This is Part 1 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 the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Jewish community has developed a ritual in the publishing of op-eds to explain why Jews and Black people should be united in the modern Civil Rights movement.
One of the most recent of these op-eds, by historians Deborah Lipstadt and Ethan Katz, demonstrates a central tenet of the liberal Jewish mindset about Black-Jewish relations. Look no further than the headline to find it: “Far more unites Black and Jewish Americans than divides them.”
A well-meaning sentiment for a cause many Jews support. But how true is it?
Across the country, particularly in segregated Midwestern cities like Minneapolis, Jewish and Black communities have long been divided by a basic — but consequential — fact of opportunity. In the story of inequality and the gap between Black and white America, Jews overwhelmingly fall on the white side of the color line.
Minneapolis has one of the lowest major metro homeownership rates for Black people in the country, at 25 percent, compared to 76 percent for white people. The Jewish homeownership rate in the city is also 76 percent, according to the 2019 Twin Cities Jewish Population study. A Brookings Institution study shows that the median income of whites in Minneapolis is between 120 percent and 140 percent higher than Blacks, which is comparable to the disparities in other northern cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland.
In nearly every measure of racial disparity, Minneapolis secures the same poor reputation held by many cities in the Midwest. It has one of the highest Black-white education achievement gaps in the country. Here, Black poverty was more than four times higher than white poverty — before the pandemic.
As one 2019 report on race put it, major metro areas in the Midwest are “among the very worst places to live for African-Americans” in the country. Across the color line, most Jews live in a very different America.
And though it may be uncomfortable to face, there is a distinct Jewish history to this inequality.
In Minneapolis, Black poverty is concentrated in and around historically Black and immigrant neighborhoods, according to a 2014 report by the Metropolitan Council — neighborhoods like Near North, on Minneapolis’ North Side, which once housed the majority of Twin Cities Jews before they migrated to St. Louis Park in the 1950s and 60s.
The colloquial Jewish story of why the community exited, and how the area became mired in poverty, goes something like this:
At the same time that St. Louis Park was welcoming Jews, the second wave of the Great Migration brought more Black people to Minneapolis, seeking a better life than they were likely to have in the South.
Many settled in and around Jewish Near North, one of the few areas of Hennepin County Black people could rent or buy a house, and where there already was a small, but established, Black community. For a time, Jews and Black people lived side by side.
Both communities thrived, with Black and Jewish businesses supporting the climb of social mobility. The first Black Minneapolis mayoral candidate, Harry Davis Sr., grew up in Near North.
But over time, as many Jews saw it, the arrival of more Black families coincided with a decline of the North Side. That perception is what pushed Ellen Roitenberg’s parents to leave in the late 1950s for St. Louis Park.
“I would say that they could see the handwriting on the wall. The place was beginning to deteriorate,” Roitenberg said in an interview for the St. Louis Park Oral History Project. “We were getting more, Blacks, different types of people moving in on lower Plymouth Avenue. And before you know it, from looking at other cities and hearing from other people, things begin to change after awhile.”
Parents complained that the schools were low-quality. Properties became more run down. Anxiety about crime increased.
And in 1967, the violent spirit of the Civil Rights era came to visit when Plymouth Avenue burned on the North Side.
From July 19-21, the Jewish businesses of that commercial strip had windows smashed and buildings set on fire as protesters faced off against police. The National Guard was called in and patrolled the area for more than a week.
The Plymouth Avenue unrest (alternatively deemed “race riots,” “uprising,” or “rebellion,” depending on who is asked) by Black North-Siders was aimed at the same issues as the George Floyd protests that began on Chicago and 38th the week after Memorial Day: Police brutality, mass incarceration, racist education and housing policies, lack of city investment, and unemployment.
Jews, particularly after seeing Jewish shops destroyed, were scared.
“After the riots in the 1960s, you’d better believe there was panic on the North Side,” says Marilyn Chiat, a local Jewish historian who grew up on the North Side. “Understandably, who were these people, these used to be our neighbors.”
And so, the Jews who had remained in the city fled for the suburbs — most often to St. Louis Park.
“Kids I went to school with were there one week, and had moved…the next week,” after the Plymouth Avenue unrest, said Maurice Lazarus in an interview for the St. Louis Park Oral History Project. Lazarus grew up in North Minneapolis.
In time, Black poverty in Near North became more entrenched, while the Jewish community benefited from the affluence and integration of suburbia.
By leaving, Jews “didn’t deal with [Near North poverty] anymore, hands-on, eyes-on,” Lazarus said. “But a lot of the kids that suffered these kinds of inequalities and lack of opportunities, they stayed there.”
These are all cities that experienced civil unrest in the late 1960s in what used to be Jewish neighborhoods. The same neighborhoods that today, like Near North, are focal points for Black poverty.
But this story, and this trend, is no accident — something most communities, including in Minnesota, haven’t bothered to try and understand.
“There isn’t a willingness to engage in the conversation. To ask ourselves, ‘Okay, but why were Jews able to leave [city neighborhoods], and Black people weren’t,’” says Hannah Lebovits, a former member of the Cleveland Jewish community who is now a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington. “I’d like to encourage people to recognize if you were all living in the same neighborhood, but one group is rioting in the street, maybe it’s because they don’t have access to the same things. You got to stand up and leave. They couldn’t. What does that mean?
“That means that you had a privilege that this group didn’t have. But people don’t take that next step when they talk about that push out of the city.”
Why Jews could find security in the suburbs, and why the Plymouth Avenue unrest happened, and why there is such inequality in Minneapolis and other cities today? These threads are all connected.
They are the inevitable result of racist real estate policies like covenants and redlining. These policies trapped Black Americans in Jewish city neighborhoods, drove them into long-term poverty, and simultaneously made the white suburbs, like St. Louis Park, available to Jews.
The legacy of this systemic racism continues to shape the disenfranchised neighborhoods of Midwestern and northern cities today. And the lives and deaths of Black people like George Floyd, half a century after Plymouth Avenue.
Recent scholarship shows how these policies played out in Minneapolis, giving Jews access to inter-generational housing wealth and stability as a direct result of anti-Black discrimination. The decline of Near North is also given new light: The region didn’t decline because Black people came, as many Jews thought, but because the Jewish community left.
This four-part series aims to explore that history, wrestle with its complexities, and find a way to reconcile with its legacy.
This is no easy task. The Jewish community prefers to remember the 1960s as a time of proud participation in the Civil Rights movement.
But the fact is that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma — perhaps the ultimate symbol of Black and Jewish partnership against inequality — Jewish communities were cogs in the machine of an American effort to disenfranchise the Black citizens of this country.
“I think that the [current political] moment, like so many before it, requires a kind of reckoning with the history of how Jews gained access to resources in the United States,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of Jewish history at Temple University who wrote Metropolitan Jews, a book about the Jewish urban history of Detroit.
“We don’t have to sit around and say who was racist or who wasn’t racist. But we have to own the fact that we were participating in this racist system.”