By Shari S. Cohen | Detroit Jewish News
Detroit has had Jewish residents since 1762. The first Jewish neighborhood, Hastings Street, developed near downtown Detroit in the 1880s. By 1910, Jews began moving to newer neighborhoods to the north and later northwest, as African Americans moved into predominantly Jewish neighborhoods — a pattern that continued into the 1970s. In recent years, there has been a modest reversal of that trend with some new Jewish residents inspired by Detroit’s revitalization.
According to historian Sydney Bolkosky’s book, Harmony & Dissonance: Voices in Jewish Identity in Detroit 1914-1967, some Jews left Hastings Street for better business opportunities, but others “wanted to escape escalating crime — which frequently served as a euphemism for their flight from the mounting black population.”
Black Detroiters were crowded into a small section of the city and, with continued migration from the South, they faced a critical need for more housing. However, racial prejudice and discriminatory legal restrictions hampered their ability to rent and buy homes outside their existing neighborhoods.
Some powerful all-white, non-Jewish neighborhood organizations posted threatening signs, vandalized African-Americans’ homes and threatened violence when blacks attempted to rent or buy homes in white neighborhoods. Black Detroiters faced less resistance when moving to Jewish neighborhoods.
“Jews didn’t demonstrate or burn crosses; they simply moved out,” recalls U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn, then a lawyer active with the Jewish Community Council, precursor of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Cohn views the initial outward migration as mostly driven by upward mobility. “The initial movement from the Twelfth Street area was not racial,” he says. “Families were living in two-family and four-family duplexes and apartment buildings. They were not fleeing; they were improving their housing stock.” After World War II, returning veterans sought to start families, and real estate developers created suburban-like developments in northwest Detroit — mostly brick, two-story, single-family homes with small front and backyards, and detached garages. Many young Jewish families bought houses in northwest Detroit around Bagley, Hampton and Vernor elementary schools. Synagogues, temples and stores followed them.
But, by 1958, Jews were on the move again — this time initially to Oak Park, Huntington Woods and Southfield, often moving to subdivisions developed by Jewish builders. By 1958, according to a study by Albert Mayer for the Jewish Welfare Federation, cited in Lila Corwin Berman’s Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race and Religion in Postwar Detroit, 20 percent of Detroit’s Jewish population lived in Oak Park and Huntington Woods. The Oak Park branch of the Jewish Community Center opened in 1959.
Reasons For Leaving
Why did Jewish Detroiters leave the city? There were multiple reasons — racial, economic, religious and sociological and, of course, many white residents who were not Jewish also moved to the suburbs. (Years later, many African Americans left Detroit for Oak Park and Southfield, too.)
According to Judge Cohn, as soon as a neighborhood became 30 percent black, whites started to leave. “Jews are white people, and they weren’t used to integration,” he says.
A key incentive for many families was the desire for newer, better housing that was readily available in the suburbs by the late 1950s. Government mortgage programs eased the financing for new homes that offered more space and privacy than some city neighborhoods. (Many northwest Detroit houses, while still fairly new because they were built in the late 1940s through the 1950s, were relatively small.)
Another reason for suburban migration was the lack of available land for expansion within the city. Detroit was designed as a city of single family homes and small apartment buildings, rather than higher-density vertical development. As Arco Construction CEO Walter Cohen, a longtime residential real estate developer and builder, notes, “You run out of land quick with single-family homes.”
Plus, the city was bounded by the Detroit River to the south, the Grosse Pointes (with a discriminatory point system for prospective home buyers) to the east, and Eight Mile, a state-designated county boundary, to the north. Suburbs to the west of Detroit, such as Dearborn and Livonia, attracted very few Jews. The Jewish residential movement was north/northwest, facilitated by federally funded highways, new suburban sewer and water systems, and relatively inexpensive buildable land.
And there was a financial component as well. “A house is the most important investment any family has, and white homeowners felt threatened by integration,” says Judge Cohn.
In addition, “Jews left because they were offered a good price,” says builder Cohen.
Other factors were concerns about integrated public schools, crime and the desire for predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. But for many white people leaving Detroit, an underlying issue was a fear or dislike of African Americans.
Harriet Berg, 92, a lifelong resident of Detroit and a dance company director, remembers the changeover of her northwest Detroit neighborhood during the 1960s and 70s. As a child, she lived in the Calvert-Wildemere area and later Glynn Court. After her marriage, she and her husband bought a house on Snowden near Schaefer in northwest Detroit.
“People moved out quietly in the summer and at night,” she recalls. “Real estate agents had a lot to do with cleaning people out. They distributed fliers that said, ‘Sell why you can.’”
Ira Harris, 78, a retired lawyer and Huntington Woods resident, grew up on Birchcrest and attended Hampton and Mumford High School. He lived in Detroit until the 1980s.
“It doesn’t take much to stir people to white flight; they feared black people,” Harris says. He, too, remembers scare tactics by real estate agents, some Jewish, who warned homeowners: “You better sell now before it [the housing price] goes through the cellar.”
Ruth Kahn, 89, who has lived in Detroit’s Green Acres neighborhood since 1957, says, “I never talked about it with anyone. They had a little more money so they moved to the suburbs.”
By 1965, half of all Detroit Jews lived in the suburbs, according to Berman in Metropolitan Jews, and some Detroit-based synagogues and temples had moved as well. Congregation Shaarey Zedek built a sanctuary and school in Southfield in 1962, a move that was quite controversial, according to Judge Cohn, and which was reportedly not approved by Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Morris Adler.
Kathleen Straus, a Downtown Detroit resident, recalls Temple Beth El’s membership vote to purchase land for a new suburban location. “I was one of only 14 members who voted against the move,” she says. The temple completed a new building in Bloomfield Hills in 1973.
Dedicated To Open Housing
While many Jewish Detroiters were leaving for the suburbs, Jewish organizations and religious leaders had actively supported efforts to provide equal housing opportunities for all Detroiters. They were mindful that discriminatory housing covenants and deed restrictions had been used against Jews not many years before and were still in effect in some suburbs.
Mel Ravitz, initially an employee of the Detroit City Planning Commission, was elected to the City Council in 1961 — the first Jewish member since 1920. He was dedicated to open housing, stating that “only in a liberal community can there be real freedom and security for Jews.”
The Jewish Community Council supported the Brickley ordinance, which prohibited discriminatory real estate practices and passed in 1962. During the 1960s, the Jewish Community Council met with real estate agents, some of whom were Jewish, especially those who were “sowing seeds of housing panic.”
For example, Metropolitan Jews tells of the Benjamin Rich real estate agency (with the slogan “Get Rich Quick”) that distributed postcards to neighbors after selling a house to African Americans. The postcard stated: “You have a new neighbor. If you want to sell your house, see us for quick action and top price.”
While aggressive sales tactics were criticized by city agencies and religious organizations, one prominent realtor denied that agents were the problem. He said that homeowners should “look into their own hearts.”
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, recently retired, was then general counsel for the new Michigan Civil Rights Commission and Michigan’s assistant attorney general. In 1968, he took on a fair housing case involving Pulte, a suburban developer, who refused to sell land or houses to blacks, claiming there was no legal guarantee of non-discrimination in housing.
Levin won the case on behalf of Freeman Moore, an African American who sought to buy a Pulte home in a new subdivision near 13 Mile Road and Lahser. The ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council, Michigan Council of Churches and other organizations supported Moore’s case. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled there was a guaranteed right of non-discrimination in housing. After that, Levin said, developers couldn’t openly discriminate. Many Jews joined the Greater Detroit Commission for Fair Housing Practices. However, some members differentiated between discrimination in public and private housing, and Jewish leaders did not necessarily advocate that Jews should remain in integrated neighborhoods.
Miriam Kalichman, M.D., a retired pediatrician who grew up in Detroit’s University District, recalls when her mother, Bettie Kalichman, testified at City Council on behalf of an open housing ordinance. “She appeared on television and subsequently received some hate mail,” Kalichman says.
The proposed Detroit fair housing ordinance did not pass, but state and federal legislation was approved soon after. Detroit’s 1967 riot was undoubtedly a more significant factor than open housing laws in the white exodus from the city. However, some city neighborhoods have maintained a racial mix.
Gene Turner, an African American Chrysler retiree, moved to Green Acres in 1971 when it was “very mixed.”
“We didn’t have any problems,” he says. “[Yet] I wouldn’t say I got invited to all of the neighborhood parties.” Some years later, they moved to the University District. “We sort of upgraded,” Turner says. Once a year, the neighborhood holds a reunion, and former residents who return are surprised at how nice the area is, he says. There is an influx of younger residents and housing prices have increased.
Reginald Stuart, now a retired journalist, moved with his family to Green Acres in 1975. He found the neighborhood to be diverse and without any problems for African Americans.
His friend and neighbor, Ruth Kahn, who has lived on Renfrew in Green Acres for 59 years, says, “I’m very comfortable here. My neighbors are lovely people.”
Another Jewish Green Acres homeowner says the neighborhood was 60 to 70 percent white when she moved in about 30 years ago. “It became a friendlier neighborhood as it became more integrated. There are more young people now,” she notes.
Harriet Berg and her husband, Irv, sold their house on Snowden in 1983, when he no longer wanted to handle home maintenance and stairs.
“We planned to buy a smaller house in Huntington Woods,” she says. “We rented an apartment for a year in the Park Shelton [in Midtown near the Detroit Institute of Arts] and liked it so much we stayed and bought a condominium here.
“People would say that Detroit is coming back, and I said, ‘not in my lifetime,’ but I was wrong,” Berg says.
“Every week a new restaurant opens and there is a Chabad House nearby.”