Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Of History and Development

The three Levittowns in the tri-state area have always fascinated me: one on Long Island, a second near Philadelphia, and a third in New Jersey about 17 miles from Philadelphia [now returned to its previous name of Willingboro].

A major study published about the development of the New Jersey town – The Levittowners, by sociologist Herbert J. Gans - is worth rereading every year or so. Most of the book covers the years 1958 to 1962 during the New Jersey construction, which was to contain at least 12,000 houses

During my most recent reread the following paragraphs caught my attention:

“…The public officials who had to approve the Levitt building plans could, of course, have asked for better or more expensive facilities. In some instances, however, they had no legal basis for such requests, since the township and county both lacked modern building and other codes. Yet even when they had effective veto power over Levitt’s operations, they did not often think to exercise it, because they felt Levitt was trying to do a good job and would make the township the best in the county. Cooperation with the builder would be far more pleasant than conflict, they concluded, particularly since they had little chance of winning such conflict.

“Most of the old residents were farmers, without the knowledge and skills to stand up against the builder. For example, the ablest member of the Planning Board thought that the township would do better if Levitt were required to build on 75-foot lots rather that the 60-foot lots he wanted to allow for in the subdivision ordinance. He could not, however, make his argument stick, and after Levitt promised that he would never build on less than 65-foot lots, he gave in.

“The Levitt firm itself was not passive in the face of opposition. Its officials had had two decades of experience in dealing with local opposition, and they had a reputation for brilliant tactics as well as the application of campaign funds in the right place at the right time. When Levitt first arrived on the scene, the firm engaged some prominent county figures to buy land, and before the planning was over, it had hired, for one reason or another, most of the politically influential lawyers in the county and many who had influence in the state capitol as well, principally for the alteration of township boundaries. Although the firm never interfered officially in county or township politics, and usually sent campaign contributions to both parties, it gave more to defeat candidates it thought could cause trouble for the firm. Every new community is flooded with rumors that some local officials are on the builder’s payroll, and Levittown is no exception, but one Levitt executive indicated that the township’s leaders were so willing to go along with the firm’s wishes that such distasteful tactics were not necessary.” *

If you can get a copy of this important book, it is worth studying. I don’t know if it is still in print, but you can get it through the Hillsborough Library.

* The Levittowners by Herbert J. Gans, Vintage Books Edition, February 1969, pp 17-18

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana (1863 - 1952)

"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience." - George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

"There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good." - Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, March 10, 2008

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