GLOBAL IMPACTS OF SUBURBAN COMMUNITY STRUCTURES, 2020
Willingboro is a suburban town that was developed in the 1950s as the third model of Levittown. Today, it has a large population of Liberian immigrants. How does a postwar development that only sold homes to white families become a community of Liberian immigrants? Utilizing Herbert Gans’ The Levittowners, the Levittown neighborhood handbook, the Newark Public Library, and the archives of the Willingboro Library, I researched possible links in the history of Levittown/Willingboro and Liberia to explain this phenomenon.
Topics in this research paper include the integration of American suburbs, the ethnography of postwar communities, the history of Liberia, the Firestone rubber plantation and working camps, political turmoil, local government, and the authority and oppression of colonial architecture.
“Just as the first was good, and the second better,
the third Levittown will be the best of all [...]
this newest of the world’s most famous communities
offers the utmost in suburban living.”
The suburban developer Levitt and Sons acquired the sparsely settled land of Willingborough Township in 1954 and began building homes in 1958. A year after these first homes attracted residents to Somerset Park, the township was renamed Levittown, making this the third model community of the same name that has notoriously served as the image of monotonous postwar suburbia. This name, however, was only given to the community for four years until residents voted to change the name back after mail was mistakenly sent to Levittown, PA, just ten miles away. The name was changed to Willingboro, a unanimous decision that infuriated Levitt and Sons. Changing the name of a town doesn’t typically differentiate such culturally diverse communities as it does for Levittown and Willingboro.
This text observes Willingboro, yet both names are used throughout. Levittown refers to the postwar suburban community that only allowed white families to purchase homes; Willingboro refers to the evolving, diverse community that resulted from it. Levittown built the American dream home, with considerations of aesthetics, efficiency, and the nuclear family; Willingboro carried these homes into the next generation with common additions and garage conversions to accommodate personal identity, limited space, and extended families.
Ultimately, Levittown was racist and exclusionary. Salesmen guaranteed that the community would be ‘as lily-white as the other Levittowns’. It depended on the automobile and mothers staying at home with the kids. This community would’ve fallen apart after a lawsuit was filed in 1958 against Levitt and Sons for racial discrimination, but instead, the community survived due its ethnographic framework which was meticulously observed by Herbert Gans, a sociologist and Levittown resident. He concluded that suburban communities are created by residents, not planners and developers.
Following Gans’ groundbreaking study, Willingboro has been the center
of many research topics and subject to sociological critique. Despite
this ongoing conversation, the popular perspective treats Willingboro as
a typical rise and fall story of suburbia. It was a white, postwar
community that faced rising property taxes and incoming minority
families in the 1960s, and eventually became an impoverished suburb
for African American homes nicknamed ‘da ‘boro’ according to Urban
Dictionary. Upon further observation within a global context, this suburb
appears to be an extraordinary model emphasizing the role political
and social structures play in building global communities.
Willingboro is a township in Burlington County, with a population approaching 32,000 residents. It is primarily African American residents (71.4% according to the 2018 American Community Survey) with a dwindling white population (20.0%) and a substantial number of Liberian immigrants. This trend is particularly interesting; why is there a concentration of Liberians in this particular suburb in South New Jersey? It may be a mere coincidence, a result of demographic patterns such as white flight or the increasingly common ‘suburban ghetto’, or possibly it is due to the town’s close proximity to Trenton where many industrial jobs existed, but observing Willingboro within a larger context begins to extend Gans’ 1967 conclusions of community globally.
Reverend Willie R James, Sr. can be identified as the initiator of this conversion from Levittown to Willingboro, however I find the groundwork for this progress was first laid out by Levitt and Sons in the early developments of 1958.
Levitt and Sons made progressive reactions to the common criticisms of suburbia. The kitchen was moved to the front of the house in early homes, bringing the housewife-mother center stage and treating the kitchen as the nerve center of the house. Conformity was battled with an increased number of model homes and a mixture of models throughout to create a more pleasing view down the street. The fear of getting lost in the endless, identical streets was aided by street names corresponding to the section, or Park, it is located in. The intersection of Sheffield Drive and Shetland Lane, for example, are in Somerset Park. Buttercup Lane belongs to Buckingham Park, although it now identifies as ‘Butt cu’ according to multiple worn down signs.
Levittown also came with an ethnographic framework that was precisely documented in the town handbook Know Your Town, prepared by the League of Women Voters in Willingboro. This publication details the community, from diagrams displaying political power and distribution to rules and regulations for the public pool, acting like an instruction manual. Despite old literature placing emphasis on material objects like washing machines and chain link fences, “the meaning of homeownership went beyond property ownership -- it signified the ability of individuals and communities to create their own way of life.” The everyday experience is not determined by the planners of the town. Residents were granted financial, cultural, social, and political prosperity with the purchase of their home, welcoming them to maintain their personal values and morals -- provided that they align with that of Levitt and Sons.
Willingboro’s working class and lower middle class population seemed to build a political culture based on conflict, typical of working class communities. Willingboro undoubtedly had a strong political culture, but did it embrace oppositional methods in which factionalism triumphed rather than consensus decision-making?
Organizations such as the United States Junior Chamber, the Kinsmen, and the League of Women Voters express Willingboro’s roots in civil politics and humanitarianism. Rotary International chartered the Rotary Club of Levittown in 1961. Former Mayor Eddie Campbell Jr. described the club as a valuable part of the community “because they serve to advance business in town.” The Kinsmen, established in 1965, is an African-American male civic organization that has had many notable members, including Reverend Willie R James, Sr.
James, Sr. was a key player in early civil rights activism, fighting against housing discrimination in New Jersey and contributing to the integration of suburbs. He later served as the head of the Burlington County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was denied an application for a home in Levittown, leading him to inform a friend employed at the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights that it was illegal in New Jersey to discriminate in federally subsidized housing but this law had never been tested. Levittown had been receiving mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration. The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court which ruled in James Sr’s favor. In 1960, he moved into his home in Millbrook Park.
James Sr and Levitt clashed again three years later when the Congress of Racial Equality staged a demonstration against the developer for refusing to sell homes to African Americans in Maryland.
James Sr served as an officer in the Army, but after retiring he became the Director of Equal Employment Operations with a manufacturing company. He continued his involvement with the community despite moving out of Willingboro. He remained active in the Kinsmen, worked to have African Americans employed in Willingboro’s shopping center, and filed a complaint against the U.S. Pipe Company in Burlington, New Jersey for maintaining separate shower facilities for African Americans. He later confronted the problem of minority incarceration at the National NAACP Convention, an effort later to be known as the National Project.
Willingboro is also the hometown of Miss Black America 1978, Lydia Monice Jackson. She entered at the age of twenty while studying political science, French, German, and Italian. She had a dream of becoming an opera singer and performed ‘Uno Voce Poco Fa’ in its original mezzo-soprano range. She was hesitant about entering, “hat[ing] the idea of the bathing-suit thing” but ultimately decided to give it a try under her father’s recommendation. Her father, Russel, was Desegregation Director at Rider College and an active member of the Kinsmen. By that time women of color were entering the Miss America pageant, but Jackson entered Miss Black America out of convenience because it visited her hometown. The Miss Black America pageant started in 1968 "as a positive protest against the limited standards of beauty represented by the other contests.” The standard of beauty was blonde hair and blue eyes leaving women of color little chance of feeling beautiful. The result was a pageant celebrating mental and spiritual strength in addition to physical beauty, requiring an ‘Oath of Positivity’ and providing ‘Success Secrets Seminars’.
The first, and most substantial, increase in African American families was in the 1970s, when the percentage grew from 14.8% to 43.7%. This time is characterized by decline and struggle by former residents. “Crime started to become a real issue in the town, and large numbers of the original families started to leave.” Residents struggled to afford their mortgages and property taxes. Willingboro Plaza, the main shopping center, lost businesses and began attracting crime such as teenagers selling drugs. The integration of Parks and schools proved a challenging adjustment. The school district established the Human Relations Council in March of 1970, working towards equal opportunity in housing, employment, law, and education. This was followed by the establishment of the Intergroup Relations Council, addressing racial disputes occurring in the schools. One article explained, “two days of fist fighting between white
and black teenagers in Willingboro have resulted in beefed up police patrols and hurriedly scheduled meetings between school, township, and police officials”.
While the 1970s were clearly a bad time for Willingboro, it is important to understand that this does not characterize the community as declining. Liberia also experienced turmoil at this time, but here it was much more severe.
The United States has a long history of intervening in Liberia's internal affairs. Liberia began as a US territory in the early nineteenth century as a home for free African Americans and freed slaves, providing them an opportunity to ‘establish a prosperous colony’. The Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, founded by distinguished ship builder Paul Cuffe, was responsible for bringing 86 settlers to new land that would later be declared the free, sovereign nation of Liberia. The American Colonization Society was a major benefactor of this development.
Settlers were immediately under attack from indigenous tribes whose territory this land belonged to. Additionally, they suffered from disease, harsh climate, lack of food and medicine, and poor housing conditions contributing to the highest mortality rate of any country since modern record-keeping began. The US has repeatedly sent naval vessels in an attempt to suppress insurrections by indigenous tribes, but Liberia continued to gain self-governance. A small minority of black colonists and their descendants, collectively known as Americo-Liberians, dominated Liberia. They established businesses and plantations maintaining wealth greater than the indigenous people and allowing them to exercise political power.
The ancestors of Americo-Liberians were born in the US and abided by American culture. The native population of Liberia, therefore, was subject to an oppressive Western tradition. The political party continued these cultural, religious and social values, and believed in the religious superiority of Protestant Christianity. The indigenous culture and animism was to be oppressed.
Americo-Liberians created communities and ethnographic infrastructure based on American Society. They spoke English, built homes and churches in the styles of the southern US, and ultimately implemented a caste system placing them above all native peoples. While this group never constituted more than five percent of Liberia’s population, they maintained control by having possession of key resources such as access to the ocean, higher levels of education, and valuable relationships with the US. Parallel to American segregation, Americo-Liberians believed in a form of ‘racial equality’ that required all residents of Liberia to receive western education in order to become ‘civilized’. Converting to Christianity was also a mark of civility.
Observing Liberia’s long and tumultuous history, the 1970s seems to be
a particular point of interest given this was the time Willingboro
experienced its largest influx of African Americans, and possibly
establishing a new home for Liberian immigrants. The 1970s concluded
with Samuel Doe seizing political power by staging a bloody coup by
attacking the Liberian Executive Mansion and killing President William
R. Tolbert, Jr. The 1970s experienced dangerous political conflict and
economic decline as a result of the price of rubber decreasing globally.
Rubber was made essential to Liberia by the American corporation
In 1926, the American rubber company Firestone started a rubber plantation in Liberia, creating 25,000 jobs and reinforcing the economy. Firestone was allowed to lease up to one million acres, about 10% of the country’s land, at the cost of six cents per acre. Rubber quickly became the backbone of the Liberian economy. By 1971, Liberia had the world’s largest rubber industry. Firestone had established a nation within a nation. The company built homes and schools and provided food and healthcare for the workers. Firestone went on to build Harbel, a small town with homes, schools, a grocery store, a bank, and a soccer field that played movies on the weekends. While Harbel maintained a clean, manicured presence with its public space and residential lawns, it also kept working camps hidden in the surrounding forest. Here, workers would live in small rooms with shared outdoor kitchens and communal water pumps. It was described as “an old Southern Plantation” by a former company executive. The boss of the plantation, Donald Ensminger, lived in House 53, a large Colonial style home in the affluent Harbel Hills section of the plantation which included a golf course, tennis courts, and a country club.
Firestone was an oppressive force on Liberia’s economy for decades until this power was strategically taken by a warlord. Charles Taylor is supporter of Samuel Doe, an escapee of US prison for government embezzling, creator of the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), and 22nd president of Liberia with the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.” He invaded the plantation and Harbel in 1990. Workers and their families fled to House 53 to plea for protection. The executives claimed they couldn’t do anything and continued to play cards and golf while nearly 2,000 panicked Liberians cowered on the front lawn. A few days after Taylor terrorized the settlement, six guerillas confronted Ensminger at the porch of House 53 with a grenade launcher. Some of these fighters were recognized as former caddies of the Firestone golf course.
Firestone cooperated with Taylor, a man whose forces were denounced as violent and vicious by human rights groups and the U.S. government. “We needed Firestone to give us international legitimacy,” explained John Toussaint Richardson, one of Taylor’s top advisers and a US-trained architect. It was a matter of establishing credibility to allow Taylor’s forces to slaughter the Liberian government and economy. The country finds itself in a better place today but it remains traumatized. Liberia was destroyed by the civil war it endured for decades, yet nobody was punished for this. Some of the people responsible for destroying it are also contributing to rebuilding it. Top officials of vindictive factions now serve as politicians passing laws in the legislature.
Willingboro did not witness class conflict in the traditional Marxist sense like Liberia. The working class came to dominate the town by utilizing its community and political structure, setting in motion a process where upper middle class, typically white citizens, left. The oppressed working class did not storm any palaces or put exploitive capitalists on trial in a grisly manner like Liberia.
Similar to Liberia’s struggle with the economy in the 1970s, Willingboro’s historical hardships can also be tied to national economic trends. The United States was subject to economic changes during the 1970s that reduced the number of well paying industrial jobs further magnified by a lack of economic growth. As a community of working class and lower middle class families, Willingboro would have experienced a stronger negative impact of deindustrialization. Therefore, with contributing factors such as changing demographics, competing suburbs, the resulting white flight pattern, and national economy Willingboro found itself struggling with its identity as its racial composition changed. This struggle with identity is often characterized as decline in many popular evaluations of postwar suburbia.
Common observations of Willingboro, and postwar suburbia in general, view these communities through a Western lens, applying a Capitalist form of criteria that does not observe community life at an international scale. This mentality describes Willingboro as a typical rise and fall story of suburbia. It was a white, postwar community that faced rising property taxes and incoming minority families in the 1960s, and eventually became an impoverished suburb for African American families. Observing Willingboro’s community and political structure, however, places the current condition of this suburb on a constant trajectory of which it has been on since it was started 60 years ago.
The conclusions of community structures by Gans in the late 1960s, the political culture instilled in progressive postwar suburbia, the economic conflicts experienced by Willingboro and the simultaneous turmoil in Liberia lead this suburb in South New Jersey to serve as a sanctuary to Liberian immigrants.