Levittown Was Burning

February 17, 2017 10:27 pm0 commentsViews: 171
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The “Gas Riots” which took place at Levittown’s 5 Points intersection in the summer of 1979 have been well documented. The facts and statistics are known: OPEC’s oil embargo had caused gas prices to more than quadruple in just six years; gas supplies were limited and gas was being rationed, leading to long grumbling lines at every gas station; rising unemployment, inflation, and economic stagnation added to the volatile mood in America’s neighborhoods. Truck drivers, hurt badly by the rising cost of gas, planned a peaceful protest one June day—but events quickly got out of control. Over 300 police officers struggled to regain order against a crowd of over 2000 protesters hurling bottles and M-80’s and setting cars ablaze; by the end of the two-day disturbance, dozens had been arrested and many more injured. In this article we present a gallery of anecdotes and reminiscences from Levittowners who were there.

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I was working part time as a baker at the A&P, and living at my sister’s house in Goldenridge. Because of the high gas prices, I was riding my bike back and forth to work. When I was pedaling home that evening, I saw the big crowd at Five Points and I stopped to watch. I stopped at a gas station where the check cashing place is now, near the Post Office. I was on my bike, leaning against a gas pump and watching the commotion.

All of a sudden a guy came up and smashed the glass on the other side of the pump. A tow truck dropped a car right in the middle of the intersection, and they set it on fire. I decided it was time to leave.

I was pedaling through the parking lot of the Acme supermarket on New Falls Road.      There was a bus there, the size of a Greyhound bus. Just as I was getting close, the doors of the bus opened and cops in full riot gear began pouring out. I made a hard turn and rode back to my sister’s place as fast as I could.

My oldest brother was working in Japan at the time, for Bell Labs. He heard about the riots even over there.   —Darren / Mill Creek

 

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At the time of the riots, Gus Cosmas owned the Cosmas Diner at Five Points. (Until 1970 it had been called the Five Points Diner; it is now the Golden Dawn Diner.) At his home in Langhorne, Mr. Cosmas spoke to The Levittown Leader about his memories of the incident.

It was a summer evening and the dinner crowd came in, all regular customers. Our dinner customers tended to be older, blue collar people from the steel mill and the railroad.     Through the big plate-glass windows of the diner we could see a crowd assembling, standing along the curbs and even in the roadways. There were big trucks blowing their air horns, and the people were cheering. There were whole families there, sitting in lawn chairs and even setting up their barbecue grills. They even brought their kids. It was obvious they didn’t expect the thing to turn ugly.

Then, suddenly, one truck parked right in the middle of the intersection. The driver climbed onto the roof of his cab and started shouting. There was a farmer’s market right next to the diner at that time, and people began to ransack the fruit stalls. They took watermelons and hurled them into the street. You could feel the mood changing.

—Gus Cosmas

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At that time and date I was at my parents’ nursery business located at the intersection of Levittown Parkway and then Newportville Road. I recall it was about 4pm on a Saturday afternoon when a convoy of tractors sans trailers passed us on the way to 5 Points, as they had at an earlier date. It seemed to me a natural enough occurrence. Levittown is a solid, middle-class working town which I believe is representative of the rest of our country, and the country was angry.

Thinking it might be interesting to see an important peaceful protest, I decided to first head home and turn on the police scanner. The first communication I heard was one of the first responding police officers, fear in his voice, frantically and desperately calling for backup. That provided me sufficient cause to stay home rather than observe the event.

In hindsight it was a damn good thing I did stay home. I was licensed to carry a concealed firearm and always did so as a matter of habit. Had I gotten within 200 yards of 5 Points I would have been dealing with police that day who were having a field day acting first and then asking questions. Having a gun on my person, albeit legally, likely would have resulted in a K9 being on my throat, or worse. —Ed Armstrong

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I live near 5 points and when this happened, my husband Gene and I went up to see what was going on. We just thought this was going to be a peaceful protest and perhaps it started out that way, but it was fully involved when we got there. Cars and trucks were moving slowly through the intersections blowing their horns and waving flags etc. There were crowds of people shouting. Several people had taken a car from one of the gas stations and moved it into the center of 5 points and set it on fire.

I was shocked and a little frightened that this protest turned so ugly. We both decided that the police were not going to know the difference between observers and rioters. We walked home, got in the car and drove out to I-95 on Rt 413. (I remember knowing that the police had called for back-up, although I don’t how I knew).  We both said Holy S**t when we saw what was coming. I-95 North had a caravan of Philadelphia police cars with lights and sirens, moving fast towards Levittown. —Alice Deeny

 

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I remember hearing about the happenings at 5 Points. I decided to go up and see what was going on. I took my daughter with me and we drove up to the Acme Market and parked in their lot, but because of my daughter being with me, I only looked up at the 5 Points which was a few hundred feet up the road. What I saw was total chaos in the intersection, with a car streaming with smoke. Looking down Newportville Road, I saw a convoy which included an oil tanker being escorted by police cars, both in front and behind. My understanding was that the Philadelphia Police, known as Rizzo’s Raiders, were at the intersection trying to disburse the crowd

—Harry Feinman

 

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I made an announcement to my customers. I said that things seemed to be heating up and that anyone who would like to leave right now should just go ahead, no charge for their food. Most of them left. Then I sent the staff home.

Soon I got a phone call. It was the KYW radio station in Philadelphia. They said, “We hear there’s something big going on up there.” I described what I was seeing from the diner. And at intervals through the evening they would call back and I would give them live updates.

It was getting uglier. The protesters started trashing Moyer’s Five Points Gas Station. I was standing outside the diner, looking west along New Falls Road. I was wondering how the police were ever going to be able to disperse this angry mob.

Then, as if on cue, I saw a line of cops in full riot gear—helmets, shields, batons and dogs—come marching out of the supermarket parking lot and spread out in an orderly line across New Falls Road. Once the line was shoulder-to-shoulder, they started marching military-style toward the intersection. It was an impressive sight, like something from a Cecil B. DeMille movie.

They cut through that crowd like a hot knife through butter. A lot of the people who had been shouting and taunting and throwing bottles suddenly decided to get out of there fast. When the cops came abreast of the diner, they met some resistance. Then they quickened the pace, marching double time and swinging their batons. They smashed the headlights and windshields of cars that were clearing out too slowly.

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The Philadelphia cops, after most of the crowd had been scared away or arrested, came to me and asked for water for their dogs. I set out a bunch of big cans filled with water. Those dogs were big; they had heads the size of cattle. I remember their big tongues slurping up all that water. —Gus Cosmas

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In 1979 the local truckers had had enough of the ridiculous prices and shortages of fuel. The long lines and limited volumes frustrated all of us. Only allowed to get fuel on YOUR day set many a temper to flare. Governed by the last number of your license plate, we were all trapped by the system.

I tried burning kerosene in my car. It worked but I resembled the Mosquito man—ya’ll remember that, right? Whenever I turned the key, white clouds billowed from my exhaust, killing every bug in the neighborhood. I parked my 1968 Fairlane 500 after about two months of that. Riding my bike and hitching rides in order to get to work and college classes, I made it to the end of that crisis.

As the peaceful show of unity rolled on through the 5 points intersection, over and over, it was a spectacle for all of us who lived there. Later in the evening when radical truck drivers and the local riffraff got involved, it got ugly. I recall several truck drivers clashed with local police right in the middle of the intersection. They were hauled off to jail.

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As the police were called in from as far away as Philadelphia, the men in blue started getting rude to us, the innocent spectators. I recall my father dashing across a barrier as he witnessed a young man being manhandled by police. Getting arrested wasn’t his initial intention but my Dad always stood up for what he thought was right. It certainly wasn’t on my mother’s list of his most shining moments.

She decided it was time we all left and let it all get settled by the authorities. It got worse from there as drunken criminal types from other municipalities saw an opportunity to turn it into a riot, with burning cars, gang fights and drunken disorder. Shame on them!!!! —Mary Beth Baur-Baker

 

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I went there with my Doberman who kept the Police Dogs from being used. When the Police saw my Doberman, they yelled for me to leave while keeping their dogs in the patrol cars.

I took ‘Doc’ with me for my protection from the over-reactive police more so than for what was going on at 5-points. That wasn’t out of control so much as law enforcement was over-reacting to the “riot” that never really occurred, other than major traffic tie ups from all the tractor-trailers that came through in protest.

It was the Nation’s first Gas Rebellion… I remember it well. —Galan Fink

 

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I grew up in the Violetwood section, only a mile from 5 points. Back then there was a gas station on each corner. You might recall that back then if your driver license number ended in an even number, then you could only purchase gasoline on “even number days”—and if it ended in an odd number, “odd number days”.

My father was a traveling salesman for a living and he was issued a letter that allowed him to purchase gas any day of the week. Friends and family would often solicit him trying to borrow his coveted letter—which he never gave up.

I also recall hearing the commotion from our home and the explosions. I remember the “To Hell With Shell” chant like it was coming from my next door neighbor’s house! To a little boy it was kind of scary. Like most Levittowners, we watched it all unfold on TV. I remember they called in all local authorities including Park Rangers, Sheriffs, State Police, the National Guard and New Jersey State Police even arrived to quell the rioters. The sirens whirling past on nearby Mill Creek Parkway seemed to be endless, as were the helicopter blades cutting through the air. I remember that was the first time I’d seen a water cannon used. —Earl J. New

 

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I was so disappointed that the protest turned hateful. What right did anyone have to destroy property? Someone’s vehicle was in for repair and it was set on fire. What message did that send? This story went all over the world and it told them that we were unable to hold a peaceful protest and Americans were a bunch of angry, unruly and undisciplined people. It wasn’t a good thing for Levittown. —Alice Deeny

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I think, on the whole, the cops were very professional and methodical in getting the job done. There was no time, obviously, to ask who were the troublemakers and who were the innocent bystanders. They had to clear out that crowd.

It was kind of comical, the things my customers would say. For days afterward, guys would come in and say “Look, Gus, see this bump on my head? The cop hit me with a baton, and I was just sitting in my lawn chair!” One customer complained at how unfair it was that a cop had kicked over his barbecue grill.

Looking back on that incident, I think most of the crowd just wanted to vent. It really didn’t have much to do with the price of gas. —Gus Cosmas

 

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I recall my father driving us up the next day to survey the carnage. And there, on top of a light post (I think) was a cardboard handmade sign that read “To Hell With Shell”. I recall it staying there quite a while. What a trip. Lil’ Ol’ Levittown made international news that day! —Earl J. New

 

Crowd-scene photos are by Mary Beth Baur-Baker. Mary Beth, now an accomplished photographer, was an amateur at the time of the riots, using a crude 110 camera. We thank her for generously sharing her 38 year old photos with The Leader.

Gus Cosmas photo by John Antoine; burning car photo is from stock library.

 

 

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