Christmas in a changing Levittown

Christmas in Levittown

Last month the BBC explored the origins of Levittown, Pennsylvania in the post-WWII boom, when the community offered thousands of young families a chance to build a new life in the suburbs. The intervening decades have transformed the community in different ways.

The home of Neil DiSpirito, complete with more than 120,000 Christmas lights, has made its owner a holiday celebrity. Even the oil delivery man recently made sure Mr DiSpirito's neighbourhood was his last stop of the day so he could see the display.

Over the years, thousands of people have visited the house on White Spruce Lane - a number measured unofficially in the number of candy canes handed out.

Graphic showing town demographics

Mr DiSpirito has seen all walks of life coming up his driveway after 19 years of hosting the Christmas lights party. He's seen plenty of smiles but he's noticed some changes too.

"The biggest thing that I've noticed is the family structure of the people that come," he says.

"Fifteen years ago it was a mom, and dad, and three kids - and 10 years ago it was a mom, and dad, and one kid."

For those Levittowners reared in the shadow of a suburban dream, the present day brings challenges their parents rarely saw.

Last month, life-long resident Rich Cucarese, a worker at the local steel mill which once employed thousands of Levittown residents, said he worried about his children's future.

"I'm trying to teach my kids to work hard, play by the rules and it'll work for you," he said. "And I can only hope that it really does."

Mr Cucarese finds himself working more overtime to pay the bills, a reality echoed this week by Mr DiSpirito, who says three quarters of his friends, including himself, work a second job to make ends meet.

Even original Levittowners shudder at economic changes to their hometown.

Men pushing lawn-mowers in 1950's Levittown

"My grandson has had trouble finding a job, he's in his 30s," says Harriet Osborn, a resident here since 1953. "My husband and I seemed to have no trouble getting jobs and making money."

The tough economy touches Levittown as it touches communities all over the country. There are other characteristics, however, that Levittowners do not share with the rest of America.

People here remain mostly white, nearly 20% more than average for the US overall. But this is slowly changing - ask many residents and they'll point to Christmas in a changing Levittowna growing diversity in their neighbourhoods house-by-house.

Levittown is also slightly older than the rest of America. Many in its ageing population are among Levittown's original residents who moved here some five decades ago.

"I call it the greying of Levittown," said Ms Osborn.

The fences

There are not just economic and demographic shifts, but physical ones too. Many older residents point out the fences. Levittown's original concept included a ban on fences between yards, and the effect fostered more interaction between neighbours.

Today's fences, some residents believe, have changed the way neighbours relate.

"It's a completely different atmosphere," says Marilyn Lummis who moved to Levittown in 1959.

Graphic showing town demographics

The popular Shop-A-Rama is closed too. It was a marvel of convenient shopping in its time. Community swimming pools where Mr DiSpirito spent his childhood summer days have vanished as well.

Perhaps the biggest physical change to this community, which symbolised the post-war suburban expanse, is in the homes themselves.

Gone are the days when residents encountered restrictions to modify their houses. The neat rows of model homes now boast modifications of every shape and type: car ports turned into living rooms, additional floors added to ranch-style homes.

One house was even featured on the reality television show Extreme Home Makeover, in which needy families receive grandiose remodelling thanks to a TV crew.

But overall the idea of Levittown remains the same - a place where middle-class families can live and raise children. The current state of the economy, however, means achieving this may be more difficult than it has been in years.

"You always think the world is going to be a better place for your children and grandchildren," says 68-year-old Mildred Slezak. "But unfortunately it doesn't look like that."

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