Church Office: 215-945-8550 /  fax 215-946-2676  /  firstpresby7@comcast.net

First Presbyterian Church of Levittown, PA

2018

1957

the future...

1954

The End of an Era.  When people moved to Levittown in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s -- almost exclusively white people because Levitt & Sons refused to sell to blacks -- everything revolved around the families of workers associated with the steel mill and their friends.  There were veteran picnics, retirement parties, little league baseball games, Girl and Boy Scout meetings, interscholastic sports events, band concerts, as well church activities.  At First Presbyterian there were multiple worship services on the Sabbath and overflowing Sunday school and weekday fellowship programs for adults and youths – the latter having upwards of 100 teenagers participating. [5]

During these halcyon days, it seemed that Levittown and the world were made of steel – American steel, and local resident steelworkers were proud to be the ones who made it.  The Levittown home designs were equipped with steel cabinets and stainless steel sinks in the kitchens; pressed steel framed the household windows, and steel appliances were evident on everyone’s kitchen countertop.  Children's toys, much of the siding on the houses, the refuse cans at the curb line, and the American-made family cars with those nice big fins parked in the driveways and “carports” were all constructed of steel.
On the surface, there seemed to be no end in sight for the good times. Although many steelworkers finished their education upon high school graduation (most were unable to afford college or largely indifferent to it), they had steady jobs at the Fairless Works and could afford a nice house, in a nice neighborhood.  Most women were stay-at-home moms raising kids destined for college, or entry-level jobs paying union wages at the mill.  The work force at the Fairless Works hit an all-time high of almost 10,000 in 1973.

However, in that same year of 1973 everything changed.
Paradoxically, the end for the Fairless Works – and with it the good times -- was actually predestined almost the day construction of the plant was completed in 1952.  A few months before the massive open-hearth furnaces were set alight, the next-generation of steelmaking technology was invented overseas.  Called the basic oxygen furnace, the new process would eventually make as much steel in 40 minutes as an open hearth made in six hours at the Fairless Works. But the new technology was hardly tested at the time, and U.S. Steel executives paid it no mind as they hailed the opening of the Fairless Works.  Thus, the local mill’s underlying obsolescence together with events worldwide would ultimately have far-reaching consequences upon the Levittown community – and the local First Presbyterian Church.
The watershed year of 1973 brought with it the Arab oil embargo, which suddenly and dramatically pumped up the price of gasoline, heating fuel, and other petroleum products.  Almost by itself, this single event changed forever the kinds of cars Americans wanted – or could afford -- and the amount of steel needed to make them. As a result, sales of smaller, gas-sipping Japanese auto imports, a slow-growing market threat to Detroit in the past, then escalated dramatically.

Ultimately, American automakers were forced to follow suit, making smaller cars constructed of lesser amounts of steel and greater amounts of aluminum, plastic and other non-ferrous materials.[6]  The same, new materials were increasingly being used in the manufacture of home furnishings, appliances, toys, trash cans, power tools, etc.  Not only were reduced amounts of steel being demanded by American fabricators, foreign imports of autos and other products including steel began encroaching on the shrinking domestic steel market.
The one-two punch of the mill’s inefficiency and oil’s volatility resulted in large-scale layoffs at the Fairless Works beginning in 1975.   The dismissals became only larger and longer as the situation continued and worsened.   Against this backdrop of steady decline through the 1980s, the union had approved contracts accepting wage and benefit concessions with the intent of lowering labor costs to keep the mill in operation and save jobs.  Despite the efforts of labor and management at the mill, corporate executives of U.S. Steel – known as USX after 1986 – announced in 1991 the shutdown of iron and steelmaking at the Fairless Works.  Eventually, only the finishing mills remained in operation with a work force of only a few hundred or so.
As weeds sprouted among piles of rusting ingots at the mill site and pigeons pecked inside the once-fearsome open hearths, the economic ripple effect of the Fairless Works decline and loss of thousands of jobs was near cataclysmic for the Levittown community.  With little or no technical skills or college degrees, most of indefinitely laid-off steelworkers who found new jobs earned much less to pay their bills or taxes.  Spouses were forced to enter the workforce to supplement reduced family incomes.  The wounded pride and mounting economic desperation in the community led to increased sociological stress as evidenced by growing incidents of marriage dissolution, verbal and physical abuse, property crime, and alcohol and drug addiction. 
Levittown's once placid atmosphere was rocked again in the wake of the second oil embargo by Arab and other petroleum-producing nations (OPEC) in 1979.  Community frustration boiled over resulting in the so-called Five Points gas riots of June 23 and 24 of that year.  A nonviolent demonstration by truck drivers protesting two-hour waits at the gas pump and further price increases drew thousands of people to the scene.  Without warning the gathering devolved into a riot during which a rampaging mob vandalized nearby gas service stations and fought with police.  The unrest left 100 people injured, and nearly 200 arrested.

1953

Our History

The Rebound and Revival.  Today, the massive Fairless Works grounds have been redeveloped.  The site is now being used by some fifty (50) other small and mid-size companies that have found the location to be ideal for light industrial and manufacturing activities.  With the assistance of the 2005 designation as a tax-abatement site, theKeystone Industrial Port Complex (KIPC) takes advantage of the railroad and water way infrastructure systems already present. [7]
Although not employing the vast number of workers that once operated the open hearths and rolling mills on the site, the KIPC is symbolic of the modest resurgence of industrial activity in the area.  As time progressed, most workers residing in the Levittown region sought employment in a broader spectrum of economic activities, including educational services, medical and health care, social assistance, retail trade, and small pockets of agriculture.  More recently, information technology industries became more evident in the region.
Through the good times and the upheavals, the First Presbyterian Church of Levittown has remained committed to emphasizing Bible study and the presence of Christ in the world.  A more secular and transient local population with less children has been at least partially the blame for the membership roll drop to around 800.  Not without its own controversies – not the least of which was the calling of a female senior pastor to minister a blue-collar congregation in 1978 [8] – the Church has remained steadfast helping members survive the turbulence times with spiritual and communal support. 

Recent years has seen the Church mission enhanced by the establishment of a successful child daycare, new classroom space, expanded parking lot, and an air-conditioned chapel.  In addition to worship services, bible study classes are ongoing, and at least three women’s circles are active.  With an aging building plant, efforts are now underway to setup an ongoing capital reserve account.  Financial savings are being achieved through the reorganization of the budget process and the reduction of utility costs by way of a boiler maintenance plan and more-efficient LED lighting. 
The congregation – as with Levittown – has become more diverse welcoming new members from different Christian traditions and ethnic backgrounds.  It has been described as a “warm and loving congregation” whose recently retired pastor emphasized a direct relationship and full communion with God.
Welcome to First Presbyterian Church!  It has a profound shared history with Levittown and a great foundation on which to meet the pastoral needs of this community, as well as its current and potential members in the 21st Century and beyond!

See also:
http://ushistoryscene.com/article/levittown/

https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/03/what-will-become-of-levittown-pennsylvania/471438/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/04/12/the-american-dream-fired-up-and-melted-down/fa9552a9-6f99-4d59-9144-813b1cbb3a55/?utm_term=.a9f622e7c4f9
http://statemuseumpa.org/levittown/one/b.html 
Sources for this narrative include the above-mentioned Internet websites, plus “A Twenty-Five Year History of the First Presbyterian Church” by Edna Metz and Janine Beck; and In Depth Study - First Presbyterian Church of Levittown PA, an essay by then seminary student Robert Higgs, dated May 1993.

Levittown – In the Beginning.  In 1952 at the big bend in the Delaware River, the U.S. Steel Fairless Plant began fabricated steel production on a 1,600-acre site in Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The site was chosen for its close proximity to the population centers of Philadelphia and Trenton; improved railroad and highway systems; and the abundance of water necessary for mass steel production. The creation of this first-ever integrated steel plant built from scratch spurred construction of a nearby housing development that was subsidized by U.S. Steel Corporation to provide housing for the plant’s employees.  This community became known as Fairless Hills.
However, the exponential growth in population due to the influx working class men with families -- mostly from the upstate coal regions and Philadelphia rowhomes -- seeking jobs at the mill impelled the need for still more affordable housing in the area.  Long Island developer Levitt and Sons responded to this demand with the nearby construction of over 17,300 single-family households between 1952 and 1958.  The resultant residential development became known as the second “Levittown.”  What set the Levittown developments in New York and Pennsylvania apart from other suburban projects during the same post-war era was not only the vast number of housing units, but also that they were built as a complete communities within a relatively short period of time.  The new 5,500-acre development sprawled over portions of Bristol, Falls, and Middletown Townships, and Tullytown Borough.

With model pricing starting under $11,000, homebuyers could move into a new single-dwelling with a modest lawn and all new appliances and utilities for $100 down -- zero for veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict –  coupled with government-insured  mortgage plans of around $67 per month.[1] 
Within a few years, Levittown’s population soared to 70,000 of mostly young war veterans, their spouses, and a flood of newborn children who were a part of the nationwide newborn surge that was to become known as the postwar “Baby Boom.”

But it wasn’t just the working class families who moved to Levittown.  The steelworkers were joined in their neighborhoods by service providers, educators, small business owners, retail sales people, and more.  Doctors, dentists, and lawyers moved in as well, many making their homes in the more expensive “Country-Club” sections of the development. [2]  Some professionals even practiced within the Levitt-built communities, which were zoned for both residences and small businesses.
The Levitt homes were built on traffic-calming, curvilinear roads, in which there were no four-way intersections. The names of the streets within each neighborhood or “section” always begin with the same letter that as the name of the section.  Most internal streets within a section connect to an outer beltway or "Drive" with the same name as the section. Typically, the Drive goes all the way around a section with several access ways to the main roads, parkways, or other sections. [3]
In keeping with the comprehensive community design of Levittown, each tree-lined neighborhood had within its boundaries recreation areas, greenbelts, and a site donated for a public elementary school.  As well, locations for churches also were set aside on main thoroughfares and collector streets.

A Place to Worship – First Presbyterian of Levittown.  Coinciding with the tremendous population growth, and taking advantage of the available land set aside by the Levitt company, various Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant congregations were coming together to establish their respective places of worship.  This included a portion of a Presbyterian congregation meeting in the nearby town of Edgely.
In April of 1952, fifteen (15) Presbyterian worshippers calling themselves the Edgely Community Church -- also then known as the Blackford Memorial Church -- met with officials of the Philadelphia Presbytery to arrange for the formation of a new church.  Within weeks of that meeting with the support of the Presbytery, a congregational meeting convened and agreed to create a new church tentatively named the “Pilgrim Presbyterian Church of Edgely.”

A building fund campaign was initiated in February 1953, supplemented by a loan and conditional grants provided by the United Presbyterian Church, which was then was the largest branch of Presbyterianism in the United States. The chosen construction site -- located near the intersection of Green Lane and Bristol-Emilie Road – was a tract then surrounded by cow pastures, cornfields, broccoli farms and asparagus patches.
As construction began, the new Church experienced other changes at a fast pace.  Since two other churches in the area contained the word “Pilgrim” in their titles, church leaders decided then to eliminate potential confusion and adopt a new name.  In October 1953, “The First Presbyterian Church of Levittown” was approved as the new designation, both for purposes of certainty and a not a little prestige.  Finally with the completion of the building, a dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, September 12, 1954.  The new Church would be the first house of worship to be instituted in Levittown.

Even so, it wasn’t long until the new building soon proved inadequate for the expanding Church congregation.[4]  Men, women, and children resorted to sitting on the windowsills during services because there was no room left in the pews.  These crowded conditions prompted the appointment of a new building committee. Just two years after occupying what is now designated as the chapel, nursery and classroom areas of the building, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for an expansive sanctuary and fellowship hall to be added to the facility complex.
On Easter Sunday 1958 with construction of the addition mostly completed, a service was held in which 400 people packed into the brand-new sanctuary.  A subsequent dedication ceremony concluded with the ringing of a new bell provided by the metal forgery of the Fairless Works.

1973

1952

The History of Levittown and the First Presbyterian Church 
The following narrative dwells in large part with regard to the economic story of the Fairless Steel Works and the community it spawned -- Levittown, Pennsylvania.  Nevertheless, the history of the local First Presbyterian Church of Levittown closely parallels the narrative story of America’s prototype suburb of the mid-1950s … and the prospects for tomorrow