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March 9, 2009

One of the criticisms of suburbia is its homogeneity—and there's no better example of monotonous development than the Levittown communities built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The history books credit the four highly planned towns for defining suburbia as we know it today. Artist Brian Tolle's current exhibit in New York City uses Levittown as an example of society's simultaneous embrace and rejection of mass consumerism.

Levittown by Brian Tolle at CRG Gallery overview

During World War II, Abraham Levitt and his sons, who had earlier established Levitt and Sons construction company, perfected their prefab techniques through a Navy commission to build homes for shipyard workers in Norfolk, Virginia. In the post-war boom, Levitt and Sons set their sights larger and announced a 2,000-rental home community on Long Island, built specifically for veterans. Before long an additional 4,000 homes were added to accommodate the demand—and with them, schools, a post office, and the other necessities for a growing town. By the end of the 40s, Levitt and Sons began building homes for permanent residency and Levittown, New York became one of the first American suburbs and a symbol of post-war life. Levitt and Sons followed up with similarly designed communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico.

Today you can drive through the Levittowns or, through March 21, visit the CRG Gallery in New York City for a more critical look at the designs. Artist Brian Tolle's "Levittown" installation features silicon molds of the New York Levittown homes draped over everyday objects that reflect American mass-production, such as a shopping cart, hair dryer, and basketball hoop. As the exhibition text describes, the rubber skins—all cast from the same mold—and the objects they cover highlight the dueling responses "specific to American consumerism: the seduction toward conformity or compliance with a mass-produced standard and the necessity to define one's identity through the alteration or defiance of it."


I have a personal, albeit slightly second-hand, connection to the Levitt and Sons communities: My mother spent a good deal of her childhood as a resident of the Levitt and Sons-design community in New Jersey, known then as Levittown, New Jersey, but now as Willingboro. As my interest in architecture became more and more evident during my youth, my mother (correctly) thought that I'd enjoy hearing about this town where she grew up.

She gave me a basic briefing on the layout and guiding principles, but what I took away was this: In the New Jersey community, the different sections of Levittown had different names, and the street names in each section began with the same letter as the section name. So, if you lived in Millbrook Park, you might have lived on Middlebury or Manor lanes.   

Growing up is difficult enough for any kid, and even more so when your name is Patricia Palmer, which makes your initials "P.P." Now imagine being this Patricia Palmer (whose brothers and sister included Pete, Paul, and Pam) are living in at 25 Patriot Lane in Pennypacker Park. I'm sure it helped my mother develop a thick skin, and for me, it's created a soft, if not humor-driven, spot in my heart for the Levittowns.

If you're in New York City, I recommend stopping by the CRG Gallery before the Brian Tolle show closes on March 21. The gallery is located at 535 West 22nd St. and open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am until 6 pm. For more information, visit crggallery.com.




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