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



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Deborah Dash Moore: That was great, and since you said you’re not usually introduced with your academic credentials, I usually am and in a very brief conversation over e-mail with Lila the other night, she said why don’t you actually introduce yourself with your non-academic credentials, as it were. So I thought about it, and in terms of this conference I thought it would be not inappropriate. There’s good feminist reasons to talk about your subject position, as we call it. Therefore, I’m going to begin very briefly by saying that I’ve never lived in a suburb. I grew up on the 11th floor of a building, so I’m used to-what should we say-the view from above. Looking down on the world of the street, Seventh Avenue actually, 16th street. Looking up the Avenue north where you could see the lights of Times Square. Obviously, the iconic Empire State Building. My parents never made that decision to leave the city. They didn’t make the decision to leave the city. Obviously, I had no choice of where I grew up. They didn’t make the choice to leave the city because of certain things that the city had that they particularly valued. My mother loved the theater and it took ten minutes by subway to get from where we lived to Times Square, so it was very easy to go to the theater. My mother didn’t want to be a woman alone with children in a household without her husband, who was working in the city. In fact, he worked across the street, so you could look from our 11th floor building down into the 7th floor which was he was working. And when he worked late, it was very easy to bring him back, as it were.

Now, those were two important reasons. My mother also clearly-and it’s important-I’m gendering this because I think it was my mother’s decision about the choice of where we lived. My mother also didn’t care about nature. There were no trees on our block. In fact, I can remember when they put trees in. I’m thinking boy, isn’t this silly-they’re putting trees. How are these poor trees going to survive? And now the trees are great. They’re really healthy. My parents still live in the same apartment. They haven’t moved. They’re the ones who never left.

Surely thinking about this upbringing of my own, I have to cope with not just my own fascination for the city which was my lived environment as someone growing up, and therefore also as an adult, the choices that I’ve made, which meant a choice, for example, of not to have too much space. My mother didn’t care about that either. We shared rooms. Everybody shared rooms. I never had a room of my own until I was a senior in college and it was only for one year because I got married and shared a room again. So the notion of privacy, which is one of the attractions of suburbs, and a room of your own never happened. These, I think, surely influenced my own ways of thinking about cities and suburbs.

Finally, I should add that my mother really despised the suburbs. She just did not like anything about the suburbs. It took me years to sort of overcome a certain bias about the suburbs. Many years ago I remember, Bob, you did a paper that began with a Mad Magazine takeoff on the suburbs. I was thinking that could have been my mother. All the mistakes and the problems that the suburbs have.

We were asked to answer a number of questions and one of them asked us to contrast the difference between doing development as growth into farmland and open space as compared to development as rebuilding or urban renewal or as it later got to be called gentrification. There’s no question that for many, many years, growth was looked upon most favorably by not just developers but by American society. Purchases of new homes, politicians, all kinds of Americans valued growth. This was a positive idea. Therefore, the cost of preparing land, building new roads, providing utilities, were often borne by political units in anticipation of the additional tax revenues that would come with growth. There were, relatively speaking, few impediments to such development.

By contrast, development in urban areas has a lot of competing stakeholders involved. There are landlords and tenants. There are government agencies that favor rebuilding and there are government agencies opposed to rebuilding. There are ethnic, racial and religious groups, all of them with diverse commitments to the city and the possibilities of urban living. And most importantly, there are neighbors. So living in a city involves living with neighbors. One meets neighbors on the streets, in local stores, in schools and even in one’s own building if it’s a multi-family dwelling. Neighbors then bring in the question of diversity-class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality. Not everyone is comfortable living next door to people who are different. Indeed, American patterns of urban and suburban development are premised on the assumption that most people like to live next door to people who are similar to them. People of the same class, of the same race, same religion, ethnicity and the same sexual preference.

However, in the last decades of the 20th century, American law increasingly has emphasized that discrimination on some of these grounds, especially those of race, ethnicity, religion and sexual preference, is illegal or if not illegal, immoral. So where do Jews fit into this? Jewish attitudes towards cities and suburbs have changed over the course of the 20th century, as have Jews’ ideas about neighbors. When American Jews were largely an immigrant population, they preferred to live among their own kind, where they could trust their neighbors or at least speak the same language. Of course, this meant that their neighbors, at times, exploited them. Jewish landlords exploited Jewish tenants. These were internal Jewish fights, however. The anti-conviction campaigns of the 1930’s were Jewish tenant campaigns, usually against Jewish landlords who were kicking them out.

As an American-born and educated generation came of age, they often preferred to live in less visibly Jewish neighborhoods with fewer Jewish neighbors but enough Jews to make them feel comfortable. That comfort index usually was a good deal higher than any random sprinkling of Jews throughout the city would have yielded. So for example in New York, which I know best since I’ve done research on it, where Jews were close to 30% of the population prior to World War II, a neighborhood felt Jewish if it had forty, fifty, sixty, seventy percent of its population as Jewish. Needless to say, non-Jews living in such a neighborhood often defined the area differently, according to their own religious and ethnic calculus. So neighbors lived next door to each other but not exactly in the same neighborhood. In fact, we know that Catholics often called the neighborhood by its Parish name, which Jews would not have used at all. Jews used a different name. In using those different names, they were in actuality describing a different place. Physically it could have been the same place but it was not the same place in terms of the associations that Jews had there.

By the time children who had grown up in these ethnic urban Jewish neighborhoods looked for homes, they often chose to live in suburbs along with other Americans. It was an American thing to do, encouraged by post-war prosperity, promising a life that was sufficiently different from their parents to make their own arrival. They were ready to buy a single-family house. They had the GI mortgages which were extremely important. They were even ready to live where there were no sidewalks. In fact, I remember when I taught in Israel, one of the things students could not understand is why you would want to live in an area that had no sidewalks unless, of course, you were living on a kibbutz or something. So their children grew up in suburbs, where Jews were identified less by the houses where they lived than the malls where they chose to hang out, how they dressed and the holidays that they celebrated.

When I ask my students today at the University of Michigan, most of whom grew up in suburbs, whether they plan to live in the same suburb as their parents, almost all of them say no. The exceptions-the handful of Jews who grew up in cities-New York, Miami, LA, Atlanta. Those handful of places, Jews are ready to go back to. No one wants to go back to the suburbs, or at least they don’t want to go back to the suburbs of their childhood.

We don’t need to believe them. But it’s interesting how strong the desire is to move away. This desire to move away is characteristic of many Americans and also of many American Jews. Not all, of course. The observant Orthodox aren’t as eager to move away. Louis Wirth, a social scientist, once said-if you told him the view from a Jew’s kitchen window, he could tell you not only her socio-economic position but also the stage in what he called the assimilation process, how far away from immigration was this person. Wirth thought that where you lived said a great deal about who you were.

So if Jews are not going to move back to their parent’s suburbs, where are they going to move? The answer, of course, is that they’re going to move to places with jobs, and if that means moving back into cities, they might just try that. Most of these young Jews have very little experience of urban life. They never went into cities as kids. Their parents often worked in the suburbs. So cities don’t necessarily come with the same baggage as the parents recall them, that is to say, as dangerous places from which their parents fled-that is the grandparents. How will they find a place to live? They’re going to use the same ethnic connections that their parents and their grandparents used-word of mouth, friends of friends, extended family ties-all of these help to guide choices of where to go. This means that Jewish developers have opportunities to redevelop city spaces that previously were ignored. They can return to urban development or they can seek to preserve properties that they already own and to fix up. I think Paul is right in emphasizing that the decision of people to stay in the cities is the first choice.

Not all cities necessarily can succeed in luring young people to new urban spaces, empty from manufacturing, because there have to be jobs available. However, it is generally recognized that artists are often pioneers because they hope to stabilize declining neighborhoods, and I lived in one of those neighborhoods in New York City. I lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan which is located in the northern part of the city. This was a neighborhood of German Jewish refugees and when I moved into the neighborhood, not a month went by where there wasn’t a sign that said Shiva and the apartment number located on the front door. People were dying and therefore the neighborhood was going to turn over. The question was how was it going to turn over. Most of the apartment buildings were owned by Jews who had developed the neighborhood in the Twenties and Thirties. We’re running out of time so maybe later I’ll talk more about that.

I think one of the big differences now between what existed before is that Jews are much more willing to buy apartments. Previously, Jews basically rented them. But they have the notion that you buy property to live in and whereas before they would use their money to invest in businesses or in social capital, as Paul described, in education, they’re now ready to buy apartments and that makes for a difference in terms of what it means to move back into the city itself. I think the other difference is that Jews are used to purchasing and shopping in a mall experience which is very different from what had been classic urban smaller stores and stuff, and that that too is going to have an impact in terms of the move back into cities. Finally, I think that one of the other things that’s different is that list of names that you read, which was a great list of names, is that you now have multi-generations of Jews in real estate. It’s not just the first generation and maybe a son who goes into it but daughters are involved. These are often granddaughters as well as grandsons. This phenomenon of multi-generations in real estate development is also something that’s quite new. I’ll end here.



Beryl Satter: I’m a historian so the thing I’m going to talk about is…I’m not going to elaborate and try to hypothesize about the present because I don’t actually know much about the present. I don’t watch TV. I don’t know anything that’s going on. I only know through about 1970. That’s what I’m going to talk about.

This panel was very challenging for me, this title of Jews and Development. I wrote a book called Family Properties, which describes the fate of a Chicago West Side Neighborhood that began in the 1930’s and 40’s as an overcrowded, working class Jewish ghetto and came to be by the 50’s and 60’s an overcrowded and impoverished African-American ghetto. My book covered the history of this neighborhood from the mid-Thirties through the late Seventies. I’m going to try and extract from that to say something about Jews and development. We’ll see how much I can get.

The book did not deal with developers at all but with mid-Twentieth century real estate speculators. These were people of all faiths and backgrounds but a significant number of them were Jewish. These men and women took advantage of African-Americans who were desperate for housing but, as we know, could not get mortgage loans no matter what their individual credit histories. In that sense, my book is about, could be said to be about Jewish involvement in the destruction, not the development, of urban spaces. Most of the speculators that I wrote about were smart, working-class guys. They had rough manners and they were absolutely ruthless. Their practices often…usually stayed on the side of legality but not always. They were related to organized crimes, sometimes crossed over, whatever they could get away with. They often didn’t mean to break the law because the laws were flexible enough to allow them to do whatever they wanted without breaking the law, but they broke the laws as well at times.

What they would do is buy properties from whites. This is, again, starting around the late Forties but reached its height from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties, 1960’s. They would buy properties from whites at close to market value and then resell these properties to blacks, usually at double the market value, sometimes as much as quadruple market value. The speculators that I wrote about sold blacks these overprices properties on contract, because the blacks couldn’t get mortgages. That means they would sell it on an installment plan, and blacks who bought on a contract this way would make a down payment, just like you would for a mortgage. They were responsible for taxes, insurance, maintenance and interest, like a mortgage. But they didn’t get title to the building until the purchase price had been entirely paid off. Remember, the price is dramatically inflated so it’s hard to do that. If they missed one payment, the speculator had the right to reclaim the building. This was in all the contracts. Since the prices were, again, widely inflated, it was pretty common to miss a payment and then common to repossess properties again and again. You had some of these big contract sellers repossessing seventy, eighty properties a year. They owned a lot and they repossessed a lot. Certain buildings could be repossessed once a year, twice a year even. Sometimes they lasted longer.

This was not a manageable situation. By the early 1960’s, approximately 85% of properties sold to black Chicagoans were sold on contract because there was a huge migration of black people who were desperate for housing. So 85% of properties that they bought were bought on contract and there were close to a million black people in Chicago. That’s a lot of properties being sold on contract.

My father, a Jewish attorney, who fought exploitative contract sellers in court, estimated that these speculators were draining Black Chicagoans of one million dollars a day. That would be about seven and a half million dollars a day in today’s money. So Black contract sellers were trying to make their contract payments. They would work extra jobs. They wouldn’t do any maintenance because they couldn’t afford it. They would overpopulate the property, stuff in as many tenants in the property that they sort of owned as possible, to get money to make the payments. White neighbors saw the results. They saw unsupervised children, jam packed schools, decaying buildings and it was a problem. They saw what was happening and they looked around and they said well, well black people move in, suddenly it’s jam packed, suddenly there’s no maintenance, everything is falling apart. Our kids can’t learn in the school. There were three kids in every seat when there should have been one. They would say what’s with the black people that they’re doing this. They didn’t understand the whole mechanism behind it.

In the Jewish West Side of Chicago that I wrote about, many Jews did want to stay on, even after significant numbers of African-Americans began moving to their neighborhood. But they clearly understood that the longer they stayed, the less the property was worth because the same speculators who were selling on contract to blacks were coming to their houses week after week saying the property is worth $10,000, I’ll offer you nine. If you said no they said well, don’t worry, I’ll be back in a few weeks and I’ll offer you eight, and if you really want to hold back no problem, I’ll come back in six months and offer you seven. It’s up to you. So they knew, the longer they waited the less was offered. It was a ticking clock and as the neighborhood spiraled out of control and the property became worth less and less, they left, Jews and non-Jews alike. Whites in the West Side were out of there. But many of the black neighbors also didn’t like what was going on. The first to move in paid top dollar, middle-class black people wanting to live in integrated neighborhoods. They see too, the more people moving in, it’s getting more crowded, the schools are falling apart, the kids aren’t supervised, the parents never seem to be around, what’s going on? But they can’t move because they bought on contract. They can’t sell because they don’t own. If they leave, it means…their choices are to stay and keep making these punishing payments and make sacrifices to do it or to leave, giving up the down payment, all the money they invested. A lot of times the first things that happened when they moved in was they had to replace the boiler. They find out there were code violations. They’re trying to hold on and they’d have to give all that up to leave. So their choices of leaving is limited, and they stay, mostly. Where are they going to go? And it was heartbreaking for them because they had had such high hopes moving in.

So by enforcing these very harsh terms and extracting millions from an already hard-pressed community, my book describes how speculative contract dollars destroyed whole neighborhoods. I quote a 1973 newspaper expose that said that the contracts “moves like a reaper through Chicago’s West Side, leaving behind a wasteland of abandoned buildings, road-strewn lots and crushed hopes.” My book also describes the activists who fought these practices, and like the speculators themselves, the activists were of all races and all religions, but included a respectful percentage of Jews, including my father, attorney Mark Satter.

Jews are on both sides of this. What’s Jewish about this story of urban destruction? I find that actually hard to elicit what’s particularly Jewish about it. I concentrated on the history of the Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, but pretty much identical processes occurred in the former Catholic neighborhoods on the city’s south side. Some of the Jewish activists who fought contract sellers were motivated by a post-Holocaust anti-racist politics, but they worked closely with Catholic and Protestant activists and were more united by the remnants of an anti-racist 1930’s popular front ideology than by their specific religious traditions, and the story of James T. Fischer has referred to the close relationships between Jewish and Catholic activists in the 1950’s and 60’s. He called it a spiritual front, a push for ecumenical activism that these men at the time knew was new, even a little transgressive, to work together, Catholic, Jews and Protestants. They’re pushing the limits here. They really enjoyed it and they worked together.

As far as the exploitative contract sellers, they too were ecumenical in spirit. While families and friendship networks were important, some of them had known each other’s children and were related to each other, there were also men of different faiths who worked very closely together to sell the overpriced properties. One of the biggest sellers in Chicago were Lou Fushanis, Greek and Moe Forman, Jewish. So what does this have to do with this theme here? Well, I do think one think that my scholarship adds to the discussion is the importance of the marginal operator in shaping urban space. This is something that Dolores Hayden has said in her recent book, Building Suburbia: A field Guide to Urban Sprawl. She says people also talk about what Americans want. Americans like this, Americans like that. But actually, a created environment is generally not in response to…I just really want to be out there, in ex-urban sprawl. I just love it. It’s about real estate people making as much money in as short amount of time in the easiest possible way, and that’s what shapes developed space, newly developed space. I think that’s right.

This is a long-standing dynamic. In the Fifties, scholar Rose Halper showed that the biggest and cleanest and most reputable names in real estate worked for marginal operators, the men that I’ve read about, to sell properties to blacks on exploitative terms, but they did it sort of on the sly. They used these men as covers so that they could dump stuff and know that these guys could take care of it for them.

In the 1960’s, mortgage lenders and banking and savings and loan leaders often positioned themselves publicly as anti-racist by supporting open occupancy legislations. This was their symbol of their civic mindedness. At the same time, these same reputable businessmen were creating the slums by refusing to loan to, as we know, qualified black African-Americans while funding real estate speculators who bought those properties only for the purpose of using them as bait to attract people…contemporary prices, where it was all about using debt to just turn off capital for yourself. It has nothing to do with helping anyone realize any kind of goal, other than money. In other words, it’s not to help them live in a nice house.

I think the marginal and the mainstream form a single system and I think we need to look at the whole system to understand urban space and urban development. As far as Jewishness, I’m not sure. Maybe people could help me. In Chicago, the few things…some of the first blacks to move to the Jewish sections of the West Side…the West Side had Jewish and Catholic people. It’s not a wholly Jewish place. The first blacks to move to the Jewish parts had often been invited by progressive Jewish people, their Jewish neighbors and friends. They said to them we’ll help you get in here. You can move here. The Jews who welcomed black neighbors had an ideological commitment to integration. At the same time, you had real estate speculators, including Jews, who had no political vision whatsoever and they only sold to blacks because they knew blacks were desperate and would sign on to any terms no matter how harsh to get in.

The irony is, and other scholars have pointed this out, that the Jewish people who were politically committed to integration considered themselves the absolute opposite of their co-religionists who were using real estate just to rip people off, but they were both attacked together, lumped together, as Jewish blockbusters by white gentiles who thought that the unforgivable crime of real estate speculators was not exploiting black people but integration on any terms whatsoever. Therefore they were all called Jews-anyone who let blacks in, who pushed for integration, on whatever terms.

The speculators that I’ve wrote about didn’t seem to have been personally racist themselves, from what I’ve read. Many had black office staffs that they worked with, which is part of the reason why blacks would…oh, this guy needs a black secretary. He’s got a black guy showing me around. It should be fine. At least one had a long term affair with a black woman real estate agent. They actually considered themselves…well, we’ll work with them. Many justified their behavior by saying that they are helping blacks find homes and nobody else will. But at the same time as they did unleash this devastation, repossessing homes and then the homes becoming more and more decayed, they drew on the same racist ideology typical of the 1950’s and 60’s, saying oh, these are just raw people. It’s their fault that the place is falling apart. I could have kept it together but they can’t. Not my problem. Not my fault.

I want to say just a little bit about funding because that was one of the things that came up. I want to just say something about the networks of investment that allowed this rapaciousness to go unchecked for a decade, a critical decade, the decade of flat migration, the decade when blacks were finding, after having moved North, had the capital to make an effort to purchase property, enough capital to have it taken.

So how did this work in terms of investment? The interesting thing is that the contract sellers that I read about usually acquired their properties with very small down payments, so they had to buy the property to resell, usually, at most, six percent of the property’s cost, and they borrowed the rest from savings and loans. I didn’t see any kind of Jewish network in the savings and loans that provided the contract sellers with their capital. From what I can see, Jews in Chicago during these years had not made inroads into the savings and loan business. It was not a Jewish profession. It was non-Jews funding Jewish and non-Jewish speculators to buy properties with almost none of their own money and then flip them over and sell them at huge markups to blacks.

You did have particular groups of speculators who were closely associated with particular savings and loans. Sometimes these were based on older personal relationships. An example is the president of one savings and loan, William Szarabajka, he was a Polish guy, he had known speculator John Karras, who was Greek, since Karras was a child of fourteen. Szarabajka ended up funding Karras’ purchases through his savings and loan and then becoming a co-partner in Karras’ contract selling business. Basically, his savings and loan became just a bank for the contract selling. That was a personal tie there. Cross ethnic tie. Others-there didn’t seem to be any personal or ethnic tie. Austin Waldron was a savings and loan president who funded a largely Jewish group of speculative contract sellers in return for very, very high service fees or kickbacks. Waldron got his payback in the late 1960’s when the contract sellers he funded just decided to stop paying on their mortgages. They said fine, let him take the property back. We don’t care. They’re kind of run down right now. So Waldron had to repossess these properties with a fraction of what he loaned on them, finding himself stuck with hundreds of decaying properties in the city’s worst slum neighborhood. Waldron desperately tried to recoup some of the money by putting the properties up for sale. Again, these were properties on which he loaned 20, 30 thousand dollars he put up for sale for 3000. And then guess who decided that’s a good buy? 3000-I could buy that. The same speculators. They went back and bought. They said for 3000 bucks, fine, it’s ours. So that way, they stripped the mortgages. They stripped the buildings of the mortgages. They got it for 3000. They continued to rent them or even sometimes resell them on contract and let them decay, decay. Then when it was all over and the places were too crumpled for anything, they got insurance and set fire to them. That was another way. And then some went to jail for arson.

In any case, the point as far as the savings and loan is that Waldron worked with these guys and got years and years of kickbacks. In the end, though, they turned back to bite him and the contract sellers got the buildings and he got…his savings and loan, First Mutual Savings and Loan was bankrupt by 1969.

Race and religion-where does it fit? Again, I’m not sure. Certainly race, but religion. The core fact that enabled this devastation was the federal level racist segmentation of the credit markets. That’s what made it happen. We talked about the ethnic and racial segregation and discrimination in professions that pushed Jews as well as other mid-twentieth century white ethnics into middlemen positions. In 1968, when Chicago Rabbi Robert J. Marx tried to figure out why Jews were emerging as a symbol for slumlord exploitation in black communities, despite the fact that a scholar noted that Jewish holdings in black ghettos represented “an infinitesimal fraction of the American Jewish economy.” Nevertheless, their visible symbols…Marx came up with what he considered an explanation. He said that Jews have a…interstitial, or the people in between-either part of the power structure or part of the masses. Marks argued they had historically been used by these to fulfill certain vital yet dispensable functions. So in Poland, Jews are barred from owning land but are free to sell liquor and collect taxes, and in times of stress, elites could refocus part of their anger on Jews and away from themselves. Marx felt a similar dynamic was working in the case of the Jewish slumlords and contract sellers, that Jews were in fact excluded from the core of power in the Fifties and Sixties. They were not in the senior management of banks or utility companies. But they were fine, welcome to act as middlemen, ghetto merchants or contract sellers.

Marx wasn’t trying to say that Jews were more heavily in this profession than other people, but he was trying to get out the symbolism of it. Whatever Jews do, there’s a two thousand year symbolic weight to it that affects the way we think about it. You can’t separate these things. I think he was on to something in terms of this symbolism and we can just continue to think through some of these things with the rest of the panel.

Thank You.


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