A specter from our past: Longtime residents will always remember the stain left on the Jewel by an era of housing discrimination
By Will Carless
It is a silently complicated picture, as faded and patchy as the early copies of the La Jolla Journal - now called The La Jolla Light - and it reveals a prejudice most would like to forget.
It is also a picture that has been re-painted several times over the past four or five decades. It is the picture of anti-Semitism, the picture of racism. It’s a closeted part of our history that begs to be forgotten.
Nobody can say for certain whether La Jolla was a community that was largely anti-Semitic or racist well into the 1960s, or if those feelings were shared only by a few. The memories of those who lived here at the time are all too easily tainted by the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia or the torque of their personal politics.
Depending on who is asked, the Jewel was either a haven for multi-ethnicity or a hotbed of anti-Jewish distrust and racism. Residents remember playing side by side with Jewish and black friends without a care in the world, while others remembers swastikas daubed on the walls of the first synagogue that set roots in La Jolla.
Many historians, commentators and journalists have dipped their brushes into the increasingly scant pools of memory and archives to reveal their version of what the discrimination and stereotypes of the time looked like. Unfortunately, such accounts all too often reveal the preconceptions of their authors. While they abound with sweeping statements about the anti-Semitic nature of La Jolla in days past, they often come up short in terms of evidence that it was a widely held prejudice.
There are, however, clear, substantiated and well-recorded accounts that point firmly to a virulent culture of housing discrimination in La Jolla aimed primarily at Jews.
No homes for Jews
Real estate agents from the time admit - with a hearty disgust borne from years of keeping a dirty secret - there was a widespread policy of discriminating against Jews searching for houses in La Jolla. Some of the first Jewish settlers in La Jolla remember the distrust they faced and the difficulties they had to overcome in finding an agent who would rent or sell them a house.
Judy Keelin has been an agent with the Willis Allen Co., one of La Jolla’s first real estate companies, since the early-1960s. The longtime La Jolla resident remembers the actions she and her colleagues were informed to take against Jews.
Keelin said that, while she was ashamed of the policy she was asked to enforce, she knew she had to toe the line.
“I hate to even say it, because I never agreed with it,” said Keelin. “It was against the Jewish people. We were told that if somebody came into our office and he looked like a Jew or had a name like a Jew, and he wanted to look at property, we were to tell him that we didn’t have anything for sale.”
Keelin said that the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers’ Association acted as the lynchpin for this policy of discrimination, coordinating agents in a united front to keep Jews from buying homes.
“If REBA themselves found out,” Keelin said, “we were to report back to REBA and let them know that there was someone by the name of Hersch or whatever it was. We were to let REBA know, then REBA called all the other real estate offices - there weren’t many of them in those days - and would tell them that such and such a person is looking for property and you’re to tell them that you don’t have any.”
Keelin remembered feeling embarassed by enforcing such a policy. “It was very awkward, and I just had such a hard time with it. But, I did have to follow the rules because I was a member of the Real Estate Brokers Association.”
Sitting in a well-stuffed leather chair in the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers’Association office on Kline Street, it’s easy to believe time has stood still in this corner of the community. Large black-and-white portraits of former association presidents scowl through horn-rimmed spectacles at the 1970s furniture. Outside the boardroom, in the front office, an ancient typewriter taps away.
If the association has maintained any of its old attitudes along with the decor, however, Joe Klatt, the association’s
current president, doesn’t know about it.
“We have an outstanding group of highly professional real estate agents that are REBA members,” said Klatt, “who do their best to comply with all of the laws. And they do an excellent job. We have some of the highest-performing agents in the country here in La Jolla, and they couldn’t do that if they were deviating from the law.”
Klatt remembers the discriminatory practices of La Jolla brokers up through the mid-1960s.
In La Jolla historian Mary Ellen Stratthaus’ informative academic paper, “Flaw in the Jewel: Housing Discrimination against Jews in La Jolla,” Stratthaus describes the green-card system. La Jolla real estate agents would place a green card in the front window of their vehicle while driving Jewish customers around, in order to alert sellers. Klatt remembers hearing that such a system was in place, though he doesn’t know how it was implemented.
Klatt said the green-card system came to an end with a flourish when Ed Norris, a real estate agent working for Klatt’s father, appeared on a television show and made a decisive move.
“He took one of these green cards,” said Klatt, “and, in front of the camera, he ripped it in two and said, ‘This ends it for La Jolla.’ ”
This story was corroborated by Lionel Van Deerlin, the television journalist who interviewed Norris on the show. Van Deerlin said the story raised outrage in the Village, and some of his close friends who were real estate agents angrily called him to refute the claim that such discrimination ever existed.
Such refutation still occurs today. Ninety-five-year-old Dorothea Rodimon was also a broker in La Jolla in the early 1960s. She said that if any such discriminatory practices were in place, she had no knowledge of them.
“I have never experienced (it) personally,” said Rodimon. “Maybe I was just too dumb to know that it was being levied at me, but I never had any feeling that I wasn’t welcome, for instance, to work with people of any group.”
Restrictive covenants regarding race were a common part of San Diego’s real estate environment for much of the early half of the 1900s.
“Such covenants were common throughout the United States. ...” said Mary Jo Wiggins, an expert in property law and discrimination at the University of San Diego. “Although I am not an expert on La Jolla, it is my understanding that they were fairly commonplace there also.”
Covert housing discrimination was targeted in 1948 by a Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer. It essentially outlawed the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants on constitutional grounds.
But, in the sun-drenched and then-secluded pocket of La Jolla, the case did not signal the end of such restrictive policies. Rather, it signaled the beginning of a more subversive tactic for keeping Jews out, with the hope that maintaining racial exclusivity would keep property values high.
La Jolla’s “gentlemen’s agreement” is a shadowy creature. It supposedly spelled out certain restrictions meant to close the real estate market in La Jolla to “undesirables.”
Part of that covenant said that “for sale” signs could not be posted in front lawns or windows of available homes. It is believed by some that this would keep news of homes for sale within certain social circles.
“For sale” signs are still verboten in the neighborhoods of La Jolla, though Klatt denied that the lack of signs in La Jolla is attributable to calculated discrimination.
“The reason that most owners don’t want signs is for security,” said Klatt, “for the safety of their property. ... There are reasons why signs aren’t up, mostly at the owner’s request. There is no covenant. There never has been.”
In an article printed in the Southwestern Jewish Press on Feb. 6, 1953, “Gentlemen’s Agreement - La Jolla Style,” a writer from Coronado, Alice Craig Greene, describes an investigation she performed into La Jolla’s real estate practices.
Greene called 10 La Jolla real estate agents, saying that her family wanted to know about property prices and that they preferred “restricted” property. With only one exception, the agents confirmed that they worked together to ensure that Jews were kept out.
Greene quoted one broker’s emphatic reply to her query: “Of course, it isn’t legal to restrict any more since those laws were passed. But, out here, we have a kind of gentlemen’s agreement. We all protect each other. And anyone who is obviously unpleasant in that line, well, we’re sorry, but we don’t have a thing for sale just now.”
UCSD’s beginning marks the end
If Shelley v. Kraemer was the genesis of La Jolla’s gentlemen’s agreement, UCSD patriarch Roger Revelle was one of the community leaders who oversaw its demise.
In the early 1960s, Revelle was a prominent supporter of bringing a new University of California campus to La Jolla. He campaigned hard to convince the University Regents that the hills above the Village would be the perfect location for a new branch of the university system, specializing in science and technology.
There was one major problem. Revelle knew that many members of a new university’s faculty would also be Jewish. With a culture of discrimination abounding in the community, he knew it would be hard to convince the brightest and the best professors - if they happened to be Jewish - to move to La Jolla.
Records at the library of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography show Revelle’s work in overturning La Jolla’s gentlemen’s agreement. News clippings Revelle saved and transcripts of interviews with the great academic show his concern about the effect this reputation for anti-Semitism could have on the move to bring a state university to La Jolla and to the recruitment of staff.
After much wrangling and cajoling, the issue came to a head in a speech Revelle made to the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers’ Association in the early 1960s.
“I said, and consistently said it always, from 1950 on,” said Revelle in an interview for the 25th anniversary of UCSD, “you can’t have a university without having Jewish professors. The Real Estate Broker’s Association and their supporters in La Jolla had to make up their minds whether they wanted a university or an anti-Semitic covenant. You couldn’t have both.”
The birth of UCSD changed La Jolla’s real estate attitudes for once and for all. The community now boasts a thriving Jewish community. Three large synagogues lie within the 92037 Zip code, and La Jolla annually plays host to one of the largest Jewish film festivals in the nation.
A new day?
Morris Casuto, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego, said he always found it ironic that the anti-Semitism practiced by La Jolla real estate agents was called a gentlemen’s agreement. Casuto was emphatic that the issue is well in the community’s past.
“I think you have to make a differentiation between the question: Are there anti-Semites in La Jolla? Of course, you find bigots and racists and good people and all sorts of people in every community,” he said. “Is La Jolla considered a welcoming location for members of the Jewish community? The answer has got to be yes.”
The vast majority of La Jollans agree that the shameful days of housing discrimination have long since passed. However, some La Jollans insist that a culture of exclusion still simmers here and is evidenced in some of the community’s hottest issues.
Howard Singer, a La Jollan who has campaigned vigorously to change the name of the La Jolla Christmas Parade to the La Jolla Holiday Parade, would not call the opposition he has encountered anti-Semitism.
“One would ask, why is La Jolla different?” he said. “Why is the community of La Jolla, why are individuals, the trustees of the La Jolla Town Council, adverse to change? And I would say that there are a certain group of individuals who aren’t interested in making everybody feel a part of the parade.”
Neil Morgan, one of La Jolla’s most distinguished journalists, wrote in a 1972 article that the practices were buried.
“Until a decade or so ago, La Jolla was virulently anti-Semitic,” Morgan writes, “most real estate salesmen found an excuse not to sell property to Jews and to discipline those who did. As the community has grown, it has grown up.”