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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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NASA Is Posting Hundreds of Retro Flight Research Videos on YouTube
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If you’re interested in taking a tour through NASA history, head over to the YouTube page of the Armstrong Flight Research Center, located at Edwards Air Force Base, in southern California. According to Motherboard, the agency is in the middle of posting hundreds of rare aircraft videos dating back to the 1940s.

In an effort to open more of its archives to the public, NASA plans to upload 500 historic films to YouTube over the next few months. More than 300 videos have been published so far, and they range from footage of a D-558 Skystreak jet being assembled in 1947 to a clip of the first test flight of an inflatable-winged plane in 2001. Other highlights include the Space Shuttle Endeavour's final flight over Los Angeles and a controlled crash of a Boeing 720 jet.

The research footage was available to the public prior to the mass upload, but viewers had to go through the Dryden Aircraft Movie Collection on the research center’s website to see them. The current catalogue on YouTube is much easier to browse through, with clear playlist categories like supersonic aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. You can get a taste of what to expect from the page in the sample videos below.

[h/t Motherboard]

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History
15 Fascinating Facts About Amelia Earhart
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Amelia Earhart was a pioneer, a legend, and a mystery. To celebrate what would be her 120th birthday, we've uncovered 15 things you might not know about the groundbreaking aviator.

1. THE FIRST TIME SHE SAW AN AIRPLANE, SHE WASN'T IMPRESSED.

In Last Flight, a collection of diary entries published posthumously, Earhart recalled feeling unmoved by "a thing of rusty wire and wood" at the Iowa State Fair in 1908. It wasn't until years later that she discovered her passion for aviation, when she worked as a nurse's aide at Toronto's Spadina Military Hospital. She and some friends would spend time at hangars and flying fields, talking to pilots and watching aerial shows. Earhart didn't actually get on a plane herself until 1920, and even then she was just a passenger.

2. SHE WAS A GOOD STUDENT WITH NO PATIENCE FOR SCHOOL.

After working with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Toronto, Earhart took pre-med classes at Columbia University in 1919. She made good grades, but dropped out after just a year. Earhart re-enrolled at Columbia in 1925 and left school again. She took summer classes at Harvard, but gave up on higher education for good after she didn't get a scholarship to MIT.

3. ANOTHER PIONEERING FEMALE AVIATOR TAUGHT EARHART HOW TO FLY.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Neta Snook was the first woman to run her own aviation business and commercial airfield. She gave Earhart flying lessons at Kinner Field near Long Beach, California in 1921, reportedly charging $1 in Liberty Bonds for every minute they spent in the air.

4. EARHART BOUGHT HER FIRST PLANE WITHIN SIX MONTHS OF HER FIRST FLYING LESSON.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

She named it The Canary. The used yellow Kinner Airster biplane was the second one ever built. Earhart paid $2000 for it, despite Snook's opinion that it was underpowered, overpriced, and too difficult for a beginner to land.

5. AMY EARHART ENCOURAGED HER DAUGHTER'S PASSION. HER FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS AFRAID OF FLYING.

Earhart's mom used some of her inheritance to pay for The Canary. She was a bit of an adventurer herself: the first woman to ever climb Pikes Peak in Colorado.

6. EARHART HAD A LOT OF ODD JOBS.

In addition to volunteering as a nurse's aide, Earhart also worked early jobs as a telephone operator and tutor. Earhart was a social worker at Denison House in Boston when she was invited to fly across the Atlantic for the first time (as a passenger) in 1928. At the height of her career, Earhart spent time making speeches, writing articles, and providing career counseling at Purdue University's Department of Aeronautics. Oh, and flying around the world.

7. SHE WASN'T SURE ABOUT MARRIAGE, BUT SHE DEFINITELY BELIEVED IN PRE-NUPS.

When promoter George Putnam contacted Earhart about flying across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, it was her first big break ... and the beginning of their love story. The two began a working relationship, which soon turned into attraction. When Putnam's marriage to Dorothy Binney fell apart, he eventually proposed to Earhart. She said yes, albeit reluctantly.

Earhart wasn't worried about safeguarding financial assets so much as she wanted the two of them to maintain separate identities. Earhart asked Putnam to agree to a trial marriage. If they weren't happy after a year, they'd be free to go their separate ways, no hard feelings. He agreed. They lived happily until her disappearance.

8. SHE WROTE ABOUT FLYING FOR COSMOPOLITAN.

In 1928, Earhart was appointed Cosmopolitan's Aviation Editor. Her 16 published articles—among them "Shall You Let Your Daughter Fly?" and "Why Are Women Afraid to Fly?"—recounted her adventures and encouraged other women to fly, even if they just did so commercially. (Commercial flights date back to 1914, but they wouldn't really take off until after World War II.)

9. FIRST LADY ELEANOR ROOSEVELT WAS SO INSPIRED BY EARHART THAT SHE SIGNED UP FOR FLYING LESSONS.

The two became friends in 1932. Roosevelt got a student permit and a physical examination, but never followed through with her plan.

10. EARHART WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO GET A PILOT'S LICENSE FROM THE NATIONAL AERONAUTIC ASSOCIATION (NAA).

That was in 1923, when pilots and aircrafts weren't legally required to be licensed. Earhart was the sixteenth woman to get licensed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which was required to set flight records. Still, the FAI didn't maintain women's records until 1928.

11. SHE ACCOMPLISHED A LOT OF "FIRSTS."

Earhart eventually became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger (1928) and then solo (1932) and nonstop from coast to coast (1932) as a pilot. She also set records, period: Earhart was the first person to ever fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, Los Angeles to Mexico City, and Mexico City to Newark, all in 1935.

What do John Glenn, George H.W. Bush, and Amelia Earhart have in common? They all earned an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross. But only Earhart was the first woman—and one of few civilians—to do so.

12. SHE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CELEBRITIES TO LAUNCH A CLOTHING LINE.

Amelia Earhart Fashions were affordable separates sold exclusively at Macy's and Marshall Field's. The line's dresses, blouses, pants, suits, and hats were made of cotton and parachute silk and featured aviation-inspired details, like propeller-shaped buttons. Earhart studied sewing as a girl and actually made her own samples.

13. THE U.S. GOVERNMENT SPENT $4 MILLION SEARCH FOR EARHART.

At the time, it was the most expensive air and sea search in history. Earhart's plane disappeared July 2, 1937. The official search ended a little over two weeks later on July 19. Putnam then financed a private search, chartering boats to the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Fanning Island, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands.

14. THE SEARCH ISN'T OVER.

There are several theories about what happened to Earhart's plane during her last flight. Most people believe she ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Others believe she landed on an island and died of thirst, starvation, injury, or at the hands of Japanese soldiers in Saipan. In 1970, one man even claimed that Earhart was alive and well and living a secret life in New Jersey.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has explored the theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan lived as castaways before dying on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific. Over the years, they've found a few potential artifacts, including evidence of campfire sites, pieces of Plexiglas, and an empty jar of the brand of freckle cream that Earhart used.

In early July 2017, a photo surfaced that seemed to confirm the theory that Earhart and Noonan crashed and were captured by Japanese soldiers, but that photo was quickly debunked.

15. TODAY, ANOTHER AMELIA EARHART IS MAKING HISTORY.

In 2014, another pilot named Amelia Earhart took to the skies to set a world record. The then-31-year-old California native became the youngest woman to fly 24,300 miles around the world in a single-engine plane. Her namesake never completed the journey, but the younger Earhart landed safely in Oakland on July 11, 2014. We think "Lady Lindy" would be proud.

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