers moved from house to house. Each worker had one task such as pouring slabs, framing, installing electric sockets or installing washing machines. This highly regimented process enabled Levitt’s workers to produce a finished house every 16 minutes. Construction of the homes commenced in 1952 and when completed in 1958, 17,311 homes were built.
What set Levittown apart from other developments at the time was that it was built as a complete community. Levitt & Sons designed neighborhoods with traffic-calming curvilinear roads, in which there were no four-way intersections. Each neighborhood had within its boundaries a site donated by Levitt & Sons for a public elementary school. Locations for churches and other public facilities were set aside on main thoroughfares such as the Levittown Parkway, likewise donated by the builder to religious groups and other organizations. Other amenities included Olympic-sized public pools, parks, “greenbelts”, baseball fields and playgrounds, and a shopping center located in Tullytown borough that was considered large and modern at the time of its construction (and in fact was the largest east of the Mississippi). The first set of 4 sample homes were put on display in a swatch of land near the future Levittown Shop-a-Rama, and an estimated 30,000 people viewed them in that first weekend.
Residents (who are sometimes called Levittowners) were first expected to comply with a lengthy list of rules and regulations regarding the upkeep of their homes and use of their property. Two of these “rules” included a prohibition on hanging laundry out to dry on Sunday and not allowing homeowners to fence off their yards. These proved unenforceable over time, particularly when backyard pools became financially accessible to the working class and privacy concerns drove many to fence off their yards. In the years since Levitt & Sons ended construction, three- and four-story “garden apartments” and a number of non-Levitt owner-occupied houses have been built in Levittown.
Levitt & Sons would not sell homes to African Americans. Levitt did not consider himself to be a racist, considering housing and racial relations entirely separate matters. However, this did not prevent a European-American family from reselling a home to an African-American family, and Levittown’s first black couple, William and Daisy Myers, bought a home in the Dogwood Hollow section in 1957. Their move to Levittown was marked with racist harassment and mob violence, which required intervention by state authorities. This led to an injunction and criminal charges against the harassers while Myers and their supporters refused to surrender and received national acclaim for their efforts. For instance, Daisy Myers has been hailed as “The Rosa Parks of the North,” who helped expose the northern states’ problems with racial inequality of that time. Daisy Myers later wrote a book about her family’s experiences. She died Dec. 5, 2011, in York, Pa.
The community’s otherwise placid exterior was again disturbed during the so-called suburban gas riots of June 1979 in the wake of the Camp David Peace Accords, which resulted in a second embargo by Arab oil-producing nations. The unrest occurred June 24–25, 1979, as lines swelled and tempers flared in the heart of Levittown at an intersection known as Five Points, a location surrounded by six service stations, two of which were severely damaged by vandalism in the riots. The two days of riots made national headlines and were mentioned (although not directly by name) in the draft of an address to the nation that was to have been delivered by President Jimmy Carter on July 5, 1979.
The Levittown Shopping Center (known officially as—but rarely called—the “Levittown Shop-a-Rama”), located in Tullytown, was unusually designed. Two parallel strips of stores faced the parking lot with a courtyard that had green spaces, benches, and entrances to the stores. The center had one large anchor department store (Pomeroys, which was acquired by The Bon-Ton) as well as staple stores of a growing suburban demand (JC Penney, Woolworth’s, Sears-just hardware). The shopping center began a slow decline in the mid-1970s from which it never recovered with the building of the Oxford Valley Mall. The mall, located just north of Levittown, in Langhorne in Middletown Township, drew shoppers away from the older Levittown facility, given Oxford Valley’s much larger size and enclosed shopping environment. In 2002, the redeveloped site of the Shop-a-rama was reopened as the Levittown Town Center. The completed facility contains 468,675 square feet (43,541.3 m2) of retail space.
Of the five public pools built by Levitt & Sons and operated by the Levittown Public Recreation Association (LPRA), four were closed in 2002 with the exception of one located in the Pinewood section. LPRA Headquarters (and other landmarks) of this prototypical post-war suburb of sometimes mythic importance have been the focus of historic preservation efforts. Since 2002, studies have been underway to establish the Levittown Historic District.
Since its inception in 1988, the Bucks County St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been held in Levittown. Every year, the parade steps off from St Joseph the Worker Church, and proceeds two miles (3 km) on New Falls Road to Conwell-Egan Catholic High School.