January 24, 2011

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

A recent photo of 117 Brook Lane....Lillian Smith's old home.

By Lillian Smith Handleman '62

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 by Marilyn Monsrud Frese '63

Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds, YouTube Link:


Larry Bory said...

They don't look the same anymore. The 50s created an army of small contractors who created additions, extensions, expanded dormers to accommodate growing families and income.

Marilyn Monsrud Frese said...

Wonderful memories Lillian! And a beautiful story...full of heartfelt warmth and love. Just to let everyone know, when we had our home expanded and raised a few years ago, the contractor and all of his 'specialists' (electricians, plumbers etc.) commented on what a solid and well built house Levitt made back then. They all said that these houses were an amazing undertaking and were done with skill and care. Way to go Mr. William Levitt! (Levittowner (DAHS) from 1948-current)

Wendy Max Dunford '68 said...

I remember someone telling my parents that the Levitt homes were some of the few in the area that qualified for hurricane insurance, they were so well made.

Anna Mujica said...

Every now and then I like to browse Google for photos of early Levittown. The photo of your old house caught my eye before I even clicked further to find the address. I walk by this house all the time with my kids as we walk around the block. I'm on Ridge, just moved here in December, and I'll never forget the first time we passed this seemingly original untouched Levit cape! It still looks exactly the same! We bought our house from the original family, perhaps you know them!

I love reading your stories here, it reminds me of my own family's stories. Both parents were raised in Levittown (Island Trees, not Division) and I grew up in a ranch off a Newbridge (Clarke), and now I'll raise my kids to go to Division. We are generations of Levittowners and proud!