Change Makes a Call on Levittown|
Published in The New York Times Magazine
April 6, 2008
The Obama for President headquarters in Levittown, Pa., is set on a busy thoroughfare just to the east of where all the houses begin — 17,311 of them built by the developer William Levitt between 1952 and 1957. Right next door is the Dairy Delite, which began selling soft-serve ice cream 50 years ago and is still going strong. About four miles north, along the Delaware River, is what Levittowners have always just called “the mill” — the mighty Fairless Works, a U.S. Steel plant that grew up alongside the town and at its peak employed some 10,000 workers.
Any longtime resident could lead you to the other sites where the men of Levittown found muscular, good-paying work — Vulcanized Rubber and Plastics; Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M); Thiokol, a defense contractor; the big General Motors plant across the river in Trenton. They worked their shifts and came home to their young families and their little patches of green. Many had moved here from the cramped neighborhoods of Philadelphia’s blue-collar “river wards” or from coal country in upstate Pennsylvania.
You could call the Levittown experience the American dream, but that does not get to what was best about it: its concrete, earthbound specificity. The union wage. The house you could purchase in the mid-1950s for $8,990, with a down payment of $100. The elementary schools that Levitt & Sons put right in the neighborhoods, so that no young child would have to ride a bus. The Olympic-size public pools and the Levittown Shop-a-Rama, with its department stores and soda fountains and its parking for 6,000 cars.
Last month, as the epic struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reached Pennsylvania, I came to watch it through the prism of Levittown — its past and present. The dream is vanishing in the same specific ways it came to life. The young men of the community no longer follow their fathers into the mill, because the work force at U.S. Steel has dwindled to fewer than 100. A Spanish-owned company now occupies part of the site, where it makes wind turbines. The old 3M plant has become something called the Bristol Commerce Center, and most of the other manufacturers are long gone. The town’s main intersection, Five Points, is dotted with check-cashing agencies and pawnshops. The original Shop-a-Rama was leveled.
I was focused primarily on Levittown’s response to Obama. Here, after all, was a place that needed a big change, a new dream, which for many voters Obama — with his mixed race, international background, inspiring life story and his soaring rhetoric — represents. But Levittown, while largely Democratic, is composed of many white, working-class “Reagan Democrats,” exactly the part of the electorate that has been least receptive to him — even before the controversy over the incendiary remarks by Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
And on matters of race Levittown has a particularly shame