The Buy Of The Century


Levittown has been both celebrated and denounced as the fruit of American laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, it may more accurately be described as the successful result of an alliance between government and private enterprise. Levittown and the rise of American suburbia in general could not have happened without attractive loan packages for home buyers guaranteed by the FHA and the VA. Tax breaks, such as the deductibility of mortgages, encouraged suburbanites, who were also helped by a burst of federally funded highway construction. For almost half a century after World War II, the government has played a major role in helping consumers obtain the products of industry—washing machines, television sets, cars, and, especially, houses. For most of us it’s been a great ride.


For Bill Levitt it’s been a roller coaster. Things started to go sour for him after the sale of his company to ITT in 1968. He received about fifty million dollars in ITT stock and launched a spending spree that did not stop until the courts finally stepped in. Levitt’s agreement with ITT prohibited him from building projects in the United States for ten years, so he turned elsewhere: housing in Nigeria and Venezuela, oil drilling in Israel, and housing and irrigation projects in Iran—just before the fall of the shah. He invested in rotary engines, recording companies, and pharmacies. Most of the projects failed. Meanwhile, the ITT stock that was his major capital asset plummeted from $104 to $12 a share in the first four years.


Levitt re-entered the housing market in the United States in 1978 projects in Orlando and Tampa, Florida. Construction and sales moved quickly at first but soon slowed as contractors began to sue for payment. More than two thousand people, some of them original Levittowners who were now ready to retire, paid deposits for houses in the Florida Levittowns that were never built. Levitt, it was later discovered, had been using the funds from his Florida projects to support his expensive habits. Along the way he had removed more than ten million dollars from a charitable foundation that his family had established. These legal and financial problems have made Bill Levitt a virtual hermit, and today he lives in seclusion not far from the Long Island Levittown that bears his name.

Levittown residents have mixed feelings about their unique heritage. Periodically some of them have attempted to redraw the boundaries of the towns so they could have more elegant addresses. More recently, proud members of the Levittown Historical Society have worked to encourage a new appreciation for their community. They are pushing to establish historic landmark districts while they try to preserve the few houses that have remained relatively unchanged over the years. They are also casting a wide net among their neighbors and former neighbors to gather artifacts and memorabilia for a museum. Recently the Smithsonian Institution announced that it was looking for an original Levittown house to add to its American domestic-life collection. Some African-American groups continue to question the virtue of memorializing a policy of exclusion, but the history-minded residents are pressing ahead, and Eddie Bortell, the Historical Society’s vice president, is optimistic. If the work of the historical society has helped bring attention to some of these painful questions, he says, then that in itself is a reward for its efforts.