Tavia Gilbert rises to the occasion with her reading of David Kushner’s Levittown. The cast of characters in this book runs from the well-known voice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to anonymous, race-baiting residents of Levittown, PA, and scared adolescents on a witness stand. Gilbert gives voice and personality to the four individuals — two married couples — who rose from obscurity to fight a public battle and right a grievous wrong.
After World War II, thousands of veterans returned home to a massive housing shortage. Into that breach stepped Abraham Levitt and his two sons, the brash and boastful William and the quiet but equally ambitious Alfred. Levitt and sons envisioned a community of affordable homes, made so by taking advantage of assembly-line techniques perfected during wartime. The Levitts were prescient enough to create, own, and control most of the pre-fabricated housing elements from start to finish. It was a winning situation both for the Levitt men, who personified self-made American success, and for the revered, heroic vets who could, courtesy of the Levitts, also have a piece of the American Dream. Except for one thing: home ownership within Levittown was open to whites only.
Gilbert voices the quiet strength and resolute determination of the two couples who became the center of a cataclysmic struggle in America’s perfect community. Lew and Bea Wechsler, a Jewish — and Communist — couple from New York City, bought a small home in Levittown in search of more space and good schools for their two children. Bill and Daisy Myers, a college-educated African American couple with three young children — Bill was also a veteran — just wanted what the Wechslers and other Levittown homeowners had: their piece of the American Dream.
Trouble erupted as soon as the Myers family bought the home next door to their friends the Wechslers, whom they had met through their Civil Rights work. The racists bait the Myers and Wechsler families, the Wechslers become marginalized because of their work with the Communist Party, and the Myerses begin to doubt the wisdom of buying a home in Levittown. Gilbert’s performance allows listeners to become completely caught up in the experience. She deftly moves from the concern of Daisy Myers for her three children to the obnoxious, imperious James E. Newell, Jr., the self-anointed leader of the protesting mob. Gilbert so clearly captures the insulting and unrelenting racism of Eldred Williams, the leader of a KKK fringe group, that you will get chills when hearing the cruel taunts and verbal assaults directed at Daisy as she simply tries to do some backyard gardening.
Supporters implore law enforcement and the legal system to come to the aid of the Myers and the Wechslers. Blustery megalomaniac Bill Levitt continues to stand strong in defense of his policy of building all-white communities. Descriptions of the rowdy, destructive mobs, the burning of crosses, and the cars filled with Confederate flag-waving racists allows Gilbert to use her vocal talents in the presentation of this gripping chapter of the Civil Rights struggle.
The book is a compelling reminder of battles fought by ordinary people simply to defend their legal rights. It is a testament to the courage of the citizens who stepped up to be the first to challenge unfair practices and of the bravery of their supporters. Listeners will not soon forget the voices in Levittown. — Carole Chouinard