Levittown: A View from the Inside
Often described as a culturally-absent living space, Levittown earned its detrimental status from post-war conformity critics and those outside its walls. In Steve Bergsman’s book, Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy, and Cultural Crisis, he cogitates his life by reflecting upon his childhood and compares it to the defaming accusations against his home. Bergsman refers to the “mythology of the suburban lifestyle” almost as a one sided mirror, where the actuality of the situation is hidden from the world.1
Steve Bergsman begins by setting up a few general misconceptions about Levittown. He makes reference to Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes,” in which it has an almost “unmistakable” reference to Levittown. The song however does not. The song, recorded 15 years after the construction of Levittown, makes reference to Malvina’s home in Daly City, California. Another misconception about Levittown was the poorly built, clone houses. Houses were “built basic, sturdy homes that... could be easily remodeled, expanded, and redesigned according to whim, or creativity, or the current occupant.”2 Intellectuals criticized suburbia for cheap, similar houses. When in actuality, Levittown used standard methodologies and materials during that time. Radiant heating coils would be installed into the concrete slabs which became the base of the house. Copper, quite expensive at the time, was used for all plumbing purposes. People think of use of cheaper materials constitutes to a lack of quality in the house, yet was not true about Levittown. In fact, Levittown is a grand example of the complete opposite. Sheetrock which was used instead of plaster was much more effective. Sheetrock could be installed by the unskilled hand such as the everyday man. Sheetrock was also inexpensive and available in large portions. Levittown’s food was also mocked by post-war conformity critics. It was “tasteless prefabricated food, from the same freezers, forming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold.”3 Steve Bergsman recalls his experience with food rather differently. Recalling his experience as a child, he witnessed people of different backgrounds and cultures such as Italians, Germans, and Irish. They all ate foods tied in with their heritage. He also describes the difference between relationships in Levittown and ones outside its walls. In Levittown, grandparents would normally live outside either near the Bronx or Queens area, if not outside the country. Relationships also seem to be much more strained than if one cohabited inside Levittown. As a fortress of solitude, it kept a countless number of people from venturing too far. Owners rarely moved which allowed strong connections to proliferate. In Levittown, the homes were always close by, so companions were never far away; therefore relationships tended to be less strained than most outside neighborhoods. Communication then was not as developed as it now. The form of messaging today is instantaneous as opposed to slow traveling mail in the 1940s. Adults who moved into Levittown never seem to desert their attachment towards the Northeast. As a child, growing up in a mundane post-war community often led toward an infatuation with sports and games involving physical activities. The relationship between a child and sports was rarely distant. In response to this increase in sporting interest, Levittown schools would incorporate many fitness and physical education programs within the curriculum.
Steve Bergsman later reminisces about his childhood and the friends he had growing up. In Levittown, first impressions matter as generally children don’t get a second chance when attempting to befriend other children, especially in a place such as Levittown, where families do not generate much money through work to change school districts if their child’s experience is unpleasant. Bergsman also makes a point that childhood is a necessity, “his lack of childhood meant that when he became a father, it was a role he didn’t understand.”4 The use of one’s own childhood to fully understand any child is intriguing. Bergsman applies empathy towards this matter to make understanding a situation much easier. In addition, he talks about friendship in Levittown. Although there aren’t any major differences, he does stress the importance of friendship as a necessity. Afterwards, he talks about how conformity applied to his friendships. Conformity forces an increased amount of energy towards making friends. This effect seems to have influenced the majority of children during Bergsman’s experience in some sense. He describes a “suburban conformity, and their tendency to see status competition as a dominant theme in suburban life.”5 This effect usually occurs on adults, yet has a tendency to affect their children as well. This results in the “forced competition” among children to be the head of the class. Although in Bergsman’s experience, he has typically never dealt with this competitive effect with close personal friends. His experience with dating also mildly reflects the suburban conformity’s inclination to see status competition as a dominant theme. He describes his more intimate relationships as if between two bitter rivals. The status of competition will always, regardless of any circumstances, largely affect sports. In his book, there is an abundant amount of data regarding his records and rivals in various track and field sports, as well as football. This may not be directly influenced by Levittown, so it may be concluded that location is non-related. The effect of suburban conformity can be determined as a competitive influence which affects both adults and children profusely.
The author goes into detail about the sexual hotbed that is Levittown in the third section of his book. He first describes Levittown by how outsiders view it: a mundane society that glorifies and forces Conservative values upon others, yet always has stable relationships. He then proceeds to explain how he viewed it, “a lot of intense sexual activity, but not a lot of fornication.”6 Levittown, in Bergsman’s view, was just an ill kept sexual outlet for teenagers. There was almost always inconvenience whenever a young couple wanted to proceed to sexual acts. Bergsman describes having at least one family member at home everyday for all periods of time. Levittown was not made for overly sexualized teenagers, yet it was clearly the result. Levittown was not only home to the sexual activity of teenagers, because books later published in 50s and 60s exposed Levittown for the hotbed of adultery that it was. Steve Bergsman points out that without actually being raised within the community of Levittown, one cannot really understand what it is like. For example, he takes Herbert Gans who wrote The Levittowners by studying the inhabitants of the suburbs. Herbert Gans wrote that adultery was impossible without having close neighbors figuring out. Steve Bergsman, from firsthand experience, has never dealt with a friend nor a friend’s parent extramarital activity. Yet shenanigans were taking place publicly. He describes his eavesdropping experience-”chat was always heavy on sexual innuendos.”7 Steve Bergsman quickly transitions to college, music, and business in Levittown. The future of many Levittowners seem bleak, “next stop is college or a job and maybe it’s time to go away.”8 The variety of decisions for people residing in Levittown was not ample. There were no universities or colleges in Levittown, and jobs became increasingly available in suburbs. Jobs generally paid little after high school, yet so many people stayed in Levittown. It was a factory creating thousands of unskilled workers. Music, at least in Steve Bergsman’s view, was incredibly influential to his life. He allowed his passion for rock ‘n’ roll dominate his personality and clothing choice. Ultimately, his teenage life were both mentally and physically affected by popular music. Business was usually booming on only one of the roads, the Hempstead Turnpike. Bergsman describes it as “an ugly commercial road lined with tacky shopping venues... strip centers,”9 he clearly disapproves of commercial roads. As it seems, the strip attracted large amounts of traffic, rapid store turnovers, and cheap commercial facades.
There is an exploration of music and of literature in the last section of the book. Even as a child, Steve Bergsman found a friend in writing. The rise of his literature began with elementary school. He was an avid reader throughout his childhood; he was thoroughly amazed by childrens’ books and its infinite possibilities. A frequent communicator growing up, Bergsman became obsessed with the idea of a pen pal once he learned how to write. While growing through his teens, Bergsman found writing to be an escape from reality. He also took an interest in books, and was inspired by writer, John Steinbeck. By middle school, Bergsman along with his fellow Levittowners were taken in by the allure of mythology. Mythology swept the U.S. taking ahold of popular culture. Soon after, Levittown inspired literature struck the general population. Either stories about secret lives or memoirs of Levittowners grasped the public. People inside the walls of Levittown found those books to be uninteresting. Steve Bergsman found books about Levittown particularly boring and found little change in the environment, “Levittown still retained a mild sort of resonance.”10 The peak of Board of Education, Island Trees School District v Pico may have also spark some interest in the author. The case was a fight between Levittown’s community and the Island Trees’ Board of Education. The subject was an unfair ban against several books. Bergsman states that his inspiration is due to the fact that Levittown’s supportive community upholds “righteous” values. Music definitely played a role in Steve Bergsman life. Listening to music has allowed him to get over difficult situations multiple times. He revolves mainly around rock ‘n’ roll and blues. Steve Bergsman has been influenced by Elvis Presley, the Drifters, and Bill Haley. These music legends created a paradise for Steve Bergsman, as well as other Levitt teens who use music as a way to cope with everyday problems. Music is also directly related to his rise of interest in literature, as he wrote songs in his youth. He is especially calm during the moments of drum solos. He states that music gives him a clear state of mind. These two factors synergize quite well in their helpfulness in achieving a serene environment, and as an outlet for creativity.
The purpose of this book was to reveal what life in Levittown was truly like. This book distinguished the lies and truths from one man’s perspective. Bergsman’s objective was to bust, “[The] mythology of the suburban lifestyle.”1 Steve Bergsman gives clarity to those in the dark about what occurred in Levittown. Observers do not grasp the true experience. To know what it’s like to live in Levittown, a native must reveal its truths. Critics argued that homes were almost indistinguishable. In Bergsman’s eyes, “every home appeared unique” and every house was an individually crafted piece of art.10 Intellectuals failed to recognize the true beauty of suburbia, because their concerns were on paper.
Steve Bergsman grew up in Long Island, New York. Levittown was known for its, “Catholic, religious church goers, and homes with paterfamilias with old-school fathers determined to keep their children... in line.”12 The author grew up in a very conservative environment with very strict religious family values. His mother raised him with almost a moderate type of parenting. His role model seems to be more of his Australian mother as his father isn’t talked much about in his book. His writing reflects both his Conservative childhood and female role models. Growing Up Levittown is Steve Bergsman’s fifth book, normally writing about real estate and business. His other books include The Death of Johnny Ace, Passport to Exotic Real Estate, and After the Fall. Steve Bergsman did not attend college after high school, but has a professional history writing columns in various papers. Steve Bergsman wrote the book 40-50 years after his experiences in Levittown. The gap in time allows Bergsman to thoroughly reflect on his past. His attitude towards Levittown can be described as one of his life’s best experiences. This book was written for the sole reason that people would learn the truth about Levittown the way Steve Bergsman sees it.
The National Mortgage Professional described the book as timeless classic for realtors. They describe the book as a “nostalgic reminder of what life was like,” during the time of the first suburb.13 A good book to dive back into a time of Elvis and record hops. The National Mortgage Professional claims the early years were great. Growing up as a “baby boomer,” it was a beautiful and magnificent place to spend your childhood. The younger generation can also see what it was like before the time of advanced technology. The National Mortgage Professional proclaims it is a must read for its blissfully written style and historical accuracy. Every word is a journey to the past.
Brian Summerfield of Realtor Magazine described the book as the “closest thing the housing market had to Henry Ford.”14 He explains how Steve Bergsman explores Levitt’s legacy, a truly fantastic work of art. Bergsman also has an intimate history with Levittown, he has a way of creating surprises for both the reader and himself. The public from all “sides of the political spectrum saw Levittown as an abomination”14 When in actuality, Levittown was a place for incredible events to unfold. Millions of veterans and families flooded in after World War II. William Levitt should be acclaimed for his idea of mass house production. The suburbs weren’t as dull and stifling as intellectuals criticized them for. Suburbia had much to offer, and Steve Bergsman took advantage of the close connected houses to make large groups of friends to hang out with.
The book contained satisfactory details. The writing flowed well, and created ease when reading. The passages were quirky, yet managed to still have good amounts of information. The writing contained almost a playful tone. The book, sometimes, would contain unnecessary detail where it would go off too far into his personal life, without mentioning Levittown’s influence or any possible way it connects to the chapter. One part such as “[teenager] hangs out with peers looking for fun and adventure, and gets into trouble -above all, over sex.”14 The detail is unnecessary, it doesn’t add anything useful. Bergsman adds many quotes from other books and novels- distracting from the original story while only adding small amounts of comedic relief. Overall the book was great, but the common question of “How did Levittown change this experience?” was left unanswered.
America, during the 1940s, was a flurry of activity. The post-war era was especially busy. When Levittown was created, it nurtured all its inhabitants. Steve Bergsman agrees wholeheartedly with this statement. Steve Bergsman describes, “Levittown... was nurturing creative talent far and above much of the rest of the population.”15 Steve Bergsman’s experience with Levittown during his youthful years completely contradicts the intellectual thoughts and fears on “suburban slums.” Bergsman believed that Levittown was a turning point in housing for the 1940s. Levittown was a major factor in contributing to the boom in post-war economy as well as providing housing for the returning veterans. The 1940s was indeed a watershed in American history as housing had expanded, and in turn creating suburbias for families.
Levittown, contrary to popular belief, was not a slum, but instead “[It was] nurturing creative talent far and above much of the rest of the population.”16 Levittown was a place of normalcy almost, just a crowded city of life and houses rather than glass buildings. It was subject to continuous harassment by intellectuals, yet remained a safe haven for veterans and families. Levittown was a place of shelter, a peaceful suburbia.
1. Bergsman, Steve. Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy, and Cultural Crisis. Vancouver: Dancing Traveller, 2011. 3.
2. Bergsman, Steve. 6.
3. Bergsman, Steve. 8.
4. Bergsman, Steve. 85.
5. Bergsman, Steve. 115.
6. Bergsman, Steve. 116.
7. Bergsman, Steve. 233.
8. Bergsman, Steve. 237.
9. Bergsman, Steve. 247.
10. Bergsman, Steve. 317.
11. Bergsman, Steve. 8.
12. Bergsman, Steve. 180.
13. National Mortgage Professional. "The Last Time Housing Was Affordable." The Last Time Housing Was Affordable. N.p., 21 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 May 2013.
14. Bergsman, Steve. "Levittown And The Rise of the Burbs." Levittown And The Rise of the Burbs | Steve Bergsman | Published Review | Red Room. N.p., 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 29 May 2013.
15. Bergsman, Steve. 188.
16. Bergsman, Steve. 4-5.