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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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What We Name Things Matters

After an ongoing controversy about the future of recreational and catering facilities in the “Roslyn Country Club” section of Roslyn Heights, the North Hempstead Town Board has created a special district to run a tentatively named “Levitt Park at Roslyn Heights.”

Levitt & Sons, homebuilders, was a family-run business. But from the late 1930s on, the front person in every way was William J. Levitt, one of the sons. Bill Levitt was a complicated figure, a man of multiple dimensions and motivations. This was a man who, prior to the Second World War, sold homes in Manhasset with restrictive covenants banning sales to Jews, even though he himself was a Jew who lived in Manhasset. This man had layers.

Whatever they did, for good or bad, the Levitts were certainly not alone in how they thought, enabled by the local political establishment. The Roslyn Country Club colony couldn’t have been built without a border change that took it out of the Village of Old Westbury.

The Country Club colony, sold in two phases in 1949 and 1950, was presented by the Levitts and their public relations machine in tandem with the immense Levittown project. The two projects shared newspaper advertising, and the main sales office and demonstration model for Levittown was walking distance from Roslyn Country Club. A Levitt company selling strategy was to include recreational facilities in their new developments; they built six swimming pools in 1949 alone.

Half the Roslyn Country Club land sat on the former Draper estate, and the mansion was refurbished and made into a neighborhood clubhouse. When the houses were sold, Levitt reneged on promises (according to a State Supreme Court referee ruling in 1958) and sold the clubhouse to a private company. That’s another connection to Levittown. In 1953, after town governments refused to pick up the costs, Levitt closed Levittown Hall and some pools and playing fields, causing an ongoing controversy over park districts and fees.

There was no special, personal connection between the Levitts and Roslyn Heights. It was strictly business. That was Bill Levitt’s public mantra in defense of his actions.

From the first moment the Levitts applied for mortgage insurance on Levittown houses in 1947, they were pressured by state and regional Federal Housing Administration officials to drop their formal racial exclusion policies. By 1949, these officials were publicly suggesting that Washington should grant them the power to withhold support. The policy was dropped for new sales, but was enforced through existing deeds and leases to varying degrees until 1953. For half a century, the sins of the Long Island housing-real estate-political complex marred reputations of good people in Levittown.

The Levitts were wrong. They didn’t need the race clauses to sell their houses. In 1963, two weeks before Dr. King gave his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, there was Bill Levitt, Spokesman of the Industry, in headlines across America defending the right of builders to refuse to sell to African-Americans where segregated neighborhoods were the custom. He considered Long Island to be one of those places, and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, where Levittowns II, III and IV went up, amid picket lines and state government lawsuits. There’s no clear evidence that Bill Levitt was personally bigoted. He made it clear that it was strictly business, which probably makes it all worse.

Levitt & Sons finally adopted an open-housing policy in April 1968, five days after Dr. King’s assassination.

It wasn’t Bill Levitt’s job to enlighten a population or broaden people’s minds. The Levitts made houses. It was the people who lived in those houses who made communities. The park’s name should reflect that.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net