Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Suzanne Lashner Dayanim

Inner Suburbs

[caption id="attachment_26583" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial View of the Hollywood Housing Development Under Construction in 1928. The Hollywood housing development, shown here in 1928, is located a few miles north of the Philadelphia city limit, in Abington, Pennsylvania. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Presenting a varied and complicated patchwork of both thriving and distressed communities, Philadelphia’s inner suburbs developed during different eras to serve different purposes and populations. European influence predated the Revolutionary War with English, Swedish, Dutch, and Welsh settlers establishing tight-knit farming communities in what were then outlying areas of William Penn’s Philadelphia. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of slow but steady population increase, stately mansions were built in many of these well-positioned borderland communities as summer homes for wealthy Philadelphians while other communities were setting the foundation to become vibrant industrial towns. Beyond a common penchant toward small-town life and local allegiance, during the twentieth century these communities acquired different identities ranging from upscale hamlets with storied histories of housing wealthy families for more than a century, to working-class towns rooted in manufacturing, to post-World War II suburbs whose middle-class housing began to lose value by the end of the century. These early suburban communities represented a critical juncture in metropolitan dynamics as the first places outside of the city limits to experience rapid population growth during the twentieth century such that their residents were still essentially connected to the urban core while adopting new localized daily routines that began to disconnect them functionally from an urban sensibility.

Clustered around the city boundaries, the inner suburbs formed a contiguous ring of older jurisdictions within which the majority of housing dated to 1970 or before. This buffer, extending out approximately eight miles from Philadelphia’s city limits, corresponded roughly to the service area of the region’s popular commuter rail system along which early suburban development coalesced.  As such, the region’s inner suburbs could be considered to include the townships, boroughs, and a few cities within eight miles of Philadelphia’s border in Pennsylvania’s Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties as well as New Jersey’s Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. U.S. Census population figures attested to an enduring attraction of inner suburbs to the region’s residents. During the post-World War II era of mass suburbanization, migration flowed mainly to the inner suburbs that grew to be almost equal to the population of Philadelphia by 1970. At the close of the twentieth century, population in the inner suburbs well exceeded that in either the city or the outer suburbs. This relationship persisted through the 2010 Census with the inner suburbs home to a greater proportion of the metropolitan region’s population (37 percent) compared to either Philadelphia or the outer suburbs (29 percent and 34 percent, respectively).

[caption id="attachment_26582" align="alignright" width="300"]Market Street in Chester Pennsylvania in 1942 Retail businesses line Market Street, the main street of Chester, in 1942, not long before a period of decline. As with many manufacturing-based inner suburbs, Chester's consistent growth came to an end following World War II. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

During the nineteenth century, many towns along waterways developed as centers of manufacturing in the era of industrialization and became working-class suburbs. Water power and transportation influenced development in places such as Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, where the abundance of creeks and streams allowed for the development of mill towns. Along the Delaware River, Chester, Pennsylvania, became known for its shipyards and factory work in the early 1900s. Paulsboro, New Jersey, home to the Port of Paulsboro, developed its capacity for petroleum transfer and manufacturing.  Industrial parks were situated in Pennsauken, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The boroughs of Conshohocken and West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, along the Schuylkill River, became centers for steel and iron production

Although places that formed this suburban inner ring had unique longstanding histories, the introduction of rail lines in the mid-1800s shaped modern municipal demarcations. One string of affluent inner suburban communities, encompassing parts of Lower Merion and Radnor, Pennsylvania, acquired its moniker as “the Main Line” because the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad ran through these towns. These “bourgeois utopias” with their ample supply of sprawling estates remained prosperous and prestigious areas. In Camden County, New Jersey, a pair of high-income suburbs with lengthy histories similarly retained their appeal for wealthy residents. Haddonfield and Haddon Heights were built as classically laid-out towns with large homes that drew affluent professionals.  Railroad connections were integral to the plans of both communities, initially to the Camden and Atlantic Railroad and by 1969 to the PATCO high speed line.

[caption id="attachment_26581" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial View of Levittown Pennsylvania Under Construction in 1952. Levittown, Pennsylvania, located in Lower Bucks County northeast of Philadelphia, emerged as a new inner suburb in the post-World War II period. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The region’s suburban footprint changed dramatically with the mass suburbanization that defined the post-World War II period. Tract housing subdivisions transformed many of Greater Philadelphia’s inner ring agricultural areas into middle- and working-class bedroom suburbs to mirror the nationwide trend. Levitt and Sons builders chose Greater Philadelphia’s inner suburbs for two of its iconic Levittown communities, one spanning four jurisdictions in Pennsylvania’s Lower Bucks County and the other in Willingboro, New Jersey. Population in the inner suburbs mushroomed.  For example, in Lower Moreland, Pennsylvania, a 1940 resident count of 1,451 grew to 11,665 by 1970. In Deptford, New Jersey, a 1940 resident count of 4,738 grew to 24,232 by 1970. With the construction of an extensive network of highways and roads, inner suburbs drew middle- and working-class households seeking the quintessential American dream of owning a single-family home in a neighborhood with good schools, a safe and community-oriented environment, and easy automobile access to anywhere in the metropolitan region. White flight from city neighborhoods fueled the dramatic population increases in the inner suburbs between 1945 and 1970.

After 1970, African Americans began moving into suburbs where a pattern of disinvestment in aging homes had lowered prices enough to make them affordable. Typically, declining housing conditions preceded the arrival of minority buyers, yet many white residents assumed the reverse—namely, that the arrival of minority residents caused housing conditions to deteriorate. In an effort to stem the racial animosity that such transitions prompted, citizens in some racially changing suburbs like Pennsauken, New Jersey, as well as Lansdowne and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, formed organizations to support minority homebuyers and combat racial discrimination in housing. After 1970, however, some inner suburbs experienced population decline, especially losing white households to outer suburbs and, starting around 2000, to Philadelphia’s downtown. The racial makeup of inner suburbs grew more varied than in outer suburbs whose residents continued to identify predominantly as “white alone” in U.S. Census figures. In a few of the region’s distressed inner suburbs such as Chester and Yeadon, Pennsylvania, racial integration could not be maintained and a process of resegregation into predominantly minority communities ensued by the end of the twentieth century.

Inner suburbs increasingly became a destination of choice for immigrants to the region. By the twenty-first century, immigrant settlement in the inner suburbs followed class divisions as educated professionals chose upper-class enclaves and working-class immigrants gravitated to the more affordable working-class areas with easily accessible public transit. Inner suburbs recorded disproportionate shares of elderly residents, although the trajectory was decidedly upward for both inner and outer suburbs. And poverty began to rise in the inner suburbs, mirroring national trends as well as the trajectory of Philadelphia’s inner city neighborhoods. The public schools in distressed suburbs came to be counted among the worst performing in the region. In Pennsylvania in 2014 more than 40 percent of third graders and eighth graders tested below their grade level for reading in underfunded districts like Pennsylvania’s William Penn School District, Southeast Delco School District, Norristown Area School District, and Bristol Borough

[caption id="attachment_26586" align="alignright" width="300"]Street View of the Media Theatre in 2014. Many smaller boroughs offered the charm, walkability, sense of community, and main street orientation that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission touted in its promotional campaign for the region’s treasured “Classic Towns.” One of these was the Borough of Media, Pennsylvania, whose Media Theatre is shown here in 2014. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

A number of factors explained these trends of population decline, demographic change, and increased poverty in Greater Philadelphia’s inner suburbs as well as under-performing schools in certain places. Outdated post-World War II housing stocks and aging infrastructure made many older suburbs less appealing to homebuyers. The regional tide of deindustrialization undermined working-class manufacturing suburbs. In addition, the region’s governmental fragmentation, assigning each suburb responsibility for taxation and service delivery within its boundaries, played a role as small suburban jurisdictions struggled to fund services on a stagnating tax base.  The most threatened were bedroom communities that lacked commercial property to bolster tax revenues. For example, the William Penn School District was created in 1972 to serve six small boroughs clustered together near Delaware County’s border with Philadelphia. All were residential communities with little commercial tax base, so the full weight of paying for local services and schools fell on homeowners. Thus inequalities widened among inner suburbs as prosperous communities strategized effectively to strengthen their amenities and advantages with a focus on commercial and office park development as well as educational and medical infrastructure, leaving more vulnerable places to decline. Struggling inner suburbs were thus caught in a “policy blind spot,” overlooked in policy debates that contrasted flourishing outer suburbs with declining cities.

[caption id="attachment_26666" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo showing three 1900-era houses and a colorful tree towering at left. The "Main Line" borough of Narberth is an example of an inner-ring suburb that prospered because it offered a spacious, neighborhood environment with easy access to Center City Philadelphia. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Even as some inner suburbs declined, however, others possessed qualities that positioned them to prosper. Many smaller boroughs offered the charm, walkability, sense of community, and main street orientation that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission touted in its promotional campaign for the region’s treasured “Classic Towns.” Boroughs such as Narberth and Media in Pennsylvania, and Collingswood in New Jersey, began drawing people to their independently owned main street shops and restaurants as well as their robust community life centered on festivals and public events. Conshohocken successfully capitalized upon its traditional town layout to reinvent itself as a major hub of the region’s knowledge economy. The ample inventory of older housing built before 1939 offered stately and unique architectural features increasingly of interest to homebuyers.

The Philadelphia region’s densely settled inner suburbs exhibited far greater variation than its outer suburbs. In this complicated metropolitan mosaic, pockets of distressed places developed side-by-side with prospering ones. But all shared the continuing geographic advantage of easy access to central Philadelphia in an era when sprawled development patterns shifted growing numbers of suburban residents farther away from, and less able to sustain, connections with the region’s core.  

Suzanne Lashner Dayanim holds a Ph.D. in Geography and Urban Studies from Temple University. Her dissertation measured the value of community facilities to inner ring suburban resilience.

Levittowns (Pennsylvania and New Jersey)

[caption id="attachment_17457" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of Levittown, Pa in 1952. The Levitts built slightly more than 17,300 homes of only six models between 1952 and 1958 in this second Levittown, in Pennsylvania (the first being in New York state). The community was partitioned into four master block areas, visible in this photo from 1952. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The iconic Levittown communities–the first in Long Island, New York, and the subsequent two in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Burlington County, New Jersey–endure as symbols of the unique character of post-World War II U.S. suburban development. A confluence of forces encouraged the particular nature of these large-scale, mass-produced, low-cost suburban tract housing developments, including a shortage of housing for returning veterans and their young families, the rise of new building techniques, and federal government mortgage financing incentives. Levitt and Sons builders of New York, led by Abraham Levitt and his two sons William Jaird (1907-94) and Alfred (1912-66), seized the opportunity to afford home-ownership to masses of middle- and working-class Americans.

Early suburban development had been incremental, custom-oriented, and expensive, which limited life on the metropolitan periphery to a wealthy few. Levitt and Sons, however, were at the forefront of the trend toward mass-producing smaller housing units in large subdivided communities. In the early 1940s, the Levitts gained experience in erecting modest homes quickly through war-related federal contracts in and around Norfolk, Virginia, to meet the acute demand for housing the area’s substantial naval population. After the war’s end, the Levitt organization quickly adapted for the broader market its newfound expertise constructing affordable housing in a way that resembled the assembly-line production of automobiles. Standardized houses were built on concrete slabs using precut components. Subcontractors would move from house to house, performing their single task with such great efficiency that, at the height of production, a Levittown house was completed every 16 minutes. The largest housing development ever produced by a single company, Long Island’s Levittown included more than 17,400 single-family detached homes each of roughly 750 square feet equipped with a state-of-the-art built-in kitchen. By 1950 Levitt and Sons had risen to become the largest homebuilder in the country. 

Levittown, Pennsylvania

Like Levitt’s Long Island development, Pennsylvania’s Levittown benefited from the federal Veterans Administration program to provide loan guarantees that allowed veterans to buy homes with little or no down payment. But Pennsylvania’s Levittown was firmly connected to the area’s industrial base. The developer chose this site because U.S. Steel Corporation’s Fairless Works Plant had just broken ground nearby alongside the Delaware River, and thousands of plant employees would need convenient housing. In 1951 Levitt and Sons bought 5,750 contiguous acres of broccoli and spinach farmland near that plant to build what the company claimed was “the most perfectly planned community in America.” Many of Levittown’s initial buyers were employed at the Fairless Works plant.

The Levitts built slightly more than 17,300 homes of only six different models between 1952 and 1958 in this second Levittown. The community was partitioned into four master block areas, which in turn were divided into smaller neighborhood sections of between 300-500 houses. Each section was assigned a general name, and streets within that section were given names beginning with the first letter of the section name. Thus, Hollyhock Lane and Hickory Lane are found in the Holly Hill neighborhood. Sections were kept intimate to encourage community interaction while master block areas were separated by larger through streets such as Levittown Parkway. Community amenities were part of the package with space set aside for a shopping center and places of worship, an elementary school in each master block, and the inclusion of baseball fields, neighborhood parks, and five community swimming pools managed by the Levittown Public Recreation Association.

Levittown, Pennsylvania, is a Census Designated Place in Bucks County that was carved out of farmland that had been incorporated into existing municipalities well before Levitt bought the land. As such, it meanders through Bristol, Falls, and Middletown Townships, and Tullytown Borough. This fragmentation among four municipalities and three school districts undermined the cohesiveness of William Levitt’s community vision. Levitt would have preferred to secure incorporated status for Levittown as a separate township; however residents refused to support the proposal fearing it would increase their tax bills.

[caption id="attachment_17458" align="alignright" width="300"]The first family moving into Levittown, Pa The first family moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania, on June 23, 1952, an arrival captured in this photograph by Howard Hamburger of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Levittowns were notorious as all-white communities. William Levitt famously proclaimed that “we can solve the housing problem or we can solve the racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”  The national spotlight blazed on Levittown, Pennsylvania, as a battleground for suburban housing integration when, in August 1957, an African American couple, Daisy and William Myers, bought and moved into 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dogwood Hollow section with their three young children. A year of racist harassment and sometimes violent provocation against the Myerses led religious groups like the Quakers to join with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to try to force local police to protect the Myers family. Ultimately the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued an injunction to stop what it called “an unlawful, malicious and evil conspiracy” by Levittown neighbors and convicted the ringleaders of violating the Myerses’ rights. 

Levittown, New Jersey

With the construction of his third Levittown, William Levitt could realize to its fullest extent his vision of a comprehensively planned community. In the mid-1950s the company used straw purchasers to buy farmland in Burlington County, an area within easy commuting distance to Philadelphia, Camden, and Trenton.  Levitt used seemingly unrelated buyers, as he had previously done in Pennsylvania, to discourage sellers from delaying the sales in the hopes of getting higher prices per acre. In New Jersey, Levitt was determined that his new development would not repeat his earlier mistake in Pennsylvania of crossing municipal boundary lines, which had forced him to deal with conflicting zoning and subdivision regulations. In the end, Levitt acquired about 90 percent of all the land located within the borders of the single township of Willingboro. There he built 11,000 homes, selling the first in June 1958. The township was officially renamed Levittown in 1959 by resident referendum. But by 1963 the confusion with Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the same metropolitan area prompted residents to change the town’s name back to Willingboro.

Levitt notably offered mixed housing types on streets in Levittown, New Jersey,  such that a more expensive “House C (Colonial)” could be found next door to the more modest “House A (Cape Cod).”  The adjustment was meant to allay criticism from urban theorists, most notably Lewis Mumford, that the new suburban developments suffered from a depressing uniformity. The mix of housing types at different prices was intended to draw more middle- and upper-middle-class buyers than had been attracted to the earlier Levittowns.  And in fact Herbert Gans’ acclaimed 1967 sociological study, The Levittowners, confirmed the community’s socioeconomic diversity. Gans documented subtle but important variations in class, religion, lifestyle, and political orientation among early Levittown, New Jersey residents.

As Levitt was building Willingboro, his company was already under legal assault for the whites-only policy in its Pennsylvania development. Since the New Jersey location was close to several military bases, it drew interest from military personnel including an African American Army officer, Willie R. James, who integrated the new community by winning a 1960 lawsuit against racial exclusion.  Rather than public harassment and violence, racial conflicts were settled by litigation, which gradually made Willingboro appear safe to more and more minority homebuyers but prompted whites to leave. Although the town leaders tried to stem white flight by banning the public display of “for sale” signs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the ban. By the 2010 U.S. Census about seventy-three percent of the population identified as “One Race: Black or African American.” 

In contrast, Levittown, Pennsylvania, remained predominantly white with about ninety percent identifying as “One Race: White” in the 2010 U.S. Census.  One contributing influence may have been the prominent role of the Fairless Hills plant in the life of Levittown.  That U.S. Steel mill was several times charged with discrimination against African American workers.  Almost certainly, the well-known violence and hostility faced by early residents of color in Levittown discouraged other African American families from moving there.

Enduring Legacy of the Levittowns

The massive scale of these low-cost single-family detached housing developments, coupled with William Levitt’s grandiose persona, catapulted the Levittown brand as the national symbol of the unique nature of postwar mass-migration to suburbia. Criticism abounded of the new American lifestyle in the “cultural wasteland” of cookie-cutter, “little boxes” that typified new tract housing. However, projects such as Gans’ study, architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s “Learning from Levittown” that  analyzed the changes owners made to their homes and yards, and sociologist David Popenoe’s account of Levittown, Pennsylvania’s maturation after twenty years in existence, revealed a more complex life and landscape in these places.

[caption id="attachment_17459" align="alignright" width="300"]A protest in Levittown over the prospect of the first African American family moving in. The national spotlight blazed on Levittown, Pennsylvania, as a battleground for suburban housing integration when, in August 1957, an African American couple, Daisy and William Myers, bought and moved into 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dogwood Hollow section with their three young children. The uproar of the community is shown here as residents gather at a meeting to discuss the Myerses’ plans to move into their recently purchased home in the previously all-white city. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Levittown and Willingboro remain economically stable communities with median household income, according to the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), at $69,066 and $67,697 respectively, both above the metropolitan area’s median of $60,482. But the two communities’ fortunes differ in many respects. Unemployment in Levittown was 5.8 percent, according to the 2013 ACS, but higher in Willingboro at 10 percent.  Median house value was also strikingly different with the 2013 ACS recording Levittown’s as $230,000 and Willingboro’s as $169,500 even though Levitt built more upscale housing at the New Jersey site. And while the persistent white-majority in Levittown mirrors the overwhelming white-majority composition of the four Levittown municipalities as well as Bucks County in general, Willingboro’s African American majority stands in stark contrast to the white-majority racial makeup present in all other Burlington County municipalities.

One possible explanation for the differing trajectories of these two Levittown communities, apart from their disparate histories, may lie in the difference in choices available to contemporary homebuyers seeking an ideal suburban township setting. Since the sections of Levittown, Pennsylvania,  remain essentially only neighborhoods within larger municipalities, they offer the most affordable choices within those jurisdictions for people of limited resources, while the diversity of neighborhoods and housing types means that wealthier buyers interested in purchasing within those municipalities have options for newer housing styles in different kinds of settings. In Willingboro, on the other hand, since the now outdated Levitt-style development constitutes the vast majority of the township’s housing stock, buyers interested in other kinds of neighborhood layouts or housing styles must look in other municipalities. This explanation suggests a flaw in Levitt’s vision of creating one type of neighborhood within the confines of a single jurisdiction. Developing almost the entire township at a single moment in time limited Willingboro’s ability to update incrementally in response to evolving residential and commercial sensibilities.

Levittowns began as symbols of America’s post-war promise and progress. These communities have been much studied and documented as the archetypal late-twentieth -century landscape of the unfolding American story. The trend toward suburban privatization is illustrated in the literature by the closing of the majority of Levittown, Pennsylvania’s once thriving community pools and the introduction there of property-line fences. Its integration struggles exposed the segregated nature of U.S. suburbanization. Scholars agree that Levittown was a singular American achievement that forever changed the dynamic of suburbia. With the creation of Levittown, masses of working-class Americans, albeit white-only, could own a piece of picture-windowed suburban America with its lure of wholesome living and good schools. More than 60 years after the Levitts first sold low-cost homes, these two Levittowns still proved an affordable option for people of ordinary means seeking home ownership in a suburban setting.

Suzanne Lashner Dayanim holds a Ph.D. in Geography and Urban Studies from Temple University. Her dissertation measures the value of community facilities to inner ring suburban resilience, and its study area includes the four municipalities of Pennsylvania’s Levittown.

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