The Homewood subdivision in north Minneapolis had a reputation: that those who platted the land more than a century ago sold their new development with deeds that barred Jewish and black residents.
That’s the story that 46-year resident George Roberts heard from area elders when his North High School students interviewed them years ago. It’s the same story that architect and 41-year resident Randall Bradley heard. The assertion even made it into the book of a respected local urban studies professor. The story went that the restrictions were unenforced when land sales proved slow.
But, new research shows, it wasn’t true.
That finding by retired historical researcher Penny Petersen is being cited as the city considers the designation of Homewood as a historic district under the local heritage preservation ordinance. A designation study concludes that the tale of discriminatory restrictions “appears to be a popular urban myth.”
Petersen, who was poking around in Hennepin County property records for deed covenants in Minneapolis that excluded people based on race or religion, figured she’d find examples in Homewood. She checked every block and came up empty.
“I have found many racial covenants, just not in Homewood,” Petersen said.
Regardless of whether Homewood’s developer set out to exclude Jews and blacks, Jewish residents bought properties there as early as 1916, only seven years after the 80 acres were platted south of Plymouth Avenue and east of Wirth Park.
The historic designation study calls Homewood significant mostly as a North Side Jewish enclave, with a majority of early residents having Jewish surnames. The area also exhibits the work of noted Jewish architects and builders in a collection of period revival homes that dominate its 254 buildings, which define a period of historical note from 1909 to 1949.
Exclusive sales pitch
Even if the racially and religiously restrictive language was not there, there’s no question Homewood was developed to be economically exclusive. Deeds there mandated that houses cost at least $3,000 and a developer’s brochure promised a place of “character and refinement” with a required 35-foot front-yard setback.
The developer’s vision was underscored by stone pillars that bore street names. The marketing brochure sought “progressive business and professional men” and promised restrictions that would serve as “protection against undesirable neighbors and unsightly improvements.”
And Petersen concedes that prospective buyers considered undesirable at the time may have been steered away from the area. Something like that happened to Roberts, when he and his wife sought a house near his new job at North High but were steered away from the North Side by their agent.
The absence of explicit discrimination against racial or religious groups in Homewood is all the more surprising in that it was developed just as those restrictions were taking hold in the real estate industry, which argued they promoted neighborhood stability.
A 1946 survey of Minneapolis real estate agents found that 40 percent of the city’s subdivisions barred property ownership by blacks or Jews. Petersen estimated that one-quarter to one-third of the deeds she’s checked across Minneapolis contain such restrictions. Those of a racial nature are more common than religious exclusions, which were made illegal by state law in 1919. One early subdivision near Lake Harriet excluded people of “Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”
As postwar suburbanization took hold, many of Homewood’s Jewish residents moved, often to Golden Valley or St. Louis Park, with the 1967 Plymouth Avenue riots punctuating that impetus.
When the Robertses moved in, homes could be bought for $20,000 to $30,000. Such notables as former Viking Carl Eller, attorney F. Clayton Tyler and his wife, former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, now live there.
The nomination of the area as a historic district would bring design guidelines and review of building permits by City Hall to try to maintain the neighborhood character. Residents debated the guidelines at a meeting this week.
Some who bought houses decades ago fear that creating a historic district would stimulate gentrification. They worry that current residents would face expensive restoration when their houses need work, and that the designation might attract higher-income residents who would drive up home prices.
“We need to really pay attention to the impact that this is going to have on the affordability of Homewood,” said 43-year resident Laura Kadwell.