The flyover town that dodged decline
Credit: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images   

Many American towns are littered with the debris of a prosperous past. Visitors today see the boarded-up houses that once protected families or the seedy high streets that once catered to a thriving town. These decaying or run-down buildings are the physical manifestations of something much deeper, something much more important and troubling: a town spirit that has fallen and can’t get it up. Listen closely and you can almost hear it: a ghost that walks among the living whispering “the future once happened here”.

Levittown, Pennsylvania, could have been one of those towns. Once economically reliant on five large manufacturers, the 55,000-person community could have fallen and stayed down when those employers left or downsized. But unlike other towns, Levittown got up. Today its houses are well-kept and protect new young families, and its high streets, though different, still cater to people with jobs and a future. If you didn’t know its history, you would think it was the sort of place that healthy countries always have – one that gives ordinary people comfort, hope, and community and that allows those with greater talents or ambition a start to achieve something more – and you’d be right.

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I went to Levittown recently to discover why its residents, White and working-class for the most part, abandoned their long-time voting patterns to embrace Donald Trump. But I also went to find out why Levittown avoided the fate of countless communities who suffered from America’s de-industrialisation. What I found was something I did not expect. Levittown survived and renewed itself because of the spirit of its people.

Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that contributed to the town’s rebirth – private and public investment also played a role. Alberto,1 a sixty-ish college drop-out and community activist, for example, told me about how smart government had aided the town’s comeback. He told me about how the county and township governments cooperated to offer tax incentives for smaller companies that wanted to locate there. These entities also cooperated with state government to reposition a port once used by US Steel into a hub used by many businesses to ship or import what they build or use. Today, steel has been replaced by concrete and asphalt going out and sand coming in to be taken by truckers to the burgeoning oil and gas fracking fields in northern Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale fields.

At its height the old US Steel plant employed 10,000 workers. Today, Greg says, the property provides over 7,000 jobs among over 100 different employers.

Levittown also bounced back because of shrewd decisions made by US Steel. “Once the old plant declined,” local politico Greg told me, “US Steel became a land developer because of all the property it owned.” With state and local help, the old steel plant became home to hundreds of small manufacturers, especially those involved in chemical production or refining. “Lots of tool and die shops here too,” Greg said as we drove past a couple of them. At its height the old US Steel plant employed 10,000 workers. Today, Greg says, the property provides over 7,000 jobs among over 100 different employers. These new jobs don’t pay as much as the old manufacturers, but they also don’t require a college education and, perhaps combined with a spouse’s earnings, provide a solid middle-class income.

Levittown’s location also helped. It sits only five minutes from two major thoroughfares, I-95 – America’s main north-south road on the East Coast – and Route 1, a significant local road. This doesn’t just attract small businesses: many independent truckers choose to live in Levittown, taking advantage of the affordable homes and easy access to the roads they earn their living on. Frequent rail service is available from local railroad stations for commuters heading into bigger cities. And as well as the local port, Philadelphia’s own port and international airport sit only 30 minutes away.

Local schools also played their part by emphasising vocational education for the town’s children. Greg drove me to Lower Bucks Technical High School. It’s a huge, modern building, a far cry from the smaller and older technical high school that services the much wealthier and larger suburban Washington suburb in which I live. Here kids who won’t go to college can be trained for jobs in a wide variety of industries from cosmetology, to auto body repair, to air conditioning unit servicing. Apprenticeships with area employers ensure graduates quickly get real jobs making real money. “21-year olds here can make $50,000 to $70,000 a year starting out in these jobs,” Greg said. He fretted that perhaps that was too much money for people so young. “I’m not sure I could have been trusted with that much pocket money when I was 21,” he confessed. But we both agree that’s a better problem for a community to have than the alternative.

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None of these factors, however, completely explain why Levittown lives where other, similar places are dying away. I lived in the Philadelphia region for over a decade, and I can name many old, industrial communities that look just like the decaying towns of the hinterland. They had tax credit incentives; they sit near good roads and Philadelphia’s port and airport. One old town on the Delaware River, Chester, has received state and local funding for a host of redevelopment projects over the years, including a prison built there in the 1980s to help provide jobs for the local inhabitants. Yet Chester remains a troubled town with abandoned homes, boarded up buildings, and a population about half what it was at its height. The future once happened there, but today it is still happening in Levittown.

Which brings me back to the spirit of Levittowners. Everyone I met was bouyant and optimistic. There was certainly nostalgia for the old days, but no one complained they were down and out. They glowingly spoke of things much of America has lost: neighbours who knew their neighbours, kids playing together in the streets, block parties every summer. Here people still knew and trusted each other, there was no trace of giving up.

I ended my trip in the living room of Charlotte, a local nurse married to a fireman. We were joined by Brendan, a local policeman, and Judy, a mom who now works in an office. When I asked about how Levittown came back, they kept talking about the spirit of its people. Those men and women had come from far and wide to settle there 60-some years ago, leaving old coal towns and the big cities of New York and Philadelphia. In one sense they were immigrants, leaving an old life they knew for a new one they could only conceive of. And, like other immigrants, they had the grit and drive to make a go of it in their new hometown even when times turned tough. “Levittowners are survivors,” was how Charlotte summed it up, her friends nodding in agreement.

They glowingly spoke of things much of America has lost: neighbours who knew their neighbours, kids playing together in the streets, block parties every summer.

When she said that, I recalled a passage from Claire Berlinski’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, There Is No Alternative. Berlinski recounts her own visit to one of the coal fields shut down by Thatcher that had led to the momentous 1984-85 coal miner’s strike. She met two former coal miners on her journey. One had reinvented himself as an artist and was happy and making a healthy living. The other had never again found steady work, was dependent upon government benefit, and had suffered from multiple addictions and health problems. She wondered after her meeting why the mine closure could have such a different effect on two very similar people. Perhaps the answer was simply what Charlotte had recounted: one man had the resilience to survive, while the other didn’t.

As I left that night on the train, passing by the same decrepit communities and neighborhoods in the Philadelphia region I have been passing through for 30 years, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Charlotte’s statement was ultimately all that needed to be said. We’ve become so used in our modern age to look for material causes that we overlook the truth that lies right under our noses. Perhaps character really is king.

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FOOTNOTES
  1. The names of all interviewees are pseudonyms, which I provided them by agreement to encourage candour in our discussion.