From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

The Most Perfectly Planned Community in America.

So proclaimed a 1951 promotional brochure for Levittown in Bucks County, designed and built by developer William J. Levitt. a few months, Levitt’s company had sold three thousand Levit­towner models for $9,900 each and began producing homes at a rate of forty a day using innovative assembly line techniques. By 1958, the development had spread over fifty-five hundred acres and included churches, schools, swimming pools, shopping centers, and 17,311 single-family homes for more than seventy thousand people, the tenth largest community in Pennsylvania.

An insightful exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg chronicles the building of Levittown and the emergence of the suburban way of life that dominated American society in the second half of the twentieth century. With maps, drawings, photographs, oral histories, and artifacts, including a complete General Electric kitchen in pink, Levittown, Pa. – Building the Suburban Dream documents a remarkable community. In addition, the exhibit tells the story of the Myers family, the first African Americans to move into Levittown and their struggle in 1957 to achieve the American dream of home ownership and racial justice.

The fiftieth anniversary of Levittown presents an opportunity to examine the unintended consequences of suburban development. Levittown became a model for a pattern of growth that gobbled up millions of acres of farmland and open space. The impact of this uncontrolled growth – popularly known as sprawl – has challenged local and state govern­ment to address such issues as traffic con­gestion, water resources, and public edu­cation. In spite of recent legislation to give municipalities more flexibility in planning and zoning, many regions in the Commonwealth continue to develop at accelerated (and alarming) rates.

Nowhere is this problem more evident than in the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia, where subdivisions and shopping malls emulate the Levittown model. The region is developing but it is not growing. According to Flight or Fight: Metropolitan Philadelphia and Its Future, an impressive study published by the Metropolitan Philadelphia Policy Center,
“between 1982 and 1997, developed land grew by 33% while our population grew by only 3%.” Among the solutions to reverse this trend is to “concentrate future development and infrastructure improvements in and around older areas.”

Unfortunately, older sections of Philadelphia and even smaller communities such as Bristol, Chester, and Norristown have become impoverished and blighted, victims of both suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment. Instead of promoting programs to preserve older neighborhoods, the city of Philadelphia has embarked on an initiative to demolish more than fourteen thousand buildings. Without a clear plan to save Pennsylvania’s older urban areas and preserve our farms and open spaces, we may come to see the legacy of Levit­town as a mixed blessing.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director