31 thoughts on “Levittown”

  1. I actually live in Levittown PA right now, and I don’t think the picture is quite as bleak as you paint it to be. The Mall is dying, but it’s been largely replaced by other retails who have modern operations and are prepared to do business online as well as in-person. The death of Sears (And Toys’R’Us) is entirely a story of internal mismanagement and not a harbinger of the collapse of the community. Pennsbury School District is doing quite well for itself, and this has buoyed housing in the serviced areas (Bristol schools, on the other hand, are doing less well and the communities in that area suffer because of it). Utilities do need more attention, but I don’t think I would quite describe them as “crumbling” just yet. Thanks for showing pictures of our little town.

  2. Levittown property value is quite high. Buyers are anticipating homes being put on the market and the moment one does, it sells for over asking price. It’s not uncommon to see a house sell for 300k. Bristol Township built elementary schools that resemble colleges with state of the art instruction. Many businesses have opened. We have an Urban Outfitters opening soon, plus there are a ton of recreational places for kids (Funzilla, Skyzone etc.) The municipal complex is building an amphitheater, splash park and much more. It is becoming one of the most desirable places to live.

    This article is poorly researched.

    1. When viewed in isolation Levittown’s supporters and detractors can argue about the details. What I look for are larger national trends to place things in context. Compare and contrast Levittown with these other communities around the country. They all have the same argument. “You don’t know our town. We love our children. We go to church. Our town is wonderful – and you’re an idiot outsider who hasn’t done his homework.”

      The reality is we have a set of institutional incentives and prohibitions that prioritize and subsidize new growth on the edge at the expense of maintaining slightly older development.





      1. “You don’t know own town. We love our children. We go to church. Our town is wonderful – and you’re an idiot outsider who has’t done his homework.”

        I’m sure you get this from a lot of people, but it seems disingenuous. In particular, the “We go to church” line stood out to me. Levittown is not a particularly religious area, so I’m not sure where that came from in this context, especially since Kristin didn’t mention church at all. There are religious institutions in the area, but it’s not some kind of Bible toting town by any means.

        I speak as an almost 29 year old guy that spent pretty much my entire life in Bucks County. I grew up in Langhorne, just down the road from Levittown, and spent a lot of time at both Oxford Valley Mall and Neshaminy Mall. Overall, I’m just not getting the jist of your article. You act as if Levittown is dying (might be dying?) because you found some run down houses and a mall that looks like it’s dying? Malls all over the country are dying thanks to Amazon. It’s not some strange phenomenon that’s only happening in Levittown. And most towns tend to have more run down parts. Again, not a phenomenon unique to Levittown.

        I’m also curious as to what time year you took these pictures, and at what time of the day. If these photos are from 2pm on a Tuesday in early April then of course everything is going to look dead. But go take some pictures of Oxford Valley at 2pm on a Saturday during the summer when Sesame Place is opened (Sesame Place is a popular amusement park across the street from the mall for those that don’t know) and I think you’ll find that the place is very much thriving.

        In general I agree with Kristin. I think your article is poorly researched. Most people in the area have good jobs, the public schools are great, and you have affordable housing in close proximity to one of the top 10 cities in the nation. I think what you may be photographing is a temporary lull in the area due to baby boomer children, like myself, moving out of the suburbs and into the city. But personally I think we’re going to see a resurgence in these suburban areas in the next 5-15 years as my generation flees the city in order to send our kids to a decent school.

        1. I’m not putting Levittown down. I’m making observations about places all over the country that are following the same basic trajectory. Your response is pretty standard. You feel your community is under attack and you focus on immediate details that suggest everything is just fine. But you’re missing my point.

          I’m describing a long term multigenerational process that begins with shiny new development, then a lifetime of steady-as-you-go stasis, then gradual decline. The decline is about the balance (or lack thereof) of tax revenue vs. public infrastructure maintenance. Is a place fundamentally productive enough to be self sustaining over the long haul? Or is it ultimately disposable? It’s a geeky perspective that doesn’t resonate with the day-to-day experiences of ordinary people. Hence the popular response, “Our town is great, and you’re an idiot.”

          So here’s my request to you. Study your town’s finances. Subtract the state and federal funds that pay for your road projects, your school budgets, your sewerage treatment plants, and manage your pension obligations. Now ask yourself if your town could function without that outside money. Then poke a little deeper into the local budget and identify all the things that aren’t being accounted for beyond the next four year election cycle – like long term maintenance and replacement of critical systems.

          There’s an argument that state and federal money is just cash the locals sent to the higher ups that’s merely being returned to them. That may be true. But the promises that have been made at every level don’t conform to long term solvency. We’ve all been borrowing from a future that is overly burdened with IOUs. At a certain point the required money simply will not be available to keep things going as designed. Then we’re going to have a shake out.

          Your “Tuesday at 2PM” argument about the mall being pretty good on other days and at other times is myopic. Like most similar suburbs Levittown has two possible trajectories. It can either re-ruralize so public costs are a lot lower and in keeping with what the community can genuinely afford, or it can intensify so more private productivity can justify current levels of service. Time will tell.

        2. The, “We go to church” comment speaks to a larger social dynamic I see all over the country. Americans believe that good people cause a specific town be to good, while bad people cause a town to be bad. “Ferguson, MO and Flint, MI used to be solid middle class places with respectable hard working families. Then The Wrong Element moved in and ruined everything. Decent people had to move away.”

          The reality is poor people can’t afford to live in expensive places. First towns decline, prices fall, services wobble, taxes rise, and the poor fill the void left by a middle class exodus.

          The, “We go to church” meme is about the confusion over the causes of decline and the eventual consequences. By the way, the current conversation about gentrification is the other side of that same coin. First the underlying fundamentals of the economy and demographics shift, then values rise in unexpected places. https://granolashotgun.com/2019/06/05/the-olde-country/

          1. I don’t feel the community is under attack (BTW it’s not necessarily my community anymore. My family still lives in Bucks County, but I now live in South Philly). I just think that it’s doing perfectly fine, possibly even thriving, and felt that you spent an entire article pointing out things that most towns struggle with while ignoring many of the positives that Levittown and the surrounding suburbs are currently experiencing.

            “I’m describing a long term multigenerational process that begins with shiny new development, then a lifetime of steady-as-you-go stasis, then gradual decline”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that’s happening, and I don’t understand why you do either. Obviously the Levitt family isn’t building communities anymore, but what about Toll Brothers? They’re a massive home builder that continues to build new communities all over southeastern PA. And they’re just one of many. Also, my brother is a master plumber. He has seemingly never ending work in these Levittown houses, and many other houses and commercial businesses in Bucks County and neighboring New Jersey. I just find it interesting that finding a few run down houses in Levittown makes you think we’re the next Flint, MI. Finally, you didn’t mention anything about the recent construction and additions to I-95, I-295, Route 1, and the PA Turnpike that are all happening right next to the Oxford Valley Mall. I think it’s pretty obvious that the state sees this as a very important area to continue investing in.

            Personally, I do think the area is fundamentally productive enough for the long haul. This area has been productive since the English came over and colonized. So you think a dead mall, wig shops, and a few run down houses in 2019 changes that? I don’t know the area’s finances, but it seems pretty obvious to me that it’s still doing fine. And if the solvency is bad at the top level, then I don’t know if it matters what the local level does. If and when the shit hits the fan it will be on them to make sure the trains keep moving on time.

            Lastly, why is my “Tuesday at 2pm” argument myopic? I could write an article just like this, with pretty much the exact same pictures, but at different times of the day/year, and tell the complete opposite story. Depending on when and where you turn the camera, the place can either look like a West Virginia mining town (hell I could even take pictures at the quarry that was right next to my high school), or a thriving suburb of Philadelphia, which it actually is.

            I don’t think you’re an idiot. Your writing obviously shows that you’re not. I just find it fascinating that you think a town is dying without naming a single positive about the local community, even though there are plenty. I really find it to be quite a shame because your other stories seem fascinating, but if you put the same detail and research into them as you did here then I’m not really sure how much water they’ll hold. (See Gell-Mann amnesia effect – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gell-Mann_amnesia_effect)

              1. I agree with dgotty. A lot of the writing on this blog seems very manufactured — that is, it creates a narrative in many cases that doesn’t actually exist. It’s easy enough to search for specific instances that confirm your own bias and writing agenda, and that’s what much of the writing on this blog does.

          2. The alt-lite has a book called Bad Students, Not Bad Schools by one Robert Weissberg. The reason for bad schools is to them, that “wrong element,” not insufficient money, as the left believes, or decadent philosophies of education, as the Religious Right believes. We need to deal, as a culture, with this “wrong element” business. And it’s not just about race, which is why I refrain from using the word “racism.” That word has so many meanings now as to make it almost useless.

  3. A rather evocative piece for me. For twelve years, until the fall of 2105, I lived in Bensalem, located about five miles from Levittown.

    I used to occasionally go shopping at Oxford Valley Mall and share your concerns about its future. As well as the seemingly remorseless march to online retailing, Oxford Valley faces competition from several other malls nearby. Southwest, towards Philadelphia, there’s Neshaminy Mall and Philadelphia Mills; while the other way, over the state line in New Jersey, is Quaker Bridge Mall; further west is the mega mall at King of Prussia, while there are innumerable strip malls nearby. Whatever else northeast Philadelphia lacks, it is not retail space!

    By contrast, I think the future of Levittown is quite bright, as it offers attractive and, crucially, reasonably-priced housing in an economically-buoyant area. Again, to the southwest is Philadelphia and to the northeast is southern New Jersey, both of which seem to be doing well. (When I lived in the area, I was able to work pretty steadily.) OK, the houses and related infrastructure are getting old, but they’re only about seventy years, while there are plenty of older places which are doing fine. I’m sure any problems are ultimately fixable.

  4. All that vacant retail space and empty office space means lack of jobs, right? But all the needed maintenance means a glut of jobs. Maybe part of the narrative about a place like this is the people living there ought to be able to provide enough workers to fix it up. If they can’t, either they aren’t learning enough of h the right skills, or their labor is being sucked away somewhere else… Perhaps we’re too caught up in the idea it takes specialists to do the work.

    Maybe we really just need more men like your Uncles who saw work needing done and took jobs doing it?

    1. There’s enough jobs for Levittown. The retail and office space is empty because the US has far too much of both, further exacerbated by the move to big box and online retail, and to open offices. Older buildings get the worst of that because they are less “cool” and not as well designed for current office layouts and equipment. They sit empty partly due to speculation and partly because zoning codes don’t allow it to be redeveloped as residential (and partly because investors are speculating that the zoning codes will become more sensible…)

  5. This reminds me of Santa Rosa. Same story with the mall and so many strip malls and public spaces which are becoming haunts of dope fiends who migrate along the “Free and Easy” (101-5-405). The pension obligations are doubling by 2022. The roads are rubble and as you predicted, half the houses won’t be rebuilt. Weeeeeee!!!!!

  6. In my metro (Cleveland OH) the clear analog is Parma, OH.

    It’s effectively a first ring suburb that was mostly platted during the 1920s ‘plat the countryside’ boom, then sat fallow until the late 1940s and into the 1950s, when people that owned many many of these 50’x125′ lots began building cape cods as far as the already platted land would allow. Then the eventual second and third generation movement begins again further south to Strongsville, Brunswick to now, the semi-rural Townships in Medina County, OH (my county).

    Well, now you can get these nicely maintained centrally located cape cods in Parma for low per sqft prices as long as you’re ok with the minimal infrastructure maintenance and, effectively, underfunded local public school district.

    When you move the deck chairs around on the Titanic, some part is going to lose.

  7. I find these early post-WW2 neighborhoods really hard to make generalizations about, even though they were stamped out almost identically across the country. For one, there’s just distance. In a city like Chicago, these neighborhoods are 10-15 miles outside of the loop versus in a city like Milwaukee where they are about 3-8 miles outside of downtown. So in Milwaukee, a lot of these neighborhoods are still relatively quick times to downtown, great to bike around. It’s a $10-20 uber to much of the city. And these neighborhoods seem to get better as their adjacent inner neighborhoods intensify, improve their main streets, become better destinations. Where as in Chicago, it might be a $40-50 uber to downtown, biking to work isn’t viable for most, etc.

    in general, i am very bullish on them if they are within about a $20 uber of a decent downtown & can be oriented part of that ecosystem. But if they are oriented toward suburbia the rest of sububria, i think they are going to have more issues.

      1. Whether or not uber exists, Transportation-as-a-service will persist. Drivers are likely to cease to be part of that model. They already aren’t part of dockless ebikes or e-scooters. Self-driving vehicles are an eventuality.

      2. The thing that could break Uber is a similar app that charges users (riders as well as drivers) a one-time flat download fee and gets out of the way. No ongoing profit-take, no brand standards, no “we’re not a cab company” lobbying. It would be very doable, even profitable, for backers with less VCs to pay off.

  8. I live in a “Stoneston” house, produced by the brothers who developed the Stonestown mall and adjacent housing in San Francisco in the early 50s Levittown mold.

    It’s clear my subdivision was meant for blue collar GIs as there’s only two basic floor plans, both around 1000 square feet. In many parts of the country, this would be a decaying inner ring suburb, but here… https://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/226-Dundee-Dr_South-San-Francisco_CA_94080_M10294-30654?view=qv

    Even given the property tax windfall, the local government has trouble paying the bills. I wondered how could that be? Well, Strong Towns `splained that one pretty good.

  9. A similar trajectory is in progress for Alexandria, Virginia’s Landmark Mall. The years of being half-empty, the wig shop equivalent, the ethnic clothing, the homeless shelter, and the closure of the anchor stores – Sears among them.

    However, this small city is within minutes of Washington DC, just across the river and accessible by road, bus, or subway. Our home prices (and taxes!) keep rising and we await Amazon’s arrival to turn the entire newly coined “National Landing” area into a tech hub.

    Landmark Mall has been slated for redevelopment for years by its owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation. Hughes and the city planners have been negotiating the usage intent, architecture, roads and utilities, etc, etc for over a decade – the project was first stalled by the 2008 financial crisis. Until I see the bulldozers I won’t believe construction is actually starting.

    The point I’d like to share is that the mall concept doesn’t work in most places, not just dying suburbs. Mass retail has already been obsoleted by Amazon and the discount warehouses. Sure, we have a few large area malls with upscale shoppers and many high-end stores, but they tend to have a critical mass of affluent mixed use or urban surroundings rather than acres of asphalt parking and access highways. Landmark is supposed to become mixed use, we’ll see.

    1. The most interesting use of a declining mall that I have seen is in Fort Worth TX where a local generic mall has been completely converted over to Hispanic businesses and appears to be thriving. Had to go there once because there was an immigrations office inside where I needed to do some paperwork for my wife who was an immigrant from Chile. It had less than a 10% occupancy rate in 2004 when the current owners bought it and converted it over to Hispanic-themed businesses.

      La Gran Plaza Mall: http://www.lagranplazamall.com/en-us/

      1. I’ve seen something a little like that in the MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana. There’s a large Hispanic population there and they’ve now got a couple of Hispanic-oriented businesses, plus a playground, second-run movie theater, and an arcade/entertainment center all geared towards entertaining children and teens. It’s been relatively successful in that the mall now has a lot of foot traffic after getting kind of sick during the financial crises, although it still has a fair number of empty stores (mostly disguised so they don’t look so bad). It’s losing anchors but redeveloping the spaces with restaurant, gyms, and entertainment spaces. Now they’re planning to convert much of the parking lots to residential and mixed use.

    2. The retail environment was way overbuilt long before Amazon, et al came along. I would guess by 1990 retail was overdone in most areas. In no small part due to huge tax subsidies. Despite that, I surmise favorable demographics and sledgehammer advertising kept retail going a while longer. But it was clear to me stagnating incomes and shifting tastes would do in a lot of stores, long before half dead malls became a trend.

  10. This is an enormous country and there are Levittowns in basically every metro area of the country. The next 20 years or so are going to be an interesting period to watch and see how many (if any) of these places manage to turn things around and what strategies they use do to it.

    My guess is that location will be everything and location will be destiny. Probably nothing can be done to save sprawling aging low-density burbs around declining cities like say Peoria or Shreveport. But burbs that are strategically located close enough to major job centers in expensive growing cities have a chance.

    1. ^^Yes, this. I gave up working in urban redevelopment for a while because it has a standard playbook, and professionally moved to a well-positioned first/second ring suburb.

      There is not yet a good playbook for declining first-ring suburban, beyond the sub-rosa tactical urbanism that Johnny often explains here. Some TIF, some zoning changes, some infill. But also (curiously) some new strip commercial right next to older/underutilized spaces. And precious little of the densification needed to support the commercial and the municipal tax base.

      As Kent points out, in general those first ring ‘burbs with location advantages (normally near eds/meds/tech in a state capital or Big State U. hometown) will probably have the land value to support revitalization. Places like Ferguson, probably not so much.

      1. I’m not so sure eds, meds and tech will be such safe bets. Eds and meds have far, far outstripped the rest of society in rising costs and have created a bubble for themselves, mostly through bloated administrative overhead. Higher Ed has compounded it’s cost problem by degrading it’s product as well. There’s going to be a rebellion against the student loan abomination and a rapid deflation of the Ed bubble withing 10 to 15 years.

        Meds are at least still providing a useful service (and growing in demand as the Boomers age-related medical problems mount), but it’s due for a retraction in money flows too.

        Tech is a mixed bag – a huge amount of tech money is tied to the Fed trying to goose the money supply, and that’s another thing that can’t go on forever. There’s still going to be tech development and tech spending, but it too will likely contract as the system clears a couple decades worth of malinvestsments.

        Bottom line, I expect spending in heavy ed/med/tech areas to collapse/retreat/stagnate (respectively) over the timeframe of these neighborhoods going through their decline phase. With so many aspects of those local economies predicated on their own ponzi schemes of perpetual growth, even a temporary stagnation will be stressful.

        1. Ah, but such neighborhoods offer retreat from bubble-fueled downtowns…they offer adaptable lower cost living.

          Their garages (business incubators) and yards (large gardens) can be used productively as Johnny repeatedly shows. Dry basements can become secondary housing units.

          Most of the time it can be done without running afoul of the HOA busybodies or even the zoning police.

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