How New York’s Suburbs Got So SegregatedRoundup
tags: segregation, suburbs, suburban history
Alan Singer is a historian and teacher educator at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York. He is the author of New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008) and New York's Grand Emancipation Jubilee: Essays on Slavery, Resistance, Abolition, Teaching, and Historical Memory (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2018).
Why is the population of Massapequa in New York’s Nassau County 98% percent white? Why do almost no Black families live in suburban Levittown, New York? Are we looking at free choices by families or underlying housing patterns that reflect the impact of past and current racist practices?
Newsday exposed racial channeling by Long Island realtors in an investigation that showed how they steered potential home buyers to particular towns based on their race and ethnicity.
Suburban growth on Long Island and other major metropolitan areas exploded after the Second World War as returning veterans pushed to start families and purchase homes. Farmland was converted into housing developments. Federal infrastructure investment like highway construction made commutes to work possible.
Between 1960 and 1964, about half a million white people left New York City for white suburban enclaves. The redlining of areas by banks and real estate agencies designating them for specific racial groups produced community and school segregation patterns in suburbs across the country that continue to exist today.
Between 1946 and 1951, Levitt and Sons constructed 17,447 low-cost two and three bedroom homes on Long Island. Ninety percent of the units were purchased by the families of World War II veterans. Initially, Levitt and Sons included a clause in mortgage and rental agreements that restricted occupancy to “Caucasians,” except for “domestic servants.” Even after the clause was removed, the company still refused to sell or rent to African Americans.
According to the 1960 census, of the 65,276 residents of Levittown, only 57 were Black, less than .1% of the population. In a 1954 interview, William Levitt argued “The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and some day it may change. I hope it will. But as matters now stand, it is unfair to charge an individual with the blame for creating this attitude or saddle him with the sole responsibility for correcting it. The responsibility is society’s. So far society has not been willing to cope with it. Until it does, it is not reasonable to expect that any builder should or could undertake to absorb the entire risk and burden of conducting such a vast experiment.”
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