Levittown, America's First Suburb, Turns 60

In 1951, 7-year-old Louise Cassano couldn't imagine a better life than the one here, where she rode her bicycle past rows of cookie-cutter houses, kids held backyard campouts in makeshift tents and nobody locked their front doors.

"It was an absolute ideal community," said Cassano, whose love affair with Levittown never waned -- she still lives in the Long Island town dubbed by some as America's first suburb.

Cassano is among the organizers of a huge 60th birthday party for the Nassau County town, set for Sunday and featuring high school bands, floats, local groups, war veterans and the fire department. Nearly two dozen original Levittown homeowners will serve as grand marshals.

It was October 1947 when developer William Jaird Levitt opened the first of what became 17,544 Cape Cod and ranch houses rising from blighted potato fields 40 miles east of New York City, handing post-World War II GIs the keys to their American Dream.

It was an instant success, a prototype widely chronicled and duplicated nationwide.

Cape Cods originally sold for $6,990; ranches were slightly more expensive. Each house had four rooms, a bath, an unfinished attic and amenities -- steel kitchen cabinets, Bendix washer, GE refrigerator, Hotpoint electric range.

None had basements, since excavations would have slowed the almost assembly line construction.

Today, "you can't get a house in Levittown for less than $400,000," Cassano said almost incredulously.

Virtually all the original houses have been renovated, in some cases making the original structure nearly invisible.

"It's to the point they're almost McMansions," said Polly Dwyer, president of the Levittown Historical Society.

Levitt initially prohibited blacks from joining the suburban exodus. After Supreme Court rulings and the civil rights movement, minorities were eventually permitted to purchase homes, but Levittown remains a largely white community.

"I think black people were hurt and offended by the blatant rejection, and simply when given the opportunity chose to go elsewhere," said Barbara Kelly, former director of the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra and author of "Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown."

Levitt also built "village greens" that featured a grocery store, pharmacy and other shops -- all within walking distance for women, since their husbands typically drove the family car to work.

Since those days of stay-at-home wives, Cassano has worked as a reporter for a local weekly for several years, started her own public relations company and served as president of the chamber of commerce. She and her husband, Mauro Cassano, have two sons, one of whom still lives nearby and sends his children to Levittown schools.

"There is a real genuine hometown feeling here and I think our generation was so involved and so enthusiastic about school, about the community," Cassano said. "We were all, every one of us, was very involved in activities in school, and for that reason I think that we all feel that we did something in terms of community."