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The Man Who Built Suburbia

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When William Levitt took out an ad in The New York Times in 1949 advertising a Cape Cod-style home for $58 a month, he knew what the response was going to be. The postwar years in the United States had created both a baby boom and a housing crisis; apartment buildings were becoming congested with reunited couples and their offspring. The city of Chicago had been selling its retired trolley cars as “homes.” Some 50,000 returning veterans had taken up residence in Army huts.

Levitt knew how badly the American family needed to breathe, and he knew government-backed mortgage loans with low interest rates would get millions of them into homes, and serve as much as a source of pride as a steady job or gleaming new car. To that end, Levitt and his family business were steadily transforming the 1,200 acres of potato fields near Hempstead, just 20 miles outside of Manhattan, was into a community. Newly-paved roads acted as arteries and an unprecedented, conveyor-like construction process was putting up 36 homes every day at its peak. The Times ad was just a way to hang a shingle.

Still, Levitt was surprised to see the line in front of his model house: 30 people were waiting to get in, with more arriving every hour. They were there to gape at the modern appliances and floor-to-ceiling picture windows, but they were also ready to buy—and so apprehensive over losing the chance they began to organize eating breaks and reserving their spots in the queue.

When Levitt’s sales office finally opened that month, 1400 contracts were signed on the very first day. There was no down payment and no closing costs; mortgages for the $7,990 asking price were under a comfortable 30-year term. He was targeting veterans—the neediest of the potential buyers—but would soon be inviting everyone else to escape the city and join them in Levittown, ground zero for suburban life as we know it.

Of course, you had to take care of your lawn. You couldn’t use clotheslines outside. There would be no fencing. And while Levitt was terribly sorry, only whites were allowed. If the American family wanted a chance to prosper, they were going to have to play by his rules.

Levitt was born into the construction business. His father, Abraham, built subdivisions on Long Island, later taking both of his children (William and his architect brother, Alfred) under his Levitt and Sons banner.

Alfred was pragmatic; William was an opportunist in the best sense of the word. While building airfields for the Navy during the war, he experimented with various methods of construction that eliminated the glacial, lumbering approach that had most builders erecting only four or five homes a year. His model was the Ford Motor Company, which sent their automobiles down an assembly line. Why couldn’t he send his laborers down an assembly line of sorts, assigning them specific tasks to perform at each home?

Levitt knew the end of the war would bring a surge in the building business. The government anticipated that five million homes would be needed to accommodate the rising marriage and birth rates. Before he was deployed, Levitt had already taken an option out on the Hempstead land. When he returned, he set about completing the largest housing project in American history.

Potential buyers, Levitt knew, wanted to spend roughly twice their annual salary (which averaged $3,800) on a home. Expensive housing and strict lending terms had kept many families in apartments or living with parents to save up for down payments. By streamlining the building process, Levitt could offer both affordability and quality.

Levitt’s homes began sprouting up in July of 1947, with the first buyers moving in by October of that year. His laborers worked under a 26 (by some accounts, 27) point process that required minimal skill. Complex components like plumbing fixtures or staircases were prefabricated by subcontractors and shipped to the site; power tools, a relatively recent innovation, were used to assemble the pieces.

As they made their way from one property to another, each “team” was assigned a very specific task. It was the sole duty of some men to bolt washing machines to the floor; others were responsible for applying white paint or red paint, but not both; workers specialized in tile, lath, and shingles. Instead of paying overtime, as was the custom, Levitt paid them for completed jobs.

Levitt kept his profit margins secretive, but he saved at least $1000 per unit by pouring concrete slab foundations instead of investing in labor to dig a basement. (A “midget boiler” was installed in kitchens as a heating source.) The Levitts also bought lumber mills and nail-making machines. While saving them money in the long run, it also reduced the chance of supplier error: His conveyor belt was so efficient that a bad batch of nails could derail the entire operation.

Roughly 17,000 homes were built in the first Levittown. While the development was intended for veterans, Levitt was already working on land in Pennsylvania. His system was cemented. So, too, was his ideal American family. But for his critics, life in Levittown didn't simply mean access to affordable housing; it meant conformity.

The first families to move in to Levittown, PA in June 1952 were given what amounted to an owner’s manual. City dwellers, Levitt figured, had no idea about crab grass or property maintenance.

Initially, there wasn’t a lot to maintain. Early adopters had to navigate construction equipment, muddy walkways, and the confusion of similar-looking homes. A community was springing up all around them, though, with parks and pools and places of worship. Dirt patches were replaced by lush green lawns; siding was painted different colors.

Inside, homeowners were brought up to speed on the benefits of an open floor plan. The walls that had led to rodent-like living in the city had been eliminated, with dining rooms bleeding into kitchens and attics that could be refinished (at buyer expense) for added space. Kitchens were outfitted with the newest electronic appliances and painted pink to counteract the white, overly sterile prep areas of prewar housing. They were placed in the rear so windows could overlook the backyard, where Levitt presumed a baking mother would watch her children play. A television—free with home purchase—first sat near, then replaced, the living room fireplace. At night, the large picture windows let passersby pick up decorating tips. 

Most Levittown residents were couples under 30 with children under 5. The nuclear dynamic prompted Levitt to structure his neighborhoods with child-rearing in mind. Streets were curved to slow traffic; schools were never more than a mile’s walking distance from home; the development virtually shut down from noon until 2 p.m., which was a kind of communal nap time. The lawns older children swatted balls in were initially manicured by Levitt, then turned over to the homeowner for upkeep.

Levitt’s father was known as the “VP of grass seed,” and was meticulous in educating residents on the value of landscaping. He even wrote a column in the local newspaper with gardening tips. If someone’s grass went unchecked for over a week, owners would be fined. Eventually, the Levitt lawn care system grew so regimented that the Hempstead residents were warned by the fire department to stop watering so often: it was reducing pressure in the hydrants.

The front yards were emblematic of Levitt’s desire for a uniform community, one as tightly wound as his building philosophies. Levitt hated clotheslines, believing they ruined a neighbor’s view. Anyone drying outdoors was obligated to use a special rotary unit that could be put away when not in use. Fencing was vetoed for the same reason, but once a few rogue property owners put up stakes, it became an unenforceable condition.

To live in a Levittown and adhere to such conditions invited commentary. Some municipalities were near affluent communities that considered the developments' affordable housing a kind of charity and feared they would soon devolve into “fresh air slums.” Others, like Lewis Mumford, condemned Levitt for turning communities into rows of identical Barbie dream houses, where individuals were swapped out for archetypes of commuting husbands and kitchen-clopping wives.   

More alarming was Levitt’s mandate that no black homeowners would be admitted into his towns. From a Jewish family, Levitt argued he knew all about prejudice and had no personal quarrel with minorities. It was a business decision, he argued: if a “Negro” bought in, whites wouldn’t.

“We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two,” he said. Protests followed a black family's move into the all-white Levittown, PA neighborhood in 1957, disrupting the otherwise placated population. But even with the ugly reveal of racism in his sterile tracts, Levitt had achieved his homogenized ideal. Even as tensions flared, an ice cream truck would drift by to offer cones to the angry mobs.   

Around 20 million families migrated from the concrete cities to neighboring farmland between 1950 and 1960. By 1980, 60 million had made the trek. Levitt’s expedient method to generate housing—he would go on to build some 140,000 dwellings—created a suburban sprawl, knitting strangers together while distancing some from relatives who stuck to cities.

Satisfied with both his contributions to residential living and his wealth, Levitt sold his business in 1968. In return, he received $92 million dollars’ worth of International Telephone and Telegraph Company stock. He was, for a time, comfortably rich, and spent great sums—until bad investments and falling stock prices wiped him out. When he died in 1994, Levitt had little money to his name.

Today, the Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico are still active communities. (Another Levittown in New Jersey was renamed Willingboro; one in Maryland was built by Levitt but is known as Belair.)

Levitt was not a timid man. At five feet eight inches, he liked to say he was nearly six feet tall. And despite the civil rights debates his developments would inspire, he never thought of himself as anything less than a visionary.

"…I'm not here just to build and sell houses," he said in 1952. “To be perfectly frank, I'm looking for a little glory, too. It's only human. I want to build a town to be proud of."

Additional Sources:
The Fifties; “Building the Suburban Dream,” The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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