Lawn Fetish: A Social Climb
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
The perfect lawn is the ticket to social inclusion in New York. In the author's courtyard in Portugal, grass merely peeks through lavender, buddleia and kiwifruit vines.
The green spikes just surfacing in my courtyard remind me of my family’s Long Island lawn, which became an obsession.
Lawns defined social standing. Neighbors judged neighbors on their maintenance. Everyone on our block had a lawn in front of the house . . . along with everyone in Nassau and Suffolk counties to the tip of the Island, where Gatsby had his mansion.
“In The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway rents his house on West Egg, he apparently spends little time on lawn care. The disparity between his patch of greenery and the immaculately manicured grounds of Jay Gatsby’s mansion is clear:
“’We both looked at the grass – there was a sharp line where my ragged line ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began,’” reports Carraway.
“In preparation for Gatsby’s luncheon with Daisy, Gatsby is so troubled by this difference that he sends his own gardeners to take care of the offensive strip of grass,” recalled Scientific American (May 3, 2017).
I was 11 when we left an apartment in New York City for a house 25 miles away in Hempstead. The lawn was green (it was March and rainy) and mowed for the purpose of selling the property. At that time, I did not recognize weeds, such as chickweed, clover or crabgrass, just as, 50 years later in Portugal, I did not recognize bramble as a weed, not a welcome blackberry plant.
In talks over the hedge, Mrs. W, who had the best lawn on the street, shared her knowledge with my mother. She suggested grass types, fertilizers and peat moss, the latter which the United Kingdom is banning for gardeners’ use as of 2024 because of the degraded state of peatlands and the resultant emission of carbon dioxide. Now, I can testify to the warmth of peat, or turf, which friends burned in their Galway County home. Then, I only knew about the effectiveness of peat moss on grass.
We dug up the old lawn and started afresh. My mother and I, especially, loved it. She was the head gardener, and I was her apprentice.
Mrs. W, who was white, also revealed that Mrs. P, the previous owner who also was white, had “threatened to sell to Negroes” before moving her family to Florida. It was 1965. We were the third Black family on the street of nine homes.
The neighborhood feared us before our arrival. I can imagine that others contemplated “white flight”. We devoted ourselves to our lawn. Perhaps, our fervor deterred others from following in Mrs. P's footsteps as no one else sold their home.
“Segregation hardened rapidly on the Island starting around the time of the civil rights movement, propelled by white flight, racial steering and blockbusting by real estate agents in towns that today have the largest minority populations,” according to Newsday (November 17, 2019).
“Elmont, Freeport, Hempstead, Lakeview, (Roosevelt), Westbury, Uniondale and Valley Stream in Nassau County, and Wheatley Heights in Suffolk County, all experienced panicked sell-offs by white residents who believed that property values would fall as blacks moved in.”
Today, Long Island is one of the most segregated suburbs in the United States, It has 291 communities, and most of its Black residents live in just 11, according to Newsday’s three-year study.
Nonetheless, for everyone, the grass is green.
Hundreds of years ago, lawns originated in Britain, where they denoted wealth enough to afford a crop that fed neither people nor sheep, deer or cattle and one that required an inordinate amount of time, according to Gardens Illustrated (September 4, 2020).
Later, lawns flourished in the British Empire for stately homes and games, such as cricket and football, and they crossed the pond.
Nearby Levittown of 6,000 homes, built between 1948 and 1952, pioneered the established lawn as part of the property sale, according to Planet Natural Research Center. Abraham Levitt and his two sons, William and Alfred, who also built post-war planned communities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Cape Cod, and Puerto Rico (several of them called Levittown), required the maintenance of lawns and forbade fencing them in.
“The importance of a neat, weed-free, closely shorn lawn was promoted intensely in the newsletters that went out to all homeowners in these subdivisions, along with lawn-care advice on how to reach this ideal,” reported Planet Natural.
The aim was a patch of green grass of a singular type with no weeds that is attached to your home, according to Scientific American. The lawn should be no more than an inch and a half tall, and neatly edged. It must be watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated.
Newsday wrote: “Perhaps most notoriously, William J. Levitt, visionary creator of affordable suburban tracts, marketed the prefabricated, concrete-slab homes that would become Levittown with restrictive covenants baring leasing and sales to blacks.
“The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race,’ one such covenant read. ‘But the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted.”
Levitt, who was Jewish, wrote: “Negroes in America are trying to do in 400 years what the Jews in the world have not wholly accomplished in 6,000 years, according to The Times of Israel (February 16, 2021).
“As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. . . . We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.’”
According to Newsday: “After the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated racial covenants in 1948, Levitt removed the clauses from company documents in 1949 but said he would continue to accept only white families. The discriminatory practice continued until April 1968, six days after the assassination of (civil rights leader) Martin Luther King, Jr., when the company announced it would adopt a policy of ‘open housing’ as a memorial to King.”
To this day, Levitt’s landmark Long Island settlement is home to few African Americans. In 2017, the U. S. Census estimated the population at 75 percent White, 14 percent Latin, 7 percent Asian and 1 percent Black, according to Newsday.
The Levitts also barred Jews from one of their developments,” according to the Forward (April 13, 2009) in its review of Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb by David Kushner.
The Forward book review asks:
“Was Levitt’s invocation of Jewish experience in defense of his whites-only policies simply a hypocritical cover for his own unrepentant racism, or a version of the self-erasure that had led him to bar Jews from Strathmore, his first pre-Levittown development on Long Island?”
I ask a different question:
Did Levitt, who thought of himself as an outsider, knowingly elevate the impossibly perfect lawn as the ticket to social inclusion?
Was he having a laugh at the schmucks whose lawn care had become a fetish in much the way that my family laughed at white flight?
“We’ll chase them into the sea,” we would say, repeating a common refrain among Blacks, smiling and hurting at the same time.