Levittown: The Baby Boomer Story, Part 2
Last Wednesday, as thousands of protesters gathered in financial districts around the country shouting slogans like "Get money out of politics" and "This is what democracy looks like," clamoring for what some had begun referring to as a revolution, a visitor to the website OccupyWallSt.org posted a comment under the headline "What it Takes to Generate Social Action."
"In the '60s and '70s," the commenter wrote, "it took a war, over 50,000 body bags and a lying government of criminals that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign people and that fed a war machine that generated profits for the rarefied few."
Today, the commenter suggested, things aren't much different.
Could this be the start of a new "protest era"? What lessons do the movements of 30 and 40 years ago hold for today's protesters? Although most of the protesters on Wall Street are far too young to have experienced the Vietnam era themselves, they hardly seem oblivious to its parallels. On Saturday, as police arrested some 700 participants on the Brooklyn Bridge, and again on Wednesday, as a cop was photographed striking activists with his nightstick, the crowd burst into reprises of the iconic 1968 Democratic National Convention protest chant "The Whole World Is Watching."
Among those watching with particular interest was Mindy Snyder, a Baby Boomer from Levittown, N.Y., who participated in the activist movements of the '70s. Back then, she pointed out, one's motivations for marching were largely cultural: "Women's rights, sexual rights, gay and lesbian rights." Since then, as she said, "those cultural issues have all been settled, but now this financial issue controls the whole world."
Last week, for our first installment in a series on the Baby Boomer generation, Mindy and four of her schoolmates from Levittown spoke about growing up in "America's first suburb" during the dawn of that era of upheaval. With its community pools parks and baseball diamonds, its famous assembly-line houses and a pattern of wealth distribution about as uneven as the blades of grass on a fresh-cut lawn, Levittown embodied, in some ways, the dream for which today's protesters are marching. True, it was a dream to which just one privileged segment of the population was allowed access -- its founder, William Levitt, refused to sell homes to black people. But for the white families who settled there in the years after World War II, it was a place where a policeman's or a plant worker's salary assured you two bedrooms, a couple of fruit trees in the yard and a little peace of mind, and still left you with enough to send your kids to college. As one Levittowner put it, it was "a town of 99 percenters."
By the end of the '60s, most of the Levittowners interviewed for this series had moved away from that suburban idyll. As the euphoria of the "Summer of Love" gave way to the madness of late '60 and early '70s -- the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the shootings at Kent State -- each underwent a sort of personal revolution. Mindy protested for civil rights, bumped up against the "glass ceiling" and moved to Amsterdam. Bonnie Burke got married, had two children and lost her husband to Vietnam. Steve Bergsman, a promising high-school football player, traded his All-American look for mutton-chops and the anti-war movement.
As the series progresses, we'll stay with the same five Levittowners as they narrate the progress of their lives through the decades. For this week's installment, they've shared stories from the tumultuous stretch spanning Woodstock and the beginning of the Reagan presidency. Some of them settled down in those years, some partied like a comet was streaking towards Earth. For all of them, though, it was a time of dramatic changes -- personal and political. Perhaps not unlike this one.
Part II: "Movin' Out"
Steve Bergsman: When the seventies started I was still in college and I was very much active in the anti-war movement. I was in one of the first anti-war marches. I drove up with a friend and at first it was scary because there was a lot of street-fighting going on before the protest – a lot of tear gas and that kind of stuff that we now associate with those kinds of movements. I was part of the organization that helped keep everybody in line for where the march was headed. There was a very radical group of sort of anarchists in the parade and their objective was to disrupt everything, and as a line organizer there we fought to keep the anarchists in line. It got pretty rough at one point. We were just trying to keep the demonstration peaceful.
Mindy Snyder: It was the Lindsay era in New York. There was a lot of music going on and concerts in the park and, I don't know, the weather seemed to better at that time. My first apartment in the city was a fifth floor walk-up on East 79th Street. A railroad studio apartment -- you walked in, you were in the kitchen. It was two of us roommates; we paid $75 a month. Things were just easier then. People were just sort of on the same playing field. Not like it is now where you have so many people who are doing really well and so many people who aren't.
Bonnie Spence Burke: The '70s were great for me because I had my second and third child. I bought a little ranch house in Middle Island and I raised my girls and it was neat because we were out in the suburbs in a brand new home. It was Girl Scouts, and all those neat camping things and putting the girls in dancing. They became my whole life. I remember there was a protest against the power plant in Shoreham, and I did bring them to that to teach them to activate -- to stand up for what they believed in. I remember I was on TV and everyone was shocked because I was chained to a fence. Quiet, sweet Bonnie chained to a fence with two girls and baby carriage.
Claudia Albers Miller: The first time I applied to the Air Force I was rejected because they said I was too heavy and I wasn’t even a hundred pounds. Women had to be a certain weight and height to get any positions. Stewardesses had to be a certain height. To be a dancer you had to be a certain height. But I did a re-interview for the military and I got in. Basic training was kind of hard, but after about a week you got into the routine and it was easy then.
Steve: I was at the University of Florida and I hitchhiked with my girlfriend to D.C. to attend that second great anti-war demonstration in Washington. The South was still the South so it was a little bit risky [for protesters]. A truck driver drove us to my home, which was an apartment outside Gainsville, Fla., and the truck driver was so enamored with us hippies that he wanted to come in. I guess he thought there would be free love and lots of marijuana. He was really disappointed. It was a bunch of college students crowding into one apartment. It was fairly rancid and not very hippie-like and all he got out of it was a beer out of the refrigerator.
Mindy: I was working for a silverware manufacturer and I was in houseware sales. I wanted to make more money and they weren't going to give me a regular sales position where I was going to go out and sell to the department stores. They said I wasn't strong enough to lug around the samples, which I thought was bullshit. So for the job I wanted they hired a guy. So I wanted to find another job. I went to a big men's accessory line – belts, tie clips, money clips. I went to a job interview and they liked me and I would have been good, but again, sample cases.
Claudia: Foolishly I decided to get married. Things really didn’t work out. I have two great kids from it, but [laughs] I think [getting married] came with a lot of being naïve from growing up in Levittown. And the era, too -- women didn’t do anything. You got married right away. That was just before the turning of everything.