• Garth Wolkoff

How the Suburbs Became White

Updated: Sep 26, 2018

Dad, mom, and little sister too: The house, in the background, where I grew up, on Rosewood Avenue in the suburb of Mar Vista, West Los Angeles, California, circa 1972. Three bedrooms, two baths, two car garage. The white picket fence is hidden by ivy, but was really there.

My grandparents fled from Jewish villages in Central and Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th Century. The Cossacks and whoever else chased both my parents’ families from the middle of the continent. The Tsars designated this giant Slavic heartland a giant ghetto for the Jews, called the Pale of Settlement; for about 125 years, Russia forbade Jews to live outside the Pale. Pogroms, anti-Jewish laws, and poverty drove my grandparents, their families, and millions of others away far away from Europe—“the wretched refuse”—to the United States, where they became, eventually, like the millions of Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, Greeks, Slavs...white.

That is not to say my grandparents and their families didn’t struggle in America. The magic of American immigration whiteness didn't mean a free pass. My mother’s mother cleaned houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her sisters worked in garment factories. They were poor. My father’s father made it in Masontown, PA, as a businessman, founding Wolkoff’s Department Store—only to lose it all in the Depression, taking to the road as a salesman, dying of a heart attack. At that time, my father, who had enlisted in the army, returned to Pennsylvania to support his step-mother and young sisters. When the war needed him, he fought against the Nazis in France and Germany, returning home after war—traumatized, I'm sure, his memory forever filled with dead bodies— but with heroic status, his whiteness, and the G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill did important things for the many Americans like my father, who either fought overseas or worked for the military in the states. It paid for a college education, gave them small business loans, and afforded them money to purchase homes in the newly expanding suburban national landscape. This federal financing built American post-war prosperity—and, not inadvertently but directly, maliciously, and with white supremacy in mind, segregated African Americans to Black-only urban neighborhoods: The American Pale of Settlement (irony intended).

For Black servicemen and their families, two giant obstacles (among many) stood in the way, according to a 2017 book about government sponsored segregation, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. One hurdle was that while the G.I. Bill would pay for college tuition—a very real lever for the middle classes—many colleges and universities would not admit Black people. While Historically Black Colleges and Universities enrolled African Americans, there weren’t enough and not always located where Black people lived.

But the government built an even larger brick wall, so to speak, for Black families to achieve that prosperity. For most of the 20th Century, according to Rothstein, the United States government, in one way or another, prevented Black families from buying homes, especially in neighborhoods or suburbs, or even housing projects, where white people lived—and many cases, from buying homes anywhere.

President Franklin Roosevelt's administration created the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933. HOLC prevented families from defaulting on mortgages by issuing replacements with longer repayment schedules at lower costs. HOLC mortgages helped working and middle-class homeowners. Those families paid off both the principal and the interest simultaneously, and, after 15 years, owned their own homes. For perhaps the first time in American history, working and middle-class families made money on home ownership because they were able to keep the equity they earned on their homes. In this way, the homeowners would eventually hand down the equity from their homes on to their children.

But here's the rub. Because borrowers still had to pay off the HOLC mortgages, at a risk to the federal government that was putting up the money with a low-interest return, HOLC had to conduct risk assessment. Roosevelt's administration contracted out to local real estate agents the process of assessing whether home buyers and owners could pay back their loans (which, if you ask me, is like asking sharks whether schools of tasty fish would have a safe passage through the ocean). A real estate "ethics code," writes Rothstein, required them to "maintain" housing segregation (64). So these erstwhile guardians of urban racial purity created special color-coded maps of every city based on racial makeup and perceived financial risk. Green meant the safest neighborhoods for lending money, then blue, then yellow, and then red--red indicated that the residents of that neighborhood posed too high a risk for the government to issue housing loans. Redlining came from this (and will be treated more in depth in a future posting). "A neighborhood earned a red color if African Americans lived in it, even it was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single family homes," Rothstein wrote, meaning that even if the residents earned an income that would allow them to make their mortgage payments every month, they could not get a government backed loan to buy a home because they were Black.

Not only did Roosevelt's New Deal prevent foreclosures, but it sought to help first-time middle class home buyers with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)--a noble measure given the Depression. The FHA insured mortgages that allowed homeowners to pay their lenders back within 20-25 years. But the FHA was created for white people. "Because the FHA's appraisal standards included a whites-only requirement," Rothstein writes, "racial segregation became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program. The FHA judged that properties would probably be too risky for insurance if they were in racially mixed neighborhoods or even in white neighborhoods near black ones that might possibly integrate in the future" (65).

Integration, if we look around us, never happened. We live on islands, many of us, in racially-hued bubbles, even with gentrification. One of those racially circumscribed islands is Long Island, home of the first Levittown, which became the model of low cost mass produced single-family suburban homes that soon covered the United States and housed G.I.s returning from war and the children of the Baby Boom. This goldrush of suburbanization produced some of the most profound racial segregation in an already racially segregated country.

Karen Messina

Henry Levitt and Sons built seven Levittowns in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Puerto Rico. They built the first Levittown about 30 miles east of Brooklyn in Long Island, between Farmingdale and Hempstead, from 1947-1951. During that span, they mass produced 17,447 homes, according to Edgar Daniels, who wrote Mass Producing the American Dream: Levittown, Long Island, as the Fulfillment of the Dream of Single Family Home Ownership, 1947-1951. Each home was about $8,000 with no money down. The Levitts had 26 steps to building each home. Workers would repeat the same task from home to home. Levittown was not built on an assembly line; the assembly line came to Levittown.

Levitt built Daniels' "American Dream" with non-union workers for white people. Like so many suburbs and housing tracts all over the country, Levittown had a restrictive housing covenant. "Point 26" of the covenant, according to Daniels, was "The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race but the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted" (37).

He sold the houses in advance, and bought the land on speculation, needing the FHA and Veterans Administration (VA) to finance the sales and guarantee the mortgages. But these government agencies refused to lend to Black people. Levitt contracted out some work to African Americans in construction trades, such as Robert Mereday, who worked during the war for the Grumman Aircraft Plant in Bethpage, Long Island, and then started his own trucking business (Rothstein, 68). Mereday and his brothers all lived in Hempstead, "an early African American settlement on Long Island." Mereday's company trucked in cement blocks for the Levitts. But when his nephew Vince applied to buy a house in Levittown, his application was rejected. Instead, he bought a house in an "all-black neighboring suburb, Lakeview." Even though he fought in World War II, he could not take advantage of the VA's low-interest mortgages, and had to put down a substantial downpayment on his Lakeview home.

"William Levitt's refusal to sell a home to Vince Mereday was not a mere reflection of the builder's prejudicial views. Had he felt differently and chosen to integrate Levittown, the federal government would have refused to subsidize him. In the decades following World War II, suburbs across the country...were created in this way, with the FHA administering an explicit racial policy that solidified segregation in ever one of our metropolitan areas...The FHA even withheld approval if the presence of African Americans in nearby neighborhoods threatened integration" (Rothstein, 70-71).

The "Cape House" model in Levittown, Long Island: from Mass Producing the American Dream: Levittown, Long Island, as the Fulfillment of the Dream of Single Family Home Ownership, 1947-1951 by Edgar Daniels

William Levitt, President of Levitt and Sons, and the son of the company's founder Abraham, himself the child of Jewish immigrants, said, "It is not a matter of prejudice but one of business. As a Jew, I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice. But by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, 90% to 95% of our white customers will not buy into the community" (Daniels 38). The Levitts sold out their Jewish identity--as did so many of my community and others, then and now. This sounds harsh, and self hating, and it may very well be. But one has to wonder what would have happened in the 1940s if real estate developers and builders had stood up to first Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy when building post-war America.

Nearly 3,000 miles away, at the same time that the building began in Levittown in 1947, Paul W. Trousdale, who built Beverly Hills, bought a lima bean farm in Mar Vista, California called Stevens Ranch, overlooking the community of Venice and the Pacific Ocean, with the intent to build homes for returning soldiers. My parents bought their home with the G.I. Bill a bit later, in 1965, for $40,000, on an adjacent tract to Trousdale's called the Del Mar Tract. The basic plan included three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a driveway, and a backyard. The houses on my block now sell for $1.7 million, according to a recent scan of the interwebs.

This is the house next door to the one in which I grew up. It is now for sale for $1.7 million.

Growing up, no Black people owned homes on my street. And how could they? The builders in Mar Vista, including Trousdale, did not sell to African American World War II veterans (or any Black people), who could not take out federally financed and insured home loans. During my childhood, in the 1970s, Korean families began owning homes in Mar Vista, as did American Born Chinese and Chicanos. At the local elementary school near my house, Walgrove Elementary, I remember two African American children--two, from Kindergarten through fifth grade (there may have been more--that was almost 50 years ago). According to the 2000 Census, 3.5 percent of Mar Vista's approximately 35,000 people were African American. Black people make up an even smaller percentage of the Levittown population, just .9 percent.

If white people live in suburbs, the stereotype goes, Black people live in cities. As Parliament sang in 1975, "We've got a lot of chocolate cities, around/We've got Newark, we've got Gary/Somebody told me we've got L.A./And we're working on Atlanta...We didn't get our forty acres and a mule/but we did get you, C.C....God bless Chocolate City and it's (gainin' on ya!) vanilla suburbs."

Part of gentrification happens when white and other middle class people flee the suburbs for the city. Mar Vista, I have been told, has been "gentrified" in the sense that the working and middle class white people who populated it in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up--white Christians with a smattering of the Korean immigrants, Mormons, Jews, and Chicanos--have been pushed out for the dreaded hipsters and young professional families who can buy $1.7 million homes. But if gentrification continues, I've got to wonder if the suburbs will one day empty out of all its white folks like myself, who left their parents' housing tracks in order to live in cities, and will push African Americans out of long-standing Black neighborhoods directly into the suburbs--or yet an even unimagined form of segregation will take place.

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