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The Growth of the American Suburbs in the 1950s

Having your own car meant you could live farther away from where you worked. The suburbs grew 47 percent in the 1950s as more and more Americans staked out their own little territory. New housing starts, which had dropped to 100,000 a year during the war, climbed to 1.5 million annually. To fill the need, homebuilders turned to assembly-line techniques.

The leading pioneer was a New York developer named William J. Levitt. A former member of the Navy construction battalion known as the Seabees, Levitt knew how to build things in a hurry. He bought 1,500 acres on Long Island, and on March 7, 1949, opened a sales office — with more than 1,000 customers already waiting.

A basic Levitt four-room house on a 6,000-square-foot lot sold for $6,900, about 2-1/2 years’ wages. The cookie-cutter approach in Island Trees (later changed to Levittown) was criticized as stifling individuality. But to the 82,000 people living in 17,000 new houses, it was home. Other builders followed suit all over the country, and 13 million new homes were sold during the decade.

“No man who owns his own house and a lot can be a communist,” Levitt said. “He has too much to do.”

Of course, his sentiments didn’t extend to African Americans: They were excluded from buying homes at his developments for fear they would scare away white buyers.

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