Voices | Why the History of Neighborhood Segregation Matters Today

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By Hannah Lebovits | JTA

Hannah Lebovitz
Hannah Lebovitz (Courtesy via JTA)

While I had been enjoying two days without electronics in observance of Shavuot and Shabbat, cities across the country were engulfed in a combination of civic protests and riots. Weapons of war were being used against citizens within their own state. It was horrible to watch. I could not sleep the entire night.


I thought my technological disconnect was the source of my unrest. But I soon realized that it wasn’t just two days of not knowing that spurred my unease. It was that despite my close proximity to the chaos as the crow flies, I live in a totally different universe.

I work, study, and spend a lot of time in the city of Cleveland, but my residence in the Orthodox community is technically outside of the municipal boundary. Like Jewish communities across the country, most Jews in the Northeast Ohio area live outside of the central city — and have for generations.


American Jews know firsthand the effect of segregation efforts in our country. Early immigrant Jewish communities were restricted to small enclaves in American cities, usually in housing that left much to be desired. The Lower East Side of New York, the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles, Cleveland’s east side — Jews moved into these communities because they could not afford to live in and were not welcome in other areas of the city.

But for European Jews, these spaces served as economic and communal incubators. They allowed Jewish communities to establish social support systems and slowly move out of these spaces to wealthier, whiter, more resource-rich ones.

During the same time period, redlining, blockbusting, zoning laws, local fiscal practices, and racially restrictive covenants kept black communities within geographic regions that were disinvested and devalued.

In 1917, the Supreme Court determined that cities could not explicitly limit black migration to their areas. However, far from eliminating segregation, the new practices that developed over the 20th century only hid it more deeply. Indeed, several simultaneous efforts created two very different realities: disinvested black cities and wealthy, white suburbs.

First came Euclidean zoning in 1926. In a landmark Supreme Court case, cities were granted the right to design a built environment segmented by uses. Homes could be confined to one corner of a city, manufacturing plants another — or not at all. Cities began to use this power to restrict new housing and development. Shortly thereafter, Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act into law, spurring banks to create maps of regions and determine which areas were considered valuable. The subsequent redlining efforts limited the ability of those residing in black neighborhoods to secure loans for mortgages.

Then, in 1948, these covenants were finally deemed unconstitutional — forcing racism to move even deeper into the private systems of housing. Real estate agents, looking to capitalize on anti-black sentiment, engaged in blockbusting efforts — convincing white residents of neighboring communities to sell their homes for cheap before the neighborhood was occupied by black families, only to then resell those homes at exorbitant prices to incoming blacks. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 dedicated billions of dollars to infrastructure focused on expanding regions to accommodate new housing in areas that black homeowners could not reach or were not welcome. These racist attempts to prevent black migration were still only more deeply hidden following the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.

Though unable to legally engage in overtly prejudicial practices, banks, political actors, and individuals used private, public and interpersonal systems to maintain segregation. Building on the directly racist practices of the past, space became a proxy for race. City planning and zoning efforts, the delivery of public goods and lending practices — all became mechanisms to sustain racial segregation by targeting spaces where black communities live and using the systems that control migration and housing security to limit black mobility.

While anti-Semitism remains, the era of “No Dogs or Jews” is over. When they go to apply for a mortgage, to rent an apartment, or to access social services, European Jews do not have to check a demographic box other than “white.” For all intents and social purposes, we’ve secured many of the benefits of our WASPy suburban neighbors. As a result, we have gained the privilege to access white spaces in a way that black people have not.

The neighborhood in which you live determines your quality of life: the ability to avoid violence, attend high-quality public schools, live near parks and greenery. Throughout the country, because of racial prejudice and discrimination, black individuals have less access to these experiences.

The Jewish community in my area does not live in fear of how we conduct ourselves in our streets. We can dance with a new Sefer Torah from one end of the neighborhood to the next with a police escort in tow. Our holy sites are often protected — not threatened — by police presence. Public services are extended and enhanced for us when our holidays occur. No one calls the cops when our kumsitzes go late or we sing from our sukkahs.

Yet when I discuss this reality with my light-skinned Jewish neighbors, people often do not believe that these experiences can be described as a privilege. Instead, I am told that these experiences are available to everyone and that others can and should access them as our community so often does.

I know this is not true. Our ability to be who we are in our neighborhoods is not a right that is extended to all people. Our capacity to utilize local resources without backlash or fear is not accessible to others. And our sense of trust in protective services is not universally shared.

I’ve had countless conversations with my fellow Jews about this topic, and they’ve often been difficult and heated. But today — as we all once again feel the immense weight of racism in this country — I am asking my light-skinned Jewish friends to sit with this and think more deeply about the ways that we experience the cities we live in. We are given the privilege to exist in white spaces — to gain from the resources, opportunities, and protection that these spaces afford.

As Jews we rely heavily on mutual support from others and look to other groups for allyship. Today we must recognize our spatial privilege and advocate for change. Demand systemic shifts, not policy Band-Aids. Dismantle even the hidden institutions of racism. And work tirelessly toward eradicating all bigotry, once and for all.

Hannah Lebovits is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Studies and Public Affairs at Cleveland State University.

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