12/15/08 - white flight

In today's excerpt - in the post-war era, when William Levitt pioneered the large-scale housing developments that ushered in the modern American suburb, an era of white flight was born that led rapidly to the racial strife and riots of the next decade:

"When the U.S. Steel Corporation announced plans to open its huge new Fairless Works [outside Philadelphia], William Levitt decided to bring his house-building operation to the Delaware Valley. On December 8, 1951 houses in Levittown, Pennsylvania went on sale. By 1953 fifty-five thousand Levittowners lived in roughly sixteen thousand Levitt houses. ...

"On December 8, 1951 a white prospective buyer told the sales clerk that he had a friend who was also interested in buying. The friend, as it happened, was black. The sales clerk simply responded that Levittown was to be 'a white community.' So it was, and so too were the vast, vast bulk of new suburban houses.

"By 1957 not a single one of Levittown's fifty-five thousand residents was black. On August 13 of that year, Bill and Daisy Myers tried to break the color line in Levittown. By midnight, a crowd of over two hundred stone-throwing Levittowners had driven the Myerses back to their old house. The Myerses continued to be subjected to a variety of racial harassments through the fall, until arrests and indictments finally cooled things down.

"Those Levittowners willing to discuss what happened to the Myerses voiced their opinion with an almost refreshing honesty. A Mrs. Robert Gross, who commuted from suburban Levittown to a waitressing job in suburban New Jersey, told a reporter that she didn't want, 'Negroes living in my neighborhood, and I don't want my children going to school with Negroes.' Steel worker George Bessam averred that he was no racist: 'I don't have any objections to colored people but I don't think they ought to live in white neighborhoods.' He reminded the reporter that 'a lot of people moved into Levittown from Philadelphia and other places for just one reason, to get away from colored people.'

"Variations of what happened to the Myerses happened to untold numbers of black Americans who moved into white neighborhoods after the Second World War. It happened in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland. In the postwar North, the struggle over race took place on the terrain of real estate. As William Levitt himself famously said, 'We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.' In early 1953, a delegation of activists led by the Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck met with William Levitt to discuss housing discrimination. He fell back on the impersonal and thus ungovernable forces of the market to defend the racial exclusivity in Levittown, and by extension in all of suburbia: 'People are terribly prejudiced in Pennsylvania just like anywhere else. They are not ready for Negro neighbors,' he told Buck and the others, but continued generously: 'When the whites get ready for Negro neighbors I'll be among the first to open up my sales policy.' "

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Steven Conn


Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living With the Presence of the Past


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2006 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


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