August 14, 2010

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same

By Lillian Smith Handleman

In 1962, the year I graduated from Division Avenue High School, the cozy enclave of Levittown homes on eastern Long Island was rhapsodized by Malvina Reynolds, who described this post-war community of mass-produced houses in the lyrics of her song, Little Boxes:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

That song may well describe the outward fa├žade of Levitt homes constructed in the late 1940s with the box-like simplicity of a child’s drawing. There was a tiny Bendix washing machine off in the corner of the little kitchen studded with metal cabinets. Everything was miniature, like living in a snow globe. There was one small bathroom and two bedrooms off the living room with a window that overlooked a treeless view of a thousand other houses--just like the song described.

We didn’t know it then but that remarkable touchstone of modern suburbia was just the embryo of an era that would explode like a canon in so many different ways. And the nostalgic influence of those days would be felt years later, like a heartache.

But our community of little houses was so much more than just the superficial underpinnings of mortar and sheetrock. It was a symbol of our parents' security following the great depression of the 1930s and 1940s, and signified a certain upward mobility for them in an age of new prosperity. Despite the cold war that often had us hunkering under our school desks in preparation for an air raid, mostly we were the benefactors of an age of optimism where the hope and promise of a burgeoning economy took form in ways we couldn’t predict. It’s no wonder we look back in awe at the paradoxical simplicity of an era where the race for nuclear arms and outer space collided comet-like, smack onto the birth of Rock and Roll.

And at the heart of it all were those ticky-tacky houses we came home to every day after school, or at night after catching fireflies in the moonlight. They provided the warm comfort of radiant heat under tile floors on a cold winter’s day, and the feeling of safety despite the ever-present specter of political tension. Somehow, those houses blanketed us in the comfort of home and gave us our sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.

My parents died a few years apart leaving me orphaned at 18, and my house on 17 Brook Lane was sold a few years later. But the events of those years are embedded like a memory chip, so vivid are they to this day. They say that we tend to romanticize the past, yet there was something patently romantic about that whole era. I yearn to return to it, if only briefly, to taste again the sweetness of a time that remains, somehow, timeless.

Photo of 17 Brook Lane in 2009 by Marilyn Monsrud Frese '63

Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds, YouTube Link:


Sue V said...

Lillian, you are an amazing writer. You brought me back to a much simpler life. We had a wonderful, secure, upbringing in Levittown. I wouldn't have wanted to live anywhere else, growing up. thank you. Sue

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog