Friday, January 8, 2010

#BookReview: Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for the Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb - David Kushner/A Stronger Kinship - Anna-Lisa C

Junior year in college I took a sociology class that introduced me to Levittown. I was fascinated by the idea of a community created by two sons and their father. I didn't know at the time, perhaps because my professor didn't mention it and neither did the text we used, combined with the fact that I was naive, that the community was created specifically for and promoted as whites only. While this should not have been surprising given that these types of communities sprung up in the early 50s in response to the overwhelming number of soldiers returning home from World War II; it is surprising, at least in my opinion, that sons of Jewish immigrants that fled the Nazis would then turn around and discriminate against someone else with the approval of the Federal Housing Administration.

The original Levittown was built in Long Island, NY and came with a long list of rules that included: no fences, strict regulations regarding grass length, no blacks and no Jews. Levitt, who claimed that 90 to 95 percent of whites would refuse to buy into an integrated Levittown, had once said, "We can solve the housing problem or we can solve the racial problem, but we cannot combine the two."

Proving to be a success for both homeowners and the Levitts, plans were made to create another community in Pennsylvania. Allowances were made for Jewish homeowners in the new community and the Levitts went so far as to allow a few Mexican and Indian families. One Jewish family, the Weschlers, opened the door for the first black family in Levittown.

Freedom fighters and communists, the Weschlers believed in fighting for what was right. When the property next door to them became available, they contacted fellow members of their like-minded neighborhood group and arranged for Bill and Dee Myers, a black couple, to purchase it. Pulled from interviews with Mrs. Myers, the local attorney general and state congressman who both assisted the Myers when local police failed to do so, as well as news articles of the day; David Kushner has created a detailed portrait of the integration of Levittown and the challenges faced in doing so.

The Myers risked their lives and the lives of their child, as did the Weschlers, for doing something as simple as pursuing the American dream. Bill Myers was a veteran, the very person for whom the Levittown communities were created. The outpouring of hate from the community really made me question the notion that northern cities were better than southern cities when it came to race relations. I would have expected such strong reactions in perhaps Alabama or Mississippi, but I was shocked at the near riots that occurred in Pennsylvania simply because two black adults and their three children wanted a decent home.

To counter the effects of this book on my spirit, I picked up Anna-Lisa Cox's A Stronger Kinship. IB Reading mentioned it on Twitter one night and it sounded interesting. I started reading the book and quickly lost focus. Since her thoughts mirrored mine, this is her review of the book.
A Stronger Kinship by Anna-Lisa Cox is a nonfictional look at one of the first fully integrated towns in the United States, Covert, Michigan. Cox's book takes a look at all of the town's settlers and how they managed to run a town in the 1800s where race was not an issue. Through a combination of archived town reports, pictures, and first hand recounts, Cox's view of Covert was a bird's eye view.

I was torn with this one. I really wanted to like it because the subject matter was something that interests me greatly. The book started off strong, but kind of fizzled mid way through for me. I would have liked it more if Cox was able to get more personal anecdotes. Granted most of the town's original settlers were long gone by the time Cox begna writing her book, but I'm sure some of their descendants were still in town. I'm also sure that there had to have been stories passed down throughout generations. That little added extra would have made the book read less like a textboor and more like a nonfictional journey through a difficult time in history. It's a good read if you're like me and fascinated by race relations, but if you're not? Pass on it.
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