New urbanists and old-fashioned Jews

Michael Lewyn's picture

A few years ago, someone asked me the following question (loosely paraphrased) on a listserv: "Since the most tradition-minded* religious Jews are required by Jewish law to walk to synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days (and thus presumably prize walkability) why aren't they a major market for new urbanist developments?" At the time, I didn't have a coherent answer. But now that I know more about both traditional Jews and new urbanism, I do.

A new development (new urbanist or otherwise) far from an existing congregation may have difficulty attracting the most tradition-minded Jews, for the simple reason that most such Jews would rather live near a preexisting congregation than move elsewhere, pray at home for a few years, and wait for enough people to follow them for a congregation to emerge. (Of course, it does happen now and then).

To be sure, a congregation does occasionally move en masse- but given that congregants have investments in existing housing, this rarely happens (except perhaps in times of rapid neighborhood transition, such as the third quarter of the 20th century when many urban neighborhoods switched from all-white to all-black over a very short period of time).

Of course, an infill new urbanist development could be located near an existing congregation. But infill developers will not always be able to get large numbers of observant Jewish customers. Here's why: new housing usually tends to be more expensive than old housing. But the most traditional Jews tend to have less money to spend on housing than the most affluent buyers, for two reasons.

First, among Jews (as among Christians) the most religiously traditional people tend to have the largest families. Lots of mouths to feed mean less money to spend on housing, which is why Orthodox Jewish communities (where the majority of congregants usually walk to synagogue) are rarely in a city's most expensive neighborhoods, except in large cities with lots of Orthodox communities. Second, large families usually need more space than small families, which means that if a large, religiously traditional Jewish family has extra housing dollars to spend, it will spend those dollars on extra space rather than on a newer house.

As a result of these factors, the most observant Jews tend to be disproportionately attracted to older, not-too-expensive inner suburbs: older because (as noted above) any new development will not immediately attract a critical mass of religious Jews, inner suburban because inner suburbs usually have cheaper housing and more space than downtown neighborhoods. For example, in Atlanta the center of Orthodox Jewry is Toco Hills, a 1950s suburb just past the city limits of Atlanta.** Indeed, I would posit that religious Jews are to 1950s suburbs what gays and artists are to intown neighborhoods: a group disproportionately attracted to neighborhoods that might deteriorate in the absence of that group's presence.

*Usually Orthodox, but not always: not all Jews belonging to Orthodox congregations have taken on this religious obligation, and a minority of non-Orthodox Jews have done so.

**Although there are Orthodox congregations outside Toco Hills, my sense is that their members tend to be less religiously strict than those of the Toco Hills congregations. Similarly, in some other cities where there are multiple Orthodox communities, the strictest tend to be in middle-aged suburbs or "outer borough" city neighborhoods rather than in downtown or the newest suburbs. For example, in Philadelphia, the most strict Orthodox Jews tend to be in inner-suburban Northeastern Philadelphia, while downtown Philadelphia's Orthodox Jews tend to be more moderate.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Orthodox Jews and their neighborhoods

All Orthodox Jews walk to shul. It is a hallmark of Orthodoxy that one is shomer Shabbos, that means walking.

It think your analogy regarding Orthodox Jews being disproportionately attracted to neighborhoods that would otherwise be slums is a really disgusting and disparaging thing to say.
Orthodox Jews live near the synagogue and often the shul has been in a particular location for decades. If the neighborhood changes, so be it, the shul is the center of the community, so you deal with the changed neighborhood. But to say, as result that Orthodox Jews are disproportionately ATTRACTED to slum like neighborhoods is really anti-semetic or anti-orthodox. You claim in your other posts to be concerned about urban configurations and the walkability to shuls, yet you say such a thing. YOu should rewrite the article, retract that sentence and learn to be more circumspect. How disresepctful and disgusting.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Good point, let me rephrase

Obviously, I was not as clear as I could have been, for which I apologize.

I was not trying to say that these neighborhoods (one of which I have lived in for the past three years) are "slumlike."

I was trying to say that such neighborhoods (i.e. inner suburbs built in the 1950s through 1980s) are generally not as popular with middle-class people as they once were, and thus COULD BECOME slum like if Orthodox Jews did not stay there- that they are in essence saving the neighborhood from becoming slumlike.

And when I referred to nonpracticing Orthodox Jews, I probably should have said "Jews belonging to Orthodox congregations", since obviously one's level of observance is not always dictated by where one worships.

As Asa has suggested, I made a couple of minor corrections to the article to clarify my point.

Winnipeg as a case study

Winnipeg is an interesting case study for exactly your theory of Jewish communities keeping certain neighbourhoods afloat and vibrant. A hundred years ago, the most Jewish area of Winnipeg was along Selkirk Avenue in the "North End" - just north of the rail yards that have historically divided wealthier central and south Winnipeg from the poorer northern neighbourhoods. This was an area shared primarily by poor Jews, Ukrainians and Poles, and yes, this segregation of poor eastern European "undesirables" was unfortunately intentional (I'm sure every city has a rather dark and racist past). As each group grew more prosperous, the city expanded further north and all three groups moved out of the old North End to the newer but still working class areas of the North End. Over the years, the old North End area around Selkirk Avenue has gone from poor but vibrant and safe, to the poorest and possibly the most dangerous area of the city.

The Ukrainians and Poles stayed in the newer northern part of the North End and it is still a lower-middle income relatively safe working class area today. The Jewish community continued to become even wealthier (and less and less orthodox), and over the past 10-15 years, almost the entire Jewish community of Winnipeg has migrated to a very wealthy neighbourhood in the south end of the city called Tuxedo.

You can see from this that the strong Jewish community really did an amazing job of holding these older poor neighbourhoods together. With the older synagogues closing down, and the Jewish butchers, delis and other stores almost entirely gone from the North End, those of us who live in the inner-city have really lost a valuable community asset.

I see Michael Lewyn's comments about Jewish communities preventing neighbourhoods from becoming slums not as a racist remark, but as a strong bit of admiration for the strength of Jewish communities.

I wrote about this issue in

I wrote about this issue in my thesis, since in some communities where the original Jewish community location gentrified over time, housing prices have skyrocketed, but the Jewish community stays in the area despite the cost, due to the issue of walkability to synagogue on Shabbat. Let me know if you want a copy of what I wrote.

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