Not quite white: the emergence of Jewish 'ethnoburbs' in Los Angeles, 1920-2010.

Author:Phillips, Bruce A.
Position:Report

When scholars speak of situating Jews within the American racial landscape, typically, they are speaking metaphorically. How have Jews seen themselves? How have they been perceived others? (1) I offer here an alternative, more literal approach to understanding the nexus of Jews, race, and place: How have Jews situated themselves in relationship to whites with respect to where they choose to live? Even though Jewish residential choices have been to some extent constrained both by their economic resources and restrictive covenants that excluded them, every major Jewish community has seen a succession of neighborhoods where Jews have been concentrated. Even if some neighborhoods might have been closed to Jews over the course of the twentieth century, Jews have made choices among neighborhoods to which they did have access. How have Jews chosen where to live? This is not a simple question to answer because Jews do not appear to behave like white ethnics, even though sociological theory has assumed that they ought to. Indeed, when the assumption of Jewish whiteness is lifted, Jewish residential patterns, especially in their Sunbelt variety, appear most similar to those of nonwhite ethnics generally, and to the Asian-American "ethnoburb" in particular.

Jews, Race, and Place in Theory

Two perspectives, both deeply influenced by racial understandings, have influenced the understanding of urban residential migration: spatial assimilation and place stratification. Spatial assimilation posits a pull of migrants to mainstream (i.e., Anglo--persons who are white but not Hispanic, Latino, or Jewish) communities and amenities. Place stratification posits a push of migrants away from economically and socially stigmatized (i.e., black, Latino and poor) locales. Both theories, as we shall see, have been deeply flawed in their attempts to understand Jewish residential patterns, and, as a result, have had to defer to awkward caveats to explain Jewish differences from other white ethnics.

The idea of spatial assimilation goes back to the beginnings of American sociology with urban sociologists Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. They understood the city as an ecology consisting of concentric rings emanating out from the city center, where social and physical deterioration were concentrated. The most prosperous areas were to be found at the city's periphery. Those with the means to do so moved away from the center to the periphery. (2) Douglas Massey named this process "spatial assimilation." The literature on spatial assimilation argues that upwardly mobile minorities leave their urban enclaves in favor of the superior amenities offered by the non-ethnic suburbs. (3)

The theory argued that an important outcome of socioeconomic advancement for minorities is residential integration within Anglo communities. A host of characteristics important to people's social and economic well-being are determined by residential location. For example, health, quality of education, access to employment, exposure to crime and, of course, social prestige all depend, in part, on where one lives. As social status rises, therefore, minorities attempt to convert their socioeconomic achievements into an improved spatial position, which usually implies assimilation with majority members. (4)

A renewed interest in spatial assimilation arose following passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which replaced national origin (i.e., racial) quotas with a system of preferences based on immigrants' skills and family relationships with U.S. citizens. Spatial assimilation applies both to Latinos and to Asians, communities that constitute most of the post-1965 immigration, as well as to the white ethnics who immigrated to the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Spatial assimilation, in general, and postwar suburbanization, in particular, were also part of the process of being seen as white for Irish, Southern European, and Eastern European immigrants. (5)

The attempt to use spatial assimilation as a model to understand the residential patterns of Jews goes back to the Chicago School. Louis Wirth, a student of Robert Park, observed in 1928 that when Jews left Chicago's Maxwell Street ghetto, they re-concentrated in the Lawndale neighborhood, a move that did not fit the normative white-ethnic pattern. (6) Wirth explained this failure of Jews to capitalize on upward social mobility as the result of the Jews' exceptional levels of insecurity. Writing forty years after Wirth, Judith Kramer and Seymour Leventman took up Wirth's reasoning to explain why so many Jews were still living in Minneapolis' "gilded ghetto." Second-generation Jews were insecure in their minority status, they explained, and thus preferred Jewish friends, Jewish neighbors, and Jewish social institutions, such as Jewish country clubs and fraternal organizations. (7) They predicted that this would end with the emergence of the third generation.

Race was implicit in the writings of Wirth and Kramer and Leventman. They did not specifically address race, because they assumed that Jews would be assimilating into the white Protestant majority. Similarly, with the emergence of critical race theory, Jewish suburbanization has been revisited through the lens of Jewish whiteness. Following World War II, argues Eric Goldstein, Jews ceased to see themselves as a separate race and presented themselves to their fellow Americans as white, though still as members of a different religion, thereby continuing an attenuated sense of difference. Karen Brodkin introduced spatial assimilation to the calculus of race, arguing that Jews became white in the process of suburbanization. (8) Some sociologists went so far as to borrow language from the iconic "funk" singer George Clinton, adopting the labels "chocolate cities," and "vanilla suburbs." (9) Urban cultural historian Eric Avila has shown how strongly the whiteness of suburbs was reinforced in popular culture. (10) These contemporary theories assume that Jews have followed the residential patterns of white ethnics.

"Place stratification" refers to the enforced exclusion of African Americans from suburbia: "Because whites use segregation to maintain social distance, present-day residential segregation--particularly blacks' segregation from whites--is best understood as emanating from structural forces tied to racial prejudice and discrimination that preserve the relative status advantages of whites." (11) "White flight" is a weaker version of place stratification in which the segregation of African Americans results from whites leaving racially mixed neighborhoods. (12) Numerous studies examining the relationship between racial preference and residential choice have found Anglos to be the most desired neighbors and African Americans the least desired, including in Los Angeles. (13) With this in mind, an analysis of Jewish residential patterns in comparison with those of whites must also take into consideration where Jews have lived relative to African Americans.

A number of researchers have documented Jewish flight from "changing neighborhoods," though they have also felt the need to include the caveat that it was a reluctant flight. In her ethnography of elderly Jews in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, Yona Ginsberg describes her informants as liking their new middle-class black neighbors, but fearing the gangs and crime that had also become part of the neighborhood. (14) Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon took to task the Jewish federation in Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, for not doing more to stop Jewish flight from Boston's Jewish urban neighborhoods. (15) Lila Corwin Berman has argued that although Jews left the city of Detroit for the surrounding suburbs, they remained connected to it in ways that set them apart from their non-Jewish suburban neighbors. (16) Levine, Harmon, and Berman essentially argue that Jews, unlike other whites, withdrew reluctantly from urban neighborhoods. The Boston experience is not universal. In the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, Jews joined Italians in actively resisting the in-migration of African Americans, with at least a threat of violence from the Jewish Defense League. (17) In Los Angeles, Jewish residential patterns in relation to African Americans have varied, and partially conform to white flight. I include a discussion of Jewish flight because comparisons of Jewish patterns with Anglo patterns must also take into consideration where Jews lived with relation to African Americans.

Spatial assimilation theory and white flight are strongly associated with older Eastern and Midwestern cities. The Los Angeles School of Urbanism, an academic movement, has made the case for understanding urban processes in newer Sunbelt cities as distinct from "Fordist" cities of the rustbelt. (18) I argue in this analysis that Jews in Los Angeles did not conform to the spatial assimilation model. Instead, Los Angeles Jews have maintained a distinctly nonwhite pattern of residential migration over the course of the twentieth century in which ethnic persistence through residential concentration--rather than assimilation through dispersion--remained the regnant pattern. Whether or not Jews have seen themselves or have been seen by others as white, their residential patterns were not those of non-Hispanic whites. At the same time, Jews have lived near African Americans, but they have also moved away from them.

Los Angeles Jews and Spatial Assimilation

Los Angeles offers an excellent case study in which to examine Jews at the intersection of race and place. By the mid-1950s, Los Angeles had emerged as the second-largest Jewish community in the United States. (19) Unlike in New York, Jews were not a numerically dominant population in Los Angeles, (20) so Jewish residential enclaves in Los Angeles would not simply be a reflection of their overall numbers in the city. Los Angeles...

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