On Oct. 8, 1927, a group of progressive city and town planners gathered at a farm in Netcong to discuss a preliminary scheme for a radical new community — so new it did not yet have a name.
That community would be announced publicly three months later as Radburn, in the still-rural borough of Fair Lawn. 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 debated, but not the last. Residents have long discussed whether their community excluded non-whites and non-Christians, and if so, how.
A sign at the entrance to the Radburn section of Fair Lawn. (Photo: File photo)
The historical record, however, 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 and others working with or for Radburn’s developer, the City Housing Corp.
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 had roots in the Netcong brainstorming session, 18 months before the first residents moved onto the nationally-acclaimed “Town for the Motor Age.’’
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A garden city for America
The site of the 1927 retreat was a Gilded Age estate/dairy farm that was the site of meetings of the Regional Planning Association of America, a group that sought to develop an American garden city like those proposed by the English visionary Ebenezer Howard.
The planned community under discussion that October weekend was intended to reduce urban congestion, protect pedestrians from vehicles, and connect residents with nature and each other. It was organized not on a street grid, like New York, but around large parks. Many houses fronted onto these parks, or paths to the parks; they backed onto dead-end lanes that handled vehicular traffic.
Among the conference participants were Radburn’s prime movers:
- Clarence Stein, an architect and housing reform advocate;
- Henry Wright, Stein’s partner and a brilliant site planner;
- Alexander Bing, a Manhattan real estate tycoon who’d Stein enlisted to found the quasi-philanthropic City Housing Corp.;
- Lewis Mumford, a prominent social philosopher and eloquent spokesman for what would become 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 the 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 session was one several at the two-day conference. A summary, preserved in Stein’s and Mumford’s papers, is described in Clarence Stein: Community Architect (2016) by Kristin E. Larsen.
It includes this back and forth:
John Lovejoy Elliott, a prominent social worker and mentor of Clarence Stein’s, said any decision on the race issue should be made not by the developer (City Housing), but by the community itself, once it was established.
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 City Housing 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 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.
In his book, “Garden Cities for America: The Radburn Experience,” 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.’’
He concludes that “Radburn followed no explicit policy of discrimination…’’ The community’s restrictive covenants, which would help maintain its character for nine decades, did 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 with Schaffer, John O. Walker, who in the early 1930s became Radburn’s second resident manager, said that in those days prospective homeowners had to fill out a questionnaire used to determine “if the family would fit into Radburn’s social environment.’’
Radburn’s exclusivity was no secret. Schaffer says first-generation residents he interviewed in the 1970s described “a general belief that would-be homeowners (had been) 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. This, in a metro area with about two million Jews.
(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, probably around 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 … Looking back, I see a missing texture 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 1930s and 1940s on America’s expanding suburban frontier. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that racially restrictive covenants were legally binding, and such covenants became common.
The Long Island suburb of Levittown, which opened in 1947, was one of many places that put 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 — after the Supreme Court had reversed itself in 1948 and 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, the developer, probably shared his industry’s assumption that whites would not buy homes in neighborhoods where Blacks lived (or could live) and that many Christians would prefer not to live with Jews.
But Clarence Stein’s silence on the issue is more troubling. He personified progressive idealism. And he was Jewish.
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 the middle class. 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.
Rick Hampson has been a resident of Radburn since 1989. He is a former national reporter for The Associated Press and USA TODAY.
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