Levittown, NY

Levittown, NY, was the first prefab housing development in suburbia built for returning vets and their families after WWII. These identical houses on Long Island included white picket fences, modern appliances, and green lawns.

Many people in the early postwar years wanted to get away from the crowded cities, and have their own houses with yards. Into this moment in time stepped the Levitt & Sons real estate development company.

Copyright Rcsprinter123

During the Great Depression, the Levitts sold 600 Tudor-style, upper-middle-class houses with six bedrooms and two bathrooms for $14,000 each ($200,000 today) within four years. They were designed in 1929 by 17-year-old Alfred Levitt, younger son of founder Abraham.

William Levitt, the older son, became known as the one to see about custom-made, high-end Long Island houses on the North Shore (a.k.a. the Gold Coast).

During the 1930s, the Levitts built many homes for communities in Westchester County; Manhasset, NY; and Great Neck, NY. They sold from $9,100 to $18,500, and attracted lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, and famous radio personalities and journalists.

Aerial shot of Levittown, PA

To try to do their part to help with an affordable housing crisis (caused by postwar prosperity for the privileged classes, and the baby boom), the Levitts selected an area called Island Trees. They planned 2,000 houses for it.

On 1 July 1947, they broke ground on their $50 million development ($548 million today). Ultimately, it contained 17,000 houses on 7.3 square miles. Alfred handled mass production and designed the houses and streets; William financed and promoted it; and Abraham directed landscaping.

Aerial shot of Levittown, NY, 1947

Appliances and building materials on unfinished foundation, 1948; photo by Tony Linck

Each front yard had two trees, planted the exact same distance apart. The houses were ranch and Cape Cod style, with 750 square feet (70 square meters). They had two bedrooms, a kitchen with modern appliances, a living room with a TV, an unfinished second floor, and no garage.

They were built assemblyline style, as a team of specialized workers moved from house to house. This was more efficient than other construction styles of the era. The Levitts also reduced costs by refusing union labor. This led to picket lines.

The Levitts directly purchased materials such as lumber, TVs, and appliances, instead of going through middlepeople. They also made their own factory to produce nails. To their credit, they paid their workers very well, and offered many incentives enabling them to earn twice as much money as they’d make elsewhere.

By July 1948, thirty houses per day were being constructed in a 26-step process. This mass-production enabled them to be sold for as cheap as $8,000 ($65,000 today). Since many buyers were vets helped by the G.I. Bill and other housing subsidies, the true cost was all of $400.

Within two days of the community being announced on 7 May 1947, half the 2,000 houses were already rented. In response to increased demand, they added 4,000 more houses, as well as services such as schools and mail delivery.

The Levitts switched the houses from rental to sales, with monthly 30-year mortgage payments the same as the rental price ($57), and no down payment. Even more houses were added when demand grew even further, and Island Trees was renamed Levittown.

Sadly, racial discrimination was written into the buying agreement. The Federal Housing Administration only offered mortgages to non-mixed developments, so no applications from African–Americans were accepted.

The Levitts also thought no whites would want to have African–American neighbors. Though they were Jewish themselves, they also initially refused to sell to co-religionists.

By 1960, Levittown was roughly a third Jewish, though it was still all-white.

My characters Fyodora Lebedeva-Godimova and Leontiy Godimov dream of moving from Manhattan to Levittown in 1949. They came to America when they were rather young, and so are much more Americanized than most of their family. Starting over in Long Island suburbia will be the perfect way to break free of the Russian–American world.

An exploratory visit leaves them very unsettled, as they learn about the racial discrimination. Their Russian ancestry and Orthodox Christianity are also looked upon with suspicion.

Their new chapter instead begins in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a very spacious neighborhood with large, Victorian houses.

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WeWriWa—Kroshka comforts Fyodora

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, and concludes the scene where Mr. Lebedev reunites with his three youngest daughters in February 1921.

Littlest sister Fyodora has asked where her mother is, and Mr. Lebedev doesn’t have the heart to tell her the ugly truth. Instead he told her her mother went to a place where there’s no more suffering, a magical place with things like harps, golden water, and eternal youth. Eighth-born sister Vera tries to distract Fyodora by pointing out little Kroshka, the Pomeranian who belonged to sixth-born sister Svetlana.

Copyright José Reynaldo da Fonseca

“Look, Dora, here’s Kroshka,” Vera quickly jumps in. “Dogs are like elephants, they never forget.”

Mr. Lebedev carries Fyodora back to her mattress and tucks her in.  Almost as soon as she’s been tucked in, Fyodora starts violently coughing again.  Kroshka jumps onto the bed and snuggles against Fyodora, frantically wagging her tail and licking Fyodora’s face.  Though Fyodora is still racked by whooping cough spasms, she manages to put her little arms around Kroshka, and the severity of the coughing gradually subsides.

“She’s so young to have gone through this,” Mr. Lebedev muses. “God willing, her heart will start to heal and she’ll have a chance to enjoy a normal, happy childhood now.”

Copyright José Reynaldo da Fonseca

Kroshka means “crumb,” in reference to her tiny size. She lives until age 25, which is 120 in human years. I got really emotional writing Chapter 8, “A Modern-Day Argos,” in my third Russian historical, Journey Through a Dark Forest. Just like the loyal Argos, Kroshka too held out so long because she knew some of her people were still out there. When the last, Mr. Lebedev’s niece Nadezhda, came to America in 1933, Kroshka knew her mission was fulfilled.

WeWriWa—A place where there’s no suffering

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few lines after last week’s, when young widower Mr. Lebedev was reunited with his three youngest daughters in February 1921. He now has five of his ten daughters back.

Next-youngest sister Natalya asked oldest sister Galya why she’s stumbling around, and Galya revealed she’s now blind (though hoping to get a sight-restoration operation in America). Mr. Lebedev has promised Fyodora, who’s not quite seven, he’ll spend the rest of his life giving her all the love and protection she was denied in the orphanage system.

Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine with his belovèd daughter Elisabeth

“Where’s Mama?” Fyodora asks.

“She’s in a very nice place where there’s no more suffering,” Mr. Lebedev tells her, holding back tears. “We’ll see her again someday.”

“Where are my other five sisters?”

“I don’t know.  Some of them may be with your mother.”

“Now, please, Papa, we have to go to America.  Take us to a place where there’s no suffering,” Natalya pleads.

“So then Mama went to America?” Fyodora asks.

“She went to a magical place with angels, harps, fountains, gold, eternal youth, and love,” Mr. Lebedev elucidates.

When Mr. Lebedev remarries a bit over two years later, to female protagonist Lyuba’s mother, Fyodora realizes her mother must be dead, and what her father meant when he said her mother went to a magical place with things like golden water and harps. Her Machekha (Stepmother) Katya is the only mother she ever really knows, having been separated from her blood mother shortly after her third birthday.

Father and child reunion

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week, to mark Father’s Day, I’m featuring a snippet from my first Russian historical, You Cannot Kill a Swan. I wrote the scene of Mr. Lebedev reuniting with his three youngest daughters back in 1998 or 1999, and it still chokes me up every time, particularly the section with little Fyodora.

Mr. Lebedev, who later becomes female protagonist Lyuba’s stepfather, had ten daughters in his first marriage. They were all taken away by the Bolsheviks, the older ones to Siberia and the youngest ones to the orphanage system. He eventually was reunited with oldest daughter Galya, and then seventh-born Alla.

In 1920, Alla got a job in the orphanage where the three youngest had been taken, and the four of them plus a brother and sister they’re friends with eventually escaped and began making their way out of the USSR. (The boy later becomes Fyodora’s husband.) It’s now February 1921, and they’ve reached their family’s old city, Pskov.

Mr. Lebedev has just said he can’t believe four of his daughters are still alive.

“Five, Papa, five,” Natalya says. “Dora’s on the mattress over there.  She’s got whooping cough.”

Mr. Lebedev strides over on shaking legs and picks his youngest daughter up.  Fyodora stops her coughing and recognizes the father she hasn’t seen in almost four years.  She only vaguely remembers what he looks like, but she’s never forgotten he has two different-colored eyes.

“Papa, you finally came back.”

“Praise God we’re together again,” he says, his voice shaking. “Now that our family’s back together, we’re never going to be separated ever again, and I’ll spend the rest of my life smothering you with all the love and protection you were denied while we were apart.  No one will ever hurt a hair on your head again.”

Mr. Lebedev is eventually reunited with four of his other missing daughters, and finally gets a boy after he remarries Lyuba’s mother. He’s always been a good sport about being a father to so many daughters in a row.

Sweet Saturday Samples—Lyuba Meets Lyolya

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is the conclusion of Chapter 39 of The Twelfth Time. Lyuba meets her new stepsister Lyolya after she comes home from Minnesota, and then everyone has a welcoming party for Lyolya at the Lebedev home in Greenwich Village. Little Kroshka is especially delighted to see this missing member of their family. (Zaychik, Darya’s nickname, is Russian for bunny.)

***

When Lyuba and Dárya get off at Penn Station, Mr. Lebedev, Mrs. Lebedeva, Katrin, and a strange woman are waiting.  Dárya looks uncertainly at her mother as they draw closer to the welcoming party.

“I’m sure she’s a good person.  You can’t distrust all strangers, záychik.”

“Welcome home,” Mr. Lebedev says. “This is your stepsister Lyolya.  We’re going right home to my house for her welcoming party.”

Lyolya hugs Lyuba. “So this is the stepsister I’ve been told I have.  I guess it’s a bit late to welcome you to my family, since our parents have been married for six years.”

“Are you my new aunt?” Dárya asks.

“Yes I am, darling.  What a cute little girl you are.”

“I hope you weren’t postponing your party till I got back,” Lyuba says. “You didn’t have to put yourselves out like that.”

“I was committed to finishing the run of my show before I had much free time.  And then my father just wanted to wait a few more days for you to be here.  We’re all going to enjoy a nice supper at his house.”

“Don’t even think of going home first to unpack and settle in,” Mr. Lebedev says. “There will be plenty of time for that later.”

“We just got a new Model A while you were away,” Mrs. Lebedeva says proudly as they walk away from the station. “Unlike Iván, your stepfather actually spends his time making sales instead of making friends.  It’s so nice to have your own car.”

“I think it’s so touching how you changed your patronymic to Ilyínichna,” Lyolya says. “Even if Serafima is never found, my father gained a new daughter in you.  He still has ten daughters, even if one of them isn’t blood.”

“He’s been more of a father to me in the last nine years than my blood father ever was,” Lyuba says. “Though my evil parents-in-law are always calling me by my old patronymic.  I think they’re doing it on purpose.”

“We see them sometimes,” Mrs. Lebedeva says. “Várya is rather cute.  It’s too bad she has those two for parents.”

During the ride down to Greenwich Village, Lyuba tells her company about her second visit to Minnesota and how nice life is there.  As she’s narrating, she watches the tall buildings and busy streets going by, and can’t help feeling she’ll miss big city life.  Even if the long-term reality is anything but idyllic, it’s nice to at least be located in such a metropolis and have access to so many things.  In a small Minnesota farming town, she won’t have the option of regularly going to the movies, museums, the ballet, a large library, or anything Manhattan has to offer.

“It’s only a one-story house?” Lyolya asks. “Our houses back in Russia had two stories and were bigger.”

“We’re lucky we even found a real house,” Mr. Lebedev says. “Most people here, even the rich ones, live in apartments.  I was living in Lyuba’s tenement with five of your sisters till I remarried.  Then your stepmother and I moved with your youngest sisters to our own house and let her sister’s family keep the first house.”

Ósyenka gets the door and stands back shyly at the sight of the stranger.  Fyodora gently pushes him forward.

“Is this little one really Fyodora?” Lyolya asks. “She’s so big!”

“I don’t recognize you,” Fyodora says. “I haven’t seen you since I was three.”

“This is your brother, Ósip,” Mr. Lebedev says. “He’s got heterochromia just like I do.  Your oldest blood niece Zhényushka also has it.”

In the living room, twenty-one-year-old Króshka starts barking hysterically and leaps off of Svetlána’s lap, running into the entryway.  She jumps at Lyolya’s feet and continues barking and panting until Lyolya picks her up.  Once she’s in her arms, she starts licking Lyolya’s face.

“Welcome home,” Svetlána says. “Thank God you’re alive.  As you can see, my dog is alive and well too.  She hasn’t been so animated for awhile.  I think she recognized your smell and wanted to welcome you home.  She gave me a similar reception too, when we were reunited after five years.”

“She must be an old lady by now,” Lyolya says. “Wasn’t she born in 1908?”

“She’s very old in dog years.  I always thought she was holding on longer than most Pomeranians because she knew you were alive somewhere.  She wanted to see you one last time before God took her to the other world.”

“Does this mean Króshka will be going away soon?” Ósyenka asks. “I don’t want to lose her.”

“Dogs age a lot faster than people,” Véra says. “She’s a hundred in people years.  I think if she could talk, she’d ask you why you were gone for so long.”

“Now only Serafima and our cousin Nádya have to come to America, and our family will be complete!  I can’t wait to meet them too!” Ósyenka goes back to playing with a model aeroplane.

“Yes, it’s nice to have a completed family,” Lyuba says. “One day my own little family will be back in the same place too.”

“Be thankful you know everyone in your own family is alive,” Svetlána whispers. “There’s no guarantee Serafima and Nádya are still out there.”

“You never know.  Nobody thought Lyolya could still be alive, and here she is.  Miracles happen to those who deserve them.”