View all Articles
Commentary By Howard Husock

Ben Carson Is Right

Cities Housing

Growing up in a ghetto can be a good thing. It was for me.

I grew up in a ghetto—not an inner-city ghetto with all the characteristics that term has come to suggest but rather a suburban enclave east of Cleveland called South Euclid, Ohio. Mine was a streetscape of small, wood-frame or brick postwar bungalow “starter homes”—about 1,500 of them—that went up roughly en masse and to which lower-middle-class and working-class families moved along with other upwardly mobile people who were spilling over the borders of then-thriving Cleveland. They were junk merchants, radio repairmen, barbers, accountants, sales reps, carpenters, contractors. No doctors or lawyers. And not many amenities as yet—a nearby main road in South Euclid was still unpaved when my family moved there in 1950.

South Euclid was not, to be sure, an officially sanctioned ghetto like the one in Venice from which the word “ghetto” derives—an area in which Jews were forced to live and could not leave except at prescribed times. One might more properly define South Euclid’s 30 blocks as a neighborhood of ethnic concentration.

Today, the very notion of such concentration is officially discouraged by the federal government. We live at a time when “fair housing” policy is explicitly designed to break up the sort of neighborhood in which I came of age. The Department of Housing and Urban Development officially seeks “to foster the diversity and strength of communities by overcoming historic patterns of segregation, reducing racial or ethnic concentrations of poverty, and . . . reducing disparities in housing choice and access to housing and opportunity based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability, thereby expanding economic opportunity and enhancing the quality of life.”

This statement can only be read to mean that residential diversity and multiculturalism are to be considered the ultimate goals for all places in which Americans live, and the achievement of such aims are given practical boosts through policy interventions such as using federal housing vouchers to disperse black families into affluent suburbs.

Interestingly, the new HUD secretary, Ben Carson, has decried and disavowed these ideas as “social engineering.” Implicitly, then, Carson is saying that neighborhoods of ethnic concentration can be naturally occurring phenomena in a social ecosystem and that the government toys with them at its peril.

Can ghettoes be defended on their own terms? The short answer for one who grew up in a ghetto—and it was by no means a gilded one—is yes, and not just for Jews. They bring with them virtues we dare not dismiss, along with drawbacks that can be addressed.

To be clear, I am not speaking of housing-market segregation imposed by law—involuntary ghettoization, in other words, whether in Venice or the Jim Crow South. I’m using “ghetto” loosely and raising the question of whether we should be concerned because groups of people with similar racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds dominate a given neighborhood.

That’s what I knew growing up. The house-by-house historical records confirm what I realized in elementary school, when we were asked how many would be absent on a high holiday: Virtually every household was Jewish. The names read like the wall of plaques one finds in a synagogue or the headstones at a Jewish cemetery: Jaffe, Herskovits, Goldhammer, Abramson, Greenberg.

It was, of course, something one took for granted in childhood. Why wouldn’t almost all the kids in class be Jewish? Why wouldn’t there be a neighborhood bus, with multiple stops, serving my nearby afternoon Hebrew School? It was not, of course, inevitable. Decades later, when such neighborhoods are apparently considered undesirable and indeed even un-American in some respect, one wonders how it came to be—and reflects on its effects.

To some extent, this clustering was the product of residual housing discrimination. So-called restrictive covenants—deed restrictions that barred or implicitly discouraged sales to Jews—continued to block Jewish access to some suburban neighborhoods outside Cleveland. As Marian Morton has written in her essay “Racial and Religious Covenants in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, 1925–1970,” “Most covenants targeted specific racial groups . . . some covenants mentioned Hebrews. The covenants in Shaker Heights and Forest Hill did not mention any specific racial group but required that a property could not be re-sold without the consent of the developer and/or the surrounding neighbors. . . . The context in which these covenants were created . . . made it clear that the real targets, as elsewhere, were Jews and African-Americans.”

“Seen broadly, the Jewish community at large created my ghetto neighborhood, implicitly acting on the assumption that doing so was a positive thing.”

But even as some restrictions remained, Cleveland’s Jewish community, aiming to move up and out of the city, did not rely on legal efforts to move to suburbia. Rather, community institutions worked, as if in coordination, to facilitate and serve the emerging suburban ghettoes. Local Jewish newspapers of the time told the story, in ways small and big. In 1952, a Passover ad made clear that Irving’s Kosher Meat Market of St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland now offered free delivery of its “full line of poultry and choice cuts of meat” to South Euclid. Irving’s would eventually move to its new customer base; my family occasionally shopped there. So it was, too, with larger institutions:


“Young Israel of Cleveland has filed to permit the construction of a synagogue center on Cedar Road. . . . Aside from the fact that many of Young Israel members reside in South Euclid . . . the synagogue is planned to serve the large unaffiliated Jewish population of the area, which at present does not have a synagogue.”

A Jewish Community Center, relocated from the city, would be built in nearby—also-heavily-Jewish—Cleveland Heights, offering a settlement-house-style buffet of services such as pool, gym, youth clubs, and lectures for adults. My own newly built elementary school was also involved: “Attention, Parents! A new branch of the Cleveland Hebrew Schools is being opened in the new and modern Rowland Public Schools Building on Bayard Road.” Over time, the combination of housing and institutional expansion fed on itself: “South Euclid Colonial, by owner, charming 3-bedroom home, near school and synagogue,” read one ad.

Notably, Jewish homebuilders played a role, too. My home was built by the Luxenbergs, themselves the children of Polish immigrants. Mortgage deed records show that various Luxenbergs sold hundreds of homes to families with names such as Jacobs, Katz, Kleinman, Kahn, and Stein. Like Irving’s Meat Market on a far bigger scale, the Luxenbergs likely understood, because of their familiarity with the Jewish community, where demand was heading and capitalized on the opportunity. Seen broadly, then, the Jewish community at large—synagogues, builders, retailers, and, of course, homebuyers—created my ghetto neighborhood, implicitly acting on the assumption that doing so was a positive thing.

There are good reasons to conclude, in retrospect, that they were right. Crucially, a concentration of population created what is now called “social capital.” The array of institutions that would surround my household were made possible in part by sheer geographic concentration. Nearby synagogues, shops, the community center, even a golf course/country club established in response to anti-Semitism in similar facilities were all within a mile or two of my house. My childhood intersected with almost all of them; I remain close with a number of those who were members of a teenage boys’ club at the Jewish Community Center, without doubt crucial to our successfully coming of age.

Social capital included, as well, a concentration of attitudes. I recall one friend’s mother—the father was a television repairman—who urged the two of us to watch the game show Tic, Tac, Dough every day when we came home from school for lunch because it was “very educational.” That probably mattered less in inspiring my own intellectual curiosity than the fact that my engineer father, an outlier on the block as a college graduate, was reading Koestler and Bellow and subscribing to Max Ascoli’s great magazine, the Reporter. But the very fact that I remember her comment shows how it reinforced the importance of education in the community. At elementary school, there was a clear awareness of which class was the “advanced” one and a desire to be chosen for it. It came as no surprise that one childhood peer went on to become the Ohio speaker of the House, another a network news executive, another a top AIPAC official, one even a major-league baseball pitcher. Many more became local lawyers and owner/inheritors of family businesses.

Growing up in a homogeneous area had its psychological effects as well—but no feeling of being trapped. In my swatch of South Euclid, there was no sense of Jewishness being strange, of its being something that one had to explain or even hide. Oddly, as a result, Jewishness, became largely irrelevant. One learned to view one’s peers, first and only, as individuals. Who was smart, who was athletic, who was well-dressed, whom might one plausibly befriend? When others were different, they were not different because they were members of a different group—even when, in the rare instance, they were. My friend whose Jewish mother married a Southerner whom she nursed in war liked to boast that his father was a descendant of Stonewall Jackson. That seemed interesting to us, rather than being a mark against him for being a Confederate sympathizer or some such thing. (Of course, we didn’t really believe him; later he went into combat in his own war and was among those shot in the Kent State anti-war protest.)

Other religions, to the extent they were noticed at all, were the exotic faiths—but more just unknown than disliked in any way. I recall one classmate explaining that he would not be absent on a high holiday because he was “Prahtest” (his shorthand for Protestant). His family was left over from the previous wave of WASPs who’d lived in the area before it was built out—before it became what, in current parlance, might be termed an area in which Jews were “segregated.” He was a curiosity, not an enemy. Jewishness then, as it is in Israel, felt normal, not exceptional. It left one with a profound feeling of confidence about being a Jew, a feeling which stayed with me as I went on to navigate the wider world. It was almost a surprise to realize what a small minority we are—it had seemed, on some basic level, that there were so many of us. After all, even though classes at the Justin E. Rowland School (named for a 19th-century Protestant homeopath!) would still meet on the high holidays, we could be sure we would not miss any important lessons, not when 25 of 30 would be absent.

For the adults, the move to South Euclid clearly represented an achievement. They would go so far as to announce their moves in the “social swirl” column of the Jewish Review and the Observer. One family reported in as “Formerly of South Moreland Blvd (Cleveland) now residing at 4049 Verona Road South Euclid.” A bride whose parents lived in South Euclid announced her marriage to the son of parents who lived on E. 149th Street in the city’s blue-collar Jewish Kinsman section. It was a community that was moving on up—and was proud of doing so. The city’s population, which today stands at around 390,000, peaked in 1950 at 914,000—it was the nation’s seventh-largest—and new young families had to cross the city line to achieve social mobility. Local Cleveland Jewish historian Ken Goldberg notes: “The Jewish residents of those streets [in South Euclid] mostly came from the doubles in [the city and closer-in suburbs]. They weren’t used to a lot of space, and it was a very big thing for them to own single homes, with their own yards.”

There is no reason to think that such virtues—social capital, sense of achievement, seeing peers as individuals—cannot still apply to contemporary “ghettoes.” It’s important to emphasize, again, that this is in no way to endorse the idea of involuntary ghettoization. No American should be deterred from buying or renting any home he can afford. It is, rather, to advance the idea that group concentration, by choice, can have virtues—and, especially, to push back against the idea that housing policy should seek to “deconcentrate.”

That sheer concentration has been judged to be per se undesirable is without doubt. The roots of such a view go back to Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose description of life in 1950s Harlem, in his 1965 book Dark Ghetto, reintroduced the term into the American context in racial terms:

“The dark ghettoes are social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies.  Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters. The objective dimensions of the American urban ghetto are overcrowded and deteriorated housing, high infant mortality, crime, and disease. The subjective dimensions are resentment, hostility, despair, apathy, self-depreciation, and its ironic companion, compensatory grandiose behavior.”

Improvement in the lives of black Americans meant, for Clark, neighborhood racial integration generally; racial concentration was, for him, undesirable on its face. He assumed that the snapshot he had taken would be permanent. Clark, moreover, charted the playbook HUD would come to adopt. “An immediate systematic plan is needed to introduce minority group members into the suburbs without, at the same time, building new suburban ghetto substitutes,” Clark wrote in Dark Ghetto. “Such a plan would interrupt accustomed patterns of response to anxiety.”

In a successful 2006 lawsuit against New York’s suburban Westchester County, New York’s Anti-Discrimination Center cited the sheer concentration of black residents as problematic per se. In a case that would lead HUD to order the county to build scattered-site low-income housing throughout its area, the Center cited a litany of facts as evidence of the need for remedy: “40 percent of the municipalities in Westchester have populations which are one percent Black or less, and more than 60 percent have populations which are three percent Black or less. In contrast, Mt. Vernon’s population is 58 percent Black and 10 percent Hispanic; Peekskill’s is 34 percent Black and 22 percent Hispanic; New Rochelle’s is 19 percent Black and 20 percent Hispanic; and Yonkers’ is 15 percent Black and 26 percent Hispanic.”

Their desired remedy followed Clark’s prescription for “systematic” disbursement of African Americans. It was an agreement made in 2009 between the county and HUD that “affordable” housing primarily for minority renters and buyers would be built in communities in which low minority population percentages were judged to be evidence of housing policy failure—specifically a failure to use federal community-development funds to “affirmatively further” fair housing. The suit inspired the Obama-era HUD to promulgate “fair housing” regulations to set similar goals for communities across the country receiving HUD funding. These are the regulations that inspired Carson’s concern about social engineering, and he is right to be concerned. Such regulations ignore both the virtues that can come with voluntary racial and ethnic concentration and the dangers of government interventions in housing markets for social purposes.

No one has better described the benefits to which relatively homogeneous communities can lead than the liberal Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. In his 2007 essay “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam described the downside of diversity: He wrote: “New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rare, friends fewer.” In other words, it was not surprising that so many institutions arose to serve my corner of South Euclid.

It’s important to note, however, that such social capital is not confined to select groups. In “Love and Black Lives in a Pictures Found on a Brooklyn Street,” a poignant article in the New York Times published in January 2017, Annie Correal used a photo album as a vehicle to describe the lives of the Taylor family, who had moved up from Central Harlem to middle-class Crown Heights in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Her description is one Putnam would recognize.

In 1956, the new homeowners formed the Lincoln Civic Block Association, which still exists. “There was a Pokeno circle, a poker circle,” Mr. Burton said. “You’d go from house to house. Nobody had a lock on the door. Our house was never locked. You’d look up, and there’d be cousin so-and-so."

The Burtons pointed out a few houses on Lincoln Place where old-timers still lived. A neighbor, Marilyn LeGall, 72, grew up visiting her aunt and uncle on Lincoln Place. “You played stickball, you jumped rope,” she said. “Everyone looked after the other.”

That was life on Lincoln Place, said Arthur Bates Jr., 56, who grew up on the block. “It was a real neighborhood, and a black experience no one talks about, because it wasn’t filled with drugs and it wasn’t filled with poverty,” Mr. Bates said. “It was public schools, it was playing ball, it was playing music.”

These families, too, could bask in the achievement of moving up to a better neighborhood. That it changed from white to black during their time there does not imply that it became a bad neighborhood.

It’s clear that community psychology matters a great deal. If one feels—or is told by the wider culture—that one is “trapped in the ghetto,” it’s difficult to feel positive about the experience. But if one feels that the community has been formed by choice, can be improved through group efforts, and can launch families upward, the effect is quite different. The message sent by the broader culture in this regard is crucial.


Which is not to say that we should all live in areas of racial, ethnic, or religious concentration. A critical mass of those with whom we share characteristics in common would do. Putnam, for example, envisions “creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.”

At the same time, one must be concerned about efforts, as envisioned by Kenneth Clark and those he influenced at HUD, to use the expedient of federal policy to avoid ghettoization by dispersing lower-income blacks and Hispanics into previously “segregated” white neighborhoods (which, of course, may well have their own ethnic and religious concentrations). Doing so is dangerous for a variety of reasons. It is a policy based, first, on the pernicious concept that poor minority neighborhoods are inherently and inevitably bad ones from which we must expedite “escape”—rather than working to secure for them the good schools and safe streets that lay the foundation for upward mobility.

The same “affirmatively furthering fair housing” policy devalues the achievement of minority group members who have, through their own efforts, moved up and out from poverty. Most important, government efforts to integrate neighborhoods not only by race but also by income group are a recipe for tension. As Herbert Gans observed in his classic 1961 book, The Levittowners: “Experience with residential integration in many communities, including Levittown, indicates that it can be achieved without problems when the two races are similar in socioeconomic level and in the visible cultural aspects of class.”

In other words, Carson got it basically right at his HUD secretary confirmation hearing when he said (according to the Washington Examiner): “We have people sitting around [desks] in Washington, D.C., deciding how things should be done, telling mayors and commissioners you need to build this place right here and put these kinds of people” in it. “I don’t have any problem whatsoever with affirmative action or at least, you know, integration,” Carson said, in response to critical questioning from Senator Sherrod Brown, (D-Ohio). “I do have a problem with people on high dictating it . . . when they don’t know what’s going on in the area.”

As for my old neighborhood, it’s become predominantly African American. My one-time elementary school is 67 percent black. The picture does not seem bleak, however. Test results show that, using Ohio State standards, 76 percent of its 452 students are proficient readers (although only 36 percent reach the nationally normed standard). I can’t be entirely sure my peers would have done that much better. At a school where we baby boomers were crammed, 30-plus, into a classroom with one teacher, the ratio today stands at 18:1. Property crime looks to be higher than I recall it—but there was only one murder last year in South Euclid as a whole. It’s a city of some 22,000. Cleveland itself, by comparison, saw 135 murders—a rate far higher than Chicago’s far more publicized carnage.

It’s simply not obvious that the suburban “ghetto” model, if you will, cannot work for these successors in my neighborhood as it worked for my peers. It may not be historically fair to call on these new residents to think of themselves as ethnic immigrants or the children of immigrants, but there is no obviously effective alternative. As Nathan Glazer wrote in the July 2010 American Interest: “Complex as it is, to frame a self-help policy narrative based on what is generally understood as the American immigrant path may be the best choice available: acceptance of how hard it is to get ahead in America, but recognition that one’s efforts can and often will succeed. That approach, after all, does have the merit of being largely true.”

This piece originally appeared at Commentary Magazine


Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

This piece originally appeared in Commentary