In 1946, a developer named William Levitt began buying up land from potato farmers in the Long Island town of Hempstead, N.Y., and within a few years he had created a fully realized suburban town, complete with schools, shopping strips, community swimming pools and a cherry, apple and evergreen tree in just about every yard of more than 17,400 nearly identical box-like houses. Levittown was the largest housing development ever created by a single builder, and it would become the model for suburban development for decades to come.
For the launch of this new section, HuffPost 50, we asked five of the original children of Levittown to tell us about their lives through the decades, and we have woven their impressions into a patchwork that we hope captures some sense of the so-called Baby Boomer experience, to the extent that there is one.
This article, the first in a series, covers the period from 1947 to the late '60s, and includes stories from several Levittowners who grew up together and graduated from Island Trees High School. There's Steve Bergsman, who played football in high school and went on to write a memoir about his life in the town, and Edward Mahoney, who later became the rock star Eddie Money, and Bonnie Spence Burke, a sorority girl who lost her marriage to Vietnam and who, seven years ago, at the age of 55, adopted a baby. In some cases these Levittowners have shared more than just their words. Eddie Money listed his favorite songs from the '50s to today, which we've linked up to YouTube for maximum nostalgia effect, and Bergsman has provided us with excerpts from his July 2011 memoir, Growing Up Levittown In A Time Of Conformity, Controversy, and Cultural Crisis.
Why Levittown? Quite simply, it was the first town built specifically in response to the frenzy of baby-making that followed World War II. Even before they could talk, the country was changing to accommodate the boomer babies, and their sheer numbers ensured that this was not that last time that would such adjustments would be necessary. When they struck out from home in search of new experiences, they brought us Woodstock. And when they cut their hair, settled down and began worrying about the safety of their own kids, they gave us Reagan.
And today, as they reach the age that their parents were when they retired, they are once again navigating a road that few people have been down before: They are supporting adult children who are struggling to pay off unprecedented debts. They are caring for aging parents in an era when old age can easily last to 90 or 100. They are thinking about retirement in an economic climate that offers little of the security that their parents took for granted, and either by choice, or by necessity, many of them are starting whole new careers. Some are even starting new families.
You could argue that Levittown was where it all began -- and many have. It was "little boxes on the hillside," it was souped-up Fords and Chevys, it was greasy hair and poodle-skirts, which gave way to miniskirts and black eyeliner and a flip. For many of the town's children it was an American Eden, full of amazing freedom and a profound innocence.
But it was also a place that thrived as a direct result of choices that were anything but innocent. Like many developers around the country, the Levitts used mortgage programs to which the Federal Courts would not apply the Brown principle. That is, they refused to sell homes to black people -- a decision to which they attributed much of their success. "I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family," said William Levitt in 1957, "then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community."
The Levittown story reflects just one facet of the Boomer experience, and so as this series progresses we'll be branching out to other communities around the country -- communities like the South Side of Chicago and Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. Levittown lays a unique claim to the status of suburban archetype, but it hardly represents the generation as a whole, and the reasons for this say as much as anything about the times the Boomers have lived in.
I. "Be My Baby"
Claudia Albers Miller: We lived across the street from a farm. We used to play hide and seek in the corn. The farmer would come out and shoot at us with a BB gun.
Steve Bergsman: It was a world of freedom. You could go get on your bike and go blocks and blocks and blocks and your parents wouldn't have to worry about you.
Bonnie: We would get on our bikes and just disappear. I remember riding for miles and miles with the wind in our face and in our hair and we didn’t care.
Steve: This was the freedom of the suburbs. That's why 50 or 70 percent of the population lives in suburbs today.
Bonnie: In high school my sisters and I had a band called the Sisters Four. I played the drums. We played for the high school hootenanny and we won first prize for that. It was a hootenanny! You know?
Steve: It's kind of forgotten now, but in the '50s everybody talked about Levittown because it was so new, and they blamed Levittown for everything. It was supposed to be this great cauldron of conformity. The James Deans, the Marlon Brandos of the world -- they were all rebelling against conformity. But some great talent grew up in Levittown. A boy who graduated with me -- his name was Eddie Mahoney -- he became a rock star in the '70s called Eddie Money. Billy Joel grew up there in Levittown... There's a whole list of people. They all came up at a time when it was predicted that Levittown would be a slum and no good would come of it.
Eddie Mahoney ("Eddie Money"): I started going to school at Franklin Lane -- that's in Brooklyn. It's the same high school that John Gotti went to. I was hanging around in Brooklyn going to dances and stuff, so to make a long story short, my father was worried I was going to turn into a juvenile delinquent. So when I got out to Levittown, of course, I'm wearing the tight pants and the pointy boots and the next day I end up getting into the longest fight in the history of Island Trees High School. It went for about six hours. Of course they took wrestling out there in the suburbs. I didn't know that.
Bonnie: In school, Eddie was a little bit faster than me, so we stayed friendly but that's all it ever was. He was popular and he had whatever he wanted.
Eddie: I was in a rock band but everybody used to hate me because I couldn't have long hair. My father was a cop.
Bonnie: I was what they used to call a "collegiate." The word collegiate was somebody who was a good girl. The greasers were the bad girls. So I was a collegiate and Eddie looked like a collegiate but he really, I guess, got around a lot.
Eddie: Nobody got laid, but who gives a shit?
Steve: The amount of kids who were virgins when they graduated was probably 95 percent.
Mindy Snyder: One year I probably dated twenty guys from the school. It was like one date, that was it. And the next day you'd go back to school and you were friends again. It was just like the way it was before you had the date.
Eddie: You were lucky maybe to get your old lady's bra off after the senior prom.
Bonnie: If you were pregnant, you had two choices. You moved away, you killed yourself, or -- three choices -- plenty of kids had an illegal abortion. You did that.
Mindy: There weren't any other races. I think we had one Chinese person in the class, or two. No black people at all.
Bonnie: I think we had one African-American girl in our class. I mean, the poor thing. The poor girl.
Steve: I never heard one incident of a racial slur, but I can't imagine she was anything but lonely.
Mindy: They had some book-burning incidents with people who thought Catcher in the Rye was some kind of, you know... I didn't grow up that way. I came from a very liberal background. There were always groups of people who didn't like Spanish people -- they didn't like anyone who came with slightly Spanish name. They called them a spick, or a mick for Irish people. But we all got along.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Bonnie Burke "lost her husband in Vietnam," which was not meant to suggest that he was killed. This has been changed.
Bonnie: The collegiate sorority, they were very choosy about who got in. They would watch you for weeks and vote on you and they would act a certain way and dress a certain way. All the girls dressed the same. We all had flips and pearls.
Steve: The two fraternities were Sportsman and Sigma. You had to letter in at least one sport get into Sportsman.
Bonnie: One of the criteria to come in was you had "Hell Night," and on Hell Night they took us out and they would put shaving cream on us. They put, I think it was dog poop, on our face and then they would force us to be blindfolded and kneel down on the pavement behind May's department store and they would beat us with paddles, and you would have to say "Thank you" after every one.
You’re supposed to be friends with these girls after they hurt you like this.
Steve: I don't know about the other fraternities and sororities but in Sportsman, the paddling was brutal. I mean, they could paddle you with anything -- a boat oar, a two-by-four. I was literally black and blue from behind my knees to the crack in my butt.
Bonnie: I remember after my Hell Night I had blisters on me so badly, I couldn’t take my sweater off. My mother helped me take a shower and held me and just cried. And for that, we got to wear a great big white sweater with a beautiful "I" on it. We got to wear our Itemette sweater and we got to walk together and we got to sit together. But you know what? We didn't do a damn thing else together. There wasn't even a party for us. There wasn't any community work or anything. No wonder I’m still in therapy! [laughs]
Eddie: It hurt my feelings that I never got into Sportsman, 'cause I ran track. And it hurt my feelings that I never got into Sigma.
Steve: To get into Sigma you just had to look cool.
They all had slicked-back hair, sort of in the '50s mode. One of the guys in Sigma, when he got out he got a job with the Mafia. You know how everybody gets a job after high school, right? Later they found him in the trunk of his car in LaGuardia Airport.
Eddie: Nobody kicked books out of my hands or anything, but I wasn't one of the popular guys. I blended in with the rest of the losers.
Steve: When I was senior there was a melee and I had my jaw broken. Well this was cause celebre in Levittown. In these days everybody pretty much had one phone in their house -- the black phone -- but somehow the word got out that I was in the hospital and the next day there was like a flash mob at the hospital.
Bonnie: I sold papers in the hospital, and one night they told me one of the Sportsmen was downstairs, so I went down and he was there on a stretcher and I remember he looked so scared and he looked so tiny. And here he was, a football player and everything. And he was popular. He was hot. He looked so scared and he looked so small and his face was all swollen and I remember putting my hand on him and touching him and him trying to smile at me and he couldn’t and I told him, "Don’t worry, I'll tell everybody you're here. "I remember him telling me later, "Thanks for nothing, Bonnie." Because 3,000 people showed up. That’s the kind of spirit it was.
Eddie: "Good Lovin" was on the radio, by the Rascals. "Devil in a Blue Dress." The Stones, the Kinks, the Zombies. It was great.
Mindy: Talk about boy bands. We had the best boy bands ever. We had Eddie Money and the Grapes of Wrath. And Billy Joel -- he was around in Hicksville.
Eddie: When we were kids we were in a battle of the bands. It was me and it was Billy Joel's band and it was a band called the Rich Kids, and the Rich Kids won. We played at this teenage nightclub in an airplane hangar, and one night I was there with my band and we all smoked pot for the first time. The bouncers caught us and scared the living shit out of us and we swore we'd never smoke pot again.
Steve: My friends and I made our first foray into Manhattan to the Fillmore East to see the Doors. That was my first foray into the counterculture and that was in '67. As far as I was concerned, I was seeing the direction that the world was going in and I liked that direction. I was moving in that direction myself.
Claudia: The week after graduation I went into the military, and that was in the Vietnam era. I went in the Air Force and enjoyed it, but it was a culture shock. Once you left Levittown it was like night and day, because Levittown was so secure. And when you got out in the real world, it was like, Oh my gosh. All the stuff you could do, all the stuff you shouldn’t do. A lot of big decisions you didn’t have in Levittown.
Mindy: I went to Temple University in Philadelphia for a while, then I came back and I started to work and I tried to go to school at night, but that wasn't really working out. I was living in the city -- I lived there from 1970 through 1978. I was there for everything, right into women's lib. I got married, I got divorced and then I went to Europe, because I thought, Well, I'm not really liking my job. There was a big glass ceiling. I wanted to be a race car driver -- women didn't do that. I wanted to be a jockey -– women didn't do that.
Eddie: I spent two years on the police department as a police trainee and then I moved out to California with the guys in the band. I was getting high when I was on the police department, which was really fucked up. My father was patrolman of the year. So I got my surfboard and my Bob Dylan records and ran away one night.
Bonnie: After I graduated I went away to college and I got talked into going to this frat party and drinking too much. We got pinned, which is supposed to be right before you got engaged, and I ended up getting pregnant. We got married, and because we got married his draft status changed, so he said, "You know, Bonnie, I can go to Vietnam, or I can go to the Navy -- they don't have bullets in the Navy."
He thought he was being smart. He was a premed major, so once the Navy saw him he was recruited by the Marines to be a Corpsman in Vietnam. So this poor guy who wanted to go to medical school, who fell in love with me... We get married, I get pregnant and he ends up in Vietnam as a Corpsman running around the field trying to patch people up and he came back a very different person. A scary different person.
I remember him having flashbacks. I remember him saying, "Watch out, watch out, the gooks are going to get you." I remember the neighbors put our house on fire because they were anti-war protesters. He picked up the dog and put it around his neck and was dodging between the trees and the cars, having major post-traumatic stress flashbacks. I remember him saying, "Bonnie, I get out of Vietnam without a scratch and the people who live below us try to kill me?"
We had another kid by then. He ended up going back to Vietnam and I never saw him again. So I raised my two kids on my own. Actually with my mother's help, thank God.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" -- isn't that what they say? There was music, there was laughter, we used to ride our bikes everywhere, we used to go Jones Beach and walk on the boardwalk. But there was war, there was death, there was burn your bra, there was pink flowers and the drugs that go with it, there was the Beatles and Vietnam. You know, if I have to sum it up, I would first of all have to thank my mom and dad, because it was really about the kids. And I would say, "Wow, what a ride." But that’s what I want to say when I ride into heaven anyway.
* * * * *
In the years that Bonnie and her schoolmates left Levittown and went out into the world, that world changed. Between 1967 and 1970, the Tet Offensive was launched, millions of protesters marched in Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the Apollo 11 space shuttle landed on the moon. Summing up his years in California, Eddie Money said, "The peace riots, Gov. Reagan, the Blue Meanies, the pepper gas. I was there for all that shit."
More changes were in store. As Steve Bergsman put it, the seventies were a "wild, wild time." For Steve, the craziness of the '70s mostly played out on the periphery. By the time disco and the accompanying drugs arrived, for example, Steve was already "married, retired and out of the drug culture." But for other graduates of Island Trees High School, life took vastly different directions. Over the coming weeks, we'll bring you more of their stories in a series of installments.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that General Westmoreland launched the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. The offensive was actually a campaign by the North Vietnamese.