The Last Time Housing Was Affordable?: A New Book Titled "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis:" An Interview with Author Steve Bergsman

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 12:23

Author Steve Bergsman grew up in Levittown, N.Y. during those early years and, looking back now as an aging baby boomer, he thought it a wonderful place to have spent a childhood when a home was truly affordable. His newest book, Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis (e-book format) delves into his formative years being raised in a suburb that intellectuals and critics attacked unmercifully, essentially calling it a boring environment that crushed the spirit of its population. For Levittowners who have since spread all over the continent, this book provides a nostalgic reminder of what life was like in America’s first mass produced suburb; for baby boomers, it’s a look back at a time of record hops and Elvis; for today’s generation, it’s an engaging account of life before cell phones and Facebook.
Bergsman has contributed to a wide range of magazines, newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal Sunday, Global Finance, Executive Decision, Chief Executive, The Australian, Investment Dealer’s Digest, Reuters News Service and Copley News Service. He has been a regular contributor to the “Ground Floor” real estate column in Barron’s and has written for all of the leading real estate industry publications, including National Real Estate Investor, Institutional Real Estate Letter, Retail Traffic, Multifamily Trends, Real Estate Portfolio, Shopping Center World, Mortgage Banking and Urban Land.
Steve will be holding a reading of “Growing Up Levittown” on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. ET at Island Trees High School in Levittown, N.Y.
National Mortgage Professional Magazine recently sat down with Bergsman to talk about his new book.

NMP: How did mortgage financing changes affect the growth of the suburbs?
Steve: Starting in the mid-1940s, before World War II ended, Congress began passing a series of mortgage financing innovations that would make it easier for veterans to buy homes. The original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 set in place a loan guaranty program. In a sense, it was felt government should provide a means whereby veterans could obtain favorable credit, which would permit them to shelter their families. Subsequent bills liberalized mortgage credit with a big push coming in the Housing Act of 1950. That law made a number of important changes including stretching the maximum maturity of loans to 30 years.

NMP: Were the changes in mortgage financing well received?
Steve: Not always. Critics abounded. In one famous book from the early 1950s, The Crack in the Picture Window, an unabashed tirade against the new suburban developments, the author John Keats wrote: “For literally nothing down—other than a simple two per cent and promise to pay, and pay, and pay until the end of your life—you too … can find a box of your own in one of the fresh-air slums we’re building around the edges of America’s cities.” And, if you didn’t get the point, Keats, added, “The GI Bill of Rights was enacted, and one of the articles provided an incentive for bankers to assume low-interest mortgages on houses purchased by veterans. The deal was the bankers could recover a certain guaranteed sum from the government in the event of the veteran’s default. The real estate boys read the Bill, looked at one another in happy amazement, and the dry, rasping noise they made by rubbing their hands together could have been heard as far away as Tawi Tawi.”

NMP: Was it cheaper to rent or own in the 1950s?
Steve: According to Kenneth Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of America, in large cities, especially those on the East Coast, demand for apartments in the 1950s outstripped supply and pushed up rents. One result was the increasing use of rent control. By July 1952, 19.8 million people, or 12 percent of the U.S. population, lived in housing covered by federal rent control, making it cheaper to rent rather than own a home. One result was less new apartment construction in the cities because developers couldn’t create profitable rent levels. Another reason young families were even more inclined to look at the new homes being built in the suburbs.

NMP: Why a book about Levittown?
Steve: In some regards, Levittown was one of the most successful, if not influential, real estate developments in the history of the United States. Today, most of us are products of a suburban youth, whether we grew up near New York, Miami, Houston, Sacramento or Cedar Rapids. Before the advent of Levittown that wasn’t the case. People either grew up in cities or in rural areas. William Levitt, who designed and created Levittown, figured out how to mass-produce homes on a grand scale—thousands of houses going up at one time. For better of for worse, Levittown was the first, modern suburb, as we know it today.

NMP: You wrote this book as a memoir. Why?
Steve: I could have attacked the Levittown question through data and historical records, but I grew up there. I entered kindergarten in the Island Trees School District of Levittown and didn’t leave until after I graduated high school. So, I figured I had a unique perspective and could tell the story of the development through my own personal history.

NMP: Wasn’t Levittown very controversial when it was built?
Steve: William Levitt and Levittown, together, held the unique positions of being attacked by the intellectual leftwing of the country as well as the conservative, generally Republican rightwing. The “left” associated Levittown with that particular 1950s concept of conformity, i.e., if you were unlucky enough to grow up in Levittown, you would end up like everyone else around you. The upper-crust “right,” hated Levittown for variety of reason, snobbery, lowering of aesthetic standards and simply because the suburbs got in the way when they wanted to travel from the city to their country properties.

NMP: A lot of intellectuals and famous people had much to say about Levittown—and most of it wasn’t good.
Steve: When Levittown was built, the common thought was that William Levitt was building a suburban slum. The opposite happened. Levittown survived very nicely and today is a leafy suburb of tidy homes. A Levitt home that originally sold for less than $8,000 at the end of 1940s, probably would cost $350,000 for a buyer today.

NMP: Was Levittown the epitome of conformity?
Steve: Exactly the opposite. Just consider this, during the 1950s and 1960s, or the formative years of Levittown’s development, the following people had at one time or another made Levittown their home: songwriter Ellie Greenwich; singers Eddie Money and Billy Joel; Zippie The Pinhead cartoonist Bill Griffith; children’s book illustrator Jon Buller; radio host John Gambling; TV political commentator Bill O’Reilly; Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground (the house band for Andy Warhol’s Factory), and, lets not forget, Steve Bergsman, journalist and author.

NMP: Should we care about Levittown just because it was a successful real estate development?
Steve: Absolutely not. Just note the number of musicians and songwriters that once called Levittown home. Not only that, books, short stories and plays have been written about the town.

NMP: When people write about Levittown and other suburbs they usually focus on the subject of suburban malaise?
Steve: Starting in the early 1950s, some of America’s best writers began to use the suburbs as the backdrop for short stories and novels, usually, as I wrote in my book, “depicting the suburban landscape as a cultural wasteland inhabited by a particularly venal species of Americans who drank to much, philandered and saw their life forces oozing away in a false paradise.” It all made for great literature, but it was factually all wrong. Unfortunately, all those books created the myth of suburban malaise, which persists today.

NMP: So, growing up in Levittown wasn’t boring?
Steve: As a child or a teenager, what you do where you live is entirely up to you. I know many people who grew up in places like New York City and Los Angeles and spent much more time hanging around, doing nothing and being bored to tears than I ever did in the suburbs. I had great friends and we were always active. Growing up in Levittown was rarely boring for me.

NMP: How would someone purchase a copy of Growing Up Levittown?
Steve: The book has only been released in ebook format and is available for purchase on: Amazon.com, Amazon.com.uk, Amazon.de (all on Kindle), Apple's iBookstore, Barnes and Noble (Nook- coming soon), Sony (coming soon), Kobo, Diesel, Scrollmotion (coming soon), Smashwords (in all formats).