At the time when Morris Milgram was building Concord Park (featured in last week’s post), he was concurrently developing a smaller plat of land bought with the initial capital raised from investors. This 22 acre area would be a continuation of his dream for integrated housing, but on a smaller scale and with higher-end housing. Nestled in a wooded area of northeast Philadelphia, 19 homes were built in the prototypical mid-century modern style and in keeping with Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic of drawing on and incorporating the natural landscape. (Morris Milgram specifically asked that as many existing trees be saved as possible and had a landscape architect as part of the team for the development.) The 55% white/45% black quota that was used at Concord Park was maintained for Greenbelt Knoll, and although on at least one occasion, Milgram called a white friend to ask him to consider buying a home on Longford Street, the struggles of finding white homebuyers willing to live in this integrated neighborhood were less pronounced. Milgram himself bought one of the homes, and the upscale housing attracted upper middle-class whites and blacks; politicians, intellectuals, and even a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The small, secluded area with unique housing enabled the creation of a community built upon neighborliness and mutual respect. Today, Greenbelt Knoll remains integrated and has been designated as a historic district by the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places (2006) and the National Register of Historic Places (2010).
After Greenbelt Knoll, Milgram turned his sights to building two small subdivisions in and near Princeton, NJ: Maple Crest in Princeton and Glen Acres in West Windsor. These subdivisions of 25 and 15 homes, respectively, were built at the request of the Princeton Housing Group, a coalition of integrated Presbyterian churches. This local group did most of the initial work of raising funds to finance the housing; more details about their experiences are in this article: Film eyes Princeton pioneers of integration. No quotas were set for these houses, and the neighborhoods settled into [roughly] a 60% white, 40% black ratio on their own. Although Maple Crest is no longer a cohesive neighborhood like Glen Acres, both areas are still racially integrated. A West Windsor resident produced a short documentary about the experience a few years back; the trailer for it can be found here: Trailer for Glen Acres: A Story in Black and White
At this point in his career, Milgram had become known across the country for those interested in open housing, and he started a new company, Modern Community Developers (MCD). It was intended to not only continue building open developments but also to provide guidance to other builders interested in open housing. Milgram’s contacts were widespread and diverse, and the board of directors reflects this:
MCD’s roster of board members and advisors reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century progressive politics: Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women), Senator Jacob Javits, Kivie Kaplan (head of the NAACP), Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph (president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Eleanor Roosevelt. Ned Eichler, who had offered Milgram advice on his projects, was a supporter, as was the pioneering developer of the shopping mall (and socialist) Victor Gruen. Source: “Housing Is Everybody’s Problem”: The Forgotten Crusade of Morris Milgram
One of the first projects of MCD almost became its last. A subsidiary of MCD, Progress Development Corporation, bought two plots of land in Deerfield, IL with the intention of building a 51-home development of housing, with 12 homes reserved for black ownership. Deerfield, about 20 miles northwest of the Loop, was, in the late 50s and early 60s, a small town with undeveloped prairie land on its outskirts, a quaint village center, and an all-white suburb. After getting the necessary zoning approvals, Progress started construction in the summer of 1959, and within months, sewer and plumbing lines had been laid for the plots and two model homes were almost completed. The homes were going to be designed by a noted modernist architectural firm, with a starting price of $30,000, the most expensive houses Milgram had built to date.
In mid-November, however, the news that this was to be an interracial development leaked, and Deerfield residents reacted with fury and speed. The next day, village officials halted construction due to “building code violations.” A community organization was formed, and an action committee of leading Chicago lawyers planned to take on the legal battle. On November 18th, just three days after the news was out, a village board of trustees meeting was packed with residents calling for the board to stop the development. Residents who supported the project, including a local history teacher, were jeered, booed, and told to leave. Milgram’s past association with socialism were brought up, with calls that his ties to “communism” be investigated; others wanted nothing to do with outsiders, especially “Eastern money interests” (an interesting charge in light of the fact that Milgram was Jewish). By November 23rd, a special meeting was held, with some residents claiming they weren’t against integration, just this sort of “forced integration” that was not the result of a “natural expansion.” By December 10th, a legal notice was posted in the local newspaper, announcing the park board’s intention to acquire land for six new parks; two of the parcels were the Progress plots. In 1959, bond issues for parks had already failed twice in Deerfield, but when the vote was held on December 23, 1959, voters in Deerfield voted 2635-1207 in favor of acquiring the parklands. The land that Milgram had bought and started developing would be seized by eminent domain.
Milgram was not going to concede without a fight. He fought in the state courts of Illinois and filed a civil rights case in the federal courts. In the state courts, he lost on the basis that Deerfield had the right to use eminent domain, and the Illinois Supreme Court would not consider the motives that MCD and Progress said motivated that use. In the federal district court, the judge dismissed the suit but not without adding his own acerbic, hostile opinion. (For those who are interested, some of the complaint and the ruling can be read here, with the point-by-point allegations of the roadblocks, with the rebuttal, placed in the way of Progress and its development: Complaint against Deerfield) Although Milgram’s lawyers pursued appeal, both cases were lost. The two partially-finished model homes were bought by village officials, and the land seized from Milgram lay dormant for years before finally being made into the long-promised parks: Jaycee Park and Mitchell Pool and Park.
In 1959, when Progress was trying to start their development in Deerfield, there were 12 African-Americans living in Deerfield out of a population of 11.786. The 2010 census shows that Deerfield had a population of 18,225; 160 residents reported as African-American. In 2015, a Lutheran church in Deerfield proposed a 48-unit affordable housing apartment complex on a part of their property, which would require a change in zoning from single-family housing. Controversy swirled over the proposal (Affordable Zion Woods apartments draw swift opposition), and the arguments in opposition to the affordable housing would have been familiar to the 1959 residents who opposed Milgram’s development.
This ill-conceived project on the land now occupied by the Zion Lutheran Church will spell trouble for Deerfield. The rental is below market costs and the income maximum foreshadows an influx of welfare recipients, and increase in taxes already high, and a strain on the school system. While those who propose this development may be motivated by good intentions, we must remember that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
Source: Diagnosing and Treating ‘Property-Value Panic’ Syndrome
To the best of my knowledge, the units have not been built.
Despite the financial assistance from groups and individuals across the nation, the legal actions related to the proposed housing in Deerfield nearly ruined Milgram financially. He turned away from suburban developments and turned his attention to buying apartment properties in Washington, DC and other cities and changing rental policies to allow non-white residents. It was the path he chose to follow for the remaining decades of his life:
Over the next three decades, Milgram acquired a host of apartment buildings. In 1964, MCD bought Rosemary Village, an all-white apartment complex in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, and started welcoming black tenants. It was, Milgram claimed, “the first apartment house to be deliberately integrated south of the Mason-Dixon Line.” In 1965, he set up a real estate investment trust called M-REIT that focused on buying apartment buildings in white suburbs and using “affirmative marketing to establish and maintain ethnically diverse communities.” Other partnerships to buy low- and moderate-income apartments and integrate them long-term followed. With the Fair Housing Act now the law of the land (albeit poorly enforced; discrimination remained rife) and “benign quotas” out of the question, Milgram and his partners aimed to steadily integrate complexes as apartments turned over, luring nonwhite tenants while preventing a white exodus. In 1968 Milgram became the first recipient of the National Human Rights Award of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Source: “Housing Is Everybody’s Problem”: The Forgotten Crusade of Morris Milgram
Bonus video: Memories of Greenbelt Knoll
Next week: Legacies and Lessons