After World War II, many American GIs wanted to settle down and start families. Businessman Bill Levitt saw a huge business opportunity and helped create a new vision of suburbia.
by David Compa
It’s a colorful fall day as Louise Cassano takes me on a walking tour of Levittown, New York. Trees with burnt-orange leaves line Elbow Lane, and I wonder aloud if the neighborhood has always been so heavily wooded. “No, no. These trees were sticks. I’m not exaggerating,” Cassano says, recalling what the 20-foot-tall trees looked like when she first came to Levittown in 1951. She flattens her palm, even with the ground, near her waist. “They were this high.” For the last 66 years, Cassano has watched Levittown grow. Like many other families, the Cassanos moved out of New York City after World War II to take advantage of a then-new suburban community, Levittown. It opened to the public in 1947 and represents one of the earliest versions of the modern suburbs. Cassano and more than 51,000 other current residents can thank Bill Levitt for this place. While many saw Long Island’s potato fields solely as farmland, Levitt realized they could be transformed into a suburb, a bedroom community for New York City. Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, says Levitt was also savvy enough to foresee that the demand would easily meet the supply of houses he wanted to build. Veterans returning from World War II wanted to settle down and buy a house, and thanks to the federal government, they had the means to do so. “He knew if he could produce homes that had eye appeal and utility, they would sell,” Levy said. “The demand among GIs was enormous and it was fed by the GI Bill, which made cheap loans and subsidized rentals available at a scale we had never seen before.” Levitt was able to build and sell more than 17,000 homes for incoming residents. Bob Koenig, a local historian and curator at the Levittown historical museum, says Levitt took a page out of Henry Ford’s book to mass produce these houses quickly and efficiently. “Levitt had an assembly line-like process of 27 different steps,” Koenig says. “Each crew would have a particular job to do. The copper tubing would get put down, and then a concrete pourer would come in to pour concrete over the slab. Then a plumber would come along and so on and so forth. Ford