Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vestigial Judaism, Part III: Urbanization Along the Cotton Belt.

The first two parts of this lengthy exploration of southern Judaica attempted to re-acquaint the readers with what in this day and age may defy typical expectations: Jewish enclaves in small towns throughout the rural Deep South. From approximately 1850 to 1950, in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—as well as the other southern states—immigrants from Germany, France, and Eastern Europe forged new enterprises through department and variety stores along the main streets of towns that barely earn a dot on the map today. The evidence of their influence in these communities often survives through cemeteries with eastward-facing gravestones, temples, synagogues, and old commercial buildings downtown with unmistakably Jewish names. Today, the Jewish population in towns such as St. Francisville LA, Port Gibson MS, or Selma AL is at or near zero (precisely what most of us would expect them be), and sometimes the remnants of their settlements in these communities is buried so quietly that the search almost becomes an archaeological endeavor.

By today’s standards, the idea that the rural South should host Jewish communities seems bizarre, and it’s true that Jews exert far less of a demographic or cultural influence in Dixie than they do on the coasts. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Jews comprise approximately 2.2% of the nation’s population; but the only states in that region commonly perceived as the American South where the percentage exceeds the national percentage are Maryland (4.2%) and Florida (3.7%). Of the remaining states, only Delaware (1.6%), Georgia (1.4%), and Virginia (1.3%) exceed 1% Jewish. And among these five states, it is commonplace to find people from Maryland and Delaware who do not identify themselves as southern. Most of the remaining states in the South have populations that are less than .5% Jewish. Thus, the notion that the South has a relatively small Jewish population is, by many metrics, true: Jews tend to concentrate heavily in a few southern metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta or Miami, while large Jewish enclaves elsewhere in the South are uncommon.

But Jews are certainly not impossible to find in cities like Little Rock, New Orleans, and Jackson. In fact, most of the Jews of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi now reside in or near these largest cities in their respective states. Perhaps many of the Jewish families in those smaller communities such as Donaldsonville or Port Gibson migrated to the urban regions over the past fifty years, where employment opportunities have been more abundant, reflecting the steady urbanization of American settlement. And within these cities, the Jewish community has often migrated en masse from one part of town to another. New Orleans claims a number of buildings with discernible Jewish origins in neighborhoods that are devoid of Jews, yet the Jewish population in the metro remains over 10,000. These telltale indicators of a formerly thriving Jewish community further illuminate the migration patterns of a religious faith which remains a statistical blip across most of this region of the US.

The Goldring Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life chronicles the emergence of New Orleans’ Jewish population, from the first arrivals in the mid 18th century, when the Code Noire laws prohibited Jews from settling in the French colony of Louisiana—a fiat that local colonists blithely ignored in their zeal to trade with commercially savvy Jewish merchants. For much of the next century, as Louisiana shifted to Spanish control, then back to French, then American, Jews made no effort to forge an organized religious culture in the city, no doubt due to the shifting laws and public acceptance of Judiasm (particularly low under Spanish rule). Most of the Jews in the nascent southern towns were male, and they overwhelmingly intermarried. By the time Louisiana became part of the United States, they flourished under the political freedoms enshrined in the Constitution; the population of New Orleans exploded after the Louisiana Purchase, and Jews from Germany and France took great advantage of New Orleans’ critical role as the pre-eminent southern port. Many of these successful entrepreneurs forged retail businesses, whose names remain familiar to most Louisianans over the age of twenty—Godchaux’s, Maison Blanche, and Krauss all survived until the end of the 20th century. Jews were generally accepted in the city’s social and political life, with a population that burgeoned in the two decades prior to the Civil War. For a city that flourished on the slave trade, it should come as no surprise that most of the white citizens—including the Jews—supported the Confederacy, including (and contrary to many smaller southern towns) some of the rabbis.

After the war, a new wave of Jewish immigration elicited a bifurcation in the Jewish population: the successful German and Alsatians moved further Uptown, along with the rest of city’s old money; the newcomer Eastern Europeans settled much closer to the Central Business District. By the late 19th Century, the Dryades Street corridor served as the highest concentration of Jewish congregations in region; it may have been the single most intensely Jewish neighborhood in the entire South. It boasted shuls (Yiddish for “synagagoues”) from Galicia, Lithuania, and Poland, among others. Like many other Jewish settlements in cities across the Northeast and Midwest, the Dryades Street commercial district served a mixed race population, catering to African Americans as well.

But neighborhoods change, and while the Uptown area three to five miles from the CBD remains a stronghold of the Jewish and Gentile elite, the portion of Uptown closest to the historic center of New Orleans has followed a different economic trajectory. Today, the neighborhood of Central City, just upriver of the CBD and only blocks away from the popular, touristy St. Charles Avenue streetcar corridor, is one of the most heavily disinvested portions of the entire metro. The purple outline on the map below approximates the very loose boundaries, which extend off the edge of the frame.

Much of this area did not flood during Hurricane Katrina, and yet the area is so depopulated that parts of it appear as though a disaster hit just yesterday. But I’m not going to dwell on abandonment, especially when the area closest to St. Charles is starting to benefit from newly constructed affordable housing. Among the surviving structures on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (formerly the aforementioned Dryades Street, and indicated on the map above by the red outline), many of them obliquely or overtly reference the heritage of this once ostensibly Jewish neighborhood. Handelmann’s was one of several successful dry goods stores when Dryades/Oretha Castle Haley served as the main street to this bustling Jewish enclave.

As was the case in towns like Selma and Port Gibson, a number of other commercial enterprises show clear Jewish origin, judging from the last names climbing up the sides of the buildings.

An apartment building just a block or two away from O.C. Haley Boulevard features a decorative Star of David as a relief pattern against a backdrop of gray bricks.

But the most prominent structure in this section of Central City is the old Beth Israel Synagogue, built in 1924 on Carondelet Street (two blocks away from Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard), though the congregation predates the structure by about 20 years.

I drove past this structure more than 100 times over the course of year before I noticed all the Jewish details.

The synagogue still references its city of origin on the capitals of the columns, with subtle fleur-de-lis abutting a seemingly Byzantine-inspired crown molding pattern.

Despite all these ornamental gestures, I’m willing to give myself a pass for not recognizing the structure for so long: it hasn’t been a synagogue for forty years. Throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s, the Jewish population in the area dwindled to nearly nothing, with many of the Orthodox Jews moving further Uptown or to the large suburb of Metairie. The congregation bought property in the affluent Lakeview neighborhood in the mid 1960s and relocated in 1971. (Incidentally, Hurricane Katrina badly flooded the newer Beth Israel Synagogue, while the structure featured here suffered minimal damage.) Today, the building houses New Home Full Gospel Ministries, a principally African American congregation. Both the old Beth Israel Synagogue and this neighboring building in the photo below remain among the best maintained structures in this impoverished neighborhood:

According to online documentation, this less striking edifice held the Menorah Institute, built in 1925 to accompany the Beth Israel Synagogue as a Hebrew school. The fact that the façade only features Hebrew lettering suggests that the neighborhood was once so intensely Hebraic that English signage was unnecessary. I have been unable to determine what the building’s use is today. It could be sealed most of the year and used minimally, though, like the synagogues in Port Gibson MS and Selma AL, it shows all evidence of diligent caretakers, while most other vacant buildings in the area have been left to decay.

New Orleans, famed for its evocative cemeteries, not surprisingly hosts Jewish burial grounds far larger than its rural counterparts. Most of the cemeteries are tucked away in the Uptown, Lakeview, and Gentilly neighborhoods, though one in Mid-City, at the end of the Canal Street streetcar line, has blended in with many of the city’s popular cemetery tours, no doubt due to its age and proximity to some of the most elaborate burial grounds of wealthy Uptown families.

The majority of Gates of Prayer Cemetery is in better shape than this Perpetual Care Tablet; it no doubt helps that this and the other cemeteries in this cluster sit along Metairie Ridge, keeping the area above sea level while surrounded a part of town that flooded badly after Hurricane Katrina.

As is expected, all the graves face in the direction of Jerusalem to the east, evidenced by the sunset photo below:

Other corners of the town, long disassociated from any Jewish community (if there ever was one to begin with), still feature apocrypha through none-too-subtle architectural features.

My apologies for the swirled appearance of these photos, but it shouldn’t be so hard to make out a Star of David art window in the attic of these shotgun homes. Nothing about this area, near the intersection of Napoleon and Claiborne Avenues, remotely suggests that it would sit in a Jewish neighborhood today—New Orleanians would most likely perceive it is an extension of the impoverished Central City area, even though it sits well over 2 miles from the old Beth Israel Synagogue featured earlier, and on the other side of Claiborne sits the much wealthier Broadmoor neighborhood. But many old Jewish neighborhoods hide their pulses.

The homes from the rain-soaked photos above sit in the area I indicated with the green oval on the map, while the Chevra Thilim Synagogue sat at the point indicated by the red “A” marker. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, this site was the second location for the Chevra Thilim congregation, which operated there from 1948 until 1998, when declining membership forced it to merge with another and form a new congregation, Shir Chadash, now located in suburban Metairie. Today, this strip of Claiborne Avenue forms a powerful socioeconomic divider, with a generally affluent population to the north and working class to the south. The Jewish embellishments on these humble shotgun homes suggest that Chevra Thilim may have accommodated an economically diverse population at the time.

Most significant within the context of this lengthy examination, though, is the fact that the current manifestation of Chevra Thilim is now in its third location since 1948; its first was at the intersection of Baronne and Lafayette Streets, right near the city’s Central Business District. Thus, over the course of the lifetime any 65-year-old, the synagogue has moved steadily away from the heart of town, first from downtown to its inner city location on Claiborne Avenue, then out to the ‘burbs. Nothing new here: Chevra Thilim’s move simply parallels the decentralization and suburbanization of just about any constituency that had the financial ability to migrate away from the city center. But is there anything different about Jewish migration patterns from that of the white, gentile (often Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) majority? I have drawn my own conclusions, many of which are clear generalizations based largely on observations, but empirical evidence is the lynchpin of most of my blog articles, and I always welcome others to refute my assertions, either with credible research or more astute observations. Here’s what I have noticed:

1) Jews are settlers but not colonizers; they are not usually the first one in the door. When Alsatian, German, and Eastern European Jews first started arriving to the American South in discernible numbers in the early 19th century, they confronted an area dominated by plantation homes and small villages—a tremendous contrast from the rapidly urbanizing North. But despite the extreme discrimination these immigrants often encountered in Europe, they nonetheless sought to assimilate into mature networks with American gentiles, and they found this in the scattered small-town markets throughout the South. Rather than forging their own new, all-Jewish towns certifiably free of prejudiced goyim, they gravitated toward thriving communities such as Port Gibson, Selma, Donaldson, and Natchez, where their business acumen helped the towns grow. I also find very little evidence of Jews who moved to the south to establish a slavery-dependent plantation in the middle of vacant, uncultivated land; Jews were generally merchants, not farmers, and thus their role in the economy often derived from distribution rather than production, from services rather than manufacturing. In addition, Jews may have been more attuned to the injustices of slavery than gentiles, having experienced personal restrictions of freedom in their respective countries across the Atlantic. Though the attitudes of southern Jews towards African Americans’ rights were mixed, few Jews demonstrated open support for slavery by actually owning slaves. Through most of the South, slaves were a rural enterprise, and Jewish settlement patterns have proven unequivocally urban across the past two centuries.

2) As mobile as most Americans are, Jews take it to an extreme. It doesn’t seem like a very flattering term, but it may only be apt to call Jews “hyper-mobile”. The Jewish outmigration from towns to the big cities is now more or less complete: virtually no Jews live in rural south. Even Mississippi, with an infinitesimal Jewish population of 1,500 today, hosts the vast majority of the remaining Jews in Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city. Understanding Jewish mobility depends upon understanding the ability or capacity to move; it takes money. Jewish merchants were routinely among the wealthiest persons in their southern towns, so as the economic fortunes of these communities deteriorated and people left for the big cities, Jews often seemed to lead the way. The depopulated old Jewish settlements throughout the neighborhoods of larger cities, whether in New Orleans’ Central City or West Philadelphia, reveal the capacity for Jews to relocate as the economic climate of their part of town took a turn for the worse. Jews consistently have among the highest rates of educational attainment of any religious or ethnic group, and in meritocratic America this usually equates to wealth. Wealth endows a person with the ability to move.

3) Jewish relations with American pluralism proved both a catalyst toward their prosperity and a threat to their survival. Jews often sailed across the Atlantic to escape persecution in Europe. American gentiles could be anti-Semetic and likely barred Jews from visiting some of their most exclusive/exclusionary institutions, but the populace was generally relaxed about Jewish-Gentile parings, no doubt in part because southern business leaders have long recognized Jews as savvy entrepreneurs. Though scandalous if not forbidden in much of Europe up until World War II, the idea of intermarriage between Jews and gentiles rarely aroused suspicion in the US. The ability to marry outside of one’s religion supports the notion that Jews were accepted into mainstream Southern society, and it often proved the only opportunity for male immigrants alone in the US to find a bride—a Christian one. If intermarriage galvanized the networking capacity of Jews in America, it also diluted their religious identity. Jews resided in cities such as New Orleans and Selma decades before they could establish a temple, mainly because intermarriage only weakened religious self-identification, so fundamental aspects of Jewish culture remained neglected. Regions with a large percentage of Catholics (such as south Louisiana) seemed the most amenable to crossing religious lines through tying the matrimonial knots. Jews flourished in cities such as New Orleans, but population through natural growth was slow, since many husbands assumed their wife’s Christian faith or became non-observant altogether. Intermarriage rates can serve as a proxy variable for public acceptance of Jews in general, and it is highly possible that the Southern towns with visible Jewish history were among the least prejudiced as well (at least not prejudiced against whites). To this day, Jews routinely intermarry and often eventually repudiate their faith, but a country such as America, founded upon religious freedom, generally fosters a more peaceful co-existence between the general public and religious minorities. Unlike Europe, anti-Semitism has rarely driven policy in the US, so Jewish immigrants most likely always found southern communities perfectly acceptable compared to what they had experienced before—and they remain to this day in the cities with high economic opportunities.

This bird’s-eye scan of Jewish settlement across the South hardly accounts for nuances or even exceptions. But it reveals that a small but influential religious minority, persecuted in Europe, may prove the best example of American restlessness. All across the country, plaques and historical markers remind us of what building used to stand in X location, and all too often that ghost building is a church. Just as we change religion or religious denomination routinely, the physical incarnation of our faith sometimes seems like a pawn in our often fickle spirituality. Churches, cemeteries, storefronts, and even housing have emerged and then disappeared, as the population that animates them grows fidgety. I conclude with three handsome black & white photos (the first time for this blog) of yet another example of vestigial Judiasm, this time in Concordia Hall, an old building in central Little Rock. The photos are courtesy of Nicolette English.

Ever mobile, we abandon the old and obsolete, and, for those aspects of our heritage we care about the most, we erect a sign. This may seem like a cynical statement, but that’s mostly because, as I mentioned earlier, I prefer that my search for Jewish heritage to resemble an archaeological dig, free of written clues or overt references. A good writer knows that showing is always better than telling.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vestigial Judaism, Part II: Rural/urban distinctions in the South.

In the first half of this blog post, I explored to the best of my ability the shifting religious landscape from an often overlooked perspective: that of the small-town southern Jew. The South is not without its high concentrations of Jews, particularly in south Florida (north of Miami), a rapidly growing population in major cities like Atlanta or Houston, and—depending on whether one considers it a southern city—Washington DC. However, the general perception remains that the white population of the rural South is a relative monoculture: in some regions, over 90% of the white population identifies with Protestantism; the numbers for African Americans aren’t much lower. And in three states (Mississippi, Alabama, and Oklahoma) over 30% of the population belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Thus, an inference of relative religious homogeneity is not entirely unfounded.

But the rural south was not always a mere stronghold of Christiany; or exclusive Christian, for that matter. Though today they would qualify as small towns, in the 19th century, communities of over 5,000 people were often perceived as bustling commercial centers in the overwhelmingly agrarian south. Towns such as Donaldsonville and St. Francisville, Louisiana—both under 10,000 today—were flourishing communities that attracted Jews from Alsace, no doubt due in part to the shared French affinity. After the Industrial Revolution, the settlement patterns of the US marched aggressively toward favoring the large cities, though of course the South urbanized much later and at a much slower pace. However, by time of the Depression, the aforementioned towns in Louisiana began to feel their importance erode, as the major cities of New Orleans (long the commercial capital of the South) and a rapidly growing Baton Rouge left Donaldsonville and St. Francisville to relative stagnancy. The Jewish population plunged in these small towns, as their retail trades became engulfed by nationally recognized department and variety stores. The children in these Jewish families left town or—particularly in Catholic areas such as south Louisiana—intermarried with Christians. In many southern towns, all that remains of the Jewish heritage is a tiny cemetery on the outskirts, but a well-attuned eye can find other evidence throughout the Cotton Belt.

The Jewish presence of Mississippi is remarkably well-chronicled, especially considered that only about 1,500 Jews live in the state today, less than a quarter of the population from a century prior. One such town is Port Gibson, Mississippi, resting along the Blues Highway U.S. 61 about halfway between the state’s only two older cities, Vicksburg and Natchez, both of which also had much larger Jewish populations during their heydays over a century ago. Today, the significantly smaller Port Gibson (population 1800) does not have an active commercial main street, but its principal residential artery, the leafy Church Street (also Highway 61 in Port Gibson city limits) remains remarkably well preserved and undoubtedly possessed the character that made it “too beautiful to burn” after General Ulysses Grant completed his Vicksburg Campaign, cutting off Confederate Control of the Mississippi River.

A good mile or so of Church Street features this canopy of live oaks and stately Victorian and Tutor homes. The Temple Gemiluth Chassed has not enjoyed regular use for over 30 years, yet it remains in remarkably good shape.

According the encyclopedia at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life http://www.isjl.org/ , the Jewish population first arrived in Port Gibson by the 1840s, though not until the eve of the Civil War was the population large enough to sign a charter for their congregation. During the war, the Port Gibson Jewish population exhibited an unusually high level of support for the Confederate cause, with nearly half the population (and perhaps nearly all the adult males) joining the Army, even though only a few owned slaves. The building in the photo above did not break ground until 1891 and remains distinct as perhaps the only surviving example of Moorish architecture in all of Mississippi.

Like the Jewish congregation of St. Francisville, Louisiana (discussed in Part I of this blog post), Port Gibson struggled to retain a rabbi. One of the earliest, a graduate of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, noted with distaste the institutionalized racial discrimination of the region, and Gemiluth Chassed never truly prospered. However, the building still enjoyed some level of use up through the 1980s, when the Jewish population of Port Gibson numbered four. Both historical documentation and visual evidence suggest that the town’s Jewish community evolved from within: the Institute of Southern Jewish Life reports that active participation in Shabbat declined, as did keeping kosher. Some families even displayed Christmas trees in their windows. After the congregation closed in the 1980s, the City was about to demolish the temple for a parking lot, but a local gentile family bought it to preserve it; the 100th anniversary of the structure brought Jews and non-Jews together in a commitment to the preservation of the heritage of southern Jewry. Thus, Gemiluth Chassed stands to this day, in remarkably good shape, though its current use is unclear. Contextual observations reveal why its history seems anomalous in a variety of ways:

Yes, a gas station sits in the background, suggesting that a number of structures already faced the bulldozer as Port Gibson steadily depopulated in the second half of the twentieth century. Even more intriguing is the descriptive sign hanging out front.

A Messianic congregation? Really? If this is truly the case, then its position on the ISJL website is questionable, since Messianic Jews believe that salvation depends on the acceptance of Jesus Christ as a savior—a position that both Jewish and Christian theologians would agree places it under the fundamental rubrics for Christianity. It is unlikely that the Jewish population in Port Gibson always had Messianic origins, since the movement did not emerge into the mainstream until the 1960s. But this declaratory sign may help to explain the community’s continued isolation, its inability to secure a rabbi, and—I’m going out on a limb—its comparatively high level of support for the Confederacy when most other Southern Jews were ambivalent. The Jewish population in Port Gibson may have lingered into the 1980s, but Judaism as a faith waned decades before, as the congregation passively allowed the overwhelmingly dominant Christian culture to encroach. By the time of Gemiluth Chassed’s closure, the Jews of this Bible Belt region identified with enough features of Christianity that they were willing to articulate it.

Although shadow of its former self—the main street of Port Gibson is big enough to suggest a much larger city—Port Gibson’s religious buildings, most of them appropriately flanking Church Street, remain in conditions ranging from good to impeccable. Today the town is 80% African American, yet the structures of these European derived, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities survive as references—signaling to passers-by the town’s diverse heritage, a time when Mississippi’s towns and towns across all America wielded enough economic influence to attract entrepreneurial immigrants.

Selma, Alabama’s commercial growth and decline somewhat parallels that of Port Gibson, but with a peak population of 28,000—the amplitude of its changes has understandably been greater. Together with the state’s capital Montgomery (50 miles to the east), the population here rests in the heart of the state’s Black Belt, a strip of counties across the mid-southern part of the state, named for the rich, black topsoil so suitable for growing cotton, but also associated with the high percentage of African Americans living there. Most Americans today, if they are familiar with Selma at all, associate the city with the March 1965 voting rights marches that stretched from the town to the state’s capital. But Selma was a prominent small city prior to the Civil War, thanks to the processing of the abundant cotton and proximity to the distributional hub in Montgomery. According to the chronicles of the ISJL, Sephardic Jewish merchants began arriving to the city within twenty years of its 1820 incorporation, though for the entire 19th century, the population held services at private residences or space rented in churches. During the War, Selma was an epicenter of manufacturing supplies and weaponry for the southern cause; considering that nearby Montgomery was the initial capital of the Confederacy, sentiments among Jews in Selma toward secession were wide-ranging. Not until 1900 did the Congregation Mishkan Israel dedicate a synagogue.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Selma’s Jewish population was robust—for about forty years, the city claimed an Orthodox congregation as well—and, as the historic marker above indicates, three of the city’s mayors were Jewish. The Civil Rights Movement polarized the community much as it did a century earlier: some of the most prominent Jewish retailers were ardent segregationists, though modern historians estimate that the majority of Selma’s Jews supported integration, even as they resented the paternalism of northern Jewish intervention. The population peaked at over 300 at around 1940, which at that point was approximately 1.5% of the city’s population. The decline was gradual at first, but then hemorrhaged after the 1977 closure of the nearby Craig Air Force Base, which in turn triggered a steady departure of industry from the city. Selma has lost over a fourth of its population since that time; the 2010 will likely reveal a city depopulated by more than a third from its 1960 peak of 28,000. The precipitous decline of the city is manifest in the downtown, which, as Alabama’s largest historic district, hints at former prosperity in the embellished buildings, many of which have long since been abandoned.

Only about twenty Jews remain in Selma today, most of whom are elderly; the congregation only holds worship services a few times a year in the original structure.

My first reaction when I passed the building was that it must be abandoned, largely due to the disheveled appearance of the grounds, and partly, I confess, due to my somewhat prejudicial disbelief that a city so economically depressed would still have a Jewish population. But closer observation of Temple Mishkan Israel reveals that it is in generally good shape: the roof (one of the first features to decay in an unmaintained building) looks fine, and the complete absence of wood obviously means painting is unnecessary. The congregation probably hires a groundskeeper to do just the minimum requisite lawn mowing and hedge trimming in order to save money.

The frosted look of the stained glass windows on either side originally gave me the impression that the place was sealed and vacant, but I now believe they have just been protected from thick exterior glass, no doubt to ward-off vandals or potential burglars. The structure’s metaphoric and literal relation to the surrounding city resembles Port Gibson’s Gemiluth Chassed in a number of regards: both appear in excellent physical shape, yet the owners have transformed them into mausoleums, protected from the outside world and left in stasis, and signaling to the passers-by a heritage all but removed from the region. Temple Mishkan Israel has also intermittently hosted multi-faith gatherings that drive home the importance of cultural preservation, but Selma offers no visible incentive to encourage young Jews to move there, or its meager remaining population to stay. Preservation advocates may have to step up to the plate before too long, because comparative evidence in other communities suggests that the Jewish population in Selma will soon shrink to nothing—at that point, without a sponsor, Mishkan Israel may soon face the wrecking ball.

The cost for preserving a religious building when no subscribers to the faith live nearby must be astronomical. Yet Port Gibson and Selma both offer examples of intensified stewardship for obsolescent structures that would struggle to find a renaissance. Jews in the South have clearly reorganized itself significantly over the past forty years, but, if the above buildings are any evidence, their prejudicial histories will remain standing for decades to come.

Stay tuned again for the third and final part in this series, in which I explore the further evidence of prior Jewish settlements in the South, only this time using large metropolitan areas.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Vestigial Judaism, Part I: Louisiana small town archaeology.

[My apologies for the delay in getting this blog post out, but it will cover a broader geographic spread than most, and assembling these photos takes some time.]

Americans tend to be restless. Amidst all differences in ethnicities, religions, national origins, and political allegiances, one trait that seems to unite the people of this country is our unrelenting propensity to move. I’ve blogged about it in the past, and it was obvious then that it wouldn’t be the last time: physical manifestations of our wanderlust crop up everywhere, and they’re far too expressive for me to ignore. In that previous blog article, I looked at the spatial polarities of the Protestant faith across metropolitan America: the mainline denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) often cluster in city centers or in the older neighborhoods where the median age tends to be higher, due to the relative absence of children. Conversely, the non-denominational Evangelical churches, teeming with kiddos and their youthful moms and dads, dominate the outer suburbs. This dichotomy isn’t particularly difficult to understand, since people routinely cluster in micro-communities based on shared values, and religion, a transcendently important value, will understandably elicit its own foci in the form of new churches.

But how does spirituality shape a community, when the faith in question is a minority almost everywhere it goes? Such has long been the case for Jews who migrated to the American South, a region not usually perceived as prominently Jewish, with the possible exception of south Florida. Yet up to the middle of the previous century, Jews were dispersed throughout the South, often exerting a noticeable social and economic influence, despite—or because of—their relatively small numbers. The truth is, Jews were never abundant in the South, but at a time when less than 50% of the nation’s population could be considered urban, the presence of Jews in small-town Southern life seems particularly bizarre today—much more than it did a century ago.

The Jewish presence in small southern towns ostensibly peaked in the decades from 1890 to 1930. Though it is hardly fair to draw all migratory conclusions from the history of one state, the chronicle of Jews in Mississippi is particularly strong, no doubt enhanced by the fact that the city of Jackson hosts the Goldring/Woldenburg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. The truth is, the movement patterns of Jews in other states largely echo that of Mississippi, and the Magnolia State, one of the most rural in the nation, has seen its Jewish population plunge 75% over the past century. In nearly all chronicles, the earliest southern Jewish settlements, often from the first half of the 19th century, took place in the most advanced and populous cities—places like Charleston, SC, Mobile, Natchez, Vicksburg, and, of course, New Orleans, the South’s largest city. However, many others sought the outlets made by the emergent centers of industry that slowly developed during the Reconstruction era, as the South was forced to industrialize after the civil war. Unaccustomed to owning land in their native European countries (where Jews typically were not allowed real estate), they combined the entrepreneurial skills they had developed under segregated conditions in Europe with their experience in trade as traveling peddlers. And if a growing town had an untapped market, it was natural that at least a few Jewish families would move there and try their luck. Thus, it is not surprising to see downtown commercial buildings with a Jewish name above the cornice line, even in some of the smallest Southern communities. In Mississippi alone, the Jewish community peaked before the Depression at over 6,400, with an epicenter in the Delta region.

But where did they all go? Today, Mississippi only has about 1,500 Jews and only two full-time rabbis. Other southern states experienced a similar retreat. Some of this population decline took place amidst the turbulence of the Civil Rights Era, a time in which Jewish desire not to interfere with the Southern status quo proved violently at odds with the all-too-familiar injustices they witnessed committed against blacks under Jim Crow. Rabbis often spoke out against discrimination the witnessed, sometimes resulting in threats against their temples and personal safety. The struggles of the 1960s no doubt discouraged other Jews from moving to the South, but the principal impetus for the diaspora was economic: the growing prevalence of national department store chains paved the way for the eventual obsolescence of localized Jewish retail, and entrepreneurs could not pass failing businesses on to their sons and daughters. These same children often left their home town for educational opportunities elsewhere, and then, with that college degree, they would move to larger, more prominent cities. The Jewish communities in many southern towns have dwindled to a mere handful of people, the majority of whom are septuagenarians or older. New synagogues are simply not opening in most of the South—in fact, the small town houses of worship are steadily shutting their doors.

With so many Jews leaving the smaller towns and cities of the Deep South, what becomes of their properties? The remnants of Jewish communities sometimes require a keen eye, as in the case of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, population 7,500.

This intermittently picturesque town about 30 miles south-southeast of Baton Rouge is one of the oldest settlements in the state, with Acadian migrants as its original inhabitants. The town celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006, and it was briefly made the state capital from 1830 to 1831. The town’s prominence surpassed the Louisiana state capital throughout much of the 19th century, and the rail access along the main street brought new industry, as well as a variety of French, Alsatian, and Prussian immigrants after the Civil War. The Bikur Cholim Synagogue was constructed in 1872 along Railroad Avenue, Donaldsonville's main street, and it prospered up through the early years of the Great Depression. Unlike many other small-town Jewish communities, Donaldsonville’s population largely dwindled due to intermarriage, which apparently was more common between Jews and Catholics (still the dominant religion of south Louisiana) than between Jews and the Protestants that dominated most other southern states. Other Jews in Donaldsonville remained childless. The synagogue closed in the 1940s after the town lacked the population to support it, but the structure remains, barely recognizable under its new use:
Though the Wikipedia article on Donaldsonville mentions this structure, and this thoughtful portrait on small synagogues describes it in great detail, it took a tour guide and town historian to point out the synagogue to me. The new owners long ago replaced the vestibule with a retail façade, though according to the tour guide, the ornamental feature at the top of the gable hosted a Star of David until the 1970s.

According to the Small Synagogues website, only two Jews remain in Donaldsonville, one of whom maintains the Bikur Cholim Cemetery. The fortunes of the Jewish population of the town rose and fell along much the same trajectory as Natchez, Mississippi, 150 miles upriver. Both were advanced settlements a time when such communities were scarce, and their roles as major cities in the overwhelmingly rural south made them amenable to concentrations of businesses, in which Jewish merchants participated with often great success. As the automobile began its ascendancy, these two river cities failed to integrate with a strong highway network. Both suffered a population loss, and while the Jewish population in Donaldsonville is essentially gone, a handful of mostly elderly Jewish people remain in Natchez. In recent years, their prospects have bifurcated: Natchez has the advantage of being older, larger, and wealthier than Donaldsonville, with a moderately active tourist industry capitalizing on its antebellum mansions and well-preserved downtown. Donaldsonville has not been so lucky; it is the only section of Ascension Parish that has continued to lose population, while the rest of the parish has prospered as a bedroom community to Baton Rouge. Poverty is high and the main street has lost some of its historic architecture, though efforts to revitalize with art galleries and restaurants are clearly visible. Both communities were among the most prominent cities in their states for much the twentieth century. And while Natchez remains well known to aficionados of Southern history, Donaldsonville has devolved to little more than a bold word on a map with slightly bolded lettering; only people among the River Parishes near Baton Rouge are likely to be very familiar with the town. Such communities have lost nearly all viability among Jews, manifested in the synagogue-to-hardware-store we witness in Donaldsonville.

Clearly the diminished prominence that these towns suffered was not borne exclusively by their Jewish populations; people of all faiths left as the country shifted toward a primarily urban basis for settlement. However, it is likely that the Jewish role in trades and merchandise was badly affected by the agglomeration of industry in larger cities and the seeming obsolescence of small towns, resulting in a rural-to-urban migration that was more pronounced among Jews than the southern, Christian population at large. Upriver of Donaldsonville and north of Baton Rouge is the prosperous town of St. Francisville, another community which claimed a thriving Jewish population a century ago.

Though much smaller than Donaldsonville (less than 2,000 people) it seems to have found a new raison d'être in the service economy and is now a tourist attraction, thanks to the cluster of plantation homes nearby. (The town itself is distinctive enough to be worthy of a blog entry, which I hope to write at some point in the future.) Like Donaldsonville, it is sufficiently close to Baton Rouge to function as a bedroom community, but unlike the former town it clearly has capitalized on this condition: St. Francisville enjoys a median household income much higher—and poverty rate much lower—than the norm for the state. Yet, according to the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, the diaspora that began in 1920s St. Francisville effectively reduced the Jewish population to zero. The Temple Sinai was dedicated in 1903, at a time when the burgeoning Jewish population justified a new house of worship. But the leadership could never secure a full-time rabbi, and after multiple attempts, the members of the congregation lost confidence in their own ability to maintain a footing in the town. In 1921, they sold Temple Sinai to a Presbyterian congregation that used the building until the end of the century, at which point it sat abandoned until it was refurbished a few years later and integrated into historical tours of the town. Successful retailer Julius Freyhan, perhaps the town’s most prominent Jewish figure, purchased a plot of land in 1891 that eventually became Hebrew Rest Cemetery.

As I was passing through the town, the clear feature that distinguished it from other cemeteries was the directional uniformity of the tombstones: all of them face east toward Jerusalem.

The gate to Hebrew Rest is locked, and the signs offer no information as to when the cemetery might be open to the public (if ever). The property boundaries and plant growth prevented me from going to the other side where I could effectively see the text on the graves. But the area itself was no doubt well out of the St. Francisville boundaries when it was first constructed; the housing immediately across the street fits the ranch typology popular in the mid 20th century.

By the time these homes were built, St. Francisville had most likely already bid farewell to the last of its Jews.

Spotting the remnants of Jewish life in the rural south is akin to an Easter egg hunt; yes, I’m aware that the analogy is a bit uncouth. But the evidence here flies in the face of what most Americans—including, I suspect, most Jewish Americans—assume about Jewish settlement: that they are largely in the major metropolitan areas, on the coasts (particularly the East Coast), and often in the central cities themselves or inner-ring suburbs—rarely in the exurbs. Yet the evidence shows that, although never more than 10% of a town population, Jews were widely scattered across the rural South for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second half of this blog post will explore the Jewish influence on southern settlements outside of Louisiana, as well as movement patterns in a much larger southern city. Stay tuned, and because of the vastness of the subject, I welcome any other comments or observations that can help me hone in on the essence of southern Jewish settlement—at this point, the engine to my research is my photograph collection.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Streetscape enhancements in a spray can.

Most of us living in reasonably large metropolitan areas have witnessed the fallout from the bursting real estate bubble—one of several, successive machine-gun misfortunes to befall our economy during this ruthless recession. Even if you don’t live in a city that has suffered as greatly as Las Vegas or Phoenix or Naples, Florida, you most likely have encountered a proposed development that went to skids when the demand for new housing plunged. Some of these projects sit in rural areas, as platted subdivisions with fundamental infrastructure left to rot in relative obscurity—I wrote about one recently in south Louisiana.

The majority are entirely urban—apartments or (most likely) condos. The developers’ signs still stand, sometimes with a rendering, and maybe even contact information for those interested in new units. Hundreds or even thousands of people see these signs daily. And these days, the signs are bleached by the sun, embellished with the graffiti that usually accompanies neglect, and sometimes even decomposing from exposure to the elements. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened behind the chain link fence of this vacant lot in Columbus, Ohio:

But it’s clearly a stalled development in an area that was smoking hot just a few years ago. The signs most likely did not just accidentally tip over from a high wind; someone pushed them down because the images featured upon them no longer align with reality. These felled wooden displays sit off of North High Street, in the Short North area of Columbus, a largely revitalized, successful urban main street between the central business district and The Ohio State University campus. The vacant lots that remain offer the premier opportunities in the region for smart infill development, which is no doubt part of the community vision for this particular parcel. Unfortunately, lenders tightly sealed the spigot two years ago, and now the parcel sits in limbo.

But what is that poking out in the far right of the above photo? It looks like a mural, but the creative forces behind it might have had other intentions:

They covered up a developer’s sign that was most likely beginning to decay with a pastiche of cryptic illustrations, no doubt a collaborative product of local artists. To the left of the brown silhouette of a building on the upper corner mural is the Urban Scrawl, an apparent extension of street artistry taking place in a few weeks as a community gathering in Franklinton, a low-income neighborhood on the city’s west side.

Was this an act of vandalism? Possibly. But it’s just as likely that the developing agency lacks any money to pursue its construction goals, so the signage is just an empty reference; the developer may even have gone out of business. This apparent bottom-up effort to instill a bit of street beautification might not appeal to everyone, because it still implies a certain usurpation of private space by a non-owner, but it is unlikely to arouse controversy because of the clear ephemerality of the “canvas”. One day these murals will come down and will most likely host signs for a new development that, in a stronger economy, will inevitably get built; the Short North area is just too fashionable for this lot to remain fallow for long. In the meantime, the instigators behind Urban Scrawl offer to Columbus an initiative that sits uncomfortably between vandalism and stewardship; the apparent friction between aesthetics and property rights enriches the texture of the urban vernacular, far more than a tattered sign reminding passers by of halcyon days behind us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The cruel hand of improvement takes a swipe.

I have made a real attempt in this blog to hide my dislike for the word “progressive”—the truth is, I explicitly try to avoid using it whenever possible. When I have let it slide, I nearly always find myself framing the word with those irritating, ironic quotes, as though there’s a current of mockery underlying in my use of the term. Perhaps I really do mock it. To me, the root word “progress” and all of its variants have essentially collapsed the supremely complicated array of human endeavors into a narrow, facile trajectory. To call one’s self a progressive reeks of self-aggrandizement. Of course we all seek progress, but it takes a certain ego to identify one’s ethos with undistilled social betterment. It often seems that one particular contingent within the political spectrum has co-opted the word, but is it fair that anyone and everyone who disagrees with the progressives can be branded as “anti-progress”? Are the non-progressives regressive? [If the political left employs words such as “progressive” or “social justice” with obnoxious complacency, the right is just as guilty: since when did social conservatives have a monopoly over “moral values”?] These observations aren’t remotely profound and they are intertwined with my own cynicism toward all forms of political partisanship. I don’t want this blog ever to seem petty or mean-spirited, so I will continue to avoid any of the ideologically charged words in quotation marks listed in the earlier sentences within this paragraph…at least for the most part.

But an informational placard I saw recently was just too revelatory for me to pass up.

It is a part of the attractive if aggressively programmed waterfront in Little Rock.

Since it’s not easy to read from a photograph, I’ll summarize: the petite roche was largely removed in 1872 to make room for a Junction Bridge that will still allow clearance for riverboat traffic. At that time, no one bothered to chronicle or graphically capture the appearance of this distinctive rock formation; thus, the identity upon which the city bases its name was shattered over a century ago. Only in the 1930s did city boosters strive to recover the heritage by moving part of the Little Rock onto the grounds of City Hall. At the point of the completion of this phase of the riverfront park (La Petite Roche Plaza), another piece of the little rock was returned to the banks of the river, though it now lacks any real physical prominence: it is indeed a little rock, and even smaller than it was in the past. The Plaza intends to commemorate a largely dissected part of Arkansas history.

The context itself is less interesting than in the choice of words at the end of the third sentence.

“Progress took its toll.” This use of “progress” reminds me of a documentary I once saw about the construction of the interstate highway system into downtown New Orleans. In order to build an elevated, limited access portion of Interstate 10, the Bureau of Public Roads used eminent domain to claim hundreds of homes slicing through neighborhoods and destroying the live oak canopy on a large stretch of Claiborne Avenue. Such a process was hardly unique to New Orleans; it took place in nearly every large city in America, usually traversing through the neighborhoods where the land was cheap, which typically means work class—and often minority—communities. This documentary interviewed a few members of the now bisected Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, including one older gentleman who remarked that, after the interstate, the small businesses, community cohesion, and the magnificent tree canopy were destroyed, but “I guess that’s the cost of progress,” he added without a trace of irony. Progress raises its ugly head again. Most urban planners will inform you of the devastating toll that the interstate highway system exacted upon American cities, but the process was not terribly controversial at the time—it certainly didn’t elicit a great divide between conservatives and progressives. In fact, many people who hoped to save the city through urban policy saw interstates as a sine qua non—unimpeded access to the downtowns may be the best way to keep them alive when the suburbs were increasingly choked by traffic. Today, most urban theorists lump the urban segments of interstate highways up there with urban renewal as among the most destructive campaigns against the city’s built environment. But it was progress back in the day, and by the estimates of the man in the Treme, it might still be seen as progress to the eyes of many. Here’s what survives of the Junction Bridge in Little Rock:

The Petite Roche Plaza commemorates metaphorically, because the bridge itself dominates the landscape. And it, too, does not serve its original purpose. Long gone is the railway, but it now operates as a pedestrian bridge to reach North Little Rock.

We almost instinctually are a teleological species—perhaps our capacity to reason is wedded with our need to seek and achieve goals. No other living creature demonstrates a visible interest in collective improvement; bees may operate collectively, but it’s more about self-preservation than a goal of making a better bee-life than it was for the hives of yesteryear. Human capacity to reason also endows us with individuated notions of what constitutes progress, and any milestone social achievement for some people is step in the wrong direction for others. The phrase “progress took its toll” on the Little Rock placard should seem like an oxymoron, since the word usually denotes positivity, while “took its toll” implies negative consequence. But the semantics of a word like progress are as loose and fungible as there are belief systems, so the progressive movement will forever brand its highly divisive ideology with “social betterment”, much to the chagrin of those who interpret progress under completely different standards.