Urban Exodus : Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed

Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: 1999-03-10
Publisher(s): Harvard Univ Pr
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Across the country, white ethnics have fled cities for suburbs. But many have stayed in their old neighborhoods. When the busing crisis erupted in Boston in the 1970s, Catholics were in the forefront of resistance. Jews, 70,000 of whom had lived in Roxbury and Dorchester in the early 1950s, were invisible during the crisis. They were silent because they departed the city more quickly and more thoroughly than Boston's Catholics. Only scattered Jews remained in Dorchester and Roxbury by the mid-1970s. In telling the story of why the Jews left and the Catholics stayed, Gerald Gamm places neighborhood institutions--churches, synagogues, community centers, schools--at its center. He challenges the long-held assumption that bankers and real estate agents were responsible for the rapid Jewish exodus. Rather, according to Gamm, basic institutional rules explain the strength of Catholic attachments to neighborhood and the weakness of Jewish attachments. Because they are rooted, territorially defined, and hierarchical, parishes have frustrated the urban exodus of Catholic families. And because their survival was predicated on their portability and autonomy, Jewish institutions exacerbated the Jewish exodus. Gamm shows that the dramatic transformation of urban neighborhoods began not in the 1950s or 1960s, but in the 1920s. Not since Anthony Lukas's Common Ground has there been a book that so brilliantly explores not just Boston's dilemma but the roots of the American urban crisis.

Author Biography

Gerald Gamm is Associate Professor of Political Science and History, University of Rochester

Table of Contents

Maps and Figures
Prologue: The Church and the Temple 1(10)
Class, Crime, Homes, and Banks
Institutions and Neighborhood Change
Jubilee Celebrations, 1910
Towns, Suburbs, and Neighborhoods
Membership and Mobility
The Uprooted and the Rooted
Authority in an Age of Crisis
Epilogue: Return to the Church and the Temple 281(8)
Abbreviations 289(2)
Notes 291(72)
Acknowledgments 363(6)
Index 369


Chapter One

Class, Crime, Homes, and Banks

Catholics and Jews have responded differently to urban change. This observation is so common that it is generally offered as folk wisdom or simple fact. In exaggerated form, cause and effect become intermingled and muddled in a circular argument: the very presence of Jews becomes an explanation for a neighborhood's vulnerability to change. Scholars have suggested several hypotheses for the differences between Catholic and Jewish behavior, though no one has systematically studied these differences or tested these hypotheses.

    Studies of neighborhood change have emphasized the period of racial change that extended from the late 1940s through the 1970s. Consequently, existing explanations--socioeconomic differences, proximity to African-American neighborhoods, levels of arson and other crimes, redlining, blockbusting, discriminatory banking programs, and homeownership levels--generally focus on this specific period. These explanations cannot fully account for long-term trends in the urban exodus, trends that began early in the twentieth century and without relation to race. And even as efforts to explain patterns of racial change in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, these explanations are not sufficient to explain the different neighborhood attachments of Jews and Catholics.

Socioeconomic Status

Geographic mobility is often a function of socioeconomic mobility. Most Jews rose faster and earlier into the middle class than did most Catholics. "Wherever studies have been made," Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan write, "Jews have been found to be moving out of the working class into the middle class at a surprising rate." From the early 1920s through the middle 1950s, socioeconomic differences contributed to the more rapid pace of Jewish suburbanization. As I show in Chapter 9, the exodus of Dorchester and Roxbury's middle-class and upper-middle-class Jews began in the early 1920s and never slowed. While institutional membership rules facilitated this exodus--exit costs were lower for Jews than for Catholics--the high rate of Jewish upward mobility was also a factor.

    The federal census did not report aggregate data for census tracts or other small territorial areas in 1920, but census-tract data from 1930, 1940, and 1950 suggest that the socioeconomic level of Jewish neighborhoods was higher than that of Catholic neighborhoods through the early 1950s. Maps 3 and 4 show the average rent in each of Dorchester and Roxbury's census tracts in 1930 and 1950, respectively. As a comparison of Map 1 with Maps 3 and 4 illustrates, the census tracts reporting the highest rents corresponded closely to the tracts with the heaviest populations of Jews. (The correlation is less exact in Map 3 because many of the 1930 census tracts were larger than the 1940 and 1950 census tracts.) Just one Jewish tract, in Roxbury's Blue Hill Avenue-Grove Hall district, did not conform to the general pattern. Various other indicators--the number of homes with mechanical refrigerators in 1940, the number of homes with central heating in 1940, the number of homes with televisions in 1950, median education levels in 1950--demonstrate that the socioeconomic advantage of Dorchester and Roxbury's Jews persisted through the early 1950s. This advantage, relative to Catholics, persisted despite the steady Jewish migration to the suburbs and an absolute deterioration in the socioeconomic level of the Jewish community.

    But this relative advantage ended in the 1950s. The 1960 census reported no significant socioeconomic differences between Dorchester's Jewish and Catholic districts. As Map 5 shows, median rents in 1960 were no higher in Jewish than in Catholic neighborhoods; the median rent in Mattapan, like rents in Dorchester's other outer neighborhoods, was relatively high, while median rents elsewhere in Dorchester, among both Catholics and Jews, were relatively low. Median levels of education in 1960, as Map 6 shows, were also no higher in Jewish neighborhoods than in Catholic neighborhoods. And, as Map 7 illustrates, median family incomes were significantly lower in 1960 among Dorchester's Jews than among Dorchester's Catholics; only in Mattapan was median family income at least $5,500, a level exceeded in almost every census tract that was predominantly non-Jewish.

    Large numbers of Jews still lived in Dorchester and Roxbury in the late 1950s; indeed, though many tens of thousands of Jews had left these neighborhoods since the 1920s, about 47,000 Jews still remained in 1960. But the Jews who remained in the late 1950s differed profoundly from the Jews who had lived in Dorchester and Roxbury in earlier decades. Once home to Boston Jewry's emerging middle class, Dorchester and Roxbury had become a distinctively working-class enclave. The three-decade-old movement of middle-class Jews to suburban communities had effectively filtered the old neighborhoods.

    A study of Boston's Jewish community conducted in the middle 1960s observed that Dorchester's Jews "have the lowest level of education in the metropolitan area (less than 15 per cent went to college) and the highest proportion of blue collar workers." As the study concluded, "The kinds of Jews remaining here are typical of those who do not move." By the late 1950s, Jews possessed no advantages of education or income over Roxbury and Dorchester's Catholics, no set of resources that could facilitate an exceptionally fast rate of suburbanization. Yet it was at this very moment that the Jewish exodus was accelerating, in absolute and in relative terms. At no time were the differences in the Jewish and Catholic exodus sharper than in the 1960s and early 1970s, when urban Jews and Catholics had become indistinguishable on socioeconomic grounds.

Proximity to African-American Neighborhoods

Some scholars have suggested that simple proximity explains differences in neighborhood stability. New areas of black settlement, this hypothesis suggests, develop as extensions of older areas of settlement. Yet, as Map 8 demonstrates, Roxbury and Dorchester's black neighborhoods in 1960 bordered Catholic neighborhoods as well as Jewish neighborhoods. Proximity alone cannot explain why Blue Hill Avenue--rather than, say, Columbia Road or Washington Street or Quincy Street or Geneva Avenue--became the principal route for the expansion of black settlement into Dorchester. It was only because Jews were leaving Dorchester at a more rapid rate than Catholics that black neighborhoods expanded into formerly Jewish districts.

    Two miles separated Mattapan's Wellington Hill district in 1960 from well-established areas of African-American residency, and more than one mile of Jewish neighborhoods separated Wellington Hill from even the frontier of racial change. No Catholic enclave in 1960 was farther removed than Jewish Mattapan from African-American neighborhoods. St. Peter's Parish stood at the very edge of the city's burgeoning black district in 1960, and less than a mile separated St. William's Parish from the racial frontier. As Blue Hill Avenue ran from the black settlement in Roxbury straight to Mattapan, so Columbia Road ran from that black settlement directly to St. Margaret's Parish, adjacent to St. William's.

    But by 1970, as racial change and panic transformed Mattapan, St. Peter's Parish remained predominantly white and Catholic. In the 1990s, a generation after the collapse of Mattapan Jewry, St. Margaret's Parish and St. William's Parish still contain large white Catholic communities; racial change in those districts has been steady but gradual. The exodus of Jews has long been associated with the influx of African Americans into Mattapan, but it was not Mattapan's nearness to the racial frontier that caused the Jewish exodus. Rather, it was the Jewish exodus itself that brought the frontier down Blue Hill Avenue and into Mattapan.

Arson and Other Crimes

Crime undermined the security of Dorchester's Jews and Catholics alike. The culmination of attacks on Jewish property and persons came in May 1970, when arsonists attacked two synagogues serving Mattapan's Jews. The fires destroyed a Torah at the synagogue of Congregation Chevra Shas and caused $10,000 in damage to the large synagogue structure of Congregation Agudath Israel. According to the Boston Globe , "The Jewish community viewed the attacks upon their temples as `part of a pattern' and a continuation of a campaign to scare the Jewish residents out of the area." One year earlier, two black men had thrown an acid bomb at a Dorchester rabbi.

    These attacks on religious leaders and institutions, as well as rising levels of street crime and burglaries, convinced many Jews that they were becoming special targets of urban violence. Alan Mandell, the local leader of the Jewish Defense League, which each night had been patrolling the area near the two synagogues, explained that the patrols had been ending at midnight, forty minutes before the first fire had been set. "Now the patrols will last all night on staggered shifts, and God help any vandals found in the temples," Mandell stated. "I haven't seen pictures such as this since Germany."

    But that violence extended across Dorchester. Catholics, too, were concerned by the prevalence of crime. St. Ann's Church, the central institution of Neponset's Catholics, was attacked by arsonists in May 1970, and again in July. The July fire caused $5,000 in damage to the church. "I have Security Protection, including Police and Dogs, every night and on Sunday mornings," Rev. Ernest P. Pearsall, the pastor of St. Ann's Parish, wrote in October. "I think that the word has gotten around, quietly, about our watchfulness and security. The dogs are trained to attack and knock down but not to kill. God help our enemies." Pearsall regarded attacks on St. Ann's Church as indications of the growing disorder in American cities and in American life. "As you well realize, these are days when we have to keep our eyes peeled, our guts obvious and our guns cocked. It is about time we took the offensive," he wrote to the chancellor of the archdiocese. "Yours in love, courage and calmness to fight the enemies of our Church and our Country."

    While arson caused damage to St. Ann's Church as well as to the synagogues of Agudath Israel and Chevra Shas, fires set by arsonists completely destroyed two other Catholic churches in Dorchester. St. William's Church and St. Ambrose' Church, both serving predominantly white neighborhoods near the edge of racially changing areas, were reduced to ruins in the early 1980s. Both churches were rebuilt.


Abetted by federal agencies, banks and insurance companies contributed to the destabilization of neighborhoods across Dorchester and Roxbury. Until the middle 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) "exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy," Kenneth T. Jackson argues. "Whole areas of cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees." Even after FHA reversed its long-time bias against urban neighborhoods, other institutions continued to undermine those neighborhoods, refusing to extend home mortgages, rejecting applications for property insurance or dramatically increasing premiums for urban policyholders, and denying home-improvement loans.

    Throughout Dorchester and Roxbury, Jewish and Catholic neighborhoods contended with the same set of discriminatory practices. In May 1968, the Mattapan Organization stated that it had "received reports that it is difficult to get mortgage loans in Mattapan for home and business improvement"; residents, most of them Jewish, also "reported difficulty in securing home and business insurance in Mattapan." The Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, serving a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, expressed its concern in May 1972 over "the cancellation of many Home-owner Insurance policies in this area." Residents of Dorchester's other Catholic neighborhoods reported similar problems. "Homeowners are unable to get mortgages or home improvement loans to keep their houses in livable condition," the Dorchester Community News observed in August 1974. "In Dorchester many neighborhoods are on the brink of physical destruction," the newspaper argued a few months later. "Redlining threatens to push Dorchester over that brink."


Real-estate agents encouraged panic selling and rapid neighborhood upheaval. In July 1967, "real estate agents' tactics of scaring whites into moving" were a primary concern of the Mattapan Organization. "There are persistent reports of `panic selling' tactics by real estate agents," according to minutes of the Mattapan Organization's steering committee. "The agents reportedly capitalize on fears of neighborhood change and deterioration and urge people to sell their property at low prices. The Real Estate Committee noted that this practice is one of the neighborhood's main enemies, and determined to try to put a stop to it."

    Real-estate agents engaged in blockbusting not only in Dorchester's Jewish neighborhoods but also in its Catholic neighborhoods. By 1969, Uphams Corner residents had grown concerned about "Block-busting activity in the area." Five years later, the Dorchester Community News reported that Michael F. Kenealy, a real-estate agent who had "made his fortunes by block busting in the Mattapan area," was attempting to disrupt other Dorchester neighborhoods. "The neighborhoods of St. Ann's, St. Mark's, and St. Brendan's parishes have been leafleted. The yellow leaflet says Park Realty will sell your home for you `discreetly and in strict confidence.' It is not unlike the ones distributed in Mattapan," the Community News stated in April 1974. "Kenealy will patiently develop the exodus of whites from Dorchester. There will be more propaganda, more terror and more chances to get out, all provided by Kenealy who will milk Dorchester for every penny he can get out of it."

    Blockbusting was more successful in Jewish than in white Catholic neighborhoods, but it is clear that real-estate agents also attempted to use these tactics in the latter. That blockbusting was more common and more successful in Jewish neighborhoods suggests that these neighborhoods were especially vulnerable to such tactics. "We have had widespread reports of real estate salesmen's activity designed to scare persons into moving," Mark S. Israel wrote in the summer of 1967, describing Mattapan's Jewish community. "Much of the panic is self-generating, however." Though they took advantage of it, real-estate agents did not create the peculiar vulnerability of Jewish neighborhoods.

Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group

Since 1971--when Senator Philip A. Hart convened Senate subcommittee hearings in Boston and when the Boston Globe published the first of its many reports on racial change in Mattapan--every attempt to explain the unraveling of the Roxbury and Dorchester Jewish community has focused on the perniciousness of the program organized by the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG). Established in the summer of 1968 to provide home-mortgage funds to low-income black families, BBURG has been widely criticized for Mattapan's rapid and tense racial transition. "Without the knowledge of the residents, and with funds guaranteed by the federal government," Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon write, "2,500 low-income black families were ... funneled into a small, cohesive Jewish neighborhood by the chairmen of twenty-two Boston savings banks."

    Accepting this argument, many scholars have inferred that similar banking programs contributed to the Jewish exodus from other cities. FHA reversed its longstanding bias against mortgages in urban neighborhoods in the middle 1960s; this sudden reversal, many observers argue, only exacerbated the white urban exodus and contributed to the victimization of new black homeowners by real-estate speculators. BBURG is a program often cited as evidence. "The Boston story," Nathan Glazer suggested in the New Republic , reveals "the cause, the spring, the hidden works" of neighborhood change.

    The case against BBURG rests on three pillars. First, critics of BBURG argue that the Mattapan Jewish community was relatively stable until the fall of 1968, when Wellington Hill--the section of Mattapan that lay within BBURG territory--was suddenly invaded by real-estate agents inspired by quick, BBURG-related profits. Second, critics of BBURG state or imply that the program was restricted to Dorchester's Jewish district. "Incredibly, the area selected for heightened loan activity skirted the predominantly Irish and Italian working-class neighborhoods and, less surprisingly, the suburbs where the bankers themselves lived," Levine and Harmon write. "Falling exclusively within the B-BURG line, however, was almost the entirety of Boston's Jewish community." Third, critics of BBURG assert that the frenzied real-estate activity was confined to the areas within the BBURG line; areas outside the line, according to this assertion, were unaffected by the wave of panic that engulfed the Jewish community in Wellington Hill. These three interconnected assumptions, these three pillars of faith upon which the case against BBURG is based, are pillars of sand. The BBURG program did not target Jewish neighborhoods and it was not responsible for the different reactions of Jews and Catholics to urban change and racial transition.

The Urban Exodus before 1968

In arguing that BBURG caused the collapse of Mattapan Jewry, observers suggest that the Wellington Hill district of Mattapan had been a stable Jewish neighborhood through the summer of 1968. Mattapan, presumably, was immune to the racial change that had already transformed the other Jewish districts of Dorchester and upper Roxbury--and the experience of these other districts was irrelevant to understanding racial change in Mattapan. "The realtors and associates laid out a strategic campaign of blockbusting," Francis Russell writes. "Violence engulfed what had been a quiet Jewish backwater." According to Levine and Harmon, Mattapan was "a small, cohesive Jewish neighborhood," a suburban enclave located "a few blocks" away from Roxbury and Dorchester's main Jewish district.

    But the Jewish community in Mattapan had never existed apart from the other Jewish neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury. Jews had begun settling in Mattapan in the 1910s, as early as they had begun settling in Roxbury's Elm Hill district and Dorchester's Mount Bowdoin-Franklin Park district; the only older Jewish settlement in Roxbury and Dorchester was the district northeast of Grove Hall. In the 1920s, as the original Jewish districts had grown together along the axis of Blue Hill Avenue, Wellington Hill had emerged as the southern anchor of a three-mile-long belt of Jewish neighborhoods. Wellington Hill's Jewish community was bound up, from the start, with the rest of Dorchester and Roxbury's Jewish community.

    Panic selling and blockbusting had come to Wellington Hill in the winter of 1966-1967, almost two years before the initiation of BBURG. That winter the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston assigned Mark S. Israel the task of attempting to stabilize the Mattapan community. "In recent years there has been a precipitous movement of Jews away from the area, as Negroes from Roxbury, and some non-Jewish whites have moved in," Israel wrote in February 1967. "The rapid neighborhood change is hurting all parties. Jewish families flee because of a sense of panic." In a report written a month later, Israel noted, "There is a sense of despair in many residents. Many have given up on the neighborhood and are only awaiting a chance to move out." Israel helped establish the Mattapan Organization in June; according to the draft of a newsletter, "It appeared that Mattapan was being given up to become another `ghetto.'" The Jewish exodus from Wellington Hill continued throughout 1967, as large numbers of African-American families settled in the area. "The colored are moving in," one white resident of Wellington Hill Street told a Globe reporter in August 1967. "I called five real estate people, and they all told me I'd be lucky if I got my price." A black resident of Wellington Hill Street, interviewed for the same article, stated, "We had no trouble buying, but a lot of people are selling. I don't know why they're selling."

    About 1,500 blacks lived in Mattapan by the winter of 1967-1968; nearly all of them lived in the census tract dominated by Wellington Hill and nearly all of them had settled there since the early 1960s. Since the beginning of the decade, the Jewish population of Wellington Hill had fallen by almost 2,000--20 percent of the census tract's whole population. A city tax assessor visited "homes in the Wellington Hill section of Mattapan" in March 1968, "telling residents that their property is being reassessed downward because of racial change in the neighborhood." That May, the Mattapan Organization assessed the situation. "Black people have been moving into Mattapan in a wave-like pattern from the North," the group reported. "The committee is trying to slow down the process of change and to prevent spreading ghettoization."

     In the first week of September 1968--as BBURG was just beginning to fund mortgages--the president of the Mattapan Organization told her executive board that arresting the panic might soon prove futile. "Our crisis is too critical," she declared. "Whites [are] leaving fast." Map 9 illustrates the extent of racial change by the spring of 1968, before the BBURG program began. By that spring, large numbers of blacks had already settled on Wellington Hill. Change had come to Wellington Hill without BBURG, as change had already come to all of the other Jewish neighborhoods in Roxbury and Dorchester. The Jewish exodus had entered its final stages before the line was drawn.

Catholics and Jews inside the BBURG Line

The first contention made by BBURG's critics is that Wellington Hill remained insulated from panic selling and racial change until BBURG began issuing mortgages in late 1968; the second is that the BBURG line tightly circumscribed Dorchester's Jews. "The white areas within the bounds were Jewish neighborhoods," the New York Times reported in 1971, "those immediately outside were Irish." The BBURG line, the Globe argued, "pointed like an arrow into the heart of Mattapan." This misconception has been part of the BBURG story for almost three decades. In the statement that she gave to the Senate subcommittee in September 1971, Sadelle R. Sacks, the former director of a Roxbury housing service, noted that "the area defined by the BBURG line was the line of Jewish residents" extending down Blue Hill Avenue into Mattapan. "Outside the `line,'" according to Sacks, "were the neighborhoods still identified by parish names of Catholic churches." Quoting the subcommittee's counsel, the New York Times reported "speculation" that the BBURG line was drawn in conformity with the belief that "the Jews would move but the Irish would fight."

    In fact, all of the heavily white neighborhoods within the BBURG territory were Catholic neighborhoods. Map 9 shows the racial composition of census tracts that lay in Roxbury, Dorchester, and the rest of the BBURG area in the spring of 1968, while Map 10 shows the percentage of Jews in each census tract's population. The heavy line on both maps is the BBURG line. The line itself has never been in dispute. It was described in the Globe investigative articles of 1971 and 1972, introduced as evidence into the Senate hearings, and illustrated in Levine and Harmon's 1992 book--though none of these sources attempts to reconcile its map with its analysis. As Map 9 illustrates, the BBURG area included a large set of white neighborhoods in Dorchester, running south from St. Margaret's to St. Ambrose' Parish. This set of neighborhoods, as Map 10 illustrates, was entirely non-Jewish. This white Catholic district included the commercial center at Uphams Corner as well as the whole of St. Peter's Parish and portions of St. Margaret's, St. William's, St. Kevin's, St. Ambrose', and St. Mark's parishes.

    Offering testimony at the 1971 Senate subcommittee hearings, Carl Erickson, the mortgage banker who had drawn the BBURG line, stated matter-of-factly that the white-ethnic neighborhoods inside the line were "predominantly Irish." Astonished, the subcommittee's counsel interrupted, "Irish? Along Blue Hill Avenue?" "No. To the right of Blue Hill," Erickson responded to the more specific question. "Jewish people were living to the south." It was a brief exchange, quickly forgotten in the context of hearings organized to show that BBURG was responsible for racial tension and the Jewish flight from Mattapan. "Almost two decades after drawing a red line on a wall map in order to establish the loan boundaries for the B-BURG consortium," Levine and Harmon report in their 1992 book, Erickson still insisted that "he had no knowledge at the time that he had essentially walled off the city's Jewish community" Of course he had no knowledge; he had never done this.

    The BBURG territory was vast. It constituted one-third of the city of Boston, a great swath of lower-class, working-class, and middle-class neighborhoods. Wellington Hill, already undergoing racial change, made up only a small part of the BBURG area. While the mythology of the BBURG line maintains that nearly 100 percent of the residents originally within the line were Jewish and almost none of them were white and Catholic, the truth is different: of those who lived within the boundaries of the BBURG line when it was drawn, half were white Catholics and fewer than 8 percent were Jews. The BBURG line included not only several white Catholic neighborhoods in Dorchester but also the heavily Catholic district of Jamaica Plain. All of these Catholic areas, unlike the Jewish neighborhood on Wellington Hill, were relatively stable and overwhelmingly white when the BBURG line was drawn.

    The belief that BBURG made a particular target of Dorchester Jewry has been a product of analysts' confusing causation with correlation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when BBURG existed, it was in Mattapan that blockbusting, panic selling, and real-estate transactions were concentrated. Consequently, observers assumed that a logical connection existed between the BBURG line and the Jewish exodus. Although the decision of a banking consortium to dictate boundaries for its loans was patently offensive, it does not follow that the only meaningful section of BBURG territory was the small section in Mattapan. In no way did the BBURG line target Jewish neighborhoods.

The Urban Exodus after 1968

The massive Jewish exodus affected all of Mattapan. It knew no bounds, literally. The third belief surrounding BBURG--that the existence of the line undercut the Jewish community in Mattapan because black families could obtain mortgages only within the BBURG line--is not supported by the evidence. Yet the belief persists that the BBURG program defined the boundaries of racial change. "Real estate brokers just didn't show houses outside of the lines marked on the map by the banks because if they wanted to make a sale, it was fruitless. They knew the banks would reject them," Sadelle Sacks explained to the Senate subcommittee. "In fact, when the line was announced there were many families who were caught in negotiating for houses just outside the line, some even just across the street, who had to give up on the houses. They couldn't buy them. The BBURG coalition had decided where the black communities could live." As the New York Times reported in 1971, "Loans from the pool were made to blacks buying homes within the boundary, but no loans were made for homes outside it."

    Even as BBURG confined its lending to the area defined by its line, panic selling among Jews was spreading outside the line. As Map 10 demonstrates, the BBURG line did not include the large numbers of Jews who lived in the new houses and apartments south of Wellington Hill. Thus Jews who lived in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods in 1968 were entirely outside the BBURG territory. It was, however, precisely in this area that racial change began after 1968. "There has been a radical shift in the last year and a half" in the Wellington Hill section of Mattapan, according to a September 1969 memorandum prepared for a Jewish community agency, "and the change appears to be a continuing one down along Blue Hill Avenue toward Mattapan Square." In 1969 and 1970, during the heyday of BBURG, it was in the Jewish neighborhoods in southern Mattapan--in the newer, Jewish areas near Mattapan Square--that blockbusting and panic selling were beginning. Mattapan's racial frontier in 1970 stood entirely outside the BBURG line.

    Levine and Harmon open their book with the words of a real-estate agent who encouraged panic selling in the late 1960s. The agent learned "that the banks had decided to take a certain area and designate it with a red pen ...: Mattapan and parts of Dorchester." By engaging in blockbusting, that agent quickly learned how "to make a buck." He believed that the "red pen" of BBURG had made him rich, and Levine and Harmon quote him to demonstrate the power of that "red pen." But the real-estate agent was wrong. His good fortune was not BBURG's doing. As the agent himself recalled, "The big area at that time was River Street (Mattapan). Back towards Woodhaven, Colorado, Alabama Streets, that whole area, it was primarily a Jewish community." It was in that area that he found his first victims and his earliest opportunities in the late 1960s--and that area lay entirely outside the BBURG line. As this real-estate agent vividly recalled and as block-level data from the 1970 census confirm, the BBURG line proved irrelevant to the progress of neighborhood change in Mattapan. "The BBURG boundary line did not seem to have a major effect on where people bought their homes," Rachel G. Bratt concluded in a 1972 report for the Boston Model City Administration. "There is convincing evidence to suggest that, even if boundaries had not existed ... migration of the black community would have moved in the direction of Mattapan."

    Funds available through the BBURG program may have encouraged reckless speculation and accelerated the general process of racial change throughout Dorchester--from St. Peter's to Uphams Corner to Mattapan--but BBURG did not target Mattapan. The existence of BBURG cannot explain why Jews left Dorchester more quickly and with greater panic than Catholics; its existence cannot explain Mattapan's crisis. The BBURG line did not cause the racial transformation of the Jewish neighborhoods that had once run along Blue Hill Avenue from Roxbury through Dorchester. Wellington Hill, which fell inside the BBURG boundary in August 1968, had been experiencing rapid racial change for two or three years before the program began. And Jewish neighborhoods in southern Mattapan, which fell outside the BBURG boundary, proved vulnerable to the same forces that had transformed the rest of Dorchester and Roxbury's formerly Jewish neighborhoods. Evidently, those forces were not rooted in BBURG.


Though redlining, blockbusting, and banking programs cannot account for differences in Jewish and Catholic neighborhood attachments, perhaps homeownership levels can. Two competing arguments, one precisely the opposite of the other, have been offered by scholars. One argument contends that homeowners, concerned about the consequences of racial change for property values, are more likely than renters to panic and flee a changing neighborhood. A second argument contends that renters are more likely than homeowners to leave a neighborhood, since it is easier for renters to move.

    In describing the perception among homeowners that racial change is associated with declining property values--a perception that may not, in fact, be accurate--some observers have concluded that high levels of homeownership result in rapid racial succession. "Home ownership," Schelling notes, "should be expected to aggravate speculative departure because it makes shifting of residence more cumbersome and costly." Critics of BBURG emphasize this argument. BBURG was a program for home buyers: thus BBURG directly affected the homeownership market but not the rental market. Warning residents that "the value of your house is dropping $1,000 every month," real-estate agents had a simple objective, according to Levine and Harmon: "scare away the approximately fifteen thousand Jews who were living within the B-BURG line and get as much of the action [as possible] before the $29 million minority mortgage pool dried up." But Wellington Hill, the section of Mattapan supposedly targeted by BBURG, was an area where more than two out of three Jewish families rented rather than owned their housing. Curiously, none of those who have blamed BBURG, a home-mortgage program, for the Jewish exodus from Mattapan has explained how this program disrupted a neighborhood dominated by renter-occupied housing.

    Other observers contend that renters, not homeowners, are the leaders of the urban exodus. Noting that Jewish rates of homeownership in urban neighborhoods tended to be unusually low, Arnold R. Hirsch, John T. McGreevy, and Thomas J. Sugrue all argue that the high levels of renter-occupied housing in Jewish neighborhoods explain the vulnerability of these neighborhoods to rapid change. "Homeownership restricted residential mobility," McGreevy asserts. According to Sugrue, describing postwar Detroit, "Jews had a lower rate of homeownership than Catholics and Protestants in the city, making it easier for them to pick up and flee. They did not have the financial or personal stake in their own homes that motivated homeowners to defend their neighborhoods against black newcomers in other parts of the city."

    This argument, however, has been difficult to test, since none of these studies analyzes the behavior of Jews and Catholics when levels of homeownership do not differ between the two groups. In most large cities, rates of homeownership were lower among Jews than among Catholics. In Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, Russian-born residents in 1930 were less likely to own homes than were Irish-born or Italian-born residents. Evidence from most of Dorchester and upper Roxbury is consistent with this national pattern: the level of homeownership tended to be higher in Catholic than in Jewish neighborhoods. It is on the basis of evidence from such cities that scholars have concluded that Jews were less likely to own homes than Catholics--and suggested that this factor explains different patterns of residential change.

    Yet there were many cities where Jewish and Catholic rates of homeownership did not differ. According to Stanley Lieberson, levels of homeownership among Russian-born residents in 1930 were no lower than those of other groups in cities like Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Syracuse. Though Jews in these cities were as likely as Catholics to be homeowners, they otherwise acted like Jews in other cities. High levels of homeownership did not frustrate or slow the Jewish flight from urban neighborhoods.

    Evidence from Boston strengthens this finding. Homeownership rates, of course, are summary statistics: though the number of renters was relatively high in Boston's Jewish neighborhoods, many thousands of Jews in Dorchester and Roxbury did own homes. Examining the pace of racial change in owner-occupied housing and in renter-occupied housing makes it possible to analyze the relationship between home--owning and neighborhood attachment. Whether Jewish homeowners resisted racial succession longer than Jewish renters is a straightforward empirical question.

    The answer is plain: homeowners, not renters, led the Jewish exodus at every stage and in every neighborhood in Dorchester and Roxbury. Figures 1, 2, and 3 illustrate the percentage of nonwhites among both homeowners and renters in each of the once-Jewish census tracts of Dorchester and Roxbury. In 1950, as Figure 1 shows, blacks made up a substantially higher proportion of homeowners than renters in each of the four census tracts with measurable black populations. In 1960, as Figure 2 shows, the same pattern prevailed in six of seven census tracts. Racial succession had ended in much of Dorchester and Roxbury by 1970; in that year, whites made up at least 10 percent of the population in just four census tracts. But again, as Figure 3 shows, white renters proved more persistent than white homeowners in three of those four tracts.

    Over two decades of racial change and in virtually every Jewish neighborhood, the Jewish exodus was led by homeowners. Not until the last phases of racial succession, when each census tract was almost fully resegregated, did the proportion of white renters in each census tract decline to levels already established by white homeowners. The rapid flight of Boston's Jews occurred despite, rather than because of, relatively low rates of homeownership.

Levels of homeownership--like class, crime, proximity to black neighborhoods, redlining, blockbusting, and mortgage programs such as BBURG--cannot explain why Jews and Catholics have demonstrated different attachments to American urban neighborhoods. When these factors are held constant, the differences in Jewish and Catholic responses to neighborhood change remain profound. None of these factors was more than a proximate cause of the Jewish exodus. Arson, banking programs, and blockbusting targeted Jewish and Catholic neighborhoods without discrimination, but Jewish neighborhoods succumbed to the urban exodus more easily, more rapidly, and more thoroughly than Catholic neighborhoods. Developing a full theory of neighborhood stability requires reckoning with local institutions.

Copyright © 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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