Long Island

Levittown

Legacy of exclusion is tough to shed

Levittown is one of three places that agents in Newsday’s tests overwhelmingly chose for whites but not minority customers.

Vickie Perlongo remembers the first time her daughter saw a black person.

Perlongo, who is white and lives in Levittown, took her then-preschool-age daughter shopping in the mid-1980s to a Radio Shack where a black man was working.

“Why is his skin a different color?” the daughter asked.

“She’d never seen a black person before because she grew up here, and I was surprised,” said Perlongo, 66, a retired nurse who has lived in Levittown for more than 40 years. “I said, ‘Never say that out loud.'”

The incident speaks to how few minorities lived in Levittown, a suburb famous for being both the first of its kind and for policies that kept minorities out.

Veteran denied a Levittown home

In Newsday’s paired testing of Long Island real estate agents, Levittown emerged as one of three communities, with Merrick and Rockville Centre, that some agents overwhelmingly chose for white customers but not for their matching minority home seekers.

While Levittown is still predominantly white, it is becoming more diverse, data show.

“You don’t see it on the streets,” said Janet Gonzal, a Hispanic stay-at-home grandmother who was one of 31 Levittown residents or workers interviewed about the makeup of the community. “You see it at school pickup.”

The 2010 U.S. Census had Levittown’s population as 88 percent white. By 2017, census estimates put Levittown’s population at 75 percent white, 14.6 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 1 percent black.

The school population has become even more diverse: as of 2018-19, roughly 69 percent of students in the Levittown and Island Trees districts are white, with 19 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian and 1 percent black.

All this is a noticeable shift from 20 years ago, when the community’s population was 97 percent white, according to census data.

Of those interviewed – two-thirds white, the rest divided among other races and ethnic groups – the majority welcomed the change, saying diversity strengthens communities.

Jon Probstein, president of the Levittown Chamber of Commerce, praised Levittown’s growing diversity.

“My children are exposed to something I was not exposed to and I think it makes them better people,” said Probstein, a white lawyer and actor.

Yet on some blocks, the neighbors still look the same as they did decades ago, residents said.

Beatrice Marin, 70, has lived in the same house her whole life, almost as long as Levittown has existed. Only one family of color — a black family — has ever lived on her block, and they left after a year.

“The houses have been renovated, but as far as the people, they haven’t changed that much,” said Marin, who is white and works in information technology at Nassau Community College.

The current demographics of Levittown reflect its history, residents said. The developers of Levittown prohibited people of color from moving in through contract clauses, a common practice at the time. Restrictive racial covenants were recommended by the Federal Housing Administration to create homogenous communities. The U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 1948, but William Levitt kept them.

Levittown’s restrictive racial covenant read: “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race. But the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted.”

Levitt developed more than 17,400 partially prefabricated Cape Cods and ranch-style houses in planned communities with parks, pools and schools.

Levitt explained his racial exclusionary policy in the 1950s. “But I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. This is their attitude, not ours. As a company, our position is simply this: We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”

All of the people who moved into Levittown in its first years were white. And many of them passed on those homes to their children and relatives, maintaining the demographics, residents said.

“There aren’t that many people moving out to give people the opportunity to move in,” said Pat Patane, a white resident of 30 years who is co-president of the Levittown Community Council. “People, once they move [here], they love the whole environment and they don’t want to leave.”

Residents say they came to Levittown for their own piece of the American dream, where they could afford a house in a good school district. The census put the median home value at $367,700 in 2017. Neighbors say they know each other, throw block parties and deliver baked goods to new residents. People gather at eight public pools in the summer.

Most residents spoke warmly of the place they call home and described it as a family-oriented, friendly and welcoming place.

Satwinder Baryana, who moved to Levittown three years ago, said there are five families on his block who live in houses they got from relatives.

“It’s good for me because everybody knows everybody. It brings me into the community,” said Baryana, 35, a sales executive of Indian descent.

But it can also be hard to break into groups who have known each other for decades, some residents said.

Gonzal said she still feels new to Levittown even after five years. The first time Gonzal’s granddaughter came to the Levittown library, “all the other little girls ran away,” which Gonzal attributed to the girl’s skin color.

“It’s that type of town — you either fit into a clique or you’re independent,” Gonzal, 57, said. “For newcomers, it can be intimidating.”

All but one of the 20 white people interviewed said they either had no issue with increasing diversity or welcomed it. Four even expressed feeling like they had missed out on valuable life experience and growth without it.

But in candid conversations about race and demographics, some older white residents used descriptors that were anything but politically correct.

Some longtime residents see Levittown “as the way it was” — like an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” in which everyone is white — instead of how it is and should be, said Bob Koenig, vice president of the Levittown Historical Society.

“A lot of people are nervous with the changes,” said Koenig, who is white. “We are diverse and we are changing.”

While the majority of 5,000 parishioners at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church are second- or third-generation Levittowners and white, the number of Hispanic congregants is growing, the Rev. Ralph Sommer said. The church started celebrating Spanish-language masses two years ago.

“We’re beginning to see more of a diverse community being developed because the housing is being sold to different folks,” Sommer said.

Julissa Pesante, who is Puerto Rican, said learning the history of the hamlet made it “feel good to be able to sign” a contract for a home here 18 months ago.

“It was a big deal,” said Pesante, 41 and a stay-at-home mom. “I always wonder how people feel to see that it is getting diverse, that you have Hispanics.”

Pesante said she has not experienced any kind of racism in Levittown, unlike when she lived in Glen Cove, where she felt she was treated differently as a minority. Her Levittown neighbors welcomed her to the area by bringing cake to her house.

That’s a different reception than some minority residents got when moving to Levittown decades ago.

When the first black family moved to Francis Richard Visconti’s block in the 1970s, a white police officer who lived on the block told the neighbors, “Stay put.”

“He said, ‘Don’t move, because then they’ll start moving in, and that’s how Levittown would become all black,'” Visconti, who is 82 and white, said.

Visconti, a former milkman and custodian, said he was not afraid of that.

“We welcomed them,” Visconti said outside the Island Trees library. “They felt out of place because it was all the white people there, and they moved out after a year and white people moved in.”

Trina Reed, who became the first African American director of the Levittown Public Library five years ago, said she was welcomed to the community.

“Coming in now, I think it’s a different environment,” said Reed, of Freeport.

Blessing Osuamkpe, a black medical student, said there was only one other African American family on her block.

“I really don’t care as long as it’s safe and it’s a good school district,” said Osuamkpe, 39, who recently moved to Pennsylvania for work. “That’s what matters to me.”

Another sign of increasing diversity: Levittown is home to the first Indian American state senator, Kevin Thomas.

“It’s a big deal to be able to say, ‘I’m from Levittown and I’m an elected official and I’m a minority,'” Thomas said, adding representing Levittown as an Indian American is a “huge responsibility” because he wants to be a role model.

The South Asian community in Levittown is growing, residents said, pointing to its proximity to Hicksville, which has a large South Asian population.

Levittowners have similar backgrounds, no matter their ethnicities, residents said. Most are blue collar or middle class: firefighters, teachers, police officers.

“Everybody gets up and goes to work for a living,” said James Van der Beek, who is white and inherited his home from his grandparents.

Levittown continues to be an emblem of the American dream, residents said.

“I’ve moved from another country. I’ve worked hard in the community,” said Baryana, who saw a documentary about Levittown before coming from England. “I bought the house and am raising my kids in the school district, and all I need now is a golden retriever and I’ll have the perfect American family.”

An acknowledgment: Newsday missed a critical chance to lead

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