Tag Archives: blockbusting

A Little Context

On April 4, just a month after we moved into our house, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Over the next several days, some one hundred US cities experienced civil unrest, but not New York, where George went to work every day. Thank you Mayor Lindsay for having guts and compassion. If you’re not old enough to remember what happened or have forgotten here’s the story.  http://www.themorningnews.org/article/the-night-new-york-avoided-a-riot

Civil rights and the King assassination might seem irrelevant in a blog about fixing up old houses, but it’s part of our story.

Back in 1968, unscrupulous real estate companies generated high profits by blockbusting. This involved frightening white homeowners in segregated neighborhoods into selling cheap by creating the perception that minorities were about to move in and, simply by their presence,  lower property values. The companies then resold the properties at an inflated price to minorities. This scenario may sound ridiculous today, but assume widespread racial prejudice, and it works.

Blockbusting and white flight were reshaping cities – and close-in suburbs. Montclair, which already counted racial minorities among its residents, was seen as particularly vulnerable. Thus, houses were relatively cheap – big old houses with lots of space and charm, on tree-lined streets, and within close commuting distance of New York City.

We, and lots of other young couples, could hardly believe what we could afford to buy, and we weren’t afraid of integration. Some of us had even been involved in the civil rights movement. When a black family moved in down the street, we didn’t consider moving out.  As I recall, the father worked as an interpreter for the UN – hardly a “there goes the neighborhood” addition.

President Johnson signed the 1968 Civil Rights Act, also called the Fair Housing Act, on April 11, during the civil unrest following Dr. King’s assassination. Now, 45 years later, the term blockbusting has to be explained.  But even in the bad old days of 1968, not everyone was attuned to the issue.

George’s father, who worked in New York two weeks a month, came out to visit shortly after we moved in.  We were having drinks before dinner in as civilized a manner as is possible with almost two-year-old twins running around when he asked how many of the houses on our block were white. (We learned later that colleagues in his office had told him Montclair was going to “tip.” His son had made a big mistake.)

George, to his everlasting credit, didn’t understand the question. He frowned, did a mental tabulation, then said, “About half.”

“Half?” My father-in-law’s eyes widened.

“Ours is the only pink one,” George said. “And as soon as the weather warms up, we’re going to paint the trim dark brown. That should tone it down.”

And we moved on to other subjects.