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 shameful history. It was billed as “the most perfectly planned community in America,” and part of the plan was for it to be whites-only: 5,500 acres, stretching across three Pennsylvania townships and one borough, closed off to blacks. The first development of mass-produced homes by Levitt & Sons, Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, which dates from 1947, had the same exclusionary policies. William Levitt weakly insisted that he would love to sell houses to black families but had “come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours.”
In 1957, when a black family, the Myers, finally did move into Levittown, Pa., after buying from an original owner, their home was besieged for several nights by a mob that numbered in the hundreds. Rocks were hurled through the windows. In seeking a court order to stop the harassment, Daisy Myers referred to “annoying practices,” which included parades of cars rolling by her home as the occupants sang “Old Black Joe” and “Dixie.”
That was a half-century ago. Still, by the numbers, Levittown is not much changed. According to the last U.S. Census, just 2 percent of its 54,000 residents are African-American; about an equal percentage are Hispanic. The town’s white population includes many second- and even third-generation residents. Could Obama connect here? When his impassioned volunteers came around, would people open their screen doors and talk to them? And if Levittown seemed to prefer Hillary Clinton, did that make it a place that remained wary of blacks — or one that, for whatever economic or cultural reasons, was just not attuned to his message?
At 6 p.m. on a weekday evening in mid-March, about 15 people crowded into a small conference room at Obama’s Levittown headquarters. A half-dozen more spilled over into an adjoining area, where they stood near a whiteboard on which someone had written the oft-quoted — and oft-mocked — line from one of Obama’s speeches: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Meetings of Obama volunteers begin with what his professional field organizers call “relationship building.” Everyone talks about what brought them together and what they have in common, which, of course, is Obama.
The first to testify, as if in church, was Jack Field, a soft-spoken 78-year-old retiree who said that he had been a Republican for nearly 60 years but had changed his registration so he could vote in Pennsylvania’s Democratic presidential primary on April 22. “I read both of Obama’s books,” he said. “I thought to myself, Here’s a guy I can believe in.”
Next was John Annunziata, a former politician who had once been council president in Bristol Township, one of Levittown’s four municipalities. “I got disillusioned with the process and dropped out,” he said. “This is something special. I saw his Jefferson-Jackson Day speech, and it just blew me away.” Then came Rose Abondio, a native of Sudan who works in banking. “I am very far out of my comfort zone,” she said in a gentle lilt, referring to her new political activism. “But all I’ve been doing is watching CNN and MSNBC. I’m addicted to cable news.”
One of the last to contribute was Rich Cucarese, a 41-year-old second-generation Levittowner who described himself as one of the last employees of U.S. Steel at Fairless Works. “There’s about 75 of us left,” he said. “It’s nice to hear a candidate talk about the blue-collar worker. We’re the ones who built this country up.”
This was Obama’s “Team No. 7.5” in Bucks County. Its members had come together through his campaign Web site. They were a mix of volunteers from Levittown and nearby towns, split about evenly among blacks and whites (with one Hispanic man and one Asian man). Most of them were in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Their mission, at this meeting, was to organize a drive to identify Obama supporters among voters registered as independents and persuade them to change their registrations so they could vote in Pennsylvania’s “closed” Democratic primary. This is painstaking, low-yield work, but the Obama campaign’s strategy everywhere has been to try to expand the universe beyond traditional voters.
Rachel Levine, a recent college graduate and paid field organizer who had earlier worked for Obama in South Carolina and other primary states, stood in a corner of the room but said very little. In each new state, the campaign tries to build leadership from the ranks of volunteers, and it considers taking over from them to be “disempowering.” Whenever Levine joined the conversation, she did so skillfully and almost apologetically, at one point saying, “Rachel Levine from Bethesda, Md., is not going to be able to convince the people here to vote for Barack Obama.”
Ersula Cosby became the co-leader of Team No. 7.5 because she seemed to have energy and a talent for organizing. She had worked as a technical writer while attending Temple University’s law school at night and was living in a newer condominium complex in Levittown. The only time that Cosby, a black woman raised in Pittsburgh, betrayed an awareness of the tough terrain they were stepping into was when she mentioned where she hoped to open a law practice. “People have advised me I definitely need to get north of Route 1,” she told me, meaning out of Levittown and toward the middle part of Bucks County, which is perceived as being more socially tolerant.
Annunziata, the former council president, was probably the most politically astute of the volunteers. “It’s silly to ignore it or pretend Obama’s race isn’t a factor, especially for some of the older people,” he said. Annunziata lives in Levittown with his 78-year-old father, Carmine, but said he had not yet been able to make him an Obama voter. “I have to realize that this is a big change for him,” he said. “So far, the best I’ve been able to do is move him from Hillary to undecided.”
Annunziata had been a motel manager but is not currently working. He thought Obama needed to “touch people in the wallet” in Levittown, but he was not primarily attracted by detailed campaign proposals. At times, he sounded almost mesmerized. The very challenge that Obama faced in Levittown and similar places — winning the hearts and votes of people who may never have dreamed they would vote for a black man for president — is part of what entices Annunziata. “When he won Iowa, it touched my soul,” he said. “I was very emotional. I felt like we were moving toward what this country should be.”
A few days after this meeting, Cosby and her team were joined by a large number of out-of-towners that included college students from Princeton and Philadelphia, as well as Peggy Kerry, the sister of Senator John Kerry, and her husband, George Kaler. Sophia Danenberg drove down from Connecticut with her husband, Dave, and her background seemed particularly apt for the difficult job of conquering Levittown for Obama: she was the first African-American to climb to the top of Mount Everest.
My parents moved to Levittown in 1955 from their one-bedroom Philadelphia apartment, even though my father’s first impression of the new suburb was distinctly negative. A young lawyer and World War II veteran, he had traveled there from the city to represent a home buyer, and the freshly built town reminded him of a huge Army camp. Houses sprawled in every direction over bare terrain, with newly strung electrical wires crisscrossing overhead. The baby trees planted by William Levitt’s workers were not yet much taller than the Fords, Chevys and Studebakers parked in the driveways.
But Levittown was what my parents could afford. The purchase price of their two-story, three-bedroom house, which Levitt called a “Jubilee,” was $11,250. They borrowed their $100 down payment from my mother’s father, a grocer, and paid a mortgage of $65 a month.
I was born the following year, the second of three children, and spent my entire childhood in that house. Nearly everything about Levittown seemed normal to me. Even the name of our street, Vulcan Road, seemed normal enough. (All Levittown streets started with the first letter of the name of their section. We lived in Violetwood, which probably presented a challenge, especially since there was also a section called Vermillion Hills.)
A newspaper account from the era described typical Levittown home buyers as “young persons of moderate financial circumstances who had small children and might expect others.” They not only expected them but also produced them. In the early years, close to 30 percent of Levittown’s population was under 5 years old. On summer nights, we played hide-and-seek in backyards and kick-the-can in the street. When the trees matured, we found that they produced pears, a fruit too exotic to appeal to most of the families (a rare miscalculation on Levitt’s part), so we had great fun throwing them at one another.
Like every boy I knew in Levittown, I learned how to do manual labor and to value work, and workers, of all kinds. During my high-school summers, I cut grass in parks and on the medians of highways, unloaded trucks and walked beside road-paving equipment with a rake to smooth the hot asphalt along the curbs. During a long strike by the schoolteachers, I found a job in one of the area’s small steel plants. Even for kids, there was good money to be made. My best friend took a year off from college to mix big vats of chemicals at the 3M plant, where an old-timer told him, “Remember, don’t take all your money and buy a boat with it; buy property.” When times were good at the steel mill and overtime was plentiful, it seemed as if half of Levittown had Winnebagos or other gargantuan recreational vehicles parked in their driveways. Land boats.
My parents were deeply involved in local politics. They worked the polls every election, and my brother, sister and I stood alongside them, handing out literature and helping keep track of who voted and who needed to be reminded or picked up and delivered to the election site. When I turned 18, my mother instructed me on everything she believed I needed to know about voting. “Just pull the big lever,” she said, by which she meant the Democratic lever that automatically cast votes for the party’s entire ticket.
There were a few small black neighborhoods on the fringes of town, non-Levitt-built houses, and their children attended our schools, but not comfortably. Periodically, brawls broke out between white and black students, and I spent parts of my high-school years with police and police dogs stationed in our corridors to keep the races apart. The word “nigger” rolled off the tongues of many of my classmates, and sometimes I would object, which had no effect other than to give me an adolescent’s fleeting sense of superiority.
I felt of Levittown — and apart from it. I was always among just a small handful of Jewish kids at my schools, and my father was the rare college-educated person on our side of town. (There were more Jewish families in the other end of town, which fed into a different school district.) He belonged to the N.A.A.C.P. and A.C.L.U., and he hired into his small firm the first black lawyer in Bucks County, a graduate of Yale Law School who had been turned away at numerous other firms and went on to be the county’s first African-American judge. I saw my father take stands that were not always in his personal interest, and although he did not talk about it much, I knew the Bronze Star he kept in a little plastic case came to him for breaking cover and risking artillery fire to come to the aid of a wounded fellow soldier.
My father became a judge in 1981, and soon after my parents moved away from Levittown and closer to the county courthouse. In the course of researching this article, I asked my parents for their memories of when the Myers family broke Levittown’s color line. “That case is very sensitive to me,” said my father, who is 82. “I think it represented a show of cowardice on my part.”
A small group of Levittowners stood vigil in front of the Myers home in opposition to the mob and in support of the family. My father said he wanted to join them but was running for township commissioner, the equivalent of city council. “My political friends very easily talked me out of going over to that house,” he said. “They said it would be a disaster for my prospects to be elected. They were probably right. But I took the easy way out and sat back.”
I went along on a Saturday with a group of Obama canvassers in the Plumbridge section of Levittown. Ersula Cosby led seven others in the group, including Marjory Apollon-Shields and four of her children. Things did not start out in a promising way. “I’m not interested!” a man called out loudly enough to be heard through a closed door. If barking dogs could register to vote, the canvassers would have really been in business, because there seemed to be many more of them at home than actual residents — though sometimes those residents apparently just weren’t coming to the door.
But the day picked up, and they found a warmer reception than I might have imagined. “I like him — how do you say his name?” Carol Bianchini, a home health aide, said. “I like how he presents himself. I don’t think he’s for the black community or the white community. I think he’s for everyone. And I don’t like Hillary. I don’t like the way she talks to him. He looks so sad when she does that. He’s my guy.”
Bianchini said she did not need a form to switch her registration from independent; she had already done so in order to vote in the Democratic primary. She was approached while walking out to her car with her 26-year-old daughter, Melissa Lauver, who also said she was for Obama. “I liked him the first time I saw him on television,” she said. “He was on ‘Oprah,’ I think. He just seemed honest.” I asked her if Obama’s race was a factor at all. “Not for me or any of my friends,” she answered. “The older people, I don’t know.”
The lists the canvassers worked from were supposed to contain only the addresses of independent voters, but they found some Democrats as well as unregistered residents at the homes they visited. Colin Radicke, who is 23 and works in the produce section at a supermarket, signed up to vote as a Democrat, telling one volunteer, “I want to get out of Iraq.” As for his candidate, he said, “I think I would go with Obama.”
Michael Branigan came to the door with his young son, whom he is raising alone after the death of his wife. He seemed just about euphoric when told that he could change his registration right on the spot. “Awesome — thank you!” he said. “I was going to do this, but I thought it would be a pain and take too much time, so I was just going to blow it off.”
Branigan, who is 36, works in Philadelphia as a civil rights investigator for the U.S. Department of Education, looking into complaints of discrimination. “I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime, or at least not this soon,” he said, referring to a black man’s being a serious contender for the presidency. “It’s, like, futuristic. By the time this came, I thought I’d be flying around in a spaceship or driving in some kind of little Jetsons vehicle.”
When the canvassers came to the door of Harry Berko, a union electrician and former employee at the steel mill, they got a more grounded response, although friendly enough. He said he was “doing good” and making a decent living, but he added: “We need change. We need to end the war. We need better jobs.” He was already a Democrat and did not reveal whom he favored. As they walked off, he called out to them, “Good luck to yas.”
As topsy-turvy as the Obama-Clinton race has seemed at times, the demographic alignments have been mostly static. Obama dominates among black voters, while Clinton has big margins with white women and Hispanic voters of both sexes. The one segment that has swung back and forth is white men. In some states where Obama won by double-digit margins — Wisconsin, Maryland, Virginia — he captured close to, or better than, 50 percent of white male voters. He did best in Wisconsin, winning 63 percent of the votes cast by white men. But they flocked back to Clinton in Ohio, where she won 58 percent of their votes and an even higher percentage among those with less education and lower incomes, according to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky. Overall, Clinton won by 10 percentage points and nearly 230,000 votes. A headline on Yahoo News declared, “Obama Momentum Slowed by ‘Archie Bunker’ Voters.”
Levittown is whiter, older and less educated than the rest of the nation — and Pennsylvania is made up of many Levittowns. The Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, said in February that some in his state were “probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate,” a remark that many would accept as self-evident but that nonetheless earned him sharp criticism. Rendell and most of the state’s Democratic establishment support Clinton, although Senator Bob Casey, a socially conservative, anti-abortion Democrat, endorsed Obama late last month just as Obama began a six-day bus tour across the state.
Campaigns do not much like talking about what parts of the electorate they are struggling to connect with because that only highlights what’s not working. If the issue involves race, they are even more reluctant. “She did better in Ohio than we did” is how Sean Smith, the Obama campaign’s spokesman in Pennsylvania, put it to me. “I don’t think that means she is automatically assigned that part of the electorate. He’s going to introduce himself to the people of Pennsylvania.”
Neil Oxman is a political consultant in Philadelphia and may know Pennsylvania better than any political professional. He was the media consultant for Rendell in his campaigns for governor, as well as for the current mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. (He consulted for Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, before Richardson dropped out of the presidential race and has not stated a preference for either of the remaining Democrats.) “Pennsylvania is like a home game for Hillary,” Oxman told me. “In places like Levittown, he was cutting into her demographic. The blue-collar males were available to him partly because they did not like her. But about four or five days before the Ohio and Texas primaries, she turned the election from a referendum on change to a referendum on experience, and he lost them.”
More than 200,000 people have registered to vote as Democrats in Pennsylvania in the last five months. “I think it’s fair to say probably two-thirds of them are Obama voters,” Oxman said. “That changes the math by 4 to 8 percentage points. But that’s not enough. He has to regain the magic he had to change the campaign back from experience to change and to connect the change message with all the financial things that blue-collar people are worried about.”
Obama’s most important ally in the Levittown area is the first-term congressman Patrick Murphy, the son of a Philadelphia cop, an Iraq war veteran and a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of self-identified Democratic moderates and conservatives. His Eighth Congressional district is among the more volatile in the nation and regularly swings back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. (Even Murphy’s wife is a Republican and a swing voter. She switched parties to vote for Obama in the primary and plans to switch back. “I pick my spots,” Murphy told me in explaining why he did not think it was worth trying to prevail upon her to stay a Democrat. “She voted for me, or at least she says she did.”)
Murphy, who is 34, says he believes that Obama offers the best chance for quickly ending the American involvement in Iraq, which he fervently opposes. He told me, “Barack Obama is going to win Levittown.” I asked him if he really believed that. “Yes, I do,” he said. “He will win it.”
The number of adults in Levittown with college degrees was 13 percent, according to the 2000 census, roughly half of the national figure. Its median income was $52,514, a little more than $10,000 above the national level then. Some of that money came in pension payments from old union jobs, and some people worked multiple jobs. “You’ve got four or five jobs in a household now,” Carl LaVO, a longtime Levittown resident and an editor at The Bucks County Courier Times, told me. “The jobs are retail clerks, painters, warehouse clerks, truck drivers.”
On one of my days in Levittown, I visited with Janet Keyser, a childhood friend from the next street over who is now chairwoman of the local Democratic Party and the director of the water and sewer authority. “There’s not many $25-an-hour jobs anymore,” she said. “It’s very, very sad in Levittown right now. It’s not like it was, where the father got his son a job in the mill, and then when the son got out of high school, he came into the mill full time. We get the list of foreclosures and sheriff’s sales at the authority, and every month, it’s more. And these aren’t bums or people on drugs. They’re good people.”
Near the end of our visit, Keyser asked me if I remembered the milk trucks that came around and dropped bottles into boxes we had in front of our houses. She rhapsodized about the schools that we could walk to, the now-closed public pools and the Woolworth’s and W. T. Grant’s at the old shopping center. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is bringing back any of that. But Hillary Clinton evokes memories of eight years of better times, and she would bring back Bill — who, here in Levittown, is not a damper on her campaign but rather a security blanket.
In early March, Keyser’s Democratic Party endorsed Hillary Clinton. “She’s got the experience of being in the White House,” Keyser said. “That’s part of the asset. And she has Bill with her.”
From the diner where I talked to Keyser, I drove over to Gleason’s Bar, around the corner from my old house. That, too, was a sort of a reality check after spending a few days dwelling with Obama’s devout enthusiasts. Eight men sat around the bar, and not one of them supported Obama.
The cascade down the job ladder — with one job not as good as the last — is a particularly working-class syndrome. It is the sort of slide that makes a person less likely to take a chance and more prone to cling to the familiar. Marty Clark, whom I knew in high school, worked at the mill and then as a longshoreman and now has a nonunion job driving a truck. “I don’t know Obama that well,” he said as he sat at the bar at midafternoon on St. Patrick’s Day. “It seems to me like he’s got no experience. She’d be the way I’d go.”
Steve Woods sat drinking a Coors Light and talking with his buddies. A Philadelphia Phillies spring-training game was on TV, and he glanced up at it every time the audio picked up the crack of the bat. I asked him if the presidential campaign interested him. “Absolutely,” he said. Rapid fire, he told me the issues he cared about: “No. 1, gas prices. It’s killing everybody. No. 2, immigrants. They should go back to Mexico. Three, guns. Everybody should have the right to bear arms. In fact, everyone should have a gun in this day and age.”
I wondered if he was a Republican. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I’m a Democrat all the way. I hate Republicans.”
Woods, who is 32, said that he had been trained at the local technical high school as a land surveyor but had been working only sporadically. He had been picking up “side jobs,” a term I heard over and over again in Levittown. It refers to temporary labor: carpentry, landscaping, junk hauling.
Woods was for Hillary Clinton, and if Obama was the Democratic nominee, he said he would vote for the Republican, John McCain, in November. “Hillary all the way,” he said. “We need Hillary. She knows the game. Obama has no experience. He talks about change, change, change. Everybody says he’s new; he’s refreshing; he’s charismatic. I don’t think he’s got a clue.”
Obama’s lofty rhetoric did not move these men, but neither did it go over their heads, exactly. They heard it, and it seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect. It bothered them. All insisted that his race had nothing to do with their coolness to him. “The guy does a lot of talking, but I haven’t heard him say anything great yet,” said Dennis Haines, a 38-year-old self-employed electrical contractor and a Democrat who thought he would vote for Clinton in the primary but probably for McCain in November.
The real language of Levittown is arithmetic. The hourly wage. The mortgage payment. How to make ends meet or, better yet, get ahead. Another of the men in the bar, Brian Foley, was a Teamsters truck driver. He explained to me the difficult math for a driver who owns his own rig: “Diesel fuel is up to $4.19 a gallon. Let’s say you’re fully loaded at 80,000 pounds. You get four miles a gallon, five max. You tell me how that works?”
One day I watched as Barack Obama, his dark blue suit smartly tailored, his stride confident, walked onto a factory floor at U.S. Steel’s old Fairless Works, the mill, to promote his environmental and economic initiatives. “Green jobs are the jobs of the future,” he told workers employed by Gamesa, the Spanish-owned manufacturer of wind turbines. This was an entirely conventional political event, a town-hall-style meeting of the kind that has become a ritual in modern presidential campaigns. Except that nothing involving Obama is really conventional. That is part of his allure — and his challenge.
Here was a man with roots in Kenya and a childhood split between Hawaii and Indonesia saying why he should be president as he stood squarely within what was once the industrial heart of an all-white town. Obama’s remarkable personal narrative, his stirring American journey, has certainly won him votes from Americans who see in him hope for a better nation. But that is an abstract political desire. Levittowners and other blue-collar voters, with their own pressing concerns — and their ear for the specific and concrete — are less easily romanced by an interesting life story. I remember my hometown as a place that craved the familiar. The normal. Its racism was hard-edged and overt. Like everywhere in America, it is more tolerant than it once was, but still, Obama’s differences probably do not help him in Levittown. The question that remains is how much they hurt him.
Copyright © 2007