This is Part 3 in Exodus and Equity: Reconciling the History of Minneapolis’ Jewish North Side, a series exploring how Twin Cities Jews were unwitting participants in racist real estate policies that shape today’s inequality in Minneapolis and other Midwestern American cities. In Minneapolis, that history is predominantly tied to two regions — Near North Minneapolis and St. Louis Park — and centered around civil unrest on Plymouth Avenue, in Near North, in the late 1960s.
In November of 1964, James A. Tillman Jr., the executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Interfaith Fair Housing Program, sent out a letter inviting residents of Near North to a “Jewish-Negro dialogue.”
The conversation was urgent, and, in a city known for anti-Semitism, particularly sensitive: “Some of the Negro residents believe that attempts are being made by members of the Jewish community…to exploit Negroes,” Tillman wrote, “by seeking to sell them homes at unrealistic prices.”
The accusation stemmed from an urban renewal project in the area of Grant Elementary School, around today’s Bethune Community School. Old houses and apartment buildings were being torn down and the land redeveloped, leaving many residents in search of new housing.
For white residents, that search could lead them anywhere in Minneapolis and the suburbs. But with a racist real estate market, most displaced Black residents would only be able to find housing in and around Near North.
This was a situation primed for moneymaking. Real estate agents marked up house prices in Near North when selling to Black families. And conveniently for the agents, a chunk of Near North — in the predominantly Jewish Homewood neighborhood — had gone up for sale during the Grant renewal project.
“[Civil] Rights leaders are fearful that too many of Grant’s…Negro families will move into a vacuum that may be developing in and around the Homewood neighborhood,” reported the Star Tribune. “For several months now, ‘for sale’ signs have been sprouting in a several-block area on either side of Plymouth Av.”
The most prominent realtor in Near North was Harvey Katzovitz, head of Hark Realty and on the board of directors of the men’s club at Beth El Synagogue. Hark Realty was described by the Star Tribune as “one of the most active in the Homewood area.” In a letter to Tillman about his real estate practices, Katzovitz described himself as “the only Realtor [sic] situated in this area.”
The accusations Tillman wrote about in 1964, though vague, were not baseless. Suffice it to say, for many Black North-Siders, the face of real estate exploitation was Jewish.
This reality can be chalked up to the actions of a few bad apples in the Jewish community. But that would miss the broader context of Near North, a neighborhood shaped by racist real estate policies like covenants and redlining that gave Jews access to the suburbs while driving the Black community into long-term poverty.
The legacy of this process is racial inequality, and Jewish opportunity, in Midwestern cities like Minneapolis today.
But these policies did more than divide Jewish and Black communities by geography and class. They turned the Jewish community — as a whole, unwittingly, and for some individuals, purposefully — into exploiters of Black people and contributors to ghettoization.
The exploitation chipped away at Black-Jewish communal relations and contributed to the explosion of civil unrest across Midwestern and northern cities in the late 1960s — which itself carved a greater rift between the two groups.
Today, “a lot of these issues bubble just beneath the surface,” said Steven Belton, the president and CEO of the Twin Cities Urban League. “Because of the press of time and other exigent circumstances, people move on to talk about other things. But when given an opportunity to pause and reflect…some of this stuff comes up.”
This story of exploitation also complicates a common narrative about why Minneapolis Jews left Near North for the suburbs. In a way, the community sealed its own fate.
For some Jews that used to live in Near North, “the excuse that they use [is]…’the riots caused us to leave, anti-Semitism caused us to leave,’” said Russell Star-Lack, a graduate of Carleton College who uncovered much of this Minneapolis Black-Jewish urban history, and several of the documents referenced in this story, in his senior thesis.
“Really, it’s the other way around,” he said. “Jews leaving…causes the beginning of the ghettoization process and this economic dislocation that increases these racial tensions and causes the [late-1960s unrest].”
Houses For Sale
There is no way to get around how absurd this sounds, but unwitting Jewish involvement in Black exploitation in real estate began with a simple act: Selling.
For Jews in Near North, there was nothing malicious about it. After World War II, the federal G.I. Bill provided cheap loans for buying a house in the developing suburbs.
Near North was crowded and full of old houses. So young Jewish families usually went to St. Louis Park instead, to raise children in comfortable new ramblers. As a tight-knit community, once the migration began, the older generations followed — and sold their North Side homes.
The move to St. Louis Park was quick. In 1936, almost 70% of Minneapolis-area Jews lived in Near North. By 1963, only about 25% were in Near North.
As Jews moved out of the city, many Black people were moving in, part of the second wave of the Great Migration. They were pushed into Jewish Near North by the segregated housing market. Jewish-owned homes became either rented housing, or the promise of homeownership for Black families.
But homeownership would not be as easy as the cheap housing loans that opened the suburbs to Jews. Because of redlining, Black people were refused loans to buy a house. And unable to buy a house anywhere other than Near North, prices skyrocketed.
As a result, the mundane act of selling a house became an exploitative profit opportunity for real estate agents.
In 1962, Earl Finlayson, a white man, decided to sell his home on Logan Avenue North, on Minneapolis’ North Side, and head to St. Louis Park. The Star Tribune documented what happened next; a common story for many area homes.
Finlayson listed the house for $14,500, but nobody would buy it. After three years, Finlayson gave up trying to sell the house himself, and he sold it to Hark Realty instead for $8,400.
Hark paid off a remaining mortgage, took out another loan on the house, and sold it to the family of Charity Daniel, a Black woman, for $14,900 on what Harvey Katzovitz called a “contract for deed.”
This contract was, essentially, an extreme form of rent. The Daniels’ paid a fee every month, plus insurance and other costs, to Hark, with the promise that once the contract was paid in full, the house would be theirs.
Daniel’s daughter, helping to pay for the house, told the Star Tribune how the contract payments left little money for much else. “Paint? We haven’t gotten around to that yet,” she said. “The place needs lots of fixing up, but these payments are knocking us all for a loop.”
At face value, contract selling was a unique way to get around redlining loan restrictions and offer houses to Black families. But as one of the only opportunities for Black homeownership, real estate agents across the country took full advantage of the ability to gouge prices and impose any payment terms they liked. Rarely did contract selling actually result in owning a house; instead, it led to poverty.
As an example of the damage caused by this predatory practice, contract selling exploited Chicago Black families out of $3 to $4 billion in wealth in the 1950s and 60s, according to a 2019 report.
And when renting, price gouging still remained a reality for Black families.
In Chicago, as in Minneapolis and other northern American cities, many realtors who used contract selling for gain were Jewish, a natural result of Black people being pushed into Jewish city neighborhoods by covenants and redlining.
And in pursuit of profit, these realtors pushed the cycle of selling to happen faster and to more houses. In doing so, they drove rapid neighborhood change and poverty.
Full Circle: Blockbusting
At first, Jews left metropolitan neighborhoods for the pull of the American Dream in the suburbs. Houses were new, the area was spacious, schools were considered higher quality.
But as realtors and redlining had their way with Black Americans, formerly Jewish neighborhoods like Near North deteriorated; a change that became associated with the Black community, rather than the policies that caused it.
For Jews in Near North, the move to the suburbs became more explicitly a move away from the city by the 1960s. There were stories of Jewish kids being beaten up by gangs in schools and on the streets. Property became visibly run-down. With poverty came concern about crime.
As more Black people moved into Near North, it was also assumed that property values for Jewish and white residents would drop and wipe out housing wealth — a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to redlining policies.
Fear was in the air. And realtors knew that, with a touch of strategy, fear could drive many people to sell their homes for cheap all at once, kickstarting the cycle of contracts for deed.
The strategies used to spark sales fall, collectively, under the banner of blockbusting. Blockbusting ranged from hiring Black people to walk through a white neighborhood with a baby stroller, to well-placed ads, to staging break-ins to scare homeowners.
The practice is hard to trace (few realtors admit to it) but the result is clear: Mass sell-offs, dubbed panic selling, like the one that hit the Homewood neighborhood in Near North at the time of the Grant urban renewal project in 1964.
“Jews were not trying to be malicious by selling to blockbusters; they truly believed they were doing what was best for them and their families,” says Star-Lack, the Carleton historian. Because of redlining, “they had to move to the suburbs or face financial ruin.”
Blockbusting became easier in Near North, particularly once the frustrations of some disenfranchised Black North-Siders came to a boil. First in 1966, when a few shops on Plymouth Avenue were burned in protest, and then in 1967, when three days of civil unrest destroyed much of the commercial strip.
As the main artery of Near North, Plymouth Avenue was home to many Jewish-owned businesses that felt the heat — a detail that took on different weights across communities.
“Part of what the uprising was about was a statement about the inequality [in Near North],” said Belton, of the Twin Cities Urban League. “It wasn’t focused specifically on the Jewish community.”
But the image of burning Jewish shops didn’t lend itself to a conversation about civil rights and the systemic exploitation of Black people. Instead, the remaining Jews on Minneapolis’ North Side had had enough, and a new wave left for the suburbs.
“My generation, we were born during the Depression, we grew up during the Second World War…we finally found some peace in the 50s, and I’ll tell you, by the 60s, where it was happening on Plymouth Avenue, I think we were just kind of like, ‘oh shit,’ you know?” said Marilyn Chiat, a local Jewish historian who grew up on the North Side in the 1930s and 40s.
“I think we just didn’t have the energy,” she said. “We just wanted some peace.”
The Black community in Near North had the same wants, Belton said.
“The same fear about the uprising that impacted the Jewish community also impacted the Black community,” he said. “There were lots of Black people who also were fearful, who were uncertain, who wanted to leave.”
But blockbusting, aimed at Jews, points to the larger reality of Near North. The Black community was trapped.
“The ability to abandon is an economic privilege,” Belton said. Jews “were leaving people who were not able to leave.”
One of the few recorded cases of blockbusting in North Minneapolis, found by Star-Lack, happened shortly after the first Plymouth Avenue unrest in 1966. Morris Klugman, head of the realty Gail Company (and then-vice president of the Twin Cities B’nai B’rith Council), put an advertisement for his business in The American Jewish World, the Twin Cities Jewish newspaper.
“Krazy Klugman will buy all the property you have for sale on the North Side,” the ad read. “Watch your neighbors sell when our signs go up.”
Some Jews, seeing the ad, complained to the Jewish Community Relations Council that it was a form of blockbusting, and executive director Samuel Scheiner called Klugman to stop the ad from running anywhere else.
Klugman would pull the ad, but not before candidly defending himself as a product of the Jewish community. A JCRC report described that “Mr. Klugman remained adamant that he was entitled to run this kind of an ad.”
“[Klugman] indicated that he had not created the situation on the North Side but that the Jewish community had created the situation for itself by having made a mass exodus from the area…therefore there was nothing wrong with an individual taking advantage of the situation.”
The Rift of Blame and Anti-Semitism
By the late 1960s, most Minneapolis-area Jews and Jewish institutions had left Near North, and accusations of Jewish real estate exploitation morphed into full-blown attacks.
In 1969, the newspaper of The Way, a Black community center in Near North established after the Plymouth Avenue unrest, published a scathing editorial.
“Just because we have seen many Jewish slumlords own the rat and roach tenements and make no attempt to make these dwellings fit for human dwelling and fight against it; we are called antisemitic,” the editorial read. “Jewish brothers, have no fear, we are not antisemitic…we will fight anyone that is or attempts to exploit the Black Community.”
But Jewish leaders had a tough time engaging with what felt, despite the denials, to be a wave of anti-Semitism. The conversation was irreconcilable.
“We had all kinds of bitter attacks by the Blacks on ‘the Rothschilds of the North Side.’ They never said, ‘the Jews.’ It was ‘the Rothschilds,’” said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, then-rabbi of Beth El, in an interview with the St. Louis Park Oral History Project.
“They were talking, ‘Every revolution has to have its bloodshed.’ I remember responding, ‘But, you’re talking about my blood and I’m not going to shed it.’ So, there were bitter exacerbated feelings that grew and were never bridged between the Jews of the North Side and the Blacks.”
Across the country, as versions of the Near North story played out in other cities, those feelings stayed unresolved.