Jews and the american city: Planning, Developing and Imaging Urban Space and Jewish Space. November 10, 2010. Lila Berman

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JEWS AND THE AMERICAN CITY: Planning, Developing and Imaging Urban Space and Jewish Space. November 10, 2010.

Lila Berman: I’d like to welcome you all here. My name is Lila Corwin Berman and I am an associate professor in the history department at Temple, the Murray Friedman Chair for American Jewish History, and I direct the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, and I’m thrilled to see all of you here. Thank you so much.

I thought I’d start this day by talking about where we are right now and what that means as a way into the topic of Jews in the American City that we’re going to be talking about today. So here we are-some of you took planes, some of you walked, some of you took a train or a subway. We’re at Temple. Temple was founded in 1884. But we’re also at the Edwin H. Rosen Hillel Center and I want to talk about this center and why it’s here and what that means.

In 1928, a Jewish student house was established at Temple. This was the first time that there was any such thing like that at Temple, and it eventually morphed into Hillel and there has been some kind of Hillel presence at Temple ever since. In the 1940’s through the Sixties or so there was a pretty sizeable Jewish population here at Temple, but it’s important to keep in mind that these students were commuters, as were most of the students at Temple until really quite recently. So the Hillel center was some place that somebody would use if they happened to be on campus for the day, but it wasn’t something for residential life.

Fast forward-with the urban crises of the 1960’s, Temple’s appeal for Jewish students, and for that matter white students waned, because here was Temple in the center of an area plagued by urban disinvestment, by economic depression, by white flight. Any of you who lived through those years in Philadelphia will know that this was the area where the 1964 so-called riots or urban uprising occurred. This was the neighborhood that by 1969 was really in full-scale depression. This was ground zero, so to speak, for the urban crisis in Philadelphia, or what critics call the urban crisis.

Then, at the tail end of the last millennium, something rather striking occurred. Hillel at Temple started a multi-million dollar capital campaign to erect a new building here. It reflected the reality, in part, of a growing Jewish population, but also of Temple’s plan to redevelop North Broad Street to become the new center of Temple. But even more so, those people who were invested in building this Hillel Center were hedging their bets on future trends, believing that Jewish students would return to Temple, not just to commute in and out, but to live, to eat, to pray, to celebrate, to socialize here in North Philadelphia. And last year, the Edward H. Rosen Hillel Center was dedicated in a ceremony that actually took place in this room. It was Arlen Spector standing up here, not me.

So who is Edward H. Rosen? He didn’t go to Temple. He went to Yale. He grew up in Philadelphia and he did come back here after his higher education, though he raised his children on the Main Line, in Narbeth. Rosen’s father was Raymond, and Raymond, for many years built public houses complexes. If any of you drove here from the West, you may have passed the Raymond Rosen Public Housing Complex, one of the complexes he built. Later, Rosen’s father became an appliance distributor. But why did Edward H. Rosen care about Temple? What did this mean? My contention is that it had something to do with his sense of civic responsibility and urban responsibility. It wasn’t because he went here. It wasn’t out of some sort of sense of bolstering one’s own alma mater. It was about what the city meant to him, what he wanted the city to be for him, for Jews and for frankly the broader white middle-class and perhaps upper middle-class community, and he saw this in many ways as a good investment. And so when it came time for Hillel to find someone to spearhead this project, Rosen made good sense. In fact, as an aside, part of the seed money for this Hillel came from Rosen’s Yale buddy, Allen Slivka. What did Allen Slivka give money for? Does anybody know?

Yale Hillel.

Yale Hillel. Another Hillel, but this is a little bit of a stretch. Another Hillel in a city that has been remaking itself as well. So here we are in North Philly, where one can find boarded up synagogues and Hebrew letters and Stars of Davids set next to crosses and signs for Pentecostal Churches, and one can also find in this building and all that it means about how the Jewish funders who supported it envisioned Jewish life in what they would consider their city.

This gets us, I think, to the question, on some level, of the nature of Jewish urbanism. How can it be that Jews have remained so deeply invested in American urbanism? Generally we know that after World War II, Jews left cities rapidly. They did so faster than most other white ethnic populations did. They embraced the suburban ideal. They were propelled forth by subsidies given by the federal government to white Americans to leave cities. And historians have characterized the Jews as good at moving. They’re the wandering people. Jews know how to leave places, know how not to be too attached to one specific place-a sort of strategy of existence.

Yet, in the research I’ve done and in talking to my colleagues and in reading some of their fantastic books, it really does seem that even as Jews left cities, they maintained an enduring, albeit often remote and ambivalent urban attachment. So if we move past the post World War II era and past the era of the so-called urban crisis, we’d find new, complicated and often very troubling ways in which Jews have tied their fortunes, their fates and their visions to urban life. Today, we are extremely fortunate to really have some of the finest minds and the finest urban activists to help us think through what it is that connects Jews and American urbanism, especially over the last handful of decades.

We have three panels today. We’re going to start by talking about development and then move on to planning and politics. I think we’ll all see that these categories, on some level, are artificial and that they all overlap in interesting ways and that hopefully will be, in part, the basis of our discussion. This conference is really framed as discussion-based. The participants will give ten-minute or so presentations about where they’re coming from, about their perspectives, and then it’s going to be about conversation. We really welcome you into that conversation as well.

I now want to just take a minute or two to offer some thanks, because we certainly wouldn’t be here without the support and encouragement from many different people and institutions. First and foremost, I am grateful to the panelists and the moderators for giving their time and their intellectual energy to this pursuit, and for their enthusiasm. I also want to thank the history department at Temple University for their co-sponsorship, and this department is really in part defined by its commitment to studying urban history. The Center for the Humanities at Temple, the Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York, the Gershwin Y, which is in Center City, and the National Museum of American Jewish History have all also supported this conference. Hillel donated the space and in fact Edward Rosen himself e-mailed me and encouraged me to have this conference here. Something else to think about in terms of what he envisioned this space to be. I’m very grateful to Hillel for donating the space.

There are two people without whom this conference would not have happened. Sarah Robey, who is a graduate student at Temple and who functioned as the assistant for this conference and dealt with so many loose ends. We would not have been able to do it without her. And Nancy Isserman, who works with me at the Feinstein Center, who has done more conferences than I have, which could just mean she’s done two, but in fact she’s done even more. I am extremely grateful for all of her support and wisdom.

Without further ado I want to introduce Heather Thompson, who’s going to be the moderator for the first session. She’s an associate professor of history at Temple and also the associate director for the Center of Humanities at Temple.

Panel One: Jews and Development

Heather Thompson: Thank you, Lila. Welcome. This is a fabulous event, both that Leila and her cohort have put together, and also the Feinstein Center has supported. I just want to speak very briefly to kind of identify what this panel is about and to, in one shot, introduce all the panelists and then I will completely turn it over to them.

As you know, this particular first panel is dedicated to the question of Jews and development. We asked the panelists, but also we asked the audience to consider some general questions when we come to this topic and I will very briefly identify what those are. One has to do with the issue of spaces of development. Really, to put it most simply, what are the political and historical elements of this question of urban development. Second, the question of investment in economics when it comes to urban development. What kinds of networks determine investment, determine development and determine the success or failures of such. The third is the relationship between the city and the suburb. This is a question of huge interest to historians such as myself, but also, of course, to developers. What is the relationship? Is it contested? Is it symbiotic? Is there a change over time? So that’s another theme. And finally, the issue of where the personal and the political really intersect-that is philanthropy and activism. What is this personal phase of development? What motivates development? How do people understand development? Why do they fight for certain development? So those are the general themes that we’ve asked everyone to at least think about.

So let me just introduce to panelists in the order I guess that they’re seated and that they will speak. First I want to introduce Paul Levy. Paul Levy has a Bachelors from Lafayette College, an MA and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and currently teaches graduate planning courses at the University of Pennsylvania. We are very lucky to have Mr. Levy here as the founding chief executive of Philadelphia’s Center City District. The CCD is extremely important to Philadelphia. It has managed to develop and to create a space, a very rich space, within which private development can take place. Streetscapes, lighting, park development and so forth. So when we think about development in this city in particular, we are very eager to hear from Paul Levy.

Next we’ll hear from Deborah Dash Moore, who I am particularly thrilled to see as a fellow historian here from the University of Michigan. She’s a professor of history and also the director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at Michigan. She specializes in 20th century Jewish history. She works on culture and spaces, gender, identity. Her first book, At Home in America, Second Generation New York Jews is extremely important to the field. She also has numerous other publications, but let me just call attention to one because it won the best book of the year, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation. So welcome to Deborah Dash Moore.

Then we are also equally lucky to have Beryl Satter here. She’s a professor of history, again, at Rutgers University, Newark. Someone who now lives in New York but was raised in Chicago. She has an MA from Harvard University but received her Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies. She is another award winning author. Her book, Family Properties, Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America won several prizes, the National Jewish Book Award in History, the Liberty Legacy Award from the Organization of American Historians and also honorable mention from Lou Koch, which is very interesting because, of course it means that people other than scholars are reading the book. A real honor indeed.

And finally we have Suleiman Osman, who is an assistant professor of American Studies at George Washington University. Another specialist in US urban history and also brings the additional perspective of the built environment and how this all intersects with cultural and social history. We’re really thrilled about his upcoming book, the one that he’s finishing working on now, Inventing Brownstone Brooklyn, Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Brooklyn, and it’s going to be released by Oxford University Press in 2011. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University and a BA also from Yale. Please help me welcome our entire panel.

Paul Levy:

Good morning. It’s a real pleasure to be here. It’s not often I get introduced by my academic credentials. I usually keep those hidden in my job today. We’ll talk about that in a little bit. When I was first called to ask to speak on Jews and development I kind of scratched my head and then made a list of developers who I regularly work with in Philadelphia and the list goes as follows: Ken Bailen, Bart Blaustein, Alan Casnoff, John Binswanger, Eric Blumenfeld, Carl Dranoff, David Marshall, Jim Perlstein, Will Rappaport, Ron Rubin, Sam Sherman, Wayne Zukin and Joe Zuritsky, many of them with family businesses. On the other hand, I also work with John Conners, Tom Scannapieco, David Grasso, Martin Belini and Randy Scott, so Jews don’t own this business. Let’s start with that.

But the simple question I asked myself, which was what the hell am I going to say when I get up here, was what is it-why are so many Jews apparently, and I don’t know if anybody has done this study, but why apparently are so many Jews involved in real estate development. When I asked most of the developers on that list, they had a very, very simple answer, which was at the time they or their parent were growing up, most professions were closed to Jews. This was one that wasn’t so real estate was an opportunity and it was a path they took very simply.

But that’s clearly not a sufficient answer and on Sunday I had the pleasure of hearing Lila speak at the Gershman Y-and really got my thinking-and read her article which she went to many of us. Obviously, she talked about Jews that were in some cases the first to suburbanize in post World War II era and they obviously both left behind the city but maintained very deep attachments. Because, as you heard, I was actually trained as an historian, this tapped into my bad academic habits, and so I went back in my memory and decided to develop my own theory. I went first, obviously, to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, which made the argument that capitalism was created when a market economy was created first in Protestant countries because of the secular legacy of fundamental orientation in Protestantism, which is Protestants did not consider faith or prayer in the cathedral as the primary means of salvation. It was rather diligence and hard work which was proof of salvation and that outward manifestation of inward faith is really the passport of salvation-By your deeds you shall be known. So I think Weber made the point that Protestantism was much more this-worldly and Catholicism initially was much more other-worldly.

It’s not hard to extrapolate that in my mind and to take the Jewish imperative to mend the world or the imperative to give back and to see as that secularizes. That can take at least two forms-one, social activism and charitable giving, but also the physical transformation that real estate development involves. I can’t prove this theory but if Max Weber could get away with his, I can get away with mine at this point.

Obviously, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism are much more this-worldly than Orthodox Judaism, so you have to start making a separation there. If you then take the role of Jew as outsider, that is Jews obviously prohibited from owning land in Europe and the only path being that of a merchant or traveling salesman, it’s not hard to understand how once Jews arrive in the golden land of America, where you could actually own land, which was a remarkable idea, that they might have a much more instrumental and transactional attitude towards land than those people who inherited it from generation to generation, much less of an emotional attachment or an inherited attachment.

I think about my wife’s grandfather who immigrated after immigration controls of the 1920’s, and they came in through Mexico. He came in as a merchant, had everything stolen when he landed in Mexico, rebuilt his merchant business, but even before he came into the States he was driving into California saying I need to buy land. And he was buying land in California. He thought my G-d, if Jews could own land, and this was a golden land. So this notion of buying land is a unique opportunity. If you combine that, as I said, with the fact that well into the 1960’s many professions were closed to Jews, it’s not hard to draw a line between the religious orientation towards this world, the barriers of anti-Semitism and the narrow paths that open up.

I think about my own family history which we were asked to at least reflect upon. Both of my grandparents came into New York in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Both of my grandfathers became tailors, which was a very traditional New York and Newark, New Jersey profession for Jews. My mother’s father was quite Orthodox. He went to shul twice a day. He didn’t own his own business. You couldn’t do that and go to shul twice a day, so he worked for someone else. My father’s father was very secular as a Jew, even in the 1890’s. His mother apparently brought him and left him here in Philadelphia, which was unusual, and then went back to Europe. He was left here as a twelve year old with his older sister, in Philadelphia, who he apparently hated, and so he then migrated to Albany where he heard there was work for tailors, because he had been trained in that. He then migrated down to Newark, New Jersey, where he partnered with an Italian who also had the garment industry as an avenue, and they formed Fiorido and Levy and it was a garment industry, a sweatshop, which in the Twenties became very successful and then the Depression completely ruined them.

But what was the tradition he brought with him? He brought with him a tradition that learning is important, that professions are important. My grandfather always used to say in Russia, Jews couldn’t go to school. In America, they send you to jail if you don’t send your kids to public school. This was remarkable to him. One daughter married a dentist, another daughter and her husband formed Liz Claiborne, the garment industry. My father went into being a lawyer. I think if you take the Jews as People of the Book, studying Talmud and studying law strikes me as a very easy transition that many people went through.

So very quickly, if you talk about post-World War II suburbanization, it seems to me very explainable on a couple of levels. One, redlining made mortgages in almost every one of these cities unattainable, so you could not really get mortgages in most of the old neighborhoods. Certainly that was true for my father, who was a World War II veteran, who used the GI Bill. He looked to buy houses in Newark, New Jersey and was totally redlined so he, like everybody else, looked for homes in the suburbs. I was eight years old. It was 1955, and we moved to the new frontier, to the suburbs. I think, obviously, suburbs were heavily marketed because real estate development was being done in scale. The extreme of that, of course, is Levittown, but any time you’re developing 100, 200, 300 units, you could afford huge amounts of newspapers ads, so the image making of the suburbs, I think, was very, very powerful.

I think you could fast-forward and say precisely because of that low attachment to place, that transactional attitude towards real estate, that when demographic and economic trends began to tilt in favor of the cities, Jews just might get there first. Just to talk about today, very quickly, one, I want to make a very clear point, that the flight from cities is not a typical international pattern of urban development. It is a very severe American aberration and we should be explaining our aberration, not the fact that people have come back to the cities. It’s a result of very bad and unsustainable public policy choices. The middle class in Europe and Asia never left their cities, so we have an aberrational experience which we’re finally getting over.

If you think about residential reinvestment that begins in all-American cities in the late Seventies and early Eighties, first of all, it’s not a back-to-the-city movement. It starts as a stay-in-the-city movement. By that I mean urban renewal facilitated in this city, University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple-a whole series of academic institutions which are urban-based. Baby boomers who fill up the schools start coming into the colleges and universities in the Sixties and Seventies. Jews have a kind of cultural predilection for education, for the professions of law and medicine, because those have been open for a long time, and they’re here at the Universities. You want a classic case? Look at Ed Rendell. Comes from New York City and studied law at Penn and stays in the city. So much of early investment in New York and Philadelphia and Boston was not back-to-the-city. It was stay-in-the-city.

The other clear factor, and then I’ll quickly come to an end here, is the revival of cities is very much driven by tremendous change in demographic realities, just as the development of the suburbs was driven. Obviously, you understand that women entering the workforce, women deferring childrearing means a huge growth in two-income households. Graduating from universities, a significant percentage staying in the cities. Let’s take these numbers-the world I grew up in, Mom and Dad and two kids at home in the suburbs. In 1960, American households with children were 48% of American households. In 1970 it was 40%. In 2000, it was 24% and the census bureau projects today it is 21%. The so-called typical American household is an aberration. 70% of American households are without children. Empty nesters, young professionals or lots more single person households.

So if you think about cities in the 1980’s and 1990’s with demographic realities changing, urban renewal setting the stage for new office districts, new campuses for universities, the beginning and the birth of the post-industrial economy, cities diversify in the Eighties and Nineties, arts, entertainment, restaurants, convention centers, hotels-the amenity package of cities has dramatically improved in the Eighties and Nineties. And outdoor cafes filled by the Nineties and the first decade of this century with young professionals. I like to call outdoor cafes filled with young professionals Empty Nester Bagel. How does that work? George and Sara are out on the Main Line. Their kids have gone off to college. They go down to the Kimmel Center for theater. They go out for dinner and see all these young people having a great time sitting outdoors at cafes, and George says Sara, I’m sick of cutting the lawn every day. The kids aren’t home. Why can’t we have fun like these young people? That’s when the back-to-the-city movement begins. It’s empty-nesters coming back and seeing all these people having a good time in the city. That’s obviously a slight exaggerated version. Back-to-the-city comes second. The huge return in the Nineties and in this decade of empty-nesters driven by a gigantic demographic bulge I think explains the tremendous amount of return.

I bought my first car in 1971 and I paid twenty-eight cents a gallon for gas. That world is over. Recentralization forces are existing in the American economy that I think are restoring the tradition of cities as they’ve always been in civilized countries. So if you take all of that together, I just think real estate developers, ethnic Jews, Italians, whatever, see opportunities in cities. The market has returned. If Jews get there first, it’s because they’re less attached to the places they were in.

I’ll just end with one thing, which is, I think, the creative myth of the old neighborhood and its importance in terms of in every ethnic group there is this recollection of the old neighborhood. Myth or true, it doesn’t matter. It’s a powerful motivating force, and again, if you think about the abandonment of cities as an aberration, it’s actually quite healthy that that myth is being fulfilled, of people coming back and revitalizing our cities. I thought I’d end with that provocative thought. Thank you.

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