In 1955, Levitt and Sons, a real estate company, purchased almost all of Willingboro Township, New Jersey, a sparsely settled agricultural area seventeen miles from Philadelphia. They built 1,200 homes on the lot consisting of three basic house types organized into about a dozen neighborhoods. This suburban experiment became the basis for one of the most famous case studies in urban sociology, Herbert J. Gans's The Levittowners, the product of two years of living in Levittown and chronicling the founding of churches, the emergence of party politics, and family and individual adaptation to suburban living. First published in 1967, Gans's study became a classic example of participant-observer ethnography.
While social critics then and now malign the suburbs as homogeneous and alienating, Gans argues in The Levittowners that these arrows miss the mark. Such places as Levittown are no American Edens, but old social structures transplanted onto new sites. Gans found that residents' preexisting preferences do more to determine the course of new communities than the wishes of planners, and the new experience of homeownership is the key factor affecting the behavior of new residents. The Levittowners is a classic work on suburbia that also paints a sensitive portrait of working and lower middle class life in America.