2. Levittown, Where The Good Life Begins
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: This story begins, in many ways, in late March 1951. With a reporter’s dispatch from --
Archival tape, WNYC: San Juan, Puerto Rico.
This is audio from WNYC Radio in New York which sent a crew for a live broadcast.
Archival tape, WNYC: The occasion is the inauguration of nonstop plane service from New York to Puerto Rico, we are awaiting the arrival of The Puerto Rico to New York City, which has just come in.
Before this, only Pan-Am offered regular flights to New York -- and the monopoly made tickets expensive. So it was big news that Eastern Air Lines had gotten permission to offer service to Puerto Rico as well… and that they would be offering cheaper flights.
Archival tape, WNYC: ...the mayoress of San Juan is about to present the mayor of New York City with the keys to the city of San Juan.
Today, we might take it for granted that by the mid-1960s, over a million boricuas had moved to the states, over 600 thousand just to New York City. On the tarmac, Sol Descartes, then Puerto Rico’s treasurer, marvelled at the number of Puerto Ricans taking flights.
Sol Descartes: Last year 300,000 people travel between the island and the mainland. The development of aviation is responsible for this tremendous growth in travel.
MUSIC: la borinquena from live band in the 1951 tape
It wasn’t just those flights that got people to leave, of course, but it’s true that many of our families were changed forever as more and more planes filled the skies above the island. It would be just a few years later, on June 18th 1956, that my mother, with an older brother and sister, would take an Eastern Air Lines flight, and eventually, the whole family would live in the Bronx.
Many Puerto Ricans would return in the early 70s to a very different island. The way many people lived -- and where they lived -- had changed. My grandparents would see an altered landscape out of the plane window when they returned, places that didn’t exist when they first left. Places that looked more like the United States.
Places... like Levittown, in Toa Baja.
From WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios, I’m Alana Casanova-Burgess and this is La Brega. In this episode: how a suburb sits at the border between the American dream, and a Puerto Rican one.
Tape: Ladies and gentlemen, jet blue would like to welcome you to San Juan… The local time is 7:10 pm, for your safety and the safety of those around you…
So, I try to sit on the left side of planes to San Juan, in a window seat.
For as long as I can remember, on flights from New York I’ve looked out for Levittown on the descent, knowing that my closest cousins live in this suburb made up of straight little rows of grey and white roofs, the baseball fields, and that enormous landmark: the pale blue water tower. It looks like a blue jellyfish with rigid legs looming at least nine stories over a public library. It appears like a spaceship, a transplant from a small town or corn field in Middle America.
A few years ago, I got curious about this place. I used to wonder why my grandparents, who met and made a family in the mountains of Ciales, in the center of the island, would decide to leave the cement grid of the Bronx and move here -- to another cement grid.
When I was little and traveled with my parents, Levittown meant the smell of my grandmother’s cigars, lawnmower exhaust, and a searing, baking heat that knew no shade. One way to get there is to follow the One Six Five road, the uno seis cinco, west out of San Juan along the coast, and make a left into Levittown’s cement labyrinth.
There are other suburbs in San Juan, of course -- places with names like Floral Park or Country Club. But I learned that Levittown is different. It’s existence tells a story about a time when Puerto Rico was being feverishly remade, when what it meant to be Puerto Rican was changing.
It was built in America’s image by the same company that built what may still be the most famous suburbs in the U.S. -- the post-war planned communities known as Levittowns. The Levitt brothers built Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. They put in schools, roads, fire stations, water towers, libraries...
LEVITTOWN ARCHIVAL TAPE: Five years ago, this was a vast checkerboard of potato farms on New York’s Long Island. Today, a community of 60,000 persons living in 15,000 homes, all built by one firm! This is Levittown, one of the most remarkable housing developments ever conceived!”
In New York they first offered two-bedroom homes with pitched roofs and slightly different window treatments, all with the look of a traditional New England cottage - with names like the colonial, the ranch, and even the Cape Cod. The company would change models slightly every year...
Archival tape: “The architecture of the houses in Levittown is varied enough to eliminate dreary monotony, while at the same time enough alike to permit the savings that result from standardization.”
Instead of a potato field, in Puerto Rico the company started out in 1962 by buying nearly 440 acres of flat swampland in the town of Toa Baja, about 20 minutes from San Juan. They built drainage canals to empty into an artificial lake, I’ve seen the engineering diagrams and they’re impressive. They originally planned to build 3,000 homes but by 1977, there would be over 11 thousand. And just a short walk from the beach, they sold out quickly. The first models offered were Broche de Oro, El Camafeo, La Diadema, La Alhaja, and La Esmeralda -- the one with two stories, which my grandparents purchased from friends when they decided to leave the Bronx in the early 70s and come back home. Or at least, to a new home. Here in Levittown, the tag line was, “Donde la buena vida comienza.” Where the good life begins.
Hilda: Si, esta casa es La Camafeo.
Alana: Camafeo, ok.
Hilda: Uh huh. Camafeo.
Hilda Rodriguez lives in a Camafeo model with her daughter, Paula. Hilda was five when they moved in in 1964.
Hilda: Si, en el 64. Nosotros fuimos, nos fuimos como los segundos terceros en mudarnos aquí en Levittown.
Perhaps just the second or third family there.
Hilda: Pioneros, bien pioneros.
They’re not just pioneers -- their story is entwined with Levittown’s. Hilda’s parents started their family in the states, before deciding to come back home to the island. Her uncle was working for the Levitt company, and he offered Hilda’s father a job building the Levittown [Levytaun] houses in Puerto Rico…
Hilda: Le ofreció trabajo. [...] y la oportunidad de comprarse su casita.
and the opportunity for him to own his own home:
Hilda: Y escogió este modelo [...] tiene tres habitaciones, dos baños completos, marquesina. sala, cocina, comedor.
The houses are like so many others in Puerto Rican suburbs -- flat-roofed cement rectangles with Miami windows. These had built-in planters and carports (marquesinas) framed in decorated cinder blocks. And the catalog really pushed the cinder blocks:
Hilda: “Observe usted lo atractivo de los bloques ornamentales que resguardan el patio, y las jardineras bajo las ventanas, mire cómo embellecen la fachada de esta magnifica residencia!”
All the homes came with new General Electric appliances and were wired for telephones. In the 1960s, this was all a sleek, modern dream.
Hilda: Esto era un manglar
Remember -- this had been a mangrove swamp with lots of palm trees.
Hilda: y cuando mami abría la puerta estaba la marquesina llena de jueyes.
When Hilda’s mother opened the front door, the marquesina -- the carport -- would be FULL of crabs.
HILDA: están en la marquesina, están en el patio, están en la calle, están en la acera, o sea --
Paula: abuela había dicho, hasta en la máquina de lavar ropa.
Hilda: Si, a veces mami, cuando prendía --
Hilda’s daughter Paula lives with her in Levittown. She’s starting her career as a math teacher, and she remembers that her grandmother had even found crabs in the washing machine.
Hilda: pega un CLACK CLACK CLACK - un ruido bien feo y eran los jueyes dentro del motor --
They’d get into the motor and rattle around if you turned it on.
Hilda: No se podía tener puertas abiertas porque si no te metían!
There were so many that people would collect them in metal buckets -- clean them, and cook them.
Hilda: Nunca olvido que mucho comí patitas de jueyes.
She’ll never forget how many crab legs they ate.
The marquesinas were also where Sunday service was held in the early days, before Hilda’s father Don Toño helped to found the local Catholic parish. Hilda was in the first graduating class of the elementary school, named for John F. Kennedy. There was a manmade lake, which still exists, but back then there were paddle boats too.
In the US, Levittowns were famous for excluding Black and Jewish home buyers, and there were rules about everything from lawn maintenance to line-drying clothes. But there was none of that in Toa Baja. And in the late 70’s Hilda remembers a Levittown… that was totally lit.
Hilda: Mira, en tal sitio hay un quinceañero, mira en tal sitio, hay una boda, mira en tal sitio, hay un aniversario, pero eran en las marquesinas porque los party eran en marquesina.
Scouts with cars would drive around the different secciones and report back about what parties were happening on a Friday night -- a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday.
Hilda: Formábamos el party. Nos quedamos hasta que éramos los últimos en irnos,
They’d arrive unannounced, get invited to join… and then they’d be the last to leave. Dancing boleros all night long.
Hilda: y la gente quedaba encantada porque Lo de nosotros era bailar,
Alana; bailar que?
Hilda: bailar, salsa, merengue guajira, bailar y los boleros, los discos de Santito Colon, Cheo Feliciano. La pasábamos súper bien. De verdad que la pasamos bien, bien, bien.
I like imagining my grandparents in this landscape, with Cheo Feliciano playing in the distance and neighbors dancing in marquesinas. And maybe after so many years of hearing about the US Levittowns, this is what success looked like to them -- life in a modern suburb, instead of a return to the lush but rustic countryside in Ciales.
And, as it turns out, that appeal of Levittown… it helps tell a bigger story, about how in the mid-20th century, Puerto Rico’s future ran headlong into the American Dream.
Paula: Abuelo, bendito abuelo, sabía mucho de eso.
That’s Paula, Hilda’s daughter again. Don Toño, her grandfather, knew a lot about Levittown’s place in Puerto Rico’s history.
Paula: porqué abuelo fue de esa generación que fue bien pobre a realizarse -- y por ejemplo abuelo no tenía zapato.
He was from that generation, she says, that went from being really poor -- he grew up without shoes -- to going on to get his high school degree later in life, and of course to own his own house.
Paula: Y hubo una política yo creo de Luis Muñoz Marín, -- que la gente con él fue que tuvo sus primeros zapatos y cosas así.
So Luis Munoz Marin, the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, is well known for pushing the idea that the island’s prosperity would come not from statehood, and not by independence...
SILVIA ALVAREZ CURBELO: Munoz advocated for a third way.
Silvia Alvarez Curbelo is a Puerto Rican historian. She’s also the author of Un pais del porvenir.
Silvia: Un Pais del Porvenir, the land of the future, a country of their future. [...] Porvenir is a beautiful word.
Porvenir means the time that is going to happen -- like a point on the horizon, some kind of future of possibility. And Puerto Rico has historically been eager, striving for modernity, she says.
Governor Muñoz would promote a massive program -- Operacion Manos a la Obra, also known as Operation Bootstrap -- to transform the island and reach that porvenir. Operation Bootstrap echoed the New Deal in the United States. It was a massive remaking of the Puerto Rican economy… and actually of the whole island. Government programs gave tax breaks to US companies, and engineered a shift from agriculture to manufacturing.
SILVIA: And for Munoz, it was this path to modernity because agriculture was for him like the symbol of backwardness. Of course, it was the agriculture of sugar, one crop agriculture--
Alana: So it was no paradise. [...]
Silvia: No. And industrialization was the thing of the future. Once again, the pais del porvenir.
To understand why Levittown was such a dream, it’s worth understanding what it wasn’t.
Jorge: Have you seen photographs of how people used to live in the 40s here in Puerto Rico,?
Jorge Lizardi Pollock is a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico.
For example, in this place called El Fanguito? It’s a slum built over a swamp.
These were wooden houses on stilts, perched over water. In 1940, the average life expectancy in Puerto Rico was 46 years -- nearly twenty years shorter than it was in the states.
Jorge: A lot of people used to live with no running water, no electricity, no baths.
Some 70 percent of people lived in the countryside. And housing was a key part of Operation Bootstrap, it was...
the way in which the government demonstrates that it was possible to modernize the country and clean up the slums.
FIESTA ISLAND: Broad avenues in San Juan lead to residential districts where houses resemble those in Florida, California or Texas…
Cringe-worthy films like one, called Fiesta Island, marketed Puerto Rico as a prospering outpost that was looking more and more like the United States.
Fiesta island: Everybody grows and loves flowers in Puerto Rico. These are red ginger blossoms. Homes for everybody! Housing gets top priority in Puerto Rico’s booming economy.
Doña Fela, the mayor of San Juan during this period, looked back on it in a documentary in the 1980s:
Fela: the miracle was that we created a middle class which was created from one day to the other..”
And, that newly minted middle class moving from the campo to the city needed homes. In 1960, roughly 40 percent of housing in Puerto Rican cities was considered substandard. In Washington DC, the federal government was creating incentives for single-family homes and highways, and Puerto Rico got them too.
Jorge: just following the promise about the good life in the US, that everybody should have their own house, their own patio or their own car, -- we just follow that promise.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: So if I say Levittown to you, what is the first thing that you think?
Jorge Lizardi Pollock: Utopia of the middle class. The utopia of freedom.
Up until the Cold War, Washington cared very little for Puerto Rico… if at all. But as Cuba became the poster island for Communism in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico became a capitalist counterpoint.
Jorge Lizardi Pollock: When I think of Levittown, I think on the Cold War and the Cold War utopia, on the Cold War promises,
And one way the US fought back against dictatorships and communism, was by giving Puerto Ricans the chance to own their own homes.
Jorge Lizardi Pollock: So they will become owners. And owners won't rebel against their own property, they won't do that.
This isn’t only true of the Puerto Rican Levittown. William Levitt, of Levitt & Sons, once said: "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do."
Governor Muñoz embraced Levittown, and attended the ribbon cutting for it in September of 1963 -- it was widely covered in US papers. These homes, with their gardens and their garages for a car everyone was expected to have, would be the model for housing in Puerto Rico for the next 50 years.
But there wasn't room for everybody in this version of Muñoz’s vision of porvenir. San Juan’s mayor, Doña Fela, said the creation of a middle class overnight was a miracle. But actually, it was a very intentional miracle, and one with extremely mixed results. The part of this economic transformation that isn’t talked about much is how many people supposedly had to leave in order to make it work.
For local technocrats, the problem was that there was no way to create enough jobs to employ everyone. There were too many people on the island to create a middle class. And that idea… led to some horrible policies.
Today, we know more about the shameful project that sterilized roughly a third of Puerto Rican women, and the birth control pill experiments. But it wasn’t only that. In 1946, a government report estimated that around a million people would have to leave in order to make the island prosperous.
And by the late 40s, the government would get involved. Really involved.
We’ll be right back. This is La Brega.
And we’re back to La Brega.
We’ve been talking about an American-style suburb whose story is, in many ways, the story of the island in the 20th century… at a time when Puerto Rico was being remade in America’s image. The government was trying to transform Puerto Rico’s economy, moving from agriculture to industry, and making a middle class.
Edgardo Melendez: The government realized that without the massive exodus of people, economic growth in Puerto Rico would be maybe hindered or slowed down.
Edgardo Melendez is the author of Sponsored Migration, a book about Puerto Ricans moving to the US. He describes an engineered exodus, “a campaign to turn every Puerto Rican into a potential migrant”. The Puerto Rican government would create levers and wedges and pulleys to make modernity work for those who stayed, but only by encouraging others to leave.
At the same time, the US government wanted cheap labor in cities like New York and Chicago. And so encouraging migration was also in their interest.
Joseph Monserrat: "Puerto Ricans come here to New York and to elsewhere to find jobs to get better education opportunities and other opportunities for their children.
The Puerto Rican government had positions like director of the Migration Division of the Department of Labor, based in New York. Here he is on WNYC in 1955.
Joseph Monserrat: They are now on the first rung of a ladder which many of our own fathers and grandfathers began to climb just a generation ago"
Edgardo Melendez: So they created all these programs to, you know, help migrants get social services from local governments like New York. English classes, helping kids with their documents so they can move easily to schools in the US. All that sort of thing.
There was an expectation that boricuas would assimilate easily. But that didn’t pan out.
Edgardo: Puerto Ricans were being rejected in the United States, even though they were citizens. Right. And, of course, the cultural and linguistic differences.
So there were members of Muñoz’s government who looked for another solution to what they saw as the problem of overpopulation.
Edgardo Melendez: -- that argued, well, for migrants, it will be easier to incorporate and assimilate in Latin America because of the common culture and language Even in the early 50s, the government sent a representative to Brazil to consider creating a colony of Puerto Rican migrants there.
The US Government nixed this. Not only did they not want Puerto Rico negotiating with foreign governments, but it would also get too messy to have a bunch of US citizens living in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.
And, yes, they made sure there were plenty of flights to the US. And that’s what gets us to that first Eastern airlines flight to San Juan, in 1951 -- the one that broke Pan-Am’s monopoly.
EASTERN AIRLINES: We consider it both a privilege and an obligation to offer Puerto Rico the kind of transport service upon which the continuing progress and prosperity of this island depends.
Governor Muñoz had lobbied for expanding airline access, to make it easier for Puerto Ricans to leave the island. But when he made the argument, what he said was that Puerto Ricans deserved to go looking for jobs as much as anyone else in the states.
It stings when I think about all these machinations to get a million people to leave, to get families like mine to leave. That we were a sacrifice worth making for that shining porvenir.
But people wouldn’t just leave for good… Because of the island’s relationship with the US, it was easier for Puerto Ricans to come and go. Many, like my grandparents, would decide to return. And for them and many others coming from cramped and cold walk-up apartments, the dream of success looked a lot like Levittown.
EDGARDO MELENDEZ: Now, Levittown is an important phenomena. Because it's basically an area built by return migrants
ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1971: the flow is no longer one way, as thousands of Puerto Ricans have decided to return home. [...] Tape: Eastern Air Lines announces the final boarding call [...] service to San Juan Puerto Rico.”
August 1971, CBS News.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1971: “Some have saved enough money to buy small, trim homes in new suburbs -- in developments like Levittown, for instance, where life has as much distinctly American a flavor as the suburb’s name.
Levittown has a reputation for being a place settled by the returning diaspora.
SAC: I think that is like an intermediate space.
The historian Silvia Alvarez Curbelo says Levittown was a bridge between the US and Puerto Rico. For returning Puerto Ricans, there was a nostalgia, as several people have told me, for a life in the countryside, en el campo -- that existed before Puerto Rico’s big transformation, before people left. Carport in the front. Platanos in the back.
[01:40:55] SAC: You have to plant a guava tree, a lemon tree, you know, like the staples of a garden in Puerto Rico[...]
And Levittown’s patios had room for that.
In Levittown, I think that many of the Nuyoricans wanted to have a Puerto Rico that was already vanishing in some way. [01:41:31][35.6]
My grandfather, Nicolas Casanova, kept ducks and chicken and even geese in his suburban backyard. It’s a detail I hadn’t thought about until Silvia described that longing.
But it wasn’t an easy fit for everyone returning from New York..
One resident told me (not on tape), that she felt bullied by a teacher who scolded her for speaking English. It was a common story in the 70s, featured in news reports quoting teenagers in Puerto Rican high schools.
1978 CBS: People were laughing at me because I didn’t know Spanish. You would say something wrong, they’d be trying to correct you, most of the time they would laugh.
Part 2: 1971: They make fun of you, the way you talk Spanish, if you say a bad, wrong word in Spanish they you can’t speak Spanish right, things like that, and they start calling you gringo.
Schools in Puerto Rico even started offering Spanish courses to the returning migrants, to help them fit back in.
Unhappy with life in the states, and slow to assimilate in a hostile Puerto Rico, the Nuyoricans say they’re in limbo -- not knowing where they belong.
Nuyoricans returning from the states not only struggled to fit in, they also struggled to find a job. And they weren’t the only ones.
Hilda — the resident we heard from earlier — says her family had a hard time making ends meet after returning from the states. In Levittown, the mortgage payment on their house, the Camafeo model, was 62 dollars a month. That was a lot for their family.
Hilda: Cuando nosotros nos mudamos aquí -- -- el costo de la casa eran doce mil quinientos dólares.
Her father Don Tono had worked building the Levittown houses, but when they had all been finished in the late 70s, his next job didn’t pay enough to make the monthly payment.
Hilda: Llega un momento en que papi ya estaba al borde de la desesperación y ya había hablado con mami.
There came a moment, where he was on the verge of desperation. And her parents were deciding whether they’d give up the house and leave again for the United States, when something happened that changed their fortunes...
Hilda can see the scene in her memory… One day, her father got home.
Hilda: y se sienta en la silla del comedor y coge el periódico. Mami está en la cocina y yo oigo que papi dice a mami, "Lusa..."
He sits down at the dining room table and opens the newspaper. Her mother, Doña Lucy, is in the kitchen.
Hilda: Mami: que? Ven acá.
Come here, he says. She looks over his shoulder.
Hilda: Y dice que paso? Yo veo que Mami se asoma y mami dice embuste,
Hilda could hear her saying, no way, really, no way --
Hilda: -- de verdad, embuste
she could see them both with huge smiles on their faces, full of happiness.
Hilda: y pega los dos con una cara de alegría pero yo estoy mirándolos y no se lo que pasa.
Don Tono had won the lottery, first prize.
Hilda: pues papi había comprado billetera, lotería y salió en el primer premio.
With that money, he paid off the house. A few streets away, his sister was also struggling to pay. He helped her out too.
Hilda: Y gracias, como siempre lo digo, del primero a Dios sobre todas las cosas y después ese milagro -- se de verdad que fue un milagro. [...]
If not for the lottery, they would have gone back to the states. Maybe someday her parents would have returned to the island, but they wouldn’t have kept the house.
Hilda: Definitivamente creo que no estuviéramos aquí. Pero aquí estamos hace 55 años, pues ya.
Instead, she’s been in Levittown now for 55 years. And despite all the good times, all the memories and the promises --
Hilda: yo estoy loca por irme de aquí.
-- Hilda says that the way life is in Puerto Rico, she wants to leave. It’s the crime, the shrinking pensions, the lack of opportunities.
Hilda: Antes siempre se decía que la verdadera familia de uno eran los vecinos.
But also, people used to say neighbors are your real family -- everyone would help each other, care for eachother.
Hilda: (fade under) Un vecino se enferma y todo el mundo se preocupa. Todo el mundo ayuda a todo el mundo, coopera. Ya eso se acabó.
Today, Hilda says, if you die, they find you by the smell.
Hilda: Hoy te moriste pues por la peste, te encuentran.
This is so dark, but the truth is that there are so many empty homes in Levittown now. Nearly 15 years of a fiscal recession has taken its toll, and then came Maria. According to figures from 2018, over 20 percent of the houses in Levittown are vacant. The elementary school, the one named for John F. Kennedy, was closed as part of an island-wide shut down of hundreds of schools.
Paula: Y pues ahora ya todo no es como antes. Yo pienso que mami tuvo la mejor etapa de Levittown,
Paula, Hilda’s daughter, says her mother saw Levittown’s best days. She lives at home, loves this place, but knows her and her friends have seen its decline. It wasn’t just dancing in the streets -- there were also walkways between the sections, and now they’re all closed.
Paula: las personas caminaban todos los paseitos que hay, que ahora todos básicamente están cerrados y es un peligro caminar por en solitario.
It’s dangerous to walk alone. And the beach that borders the north side of Levittown, Punta Salinas, is contaminated.
Paula: Por ejemplo, la playa de ahí al frente, que ahora está contaminada
And Hilda can’t imagine late-night chats outside with neighbors.
Hilda: Tú crees que yo me atrevo ahora? No!
In the original designs, Levittown’s balconies were all open -- but today they’re caged with security bars. Levittown’s lake, once an amenity, overflowed during Maria. The dam was opened, without warning, and houses and streets near it flooded. Hilda and Paula’s home didn’t flood, but other people had to be rescued from their roofs, or flee in the dark. Four people died.
Sixto: Every time I go to work, I take the one 165 road -- es la una seis cinco -- that's the road that takes me all Dorado, Levittown, San Juan. And you could see how deteriorated Levittown is actually, post Maria and before Maria.
That’s Sixto Isaac Ortiz, a friend of Paula’s and longtime Levittown resident. After Maria, out of boredom, they made “Nuestro Podcast” with some other friends --
MUSICAL SWELL Sixto: En este episodio número 4 de nuestro podcast le rendimos un homenaje sumamente especial a Levittown, Toa Baja.
And one of the episodes is about their home.
Hablamos sobre nuestra experiencia...
They discussed the awful experience of the hurricane, and they talk about a book of short stories based in Levittown. And, over an hour into the episode, Sixto poses a huge question to the group --
Sixto: muchas personas dicen que el proyecto social de Levittown, lo que se conocía como lo que querían que fuera Levittown, falló.
Did Levittown fail? And his answer, he told Paula and I recently, is yes.
Sixto: you could actually see how Levittown could mirror perfectly the failed experiment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And that's just my opinion. And how at the same time it could be mirrored as the failed experiment of the American dream.
He sees it in the rundown baseball fields, in the abandoned houses, in that drive to work every day on the 165.
Sixto: And that many people, you know, they left Puerto Rico, both their own home, their own picket fence, their white picket fence with their dog and their family and their house.
The financial crisis and austerity policy has blanketed the whole island.
Sixto: More than angry, it makes me sad, you know, that we're in this time. But this is not only Levittown, this is Puerto Rico in a nutshell.
There was something about Levittown that required a winning lottery ticket to achieve. The promise wasn’t a home, it was A HOUSE. And that suburban model of development was defined by sprawl that clutters the landscape, and by mortgages that have become foreclosures. It wasn’t enough to build houses if you couldn’t create an economy in which people could afford to stay in them.
The porvenir that Governor Luis Muñoz Marin had promised had already started to crumble with a recession in the 1970s. Silvia Alvarez Curbelo told me about a diary that he kept for a couple of years during that time.
SAC: And it was like he was surprised by the change. And he spoke about the traffic. About the people that were, like, in a hurry. He spoke about the trouble with youth, juvenile delinquency and so on.
ACB: He sounds like kind of a just a grumpy old man. People are rushing around too much these days. The kids! He sounds a little. --
SAC: Yes. Because. Like, the times accelerated too much!
ACB: Too much progress, too much progress, too much porvenir!
SAC: Too much porvenir! And the unraveling of the Porvenir in too many Porvenirs. It was not only one.
It’s as though the vision of having a house got tied up too closely with the American dream, and with an unsustainable consumerism.
So, Levittown can feel like a metaphor for the failures of Puerto Rico’s economic experiment — but last time I was there, I saw it through new eyes. I took in the interesting things that were showing through the cracks.
Cezanne Cardona Morales is the author of a collection of short stories called, ironically, “Levittown Mon Amour” -- the one Paula and Sixto discussed in their podcast.
Alana: Estamos aqui afuera de -- yo digo torre…
Cezanne: Pompa Si, torre de agua. Pompa de agua.
Cezanne and I met under the rust-streaked belly of the blue water tower a couple of weeks before the pandemic, outside what used to be a public library. Like so much else in Puerto Rico, even before covid, it was closed.
Cezanne: Lo cierto es que se ha convertido, además del icono, es una marca dentro del mapa aéreo. Es decir, los aviones que van a aterrizar tienen que informar que están pasando por aquí.
It’s part of the aerial map, he says. I checked this out, and he’s right: pilots have to tell air traffic control that they’re passing it on their way into the airport. In other words, I’m not the only one.
Cezanne: el propio Levittown me sigue dando sorpresas como ciudad.
Levittown keeps surprising him. Every time he comes here, despite the detritus and the decay, he sees colors that call his attention.
Cezanne: cada vez que paso por ella, a pesar del detritos que veo de lo que esta se está cayendo, veo colores que me llama la atención.
Writing about this place was his way of making a kind of peace with his country, with Puerto Rico through the fiscal crisis, the deterioration, the difficulty of making ends meet, to leave the resentment about what wasn’t and appreciate what is.
Cezanne: dejar atrás todo ese rencor de lo que tal vez no fue y apreciar lo que es y lo que tal vez seguir haciendo.
I asked him -- after all this historical research, if I’m trying to see the beauty in Levittown, could he give me some pointers?
Alana: Sí yo estoy tratando de ver la belleza in Levittown. Me podrías dar algún consejo?
Cezanne: Bueno, todo depende de qué consideres belleza verdad
Well, it depends on what you consider beauty. Look at what time has done to this place. Look at the rust. At the shuttered businesses.
Cezanne: Tal vez eso miral mirar las cosas que el tiempo ha bajado. Tal vez miral la oxidación, los lugares cerrados.
Looking at closed storefronts gave him the possibility to invent, to imagine businesses that maybe didn’t actually exist. And walk along the boulevard -- which is called Avenue Boulevard, a redundant name that tickles Cezanne.
Cezanne: Caminar por la bulevar. Tal vez la única avenida que una avenida se llame avenida, avenida, avenida Bulevar...
It tickles me now too. And much more does, as well. A few steps away from where we sat, the public high school is named for Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos -- Puerto Rico’s independence icon. Right there, in Levittown, the American suburb. And then there’s the water tower, which doesn’t actually hold any water.
Cezanne: Ahora mismo, si observamos... la torre de agua está totalmente inservible.
It’s a Monument to Uselessness, a symbol of a failure to have functional infrastructure. And yet, it’s still an icon -- visible from the highway, from the streets… and from the sky.
Cezanne: no es un monumento a nada, sino a nuestra incapacidad de poder construir o de poder llevar agua a un lugar.
It’s empty, and yet --
Cezanne: Pero se ha convertido en tal vez en nuestra Torre de Eiffel. Por lo menos para la gente de Levittown, no?
It’s become like our own Eiffel Tower, he says -- appealing to Cezanne precisely because it doesn’t work.
I remember something Paula shared on her podcast -- about how she sometimes imagines that there’s a mermaid in the water tower. It’s a vision from Aquamarine, a teen movie from 2006 that you should feel no rush to go see --
Paula: hay una escena que a la sirena, la esconden en una pompa asi de agua --
In the movie there’s a mermaid in a water tower.
Paula: oh my god en la pompa de agua de aquí de Levittown como que hay sirenas también -- por lo menos eso ha sido el viaje mio [risa]
I imagine mermaids up there now too.
I had hoped to end this journey in my grandparent’s Levittown, but... then the pandemic hit. So instead this summer, I drove from Brooklyn to Long Island and peered up at this other water tower in this other Levittown. While the Puerto Rican one towers over a busy commercial strip... this one is quiet, tucked into some residential streets that curve into each other and are named for plants, like Azalea Road and Iris Lane. I could hear the drip drip drip of water falling from the tank. There’s a baseball diamond there too, and a basketball court.
And a group of teenagers were playing, someone was walking their dog. The lawns were tidy, there were no guava trees, no lemon trees.
This light blue water tower also says Levittown in big letters, although frankly it’s not as impressive— maybe not as tall as the Puerto Rican one? I imagined getting some bolt cutters for the chain link fence and getting to the circular door at the base of the tower. I could open the hatch, like the ones on a submarine, and instead of climbing whatever ladder lies on the other side, I could open another hatch and arrive at the other Levittown. As though the water towers were portals. I’d arrive… bypassing airplanes and airports and the danger of a covid-19 transmission... on Avenida Boulevard. I’d go to Panadería Lemy and order a box of quesito, then walk to my cousins house, the same one my grandparents moved to when they were looking for something between one dream and another. In the room where I sleep when I visit, there’s a view of the water tower.
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