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Reading: 1. The Death of an American Jewish Community- Commentary…


1. The Death of an American Jewish Community- Commentary
By: Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon

It is an old story, oft-lamented and oft-repeated: the mainstream of American Jewish life no longer runs down the tight, colorful streets of America’s inner cities, their multiple-dwelling buildings teeming with extended families and the sounds and smells of the old country. The inner city is the old country now, and it is an address few of its exiles honestly desire to resume—except perhaps as a memory swaddled in nostalgia. For most, the journey to suburbia is a passage of social arrival. But there are others who are forced out of their old neighborhoods and who leave reluctantly; they head for the suburbs not as the conquering heroes of middle-class success but as refugees from soaring crime rates. These last-to-leaves tend to be the elderly and poor, those most rooted and those least mobile. They sell their homes at a loss, and count themselves lucky to get out in one piece.
In The Death of an American Jewish Community, Hillel Levine, a Jewish historian, and Lawrence Harmon, a former editor of Boston’s Jewish Advocate, tell a story of the latter type of Jews—40,000 of them, who fled their old Boston neighborhood of Mattapan over a two-year period of urban terror in the late 1960’s. The subtitle of this book, “A Tragedy of Good Intentions,” refers to the program of social engineering, which, the authors argue, caused the wholesale destruction of Jewish Mattapan.
In the wake of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, a group of 22 Boston bankers created a cartel to offer federally insured, low-cost housing loans to blacks who wished to participate in the American dream of home-ownership. The Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group, or B-BURG, was launched with the blessings of an array of politicians and community leaders who spoke cheerily of an integrated city of the future and declared home ownership a sure way to instill middle-class values in the long-marginalized black underclass.
Given the history of other urban-renewal projects in Boston in the 60’s, however, there was little reason to be optimistic about B-BURG. Earlier ventures had ended in disaster, with the financial ruin of developers and traumatic displacement of the Italian and black communities being “renewed.” If B-BURG were really an exercise of good intentions, as Levine and Harmon repeatedly assert, its sponsors might have taken the time to consider what they were up to, and to think through the repercussions.
But by the authors’ own account, the real motivation was not so much good will as fear. B-BURG was conceived in great haste, and in direct response to the demands of black militants for complete control of their own community and financial “reparations.” Even Mayor Kevin White recalled thinking of the bankers, “They’re shaking like quivering boys.” Practically speaking, then, the loan program was a throw-the-dog-a-bone effort to buy off the threat of further upheavals.
Officially, the idea was that any poor person, black or white, was eligible for a B-BURG loan to buy a home, with little or no downpayment, in whatever neighborhood he found one. In practice, however, the B-BURG bankers were not at all prepared to promote across-the-board integration in greater Boston. Rather, they took a map and a red pen and drew a line around an area of Mattapan, an area which
almost to the house, corresponded to the precise inner-city locus of one ethnic group—Boston’s Jewish community. . . . It was there, and only there, that low-interest, small-downpayment loans would be made to the city’s minority home-seekers.

Twenty years later, Carl Ericson, the banker who drew the line, told Levine and Harmon that he had no idea he was painting a bullseye around Jewish Boston; his pen was simply guided by local “topographical” landmarks. But the authors endorse the far more plausible view of Hale Champion, Boston’s urban-planning czar of the time, who states plainly that in a city of tough Irish and nearly-as-tough Italians, the Jews were perceived as the only whites who would not fight integration with might and main. “Everything that happened here was intentional,” a local Catholic priest said later. “The Jews were the easiest to move.”
Indeed, since 1950 many Jews had moved out of Mattapan on their own, and a growing number of Jewish schools and synagogues had been abandoned—or sold to black groups. Those Jews who remained were committed to staying, and many were eager to work for the integration of their neighborhood. If there were good intentions that met tragic fates in the story Levine and Harmon tell, they belonged to these Jewish citizens of Mattapan, not to B-BURG, which had no sooner mapped its red line than it began dealing out mortgages at an astonishing clip.
Almost immediately, Blue Hill Avenue, for nearly a century the main thoroughfare of Boston Jewish life, became an encampment of the most unscrupulous breed of real-estate brokers. The red line served as a green light to blockbusters, who worked the already frayed nerves of the area’s Jews with horror stories of impending assault, burglary, and rape. If a Jew could not be scared into selling out cheap, realtors did not hesitate to stage burglaries or issue anonymous death threats by phone in the wee hours of the night.
Nor did the brokers have to stretch their imaginations or their interventions too far. Crime did increase, as if in direct proportion to the issuance of B-BURG mortgages. Old Jews were taunted and mugged, housewives were beaten, synagogues burglarized, and Torah scrolls destroyed in arson attacks. The local public school, once a star of the city system, became a battleground. A young rabbi was called to his door one night by two young black men; while one handed him a note the other threw acid in his face, severely burning and nearly blinding him. The note read: “Lead the Jewish racists out of Mattapan.”
Levine and Harmon have done an extraordinary job of historical research in piecing together, from documents and interviews, the many minute elements of this dismal chapter in the process that urban sociologists call “ethnic succession.” As an exposé of B-BURG’s gross disregard for the city it purported to be saving, The Death of an American Jewish Community deserves high marks and makes for absorbing reading. Yet the book’s flaws ultimately balance out its strengths.
On a purely formal level the text is a very clunky affair; the narrative reaches forward and backward in time, and is rife with digressions which neither enlighten the reader nor advance the central story. There are also endless redundancies—the same person is introduced and identified again and again, the same fact restated, the same catch phrase repeated. This carelessness signals a deeper problem, the abdication of a key task of authorship: the sifting and selection of information. In their eagerness to present a complete picture of Jewish Boston since World War II, Levine and Harmon wind up with a tale that wanders and often seems to contradict itself, leaving the impression of two authors confused by a story they seemed on the brink of clarifying.
From its subtitle and opening chapters, The Death of an American Jewish Community appears to promise a critique of a liberal social policy that fell on its own sword. In the end, however, the authors have equally harsh things to say about the response of major American Jewish organizations to the crisis. According to Levine and Harmon, the numerous agencies and philanthropies which serve as an unofficial Jewish community government essentially abandoned the Jews of Mattapan in the face of B-BURG and its attendant street criminals. The indifference of the agencies and their suburbanite leaders—obsessed with public relations, fund-raising, and the evasion of controversy—left a gaping hole that was eventually filled by the Jewish Defense League (JDL). And when the Jewish Community Council did try to act in Mattapan it was, according to the authors, a case of too little too late, an effort to save face which barely succeeded at that limited goal.
n part, the case the authors make against the Jewish Community Council and the Anti-Defamation League—among others—is persuasive. (It is certainly familiar to anyone who heard the complaints voiced last summer when similar organizations were slow in responding to the rioting in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.) But criticizing Jewish organizational leadership is an old saw for Levine, who appears briefly as a third-person character in this book as the leader of a dissident contingent at the 1968 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Boston. And to blame the demise of Jewish Mattapan on the conduct of Jewish community leaders flies in the face of the wealth of powerful evidence the authors have themselves marshaled.
Toward the end of this book, the claim is made that earlier intervention by Jewish communal agencies might have saved the neighborhood; but it is hard to see how. Jewish organizations—even the JDL—cannot stop crime, and crime is what finally drove the Jews out. Not even B-BURG and the realtors who cashed in on it, corrupt and unsound and ill-intentioned as they may have been, can be held responsible for the violence that was visited on Boston’s Jews. Nor, finally, does an exploration of class divisions within the Jewish community—a “dirty little secret” which the authors seek to explode—explain why it became impossible for relatively poor Jews to go on living safely in their old neighborhoods.
In their effort to avoid examining the thorny and discouraging questions of black criminality and the crisis of black leadership that has been mounting steadily in the years since King’s murder, Levine and Harmon appear to take it for granted that less is to be expected of blacks than of Jews. This double standard is the fault line that runs through their book. On the one hand, the authors are capable of comparing the elimination of Jews from Mattapan to the Holocaust, as if getting mugged and moving to Newton has anything in common with being shipped to Auschwitz; on the other hand, they conclude that many of the moral failings in their story lie with the Jewish leaders.
When they are not blaming B-BURG or Jewish leadership, Levine and Harmon look to vague, impersonal “forces.” In their introduction they note that “America’s foremost neighborhood organizer, Saul Alinsky, once observed that ‘integration is the time between when the first black family moves in and the last white family moves out.'” And they add: “This book may explain some of the reasons why Alinsky’s observations cannot be dismissed as mere sarcasm.” The book does that, but Levine and Harmon fail to grasp how. In the story of B-BURG they find evidence that the rifts which have developed between Jews and blacks since the days of their early civil-rights alliances are largely a function “of the elusive forces that are external to their communities and function independently of both their wills and interests.” This is the old argument that some mysterious “they” is playing the two groups off against each other—at best, an inadequate account either of Mattapan or of the national scene over the past quarter-century.
Levine and Harmon’s vision of urban decay is blind-sided by its own form of nostalgia: nostalgia for the 1960’s, with its “good intentions” and its innocent dreams of racial harmony. Little surprise, then, that in the end the authors retreat from the story they have uncovered—the story of the demise of urban liberalism in the wake of black militance and violence—and leap instead to this unlikely conclusion:
With myopic optimism but certainly without malice, American Jews encouraged blacks to get ahead. Jews failed to recognize the unique obstacles that blacks would face, particularly in the intransigence of housing discrimination. This led to Jewish impatience with blacks and black frustration with Jews. . . . Entangled as they are in the “social structural undergrowth” of ethnic relations in America, it is no wonder that they are unable to find common cause and common ground.
At one point in this book Levine and Harmon allude to Irving Kristol’s famous adage that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. For their own part, they prove unable to accept either reality or its muggings.

2. The ‘good intentions’ program that devastated Boston’s neighborhoods

Fifty years ago, Boston banks began a program with City Hall to increase home ownership for African-Americans. It was called the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG). It was a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the requirements of the housing act of 1968 forbidding discrimination in making home mortgages available.

But the program became a disaster for these neighborhoods and for the Jews and Irish Catholics and African-Americans who lived there.

This is a good time to remember all the contingent disasters that emerged from that era, and consider the lessons they offer for today.

Redlining. Redlining was a common practice in many American cities. The banks drew an area within Boston where mortgages would be made to African-Americans in some currently white neighborhoods, but not for all neighborhoods in Boston and not at all for the suburbs. Also, they would grant only FHA-insured mortgages. These require lower down payments than conventional mortgages, which is good, but we will see how these mortgages led to infamous “fast foreclosures.”

Blockbusting. About 20 realtors opened offices in the vicinity of Blue Hill Avenue and Morton Streets. It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, next to Irish Catholic neighborhoods.

Blockbusting means the realtors would make up stories and go door to door to scare white homeowners into selling. Stories like, “See that black family moving in, they have eight kids and their eldest is getting out of Walpole prison soon after serving time for rape. Do you want him living across the street from your daughters?” These stories were fiction, but they scared some homeowners into selling, which snowballed when people saw their neighbors selling. One of the realtors admitted to these practices in an article he wrote for the Metropolitan Real Estate Journal, “Confessions of a Blockbuster.”

Boston leaders fail to respond. The Mattapan Organization, a local civic improvement group, tried to oppose these policies by challenging realtors, asking the banks to change the program, and asking political and Jewish community leaders for help. Mayor White didn’t respond. He later admitted he was focusing on running for governor in 1970. The Boston City Council passed a measly $25 fine for blockbusting. The banks refused to reform the program. Downtown major Jewish institutional leaders, who lived in the suburbs, suggested that the thousands of working-class Jews living in Mattapan and Dorchester move.

Failure to conduct required home inspections. With a Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgage, the federal government was supposed to inspect a home before it was sold and require the seller to make major structural repairs. These required inspections weren’t done, and new black homeowners inherited homes that needed repairs. This happened all over the country, and we had to organize and get passed a law that allowed the homeowners to file claims for the cost of repairs caused by the faulty inspections. Dorchester Community Action Council and Dorchester Fair Share organized more than 600 black homeowners to apply and get these rebates.

Fast foreclosure. But it was too late for over 1,200 homeowners who lost their homes to the “fast foreclosure” practiced by banks on FHA-insured loans. With FHA-insured loans, if the homeowners fell even one month behind due to problems, such as the repairs needed because of faulty inspections, the bank could foreclose, transfer the house to the federal government, and recoup on the mortgage. Had the bank made a conventional mortgage — just between the bank and the homeowner — they would have been much more reluctant to foreclose and much more open to negotiation, since they were not set up to manage foreclosed property.

Mismanagement. Then these homes were transferred from the banks to the federal government agency FHA/HUD. The agency mismanaged them by requiring tenants remaining in two- and three-family homes to move out, which led to vacant buildings that got vandalized, stripped of materials, and even set on fire. I know. I lived next door to one of these abandoned homes.

Abandoned housing mushrooms. More than a thousand abandoned buildings plagued parts of Dorchester and Mattapan. The Dorchester Community Action Council and Dorchester Fair Share had to organize meetings with city and federal officials to get them torn down. This spread of abandonment became a new excuse for banks redlining this area by no longer making mortgage loans — because it was a deteriorated neighborhood. There’s more on this whole story in the book “The Death of an American Jewish Community,” by former Globe columnist Larry Harmon and Hillel Levine.

These events fed a narrative that when blacks moved in, a neighborhood would deteriorate. Yet the truth was that intentional acts of big banks and realtors, and the lack of action and regulation by the government, caused neighborhoods to decline.

We learned a lot. Community groups worked with US Senator William Proxmire to get the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) passed in 1977. It required banks not to redline and to make a fair share of mortgages, home improvement loans, and small-business loans in the areas that gave them deposits, as our neighborhoods did. If banks got poor grades on their CRA lending records, they could be denied approval to merge and open branches. The CRA has enabled 40 years of community groups negotiating reinvestment agreements with banks, totaling many tens of billions of dollars. Santander Bank made such an agreement with community groups just last year.

The lessons are many. Big banks are very powerful and can hurt communities that give them their savings. Government help isn’t guaranteed. Organized community groups can have an impact if they do the research, are persistent, and find allies in government. The media need to dig into these stories. Today, community groups face the tidal wave of high rents and high home prices and need to organize to prevent continued financial hardship and displacement. The final story has yet to be written.

Lew Finfer is codirector of Massachusetts Communities Action Network and has been an organizer in Dorchester since 1970.



  1. What was B-BURG and what was their role in this neighborhood tragedy?
  2.  How were Jews in parts of Mattapan-Dorchester victimized by redlining and blockbusting? What role did realtors play?
  3. Why didn’t the downtown Jewish institutions give more support to the Jews in Mattapan?
  4. How do you think the African Americans felt after purchasing a home, achieving the American dream, and the White Irish and Jews move out over the next few years?  There was deterioration in their homes and neighborhoods due to banks foreclosing on houses that ultimately became abandoned?
  5. Banks say they will not make many mortgages, home improvement loans, small business loans because a neighborhood is “risky” and not in great shape. However, not getting those loans only makes a neighborhood physically decline even more. Who benefits from this decision?
  6. Were you aware of this period in Boston’s history? What are your thoughts regarding this period in Boston’s history?
  7.  Were you aware of this period in Boston’s history?  

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