His brief but influential role in confronting St. Paul poverty a century ago started 5,000 miles away and endured a nasty anti-immigrant backlash.

Carol Aronovici was kicked out of his native Romania in his late teens for advocating peasants’ rights. He emigrated to America in 1900 — working as a laborer and teaching immigrants in New Jersey.

After earning a degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from Brown, he conducted surveys and authored papers on living conditions in New York, New England and Philadelphia — becoming an expert on the nation’s deteriorating housing and the sketchy sanitation in its urban slums.

Considered a “respected intellectual of national reputation,” Aronovici delivered a lecture series in St. Paul in 1916. That visit prompted a job offer. Aronovici quit his research position in Philadelphia in 1917 to become director of social services for the charitable organization that business mogul Amherst Wilder created a decade earlier to help St. Paul’s poor.

“With hair longer than the norm among men, with flowing Windsor tie, and spats, the new Wilder staff member did indeed cut a distinctive figure,” according to Merrill Jarchow’s 1981 book on Wilder. The author described Aronovici’s brief career here as “interesting and productive, as well as stormy and attention-capturing.”

Although Aronovici’s stint in St. Paul lasted less than three years, he left a distinctive stamp on the capital city. He launched Wilder’s first research study in 1917, a stark survey detailing neighborhood squalor and remedies to fix it. That marked the first foray into social research for what became the Wilder Foundation. Its surveys have shaped public policy ever since.

Aronovici wrote St. Paul’s first housing ordinances and devised strategies to combat unemployment. City leaders pushed back, not trusting an immigrant to cure the city’s woes amid the patriotic zealotry that came with World War I.

With 100,000 newcomers arriving in St. Paul between 1870 and 1890, low-quality housing had popped up quickly. Outhouses and bathrooms in hallways and basements were shared by multiple families in 41 percent of the 22,000 people surveyed — roughly 13 percent of St. Paul’s population of 291,140 at the time. The so-called Flats along the Mississippi River and the Swede Hollow shantytown on Phalen Creek were labeled unfit for human habitation.

Aronovici’s 120-page, 1917 housing survey — available online at http://tinyurl.com/Aronovici-survey — included photographs of outhouses, an ill-repaired butcher shop, bathrooms in people’s kitchens and horse stables right next to dwellings.

“His general conclusion was something of a shocker,” Jarchow wrote. “Housing conditions existed that were ‘a menace to the health, safety and privacy of thousands of St. Paul people.’ ’’

Aronovici compared St. Paul’s slums to those in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. That didn’t go over well with city power brokers, including Dr. B.F. Simon — the city’s health officer.

“I have not given a great deal of time or attention to said Dr. Aronovici … because I absolutely refuse to give much of the public’s time to recommendations made by any man who is not a full-fledged American citizen,” said Simon, who called Aronovici’s findings “a “line of bunk.

“As an American citizen,” Simon went on, “I believe that I have a greater interest in the welfare, health and happiness of my fellow citizens than any alien, who since his arrival in the United States has been so busy criticizing our American cities and her institutions that he hasn’t had time to complete his citizenship.”

“Aronovici was a somewhat controversial character at the time,” said Wendy Huckaby, the current spokesperson for Wilder Research. “He pushed boundaries.”

And defended his fellow immigrants.

“What have we done for the masses of the foreigners during their first years, the most impressionable period of their residence in this country?” he asked in “Social Welfare,” a publication he helped launch in St. Paul.

“We have housed them in houses that are worse … than their ancestral huts; we have exposed them to all that is most dangerous in our industries … Should we expect under these conditions the development of unflinching loyalty and unfailing confidence?”

He also spoke up for women. In one of his last Minnesota research surveys in 1920, Aronovici insisted that “it is clear that a disproportionate number of women were receiving a wage below the minimum of subsistence and that these low wages were frequently needed to assist in the support of the family.”

After serving as secretary of St. Paul’s Planning Commission in 1920, Aronovici moved to California to lead a state housing program for immigrants and work on city planning and zoning regulations in Berkeley, San Bernardino and other communities. Married with two sons, he continued to study housing in New York and Germany and teach college courses up and down the West Coast. He died in Berkeley in 1957 at 75.

“Like most prophets, the social director was years ahead of his time,” wrote Jarchow, the author, who lauded Aronovici’s best traits: “imagination, vision, energy, concern for the general welfare.

“[B]y shattering some complacency in St. Paul, by stirring people’s minds, and by moving numbers of individuals to action, he left a mark on the community and laid a solid base for future progress.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.