Fading American Dream Haunts WWII Generation

Paul Taylor Washington Post Feb 1, 1996

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Fifth in a series

This is where the modern suburb was invented, by a remarkable generation that knew how. Levittown was built at midcentury by men and women who had survived the Depression and won the big war and learned to do big things together. The epic story of their own youth had taught them to trust government, authority and each other.

In Levittown, they applied their relentless civic energy to building a better life. On the curved, alphabetized, meticulously tree-shaded streets, they laid out the proposition that owning a detached house with a patch of grass in front and back should be a normal expectation of the American middle class.

Every man a king. All things ever better. No society had ever set its standards so high.

Today, as so many Americans seem gripped by a shapeless anxiety, the members of this "long civic generation" are feeling less all-mastering than they once did. In the dusk of their lives, they're suspended halfway between contentment and melancholy. Their own dreams came true. But they're haunted by the perfect future that didn't, the one they never managed to invent for their children.

"We were the lucky ones," said Martin Sooby, 67, who moved here the day after he was married in 1954. He spent the first nine years of his life in the hard poverty of Pennsylvania's coal region, the next 10 in a Philadelphia orphanage and the next six in the Army in Germany.

"We hit the seam just right," he continued. "When we came back from the war, it was a question of supply and demand. The factories were all booming, and they needed our labor. You look around today, you see what's going on with downsizing and layoffs and pension rip-offs, not to mention crime, divorce, drugs, and you ask yourself, `What chance do our kids and grandkids have?' "

"I wouldn't trade my time for theirs," agreed Murray Melamed, 82, a retired restaurant equipment salesman who each noon joins Sooby and a small gang of other elderly hunks for a sweaty hour on the Exercycles and Nautilus machines at the Levittown Public Recreation Association.

"We didn't have uncertainty," said Sooby. "You got married, you stayed married. You got a job, you kept it."

Sooby had several jobs, sometimes two at a time. For the last 17 years of his working life he was day shift supervisor at the toll booth at Exit 30 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, not far from here. He got that job through politics. He'd been active in the local Democratic Party, a union shop steward, and an official of a local consumers group.

Now retired and a widower, Sooby has drifted away from these attachments, and not merely in response to life cycle changes. At some point he can't put his finger on—maybe it was in the 1960s, maybe the '70s, maybe more recently—he began to lose his civic faith. "You can't take Uncle Sam at face value anymore," he now says, more in sorrow than anger.

He is not alone. A recent poll commissioned by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University has found that over the past generation Americans have lost a substantial amount of trust in their government and in each other.

A leading authority on this decline, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, has advanced a provocative theory to explain it. He parts company with others who place the blame on factors such as residential mobility, wage stagnation, family breakup, social chaos. Instead, he blames television, a medium, he argues, that invites people to think things are worse than they actually are.

America gave birth to television at about the same time it gave birth to Levittown, and the history of each lends support for Putnam's theory. But the view from here also suggests a complex interplay of causes. Three stand out: Expectations for a better tomorrow ran too high. Human nature proved to be too messy to perfect. And television exaggerated the shortfall.

Sooby's disillusionment is both poignant and instructive, given that his own life passage has affirmed the American dream of perpetual progress.

But not his children's. For the past four years, he has been playing host to his daughter, son-in-law and their three children, who have been living with him ever since they lost their own house when the son-in-law lost his job in the massive layoffs at the nearby Fairless Works steel plant.

When it opened in 1951, Fairless Works was the largest steel mill ever built. For two generations its open hearths spit out a seemingly endless bounty of high-paying union jobs. Then it succumbed to new technology and international competition, dealing a blow that still reverberates four years later in nearby blue-collar suburbs like Levittown.

Sooby's daughter is a barkeep at the local Sheraton. His son-in-law has been trying to make it as an artist. Sooby provides shelter and child care. He enjoys their company, but he feels for them. "This isn't the way things were supposed to work out," he said.

For Sooby, the suspicion that things weren't working began to dawn long before the steel plant closed. He talked about the 1960s.

"Those kids who were protesting the Vietnam War, I thought they were pains in the asses at the time. Hippies. We believed [Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert S.] McNamara. We thought he was brilliant man, and now he's crying over what he did. Hey, why cry, Bob? You can't bring back the dead.

"It turns out those hippies were right. They had the guts to take on authority. Our generation never did. We took the hurts and the pains and just got on with it. They had guts, but I don't know what it got them."

Melamed: "But the '60s, that's when the drugs started."

Sooby: "Yeah, when you have escapism through drugs, something's wrong in society."

`Everybody Is Suspicious'

Something's wrong in society. A familiar refrain in Levittown these days, with many variations on the theme.

Town Manager John Burke of Middletown Township (one of four political units into which Levittown falls) copes with a tax base that hasn't kept pace with inflation, township services that have lagged and a citizenry that keeps getting grumpier:

"Everybody is suspicious. Everybody thinks you're trying to rip them off. Ten years ago I could meet with people and have a high-minded conversation. Now everyone comes right at you from the get-go. Idiots like Rush Limbaugh have emboldened people. Everyone's hostile and rude. My secretary fields the phone calls and it's gotten to where she's thinking of quitting."

Richard Heierling, 67, a retired 3M technician, is trying to organize local residents to persuade Bristol Township officials (whose budget woes are more dire than neighboring Middletown's) to start filling potholes:

"There are a lot of I've-got-miners around here now. There's not nearly as much community activity as there used to be. Everybody's working; everyone's busy. And everyone thinks government is worse than it is. Sure there are inefficiencies, too many $400 hammers and that kind of stuff. But I look at the tax bill I pay every year and—you may not believe this—I say to myself it would be cheap at twice the price to live in the United States of America. I get a Social Security check every month. People throw rocks at the post office, but my mail gets delivered every day. And for all the complaining I hear, I don't see anybody lining up to leave this country."

Don Bleistein, 52, is a prison guard in Trenton and president of Levittown Volunteer Fire Department No. 2. He thinks crime has sucked the sense of community out of Levittown:

"With all the carjackings going around, people are scared. My wife has got a gun, okay? She's never had a gun before. And she's got a portable phone in her car. Every time she goes out, I tell her, `Keep the car door locked. If somebody comes up to you and asks for directions, shoot 'em dead.' " Nervous laughter fills the fire station, where Bleistein has been holding court for a reporter and a bunch of firemen. He's kidding, right?

Economic uncertainty, moral decline, loss of faith in government, social chaos, crime—the list is as depressing as it is familiar. Have Levittown and and America really gone to hell? To understand this gloomy present, look at Levittown's past.

1 Tree, 2 Willows, 27 Shrubs Each

William J. Levitt was to houses what Henry Ford was to cars and Ray Kroc to hamburgers. He was the innovator who figured out you could slash costs by producing your product on an assembly line.

He broke ground for his first suburb on Long Island in 1947. It was an overnight sensation. When U.S. Steel built its big plant near here, he decided this was the spot for his next Levittown.

From 1952 to 1958, Levitt built 17,311 houses on what had been farmland 30 miles northeast of center city Philadelphia. Sturdy little gems, they were all plumb, square and level. They were all built on concrete slabs embedded with coils of radiant heat. "My buddies told me that when the first stiff wind came, the roofs would blow off," Sooby said. "Well, ain't nobody lost a roof yet."

Levitt's streets were all curvy (to slow traffic) and alphabetized (Lavender Lane is next to Leisure Lane, which intersects with Learning Lane, where Walt Disney Elementary School is located). His sinks were all stainless steel. His windows were all Thermopane. His 70-by-100-foot lots all had one fruit tree, two willows and 27 shrubs.

The houses came in eight colors, six models, and ranged in price from $10,999 to $16,999. The residents of the Junewood Section understood that the residents of the Snowball Gate Section were their economic betters, but not by much. There were 41 sections.

Folksinger Pete Seeger sung derisive ditties about "little boxes made of ticky-tack . . . and they all look just the same," and sociologists got their PhD's worrying about postwar America's drab new age of conformity.

But if look-alike houses in Levittown were the wages of conformity, the men who came clamoring back from World War II and Korea were only too eager to pay. Veterans like Sooby could use the GI Bill to buy the basic Jubilee model ($10,999) for $100 down and $61 a month, on a 4.25 percent mortgage.

"It was like a dream come true," he said. "I'd grown up in a two-bedroom house with nine brothers and sisters. My dad died of walking pneumonia when I was 9. Then I went to the orphanage with my twin brother, then to the Army. When I moved out to Levittown, it almost felt like a privilege to mow the lawn."

During the 1950s, the Levittowner's life style was as orderly as Levitt's imagination.

Dad worked at the factory, Mom stayed home with the kids. The Homeowners Guide implored her to hang the family laundry out to dry only in the rear, and never on Sunday because Sundays were for backyard barbecues.

Fences were not allowed. Parking on the street was discouraged. Doors were rarely locked. You were supposed to water your lawn once a week, but never with a nozzle.

Black people were forbidden. Levitt, who died in 1994 at age 86, explained years ago that he was a businessman, not a reformer. "If we had started out and let blacks come in, whites wouldn't have come in." When schoolteacher William Myers and his family finally broke Levittown's color bar in 1957, they faced days of rock throwing and years of epithets, but they hung in. Today Levittown is about 2 percent black.

The baby boomers who grew up in Levittown in the 1950s were raised not just by their own parents but also by the "whole village" of African proverb and Hillary Rodham Clinton book title. Pity the poor kid who ran into the street after a loose ball. A scolding adult might pounce from just about anywhere.

Every kid—every boy, that is—played in Little League. All the adults belonged to sewing clubs, bridge leagues, bowling leagues, mah-jongg groups, civic associations.

The five Olympic-sized pools Levitt had built for the community got so crowded on hot summer afternoons that, as Levittown Public Recreation Association director Chick Rogers remembers, "you could walk from one side of the pool to the other on the shoulders of bathers and never get wet."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, 8,200 families—roughly half of Levittown—belonged to the LPRA. Today, membership is down to 1,850. Most other civic groups in Levittown have disappeared. And many of the home lots now have fences.

In 1960, 26 percent of Levittown's women worked; by 1990, 61 percent did. In 1960, 120 Levittown families had three cars; by 1990, 4,076 did. In 1960, there were 33,750 children in Levittown under age 16. By 1990, there were just 13,202.

Levittown, in short, has gotten busier, older, more mobile and more suspicious, a pretty good description of how the entire American middle class has changed over the last generation.

In most other ways that can be measured, Levittown has remained resolutely middle class. House values have risen with inflation to about $120,000, and median family income to $43,000, pretty close to the national middle. Education levels have gone up, wages have stagnated, but with more family members working, standards of living have inched forward though not nearly as fast as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

People here feel as if the slack has been taken out of life.

Television Induces Passivity

In one of his scholarly whodunits about social distrust and civic disengagement, Putnam acknowledges these changes in society. But he also finds that as suspects to the crime, they offer some pretty good alibis.

For example, he finds that social trust has declined most among the affluent, raising doubts that the phenomenon is associated with wage stagnation. And he finds that the longer hours people work, the more likely they are to participate in community activities, raising doubts that busyness or women in the work force is the explanation.

After dismissing several other suspects in similar fashion, Putnam fingers television. He argues that it privatizes leisure time; it induces (or at least reinforces) passivity; and it may increase pessimism about human nature. He cites studies showing that each hour of increased television viewing is associated with less social trust, less group membership, less voting, etc. And that's not just a result of time displacement. Heavy newspaper reading, he notes, is associated with increases in social trust and civic engagement.

How does television have such a dramatic impact? Here's one way:

In scores of interviews conducted for this article, the leading concern people in Levittown expressed about their community was increased crime. Unsurprisingly so: Over the past decade, crime has been the No. 1 worry in national polls as well.

But guess what? Violent crime in Levittown today is lower than it was a generation ago, about 20 percent lower, according to Bristol Township Police Chief Tom Mills. Back in "the good old days," there was more crime here because there were more young adult males here. They're the criminals.

How to square this disparity between perception and reality? Television. On television, crime is everywhere. It dominates news as well as entertainment because it supplies everything the little box consumes: danger, drama and great visuals.

When crimes committed in Philadelphia, New York or Hollywood scripts keep turning up on the television screens of Levittown, small wonder that Levittowners develop an outsized estimate of the perils of modern life. Or that husbands (jokingly?) issue shoot-to-kill orders to their spouses.

One can push this tentative analysis into other realms of modern life. Numerous academic studies have shown that on television, the public square is presented as a dysfunctional place where insincere politicians angle for narrow tactical advantage. Why would citizens want to participate in such a spectacle?

Social scientists say that television invites citizens to view politics and government with a postmodern smirk. "Television teaches us to prefer Dana Carvey's George Bush to George Bush's George Bush," writes media scholar Roderick Hart.

No Pay Raise in 5 Years

The civic generation that built Levittown mastered just about every challenge its members faced. But they never perfected tomorrow, and they never tamed television.

Still, that's not the last word on Levittown. It comes from the home of Alex and Ruth Munro.

They moved into their "Levittowner" in 1958. Alex had immigrated to this country as a child from Ireland; Ruth came from Norway. He's a carpenter. As a young man he helped build some of Levitt's houses.

They have three grown children and 10 grandchildren. All live nearby.

Alex "retired" last month but still works six days a week, and expects to until he dies. He thinks he lives in "the greatest country in the world."

Ruth isn't sure anymore. She remembers that when her children were infants she'd let them nap outside in their baby carriages on warm afternoons. Now whenever she rolls her youngest grandkids to the grocery store, she straps them in a harness. "That won't stop the kidnapper, but it may slow him down."

The Munros' oldest child, Alex Jr., 38, is also a carpenter. He hasn't seen a raise in five years "and I don't know anybody who has." Some of the men laid off from the steel plant have become cut-price carpenters, so it can be hard for him to get work. His wife, Susan, is a waitress, studying to be a nurse. Asked about politics, she said, "The public isn't in control anymore. The lobbyists are. The older I get, the more powerless I feel." Neither she nor Alex Jr. votes.

The Munro's youngest daughter, Michelle, worries about cancer rates, which she suspects are being driven up in her neighborhood by a nearby incinerator. "I'm keeping an eye on that," she said. "We may have to move."

Joy, the middle child, says she takes her political cues from her husband, Chris, a plumber. He grew up in a Democratic family, then switched when he decided that "the Republicans do a better job of following the Bible." Any political heroes? He thought he liked House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), but now he isn't sure. "I've been hearing some bad things about him lately."

Isn't there anyone in this healthy, happy, warm, loving, resilient, hard-working family who shares grandpa's unshakable faith in the idea of America?

Yes—just skip a generation. The youngest Munros are growing up in a Levittown where life looks a little tough. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they aren't being taught by circumstance of time, place and plenty to expect a perfect tomorrow.

And that seems all right to them.

They're already honing their survival skills. "I think I'll try white-collar stuff," said Alex III, 16. "Maybe teaching or social work. I'll do all right."

They're also learning to take their pleasures where they find them. "If grandma didn't move to this country," said Ryan, 9, "we wouldn't have known about these!" With great gusto, he reached into his grandma's kitchen cabinet and pulled out a bag of Mr. Tater Crisps.

SUNDAY: Overcoming mistrust


Page assembled by jnr, February 14, 1996
rev: February 14, 1996