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Let my people go ... to Hancock Park

by Edmon J. Rodman

April 9, 2014 | 11:34 am

Hancock Park, now a religiously and racially diverse area, had restricted housing covenants in the early 20th century. Jewish real estate developer Emil Firth developed L.A.’s Oxford Square.

Hancock Park, now a religiously and racially diverse area, had restricted housing covenants in the early 20th century. Jewish real estate developer Emil Firth developed L.A.’s Oxford Square.

With an entire kosher section stocked with Passover foods in the Ralphs market on La Brea Avenue and Third Street, one might think that Hancock Park always has been a very Jewish neighborhood.

The presence in the area of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, Congregation Etz Chaim, plus minyans of black-coated pedestrians walking the streets on any given Shabbat hasn’t done anything to mitigate this impression. 

But in the 1920s and ’30s, few, if any, Jews could be found living in this neighborhood of large, fine homes and lush landscaping, let alone studying Talmud or buying shmurah matzah.

Like many housing tracts developed in Los Angeles — and in many parts of the United States — in the first decades of the 20th century, Hancock Park had restricted housing covenants written into the title deeds that prohibited selling property to non-whites, a term that could include Jews, Italians, Russians, Muslims and Latinos.

“Racially restrictive covenants first began to appear in the years during and after World War I, when large numbers of African Americans began to migrate to California in search of employment,” states  an online history of Windsor Village, an area just south of Hancock Park that very likely also had restrictions against Jews.

The overriding purpose of deed restrictions, Mike Davis writes in his book, “City of Quartz,” was to “ensure social and racial homogeneity.”

The book indicates that restrictions normally included the exclusion of all non-Caucasians and sometimes even non-Christians.

Helping to enforce the restrictions were the homeowners associations of the period, which created racially specified block restrictions.

According to Bruce Phillips, professor of sociology and Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, keeping the Jews out of the area “rarely came to suing anybody.”  


A 1909 L.A. Times advertisement for the area. 

Instead, Hancock Park was kept “Judenrein [cleansed of Jews] by the Realtors. It was done informally between the agents,” said Phillips, who grew up in Boyle Heights and has conducted Jewish population surveys in many U.S. cities, including Los Angeles.

“To violate [the covenants] was considered a poor choice,” said Greg Fischer, an amateur local historian who worked for former L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry as a planning and transportation deputy.  

Restrictions against Jews began in the 1920s, he said, adding that “L.A. was a tolerant town until the arrival of the Midwesterners.”

Ava Kahn, editor of “Jewish Life in the American West,” agreed: “People from the Midwest brought their prejudices with them to the area.”  

Jews would not be kept completely out of the area, however. Fischer pointed out that nearby Irving Boulevard was actually named after a Jew, Irving Hellman, who was a nephew of banker — and University of Southern California co-founder — Isaias Hellman. 

In the 1920s, Hancock Park’s social and athletic institutions also blocked Jews from the upscale area, whose boundaries are Wilshire Boulevard to the south, Melrose Avenue to the north, La Brea Avenue to the west and Arden Boulevard to the east. Wilshire Country Club,  Los Angeles Tennis Club and the Ebell of Los Angeles all restricted Jews from membership, although these policies no longer stand.

Rabbi Max Vorspan, the late historian at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), wrote in a December 1971 letter: “From 1880 onwards, social anti-Semitism developed considerably. Examples: Number of Jews in [the] L.A. Social Register plummeted, e.g. 44 in 1890, 22 in 1921. Number of Jews in [the] Athletic Club and Jonathan Club diminished to almost zero.”

In response to the exclusion, Jews from Hollywood founded the then all-Jewish Hillcrest Country Club in 1920. Earlier, the Concordia Club, also meeting the needs of Jews who may have been excluded, had been founded downtown in 1891.

Although Kahn does not view Los Angeles as a “hotbed” of restrictions against Jews, even the work of a Jewish developer, Emil Firth, was caught up in this era of restrictive covenants.

Firth, who was born in Bohemia in 1858 and died in Los Angeles in 1922, moved with his wife Benveneda to Los Angeles in 1897. One of the original subdividers of Bellflower and Montclair, Firth also developed Oxford Square in 1907. Today, part of the tract, located just south of Wilshire Boulevard from Hancock Park, is within Windsor Village. A community Web site notes that in the early half of the 20th century, Windsor Village “likely was not available to all Angelenos” and suggests that Firth “would likely have been restricted from certain neighborhoods himself at this time.”  

It is unknown if Firth’s tracts — his own residence was on Westmoreland Avenue — also had anti-Jewish covenants written into their deeds. But by the 1930 census, several residents in the midst of the tract on Victoria Avenue listed Yiddish as their primary language.

The freeing of Los Angeles from the restrictive covenants is a Jewish story, too.


Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stanley Mosk, a Jew,  declared unconstitutional the enforcement of restrictive neighborhood covenants.

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer declared the restrictive covenants unconstitutional. But in 1947, a Jewish 35-year-old Los Angeles Superior Court judge named Stanley Mosk beat them to it by declaring in Wright v. Drye that their enforcement was unconstitutional.

Mosk, who died in 2001, was a native Texan who grew up in Rockford, Ill. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago before moving to California in 1933, where he received a law degree from Southwestern University. He worked for the gubernatorial campaign of Culbert Olsen, who, near the end of his term, appointed Mosk, who was only 31, to the Los Angeles Superior Court. (Later, in 1964, he was appointed to the California Supreme Court, where he served until 2001.) 

The lead defendant in the landmark restrictive covenant case was Frank Lloyd Drye, a black musician and decorated World War I veteran, who in 1947, along with his wife Artoria, purchased a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home — their “dream house” — in Country Club Park, according to the Los Angeles Times. Just two months after moving in, nine white neighbors, led by Pastor Clarence Wright of Wilshire Presbyterian Church — who lived across the street from the Dryes — filed a suit seeking the eviction of Drye and two other families.

At the time, Art Drye, one of Frank’s children, remembered seeing a flier in their mail. It “stated something like, ‘These people are bringing down real estate prices in the neighborhood,’ ” he told the L.A. Times in 2007.

“There is no allegation, and no suggestion, that any of these defendants would not be law-abiding neighbors and citizens of the community. The only objection to them is their color and race,” Mosk wrote in his decision. “Our nation has just fought the Nazi race superiority doctrine. One of these defendants was in that war and is a Purple Heart veteran. This court would indeed be callous if it were to permit him to be ousted from his own home by using ‘race’ as the measure of his worth as a citizen and neighbor.”

Today, with traditional Jewish families living toward the western side of Hancock Park, and Korean households moving into the area’s homes as well, the days of restrictions are long gone, though according to the L.A. Times, the area does remain 70.7 percent white.

John McCarthy, who was president of Los Angeles Tennis Club in 2012, estimates that about 50 percent of the current club membership is Jewish. 

“A majority of the new members are Jewish, as well,” he said.

On Hancock Park’s doorstep, at Wilshire United Methodist Church — declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1973 — the Angel City Chorale, featuring 160 multicultural singers and conducted by Sue Fink, aptly performs an annual holiday program of Christmas and Chanukah favorites. 

It’s title? “Joyful, Joyful.”

Have a lead for an L.A. Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

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