N.Y. Times book review by Raymond Arsenault of 'Family Properties,' by Beryl Satter.
March 19, 2009
Historians who write about close friends or relatives do so at their peril. Personal engagement, so essential to the memoir, can confound historical judgment and scholarly detachment, especially when family honor hangs in the balance. Beryl Satter, the chairwoman of the history department at Rutgers University in Newark and the proud daughter of one of the central characters in “Family Properties,” has taken the hard road to glory in her study of race and housing discrimination in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s. Yet somehow she has managed to stay on course, using her considerable investigative skills and unwavering sense of fairness to write a revealing and instructive book.
She begins with the complicated story of her father, Mark Satter, a Jewish lawyer and landlord who represented “scores of African-Americans who had been grossly overcharged for the houses they had bought.” His legal and real estate interests centered in Lawndale, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago that became overwhelmingly black by the late ’50s. Lawndale, like many other urban black enclaves, was the scene of widespread and systemic economic exploitation, exacerbated by the Federal Housing Administration’s practice of redlining predominantly black neighborhoods, which effectively eliminated mortgage insurance within their boundaries.
In cities like Chicago, redlining forced a vast majority of black homeowners and tenants into the vulnerable world of “contract selling,” in which unscrupulous speculators dictated onerous terms that often led to default and social pathology, simultaneously reinforcing black stereotypes and white racism. The “lack of equal access to credit,” the author explains, had profound ramifications: “fabulous enrichment for speculative contract sellers and their investors, debt peonage or impoverishment for many black contract buyers and an almost guaranteed decay of the communities in which such sales were concentrated.” Once we recognize the full impact of contract selling, she insists, it becomes clear that “the reason for the decline of so many black urban neighborhoods into slums was not the absence of resources but rather the riches that could be drawn from the seemingly poor vein of aged and decrepit housing and hard-pressed but hard-working and ambitious African-Americans.”
“Family Properties” is a tale of race and class, but it is not a simple story of white power and black victimization. Irony and ambiguity abounded in a system that often pitted blacks against blacks and sometimes drove men like Satter’s father into moral confusion and financial peril. Indeed, much of the book documents the rising resistance to an unjust system rooted in racial segregation and poverty. Beginning with her father’s truncated legal efforts — he died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 1965 — Satter traces the community-organizing campaigns of a host of activists, from Saul Alinsky and Martin Luther King Jr. to a series of lesser-known but no less committed individuals. At times, the characters and organizational abbreviations are dished out in mind-numbing proportions, and the specific story lines are not always easy to follow. But no one can accuse the author of glossing over the messy details of life on the ground in Chicago. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, slumlord by slumlord, she takes us through the complex realities of racial division, economic exploitation and local politics.
The final chapters focus on the widening reform efforts of the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially the protests organized by the Lawndale-based Contract Buyers League, a grass-roots organization that helped to expose the F.H.A.’s instrumental role in redlining. The league initiated two landmark federal lawsuits, and in 1972 the formation of a broad coalition of housing activists known as National People’s Action set the stage for meaningful reform at the national level. In 1975, Congress passed the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, and two years later it followed up with the Community Reinvestment Act. Together these laws eliminated some redlining and made life more difficult for predatory speculators, though, as Satter points out, neither measure offered a definitive solution to the problem of racially discriminatory credit practices.
As the continuing subprime mortgage crisis demonstrates all too well, the long-term effects of what happened in Lawndale and other black communities a half-century ago are still very much with us. Today we have too many mortgages rather than too few. But the underlying realities of a nation plagued by chronic debt and persistent racial inequality remain the same. A cautionary tale of governmental complicity, “Family Properties” follows the social historian’s dictum of “asking big questions in small places.” It reminds us that history and memory are essential tools for anyone pondering our current predicament.