Puerto Rico's Levittown, Where the Good Life Begins : Throughline In this episode from WNYC's La Brega, Alana Casanova-Burgess traces back the story of the boom and bust of the Puerto Rican Levittown. For many Americans, Levittown is the prototypical suburb, founded on the idea of bringing Americans into a middle-class lifestyle after WWII. But while the NY Levittown was becoming a symbol of American prosperity, there was a parallel story of Levittown in Puerto Rico during a time of great change on the island. Casanova-Burgess (herself the granddaughter of an early PR Levittown resident) explores what the presence of a Levittown in Puerto Rico tells us about the promises of the American Dream. It's a story that reflects and reveals how la brega has defined so many aspects of life in Puerto Rico.
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Levittown: Where the Good Life Begins

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Levittown: Where the Good Life Begins

Levittown: Where the Good Life Begins

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hi, it's Rund. And this week, we wanted to bring you something a little different. It's part of a series called "La Brega," and it's a co-production of our friends at WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

La brega is a hard word to translate. In Spanish, it means something like the struggle or the hustle. And the seven episodes look at how la brega has defined so many aspects of life in Puerto Rico, which of course is a distinctly American story.

ABDELFATAH: The series comes from a team of journalists, producers, musicians and artists from the island or the Puerto Rican diaspora, and all the episodes are available in both English and Spanish.

ARABLOUEI: We encourage you to listen to the whole series. But today we wanted to share an episode about that most American of inventions - the suburb. And not just any suburb; Levittown - seven planned housing developments meant for World War II veterans.

ABDELFATAH: Levittown epitomized a certain kind of middle-class life after World War II. But it turns out there was also a Levittown in Puerto Rico. And the Puerto Rican Levittown continues to teach us interesting lessons about the promise of the American dream. After the break, reporter Alana Casanova-Burgess takes us to her Levittown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LA BREGA")

ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS, BYLINE: This story begins, in many ways, in late March 1951 with a reporter's dispatch from...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: San Juan, Puerto Rico.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: This is audio from WNYC Radio in New York, which sent a crew for a live broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The occasion is the inauguration of nonstop plane service from New York to Puerto Rico. We are awaiting the arrival of the Puerto Rican from New York City, which has just come in.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The mayoress of San Juan is about to present the mayor of New York City with the keys to the city of San Juan.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Today, we might take it for granted that by the mid-1960s, over a million Boricuas had moved to the states, over 600,000 just to New York City. On the tarmac, Sol Descartes - then Puerto Rico's treasurer - marveled at the number of Puerto Ricans taking flights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SOL DESCARTES: Last year, 300,000 people traveled between the island and the mainland. The development of aviation is responsible for this tremendous growth in travel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 18, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ladies and gentlemen, JetBlue would like to welcome you to San Juan. Local time is approximately 7:10 p.m. For your safety and the safety of those around you...

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 the suburb made up of straight little rows of gray and white roofs, the baseball fields and that enormous landmark, the pale blue water tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 a cornfield 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 cigar's, lawn mower exhaust and a searing, baking heat that knew no shade. One way to get there is to follow the 165 road, the (speaking Spanish), west out of San Juan along the coast, and then 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. Its 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 postwar plan communities known as Levittowns (ph). The Levitt brothers built Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They put in schools, roads, fire stations, water towers, libraries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 11,000. And just a short walk from the beach, they sold out quickly. The first models offered were Broche de Oro, El Camafeo (ph), La Diadema (ph), La Laja (ph) 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 tagline was (speaking Spanish) - where the good life begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HILDA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Camafeo, OK.

RODRIGUEZ: Uh-huh, Camafeo.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Hilda Rodriguez lives in a Camafeo model with her daughter, Paula. Hilda was 5 when they moved in in 1964...

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: ...Perhaps just the second or third family there.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: They're not just pioneers. Their story is entwined with Levittowns. 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 houses in Puerto Rico...

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: ...And the opportunity for him to own his own home.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 (ph) - framed and decorated cinder blocks. And the catalogue really pushed the cinder blocks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: All the homes came with new General Electric appliances and were wired for telephones. In the 1960s, this was all a sleek, modern dream.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Remember, this had been a mangrove swamp with lots of palm trees.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: When Hilda's mother opened the front door, the marquesina - the carport - would be full of crabs.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: They'd get into the motor and rattle around if you turned it on.

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: There were so many that people would collect them in metal buckets, clean them and cook them.

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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, Dantonio (ph), 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 man-made lake which still exists, but back then, there were paddleboats, too. In the U.S., Levittowns were famous for excluding Black and Jewish homebuyers. 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 '70s, Hilda remembers a Levittown that was totally lit.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Scouts with cars would drive around the different secciones (ph) and report back about what parties were happening on a Friday night - a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: They'd arrive unannounced, get invited to join, and then they'd be the last to leave, dancing boleros all night long.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 U.S. 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: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: That's Paula, Hilda's daughter again. Dantonio, her grandfather, knew a lot about Levittown's a place in Puerto Rico's history.

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Silvia Alvarez Curbelo is a Puerto Rican historian. She's also the author of "Un Pais Del Porvenir."

ALVAREZ CURBELO: Un pais del porvenir - the line (ph) of the future comes with the future. Porvenir is a beautiful word.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 Munoz 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 U.S. companies and engineered a shift from agriculture to manufacturing.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: And for Munoz, it was this path to modernity because agriculture was for him like this symbol of backwardness. Of course, it was the agriculture of sugar, one-crop agriculture.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: So it was no paradise, really.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: No.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: No.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: And industrialization was the thing of the future. Once again, the pais del porvenir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: To understand why Levittown was such a dream, it's worth understanding what it wasn't.

JORGE LIZARDI-POLLOCK: Have you seen photograph of how people used to live in the forest here in Puerto Rico?

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Jorge Lizardi-Pollock is a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico.

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: For example, in this place called El Fondita (ph), it's a slum built over a swamp.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: These were wooden houses on stilts perched over water. In 1940, the average life expectancy in Puerto Rico was 46 years, nearly 20 years shorter than it was in the States.

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: A lot of people used to live with no running water, no electricity, no baths.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Some 70% of people lived in the countryside, and housing was a key part of Operation Bootstrap. It was...

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: The way which the government demonstrates that it was possible to modernize the country and clean up the slums.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIESTA ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Broad avenues in San Juan lead to residential districts where houses resemble those in Florida, California or Texas.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Cringeworthy films like this one, called "Fiesta Island," marketed Puerto Rico as a prospering outpost that was looking more and more like the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIESTA ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Dona Fela, the mayor of San Juan during this period, looked back on it in a documentary in the 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONA FELA: The miracle was that we create that middle class, which was created from one day to the other.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And that newly minted middle class moving from the campo to the city needed homes. In 1960, roughly 40% of housing in Puerto Rican cities was considered substandard. In Washington, D.C., the federal government was creating incentives for single-family homes and highways, and Puerto Rico got them, too.

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: Just following the promise about the good life in the U.S., that everybody should have their own house, their own patio, their own car - we just followed that promise.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: So if I say Levittown to you, what is the first thing that you think?

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: The utopia of the middle class. The utopia of the freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: When I think of Levittown, I think of the Cold War utopias, on the Cold War promises.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And one way the U.S. fought back against dictatorships and communism was by giving Puerto Ricans the chance to own their own homes.

LIZARDI-POLLOCK: So they will become owners and owners, and owners won't rebel against their own property. They won't do that.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: This isn't only true of the Puerto Rican Levittown. William Levitt of Levitt & Sons once said, quote, "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do."

Governor Munoz embraced Levittown and attended the ribbon-cutting for it in September of 1963. It was widely covered in U.S. newspapers. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: But there wasn't room for everybody in this version of Munoz's vision of porvenir. San Juan's Mayor Dona 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Edgardo Melendez is the author of "Sponsored Migration," a book about Puerto Ricans moving to the U.S. He describes an engineered exodus - a, quote, "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 U.S. government wanted cheap labor in cities like New York and Chicago, and so encouraging migration was also in their interest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH MONSERRAT: Puerto Ricans come here to New York and to elsewhere to find jobs, to get better educational opportunities and other opportunities for their children.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

MELENDEZ: So they created all these programs to 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 U.S., all that sort of thing.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: There was an expectation that Boricuas would assimilate easily, but that didn't pan out.

MELENDEZ: Puerto Ricans were being rejected in the United States, even though they were citizens - right? - and of course, the cultural and linguistic differences.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: So there were members of Munoz's government who looked for another solution to what they saw as the problem of overpopulation.

MELENDEZ: ...That argue, well, for migrants, it'll be easier to incorporate - I mean, assimilate in Latin America because of the common culture and language. But even in the early '50s, the government sent a representative to Brazil to consider creating a colony of Puerto Rican migrants there.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: The U.S. 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 U.S. citizens living in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. And, yes, they made sure there were plenty of flights to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And that's what gets us to the first Eastern Airlines flight to San Juan in 1951, the one that broke Pan Am's monopoly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We consider it both a privilege and an obligation to offer Puerto Ricans a kind of transport service upon which the continuing progress and prosperity of this island depends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Governor Munoz 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 U.S., 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELENDEZ: Now, Levittown is an important phenomenon because it's basically an area built by return migrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The flow is no longer one way, as thousands of Puerto Ricans have decided to return home.

UNIDENTIFIED EASTERN AIRLINES EMPLOYEE: Eastern Airlines announcing the final boarding call for service to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: August 1971, CBS News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Some have saved enough money to buy small, trim homes in new suburbs, in developments like Levittown, for instance, where life has as distinctly American a flavor as the suburb's name.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Levittown has a reputation for being a place settled by the returning diaspora.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: I think there is, like, an intermediate space.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: The historian Silvia Alvarez Curbelo says Levittown was a bridge between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. For returning Puerto Ricans, there was a nostalgia, as several people have told me, for a life in the countryside that existed before Puerto Rico's big transformation, before people left - carport in the front, platanos in the back.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: You have to plant a guava tree, a lemon tree and - you know, like the staples of a garden in Puerto Rico.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And Levittown's patios had room for that.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: In Levittown, I think that many of the Nuyoricans wanted to have a Puerto Rico that was already vanishing in some way.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

ARABLOUEI: After the break, the Puerto Rican Levittown starts to grow older and shows its age.

ABDELFATAH: Reporter Alana Casanova-Burgess.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: People laughing at me 'cause I didn't know Spanish. They would, you know, that was - you would say something wrong. And they'd be trying to correct you, but most of the time they would laugh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: They make fun of you, the way you talk Spanish. Say if you say bad - a wrong word in Spanish or something like that, they start saying, oh, you can't speak Spanish right and things like that. And they start calling you gringo.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Schools in Puerto Rico even started offering Spanish courses to the returning migrants to help them fit back in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 a month. That was a lot for their family.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: He sits down at the dining room table, and he opens the newspaper. Her mother, Dona Lucy, is in the kitchen.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Come here, he says. She looks over his shoulder.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Hilda could hear her saying, no way. Really? No way.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: She could see them both with huge smiles on their faces, full of happiness.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Don Tono had won the lottery - first prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: With that money, he paid off the house. A few streets away, his sister was also struggling to pay. He helped her out, too.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Instead, she's been in Levittown now for 55 years. And despite all the good times, all the memories and all the promises...

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: ...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.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: But also, people used to say neighbors are your real family. Everyone would help each other, care for each other.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Today, Hilda says if you die, they find you by the smell.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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% 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 shutdown of hundreds of schools.

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: It's dangerous to walk alone. And the beach that borders the north side of Levittown, Punta Salinas, is contaminated.

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And Hilda can't imagine late-night chats outside with neighbors.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 ISAAC ORTIZ: Every time I go to work, I take the 165 road - (speaking Spanish). That's the road that takes all Dorado, Levittown, San Juan. And you could see how deteriorated Levittown is actually post-Maria and before Maria.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NUESTRO PODCAST")

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: And one of the episodes is about their home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “NUESTRO PODCAST")

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “NUESTRO PODCAST")

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: "Did Levittown fail?" And his answer, he told Paula and I recently, is yes.

ORTIZ: 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: He sees it in the rundown baseball fields, in the abandoned houses, in that drive to work every day on the 165.

ORTIZ: And that many people, you know, they left Puerto Rico, their own home, their own picket fence, their white picket fence with their dog and their family and their house.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: The financial crisis and austerity policy has blanketed the whole island.

ORTIZ: More than angry, it makes me sad, you know, that that we're in this time. But this is not only Levittown. This is Puerto Rico in a nutshell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 Munoz 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.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: And it was like he was surprised by the change. 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.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: He sounds like kind of a just a grumpy old man. Oh, people are rushing around too much these day; the kids - right?

ALVAREZ CURBELO: Yes.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: He sounds a little...

ALVAREZ CURBELO: Yes.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Yeah.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: Because the times accelerated too much because...

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Too much progress. Too much...

ALVAREZ CURBELO: Too much progress.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Too much porvenir.

ALVAREZ CURBELO: Too much porvenir and the unraveling of the porvenir into many porvenirs. It was not only one.

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NUESTRO PODCAST")

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 CARDONA MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: "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.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: Levittown keep surprising him. Every time he comes here, despite the detritus and the decay, he sees colors that call his attention.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: I asked him, after all this historical research, if I'm trying to see the beauty in Levittown, could he give me some pointers?

(Speaking Spanish).

MORALES: (Laughter, speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: "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."

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: It's empty, and yet...

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: ...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: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: In the movie, there's a mermaid in a water tower.

PAULA: (Speaking Spanish).

CASANOVA-BURGESS: I imagine mermaids up there now, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE STARTING)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: I had hoped to end this journey in my grandparents' 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, but there were no guava trees, no lemon trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: 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 imagine 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 can 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 Avenue Boulevard. I'd go to Panaderia Lemy, and I'd order a box of quesito. Then I'd walk to my cousin's 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASANOVA-BURGESS: "La Brega" is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios. This episode is available in Spanish as well, and you can listen to either wherever you get your podcasts through "La Brega's" podcast feed.

This episode was produced by me, with help from Mark Pagan. It was edited by Luis Trelles, Marlon Bishop and Mark Pagan. Fact-Checking by Istra Pacheco. Engineering is by Stephanie LaBeau (ph), Lyosha Damron (ph), Rosana Caban, Gabriela Vales and Elisheva Itick (ph). Original music for "La Brega" was composed by Balun, and our theme song is by IFE. Additional music from Frankie Reyes. Art for this piece was done by Fernando Norat.

Leadership support for "La Brega" is provided by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support provided by Amy Liss. Deep gratitude to WNYC's Andy Lanset for his generosity with archival tape. Thanks also to Rebeca Ibarra and Yarimar Bonilla for their ears, and to Carmelo Esterrich, Francisco Rodriguez-Suarez and (unintelligible) Grao Gonzalez (ph) for their expertise. And special thanks to Sofia and Lucinda Vordale (ph) and Olga Casanova-Burgess. Thanks also to Ezequiel Rodriguez Andino.

In the next episode, a very different story about the shadows of the Cold War in Puerto Rico and a dark legacy we're still dealing with. (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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