So there was a short period of time last night between getting home and food hitting the table, and in that lag time, I was mindlessly watching a crap sitcom I NEVER watch. Watching it reminded me why it's not in my TIVO season pass list.... but that's another story for another day.
Anyway, during the ubiquitous scene in the bar where the characters talk smack to each other and try to be funny, one of them was wearing a T-Shirt. It said "Welcome to Levittown."
I would not have thought twice about this, or even knew what the reference was, except for one thing. Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the first family to move into Levittown. And it's significant.
Well, it's marginally interesting anyway.
Okay, it's only interesting in light of the fact that in addition to this anniversary, yesterday was also the blessed day upon which the first baby-boomer applied for her Social Security benefits.
So back to Levittown, and why it's interesting.
Its hard to imagine that the US suburb has only existed for such a short amount of time, yet it has so drastically changed the way we think, act, and interact with one another. Thanks Mr. Levit, and Levittown, for inventing the middle class ghetto.
For those of you unfamiliar with Levittown’s history - it's the first planned suburb. To be clear, it was far from being the ‘first suburb’, as people seem to be fond of saying, but was instead the first to be planned in the manner that has become the American standard for suburban living. Namely, a crap-load (that's a technical architecture term - I swear) of houses that look alike, are cheaply built, allow for maximum visibility of the family (American made) car, and provide a rectangle of grass to be watered and mowed (or you’ll be ridiculed by the neighbors, and your invite to the block party will get ‘lost’).
Long story short, Levit bought some old potato farms on Long Island, turned developer, and constructed something like 2,000 cookie-cutter low-cost homes. Each had a yard and all that, and they were lined up on winding streets that were meant to be reminiscent of (one would assume) the ‘natural’ suburbs that were inaccessible to so much of the population (I call them ‘natural’ suburbs for lack of a better word - but I’m referring to those that were unplanned).
The houses were then placed on the market, and sold at fairly low costs - The Cape Cods that first became available in 1947 — with four rooms, one bathroom and among other modern amenities, white enameled metal cabinets, a Hotpoint electric range in every kitchen — were offered for $6,990, and 800-square-foot ranch homes went for $7,990 - especially compared to the traditional suburb, in particular to veterans (WWII and Korean?) and their families - basically creating the image of the ‘American Dream’, in terms of quality of living (house with a garage, family car, a $65 monthly mortgage payment, 2.5 children, etc, etc).
And so now Levittown is 60 years old - October 2007 marks 60 years since the first residents moved in - and things have changed. Now there are Levittowns all over the country - not in name, but definitely in appearance. But what’s become of the original? Well it’s apparently gone through the changes one would expect, becoming home to McMansions (and wannabees) created by people expanding and adding to the existing original homes until they were unrecognizable.
This has brought up a discussion in the original Levittown about whether or not the last remaining ‘original’ homes should remain preserved - but I would like to propose a better question: was Levittown successful? Is it worth preserving?
In the US we’re obsessed with creating history, as ours is a young country and an even younger culture - but should we really cling to ‘American’ things just because they’re of this country, regardless of their actual merit?
While this is obviously a broad question, I believe it applies particularly to architecture and the U.S.’s acceptance of architectural mediocrity as tradition. Is the suburb still relevant? Is it still a legitimate way to plan communities? Is it good?
As an aside, it is noted that Billy Joel grew up in this development, as did Bill O'Reilly...