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  • Flaw in the Jewel: Housing Discrimination against Jews in La Jolla, California
  • Mary Ellen Stratthaus (bio)

“The very fact that you live in La Jolla puts you in a special class.”

Real estate ad for La Jolla Highlands La Jolla Light, November 6, 1958

The low mountains rising from the shore of La Jolla, California, the seaside village known as “The Jewel,” serve as a barrier against the heat of the coastal desert. On summer days when low clouds provide a protective shield along the coast, temperatures beyond the canyon east of the coastal range commonly run as much as ten degrees higher. Those same mountains also break up transmission from San Diego’s public radio station, KPBS, making it difficult for villagers to pick up a clear signal. In the late 1950s the citizens of La Jolla learned how another barrier to the outside world, one they had constructed and maintained to preserve their exclusivity and distinction, became a potential economic obstacle when it threatened to keep out a new university. This study examines how plans to build a new University of California campus led to the elimination of La Jolla’s anti-Semitic housing policy.

Real estate brokers in La Jolla developed methods of thwarting home purchases by potential buyers they considered undesirable on the basis of class, race, or ethnicity. While housing prices excluded people of lower incomes, realtors also evaluated prospective buyers through a prism of racial and ethnic assumptions. Many La Jollans considered Jews among the unworthy, regardless of their appearance, income, or education.

La Jolla had an unwritten understanding, a “gentlemen’s agreement,” regarding Jews in the 1950s. La Jollans wanted to keep Jews out of their town because of class fears as well as anti-Semitism. For people with such fears, “‘Downgrading’ of the neighborhood through entry of those of lower status must be fought, and if it cannot be contained, one must flee to avoid the inevitable resulting loss of status.” 1 Class fears hinge on economic anxiety: residents resist poorer neighbors because their presence [End Page 189] could lower property values. A study of prejudice published in 1950 expressed the extreme concern of many people in one succinct sentence: “Where they [Jews] come in, the niggers follow and knock the property down.” 2

In the 1950s in America, discrimination against outsiders represented more than class or economic anxieties. During the Cold War Americans turned inward like a wagon train circling in on itself at night for protection. During the early years of the Cold War Americans clung to their new-found prosperity while living in fear “that the Russians could destroy the United States not only by atomic attack but through internal subversion.” Fear of invasion from within and without even influenced the design of the standard suburban home in the 1950s according to Elaine Tyler May, who described its “sense of isolation, privacy, and containment” as eliminating “anything that was wild or irregular.” 3 To some La Jollans in that decade, an “invasion” of university professors and students represented an irregularity. When a UC spokesman said a new campus would involve “all kinds of people,” La Jolla resident Jim Archer protested: “This university is not going to have any radicals on it at all . . . We’ve got to keep it pure,” a comment interpreted by a UC faculty member as meaning “safe for Republicans.” In the same time period a controversy erupted when the UC president demanded that faculty members sign a loyalty oath swearing they were not communists. 4

Even before postwar fears of communists, La Jolla had struggled to keep out the unwanted. While a number of residents worked to exclude [End Page 190] outsiders, not all La Jollans were anti-Semitic. Nor were they all white or exclusively gentile. Some were even Democrats, although so few that a joke told in the late 1950s ended in the punchline: “that damned Democrat in La Jolla voted twice.” 5 However, those who implemented or facilitated the town’s policy of restricting housing to Jews had one thing in common: they felt threatened by the idea of Jews moving into the community.

La Jolla’s physical aspects contributed to its...

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pp. 189-219
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