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1927 Radical New Community

By Rick Hampson

On Oct. 7, 1927, a group of progressive city and town planners gathered at a farm in Netcong, N.J., to discuss a preliminary plan for a radical new community – so new it did not yet have a name.

That community, which would be announced publicly three months later as Radburn, was not intended to be just another elite suburb. It would have housing for various ages and incomes, and jobs for various skills.

Which is why one item on the Netcong conference agenda has particular resonance today: “What should be the policy in relation to the admission of Negroes and other people of races other than white?’’

It may have been the first time in Radburn’s history the issue was raised, but not the last. Residents have long discussed whether their community excluded non-whites and non-Christians, and if so, how.

The historical record makes this much clear:

For at least its first two decades, Radburn systematically excluded as residents virtually all people of color and virtually all Jews.

This policy was tacitly approved by Radburn’s founders and subsequently carried out by its administrators.

Potential residents were excluded not by written policy, but through informal “steering” by real estate agents working with or for Radburn’s developer, the City Housing Corp., and the successor company that emerged from its 1934 bankruptcy.

The result was a fascinating and disturbing paradox: a community supposedly designed to be economically and socially diverse was in fact run more like a private club, on the theory that if residents were alike, Radburn would be more cohesive and its people more content.

Daniel Schaffer, author of the definitive history of Radburn, puts it this way: “Ironically, the homogeneity the formulators of the Radburn Idea wanted to avoid was perceived as a common good by the town’s administrators.’’

But that lets Radburn’s founding “formulators’’ off the hook. The de facto exclusion policy -- which lasted at least until the 1950s – has roots in the Netcong brainstorming session, 18 months before the first residents moved into 2 Allen Place.

A garden city for America

The site of the retreat was a Gilded Age estate-cum-dairy farm that had been donated to the Hudson Guild, a settlement house on Manhattan’s lower West Side.

Although the Hudson Guild used the farm mostly as a camp for poor city kids, it also was the site of meetings by the Regional Planning Association of America, a group that sought to develop an American garden city like Letchworth in England.

The planned community under discussion that weekend in 1927 was designed to reduce urban congestion, separate pedestrians and vehicles, and connect people with nature and each other. It was organized not with a street grid, like New York, but around large parks. Houses on relatively small lots fronted onto these parks, or paths to the parks; they backed onto dead-end lanes that handled motor traffic.

Among the conference participants were Radburn’s prime movers:

Clarence Stein, an architect and housing reform activist;

Alexander Bing, a Manhattan real estate tycoon who’d Stein enlisted to found the quasi-philanthropic City Housing Corporation to build a garden city;

Henry Wright, Stein’s partner and a brilliant site planner;

Lewis Mumford, a prominent social philosopher and eloquent advocate of what became known as the Radburn Idea.

Stein also had assembled an array of outside experts, including Belle Moskowitz, New York Governor Al Smith’s top aide; Felix Adler, founder of Ethical Culture movement; Richard T. Ely, the progressive economist (and later Radburn resident); and the nation’s two leading city planners, John Nolen and Thomas Adams.

The racial admission policy was one item on the two-day agenda. (Others included “How many people must there be before there could be a good elementary school?’’ and “What sort of controls are necessary to attain and protect a Garden City’s beauty?’’)

A summary of the race session, preserved in Mumford’s papers at the University of Pennsylvania, is described in Clarence Stein: Community Architect (2016) by Kristin E. Larsen.

It includes this back and forth:

John Lovejoy Elliott, founder of the Hudson Guild, said any decision on the race issue should be made not by the developer (City Housing Corp.), but by the community itself once it was established.

Clarence Stein disagreed, saying the policy “would have to be laid down at the beginning.’’ (He apparently did not say what the policy should be.)

Elliott expressed discomfort with the admissions policy at Sunnyside Gardens, the community in Queens that the CHC had developed a few years earlier. Though he “appreciated the necessity of not endangering the development of Sunnyside by permitting Negroes to enter in its experimental stages,’’ Elliott “felt it would be a great mistake if this remained a permanent policy’’ at the community that would become Radburn.

Mumford (who, like Henry Wright, lived at Sunnyside) cited “the practical difficulty in adopting such a plan’’ – that is, a more liberal admissions policy – “in connection with development and scale.’’

“With that,’’ Larsen writes, “the matter was dropped.’’

Radburn homes went on sale the following year. But not to everyone.

Unwritten rules

In his book Garden Cities for America: The Radburn Experience, Daniel Schaffer writes that “evidence about Radburn’s discriminatory policies is difficult to obtain. Written documents are not available, and residents are reluctant to discuss such a sensitive issue.’’

Schaffer would know. He worked on the Radburn Association staff in the late 1970s, and used Radburn’s archives in his role as coordinator of 50th anniversary observances. He later obtained his Ph. D at Rutgers.

He concludes that “Radburn followed no explicit policy of discrimination…’’ The community’s restrictive covenants, which would help maintain its character for nine decades, do not mention race, ethnicity or religion.

Instead, discrimination was informal and unwritten: “Realtors hired by the CHC discouraged Jews – as well as Blacks – from moving into Radburn,’’ Schaffer concludes, “…to create what they saw as a congenial environment.’’

In an interview, John O. Walker, who in the early ‘30s became Radburn’s second manager, told Schaffer that in those days prospective homeowners had to fill out a questionnaire that was used to determine “if the family would fit into Radburn’s social environment.’’

“We tried to get people who fit together,’’ Walker explained. Schaffer writes that “similarities in background and interests were promoted in order to protect the community’s solidarity.’’

Radburn’s exclusivity was no secret. Schaffer says first-generation residents he interviewed in the ‘70s described “a general belief that would-be homeowners were screened to exclude Blacks and Jews.’’

In her memoir of growing up in Radburn in the 1940s, Worst of the Lot, Lois Ann Bull writes: “Should an unwelcome minority appear in the Radburn real estate office, the sales people said, ‘You wouldn’t like it here,’ and the people never saw the property.’’’

The exclusion of Blacks seems to have been absolute. As for Jews, a survey of Radburn households in the early 1930s found that 94% -- 315 of 335 families -- were Protestant or Catholic. They were followed, in descending order, by Jews, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, Mormons and Ethical Culture Society members.

Jane Lyle Diepeveen, a Radburn resident and historian, wrote in 2010 that Maxwell Goldburgh, a leading real estate agent in Radburn’s early days, once told her he’d “made it a point” to sell homes to two Jewish families. (Schaffer says one was a mixed Christian-Jewish household).

But in a metro region with over 2 million Jews, many with the means and desire to leave increasingly crowded cities for a suburban “garden city,’’ Goldburgh’s seems a modest boast.

(By 1972, however, Rabbi Simon Glustrom of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center would tell The New York Times that, despite a history of exclusion, “Jews are not unwelcome in Radburn today... I do not hear of any feelings of rejection, implicit or explicit.’’ In 2020, at least a third of Radburn residents are Jewish, including refugees from the former Soviet Union.)

The price of exclusion was paid by others besides the excluded. Lois Ann Bull writes that “this unspoken dictum (of exclusion) denied my classmates and me the opportunity to mix with people from different backgrounds and beliefs. Although not seen as a drawback at the time, looking back I see a missing texture among my young friends that might have made my grade school experience more interesting and educational.’’

Housing problem, racial problem

Discriminatory sales policies like Radburn’s were virtually universal in the ‘30s and ‘40s on America’s expanding suburban frontier.

The huge Long Island suburb of Levittown, which opened in 1947, put its exclusion in writing; clause 25 of its lease agreement (which offered an option to buy) stated in capital letters and bold type that the property could not "be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.’’

Seven years later – long after the Supreme Court had declared such restrictive covenants unconstitutional -- William Levitt told the Saturday Evening Post that he could solve a housing problem, or he could try to solve a racial problem. He couldn’t do both.

One might have hoped more of Radburn. But Bing, as a developer, probably shared his industry’s assumption that whites would not buy homes in neighborhoods where Blacks lived (or could live.)

And Radburn’s two first resident managers, Louis Brownlow and John Walker, were both from the segregated South. Brownlow, whose father was a Civil War veteran, had been city manager in Knoxville, Tenn., and Petersburg, Va., in the Jim Crow era.

But Clarence Stein’s silence on the issue is more troubling. He was the personification of progressive idealism. And he was Jewish.

There’s no question he knew what was going on; his letters show he continued to visit Radburn and talk with Walker even after ending his business relationship with City Housing in 1931.

His biographer, Larsen, hypothesizes that “Stein’s intense focus on his design and community building ideas allowed him to elude one of the most significant challenges of the 20th century – segregation.’’ He seemed to accept it, she adds, “as a fixed condition he could not change.’’

In this, Stein was like many Americans before and after him. Although there’s no evidence he was a racist or a self-hating Jew, he had priorities other than integration. His Radburn was “safe for children,’’ stimulating for adults, affordable for middle class families. But diversity was sacrificed for sociability, compatibility and conformity.

We today might wish Stein and his colleagues had done better. Whether it is fair to condemn them, especially given our own failures, is another question.

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