Commentary Magazine


Gentlemen's Agreement in Bronxville:
The “Holy Square Mile”

Harry Gersh describes a personal investigation into anti-Semitic housing practices in a fashionable New York suburb. 

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Bronxville, New York, is a pleasant, handsome suburban village in lower Westchester County, fifteen miles north of New York City. In most respects it differs little from other fashionable metropolitan suburbs, although the average income seems somewhat higher, the residents more homogeneous, the schools superior. Photographers use the Bronxville railroad station as a backdrop for advertising pictures and TV commercials, but Larchmont’s station is used more often. Bronxville’s business district is restrained and architecturally consistent, but Scarsdale’s is more so. Bronxville, however, is unique in one respect. It doesn’t like Jews and won’t admit them as residents.

There are other areas in Westchester, Nassau, and other suburban counties around New York which try to stay demonstrably “Aryan.” But these are places without sharply defined boundaries; their exclusionary practices are being steadily eroded. Bronxville, on the other hand, is an incorporated village, with legal boundaries within which Jews are unwelcome, except as visitors or customers. And Bronxville continues to enforce its anti-Semitic pattern though it lies clearly within the metropolitan area in which wholesale discrimination was supposed to have been wiped out.

Bronxville, which is exactly one square mile in area and is known to real estate men as the “Holy Square Mile,” is home to about 7,000 people. The village lies on the east bank of the Bronx River, and is bounded by Yonkers on the west, Mt. Vernon on the south, the unincorporated area of Eastchester on the east, and Tuckahoe on the north. Eastchester Township is the parent township of both Bronxville and Tuckahoe villages; but Bronxville ignores the relationship. A majority of voters seem not to know that it exists. Most of Bronxville’s men commute to New York on the Harlem Division of the New York Central—a run of thirty minutes. There are no club cars on these trains; Bronxville commuters take their martinis at the Biltmore Men’s Bar or at home.

Three north-south through streets cut through the village—Sagamore Road-Kraft Avenue, Midland Avenue, and the White Plains Post Road. There is one east-west thoroughfare, Pondfield Road, which is the business street. Although many Tuckahoe streets are opposite Bronxville streets, and would naturally connect with them, the Bronxville residential streets are dead-ended. This serves as a barrier not only to traffic but to neighborliness. (Tuckahoe’s residents include Jews and Negroes.)

Two hills, rising on either side of Midland Avenue, give much of Bronxville a rolling contour, providing most of its homes with pleasant views. The streets are quiet, tree-shaded, and winding. Where an old tree stands in the path of a street, the Bronxville road curves or splits to accommodate it. Village homes are hard-money suburban—Georgian, Colonial, subdued Victorian, Norman, some Elizabethan half-timbered. Most appear to have been built during the two decades preceding and following World War I. The proportion of transplanted Moorish castles, Mission haciendas, Petit Trianons, and similar monstrosities is quite low. There are a few angular modern homes, which seem out of place among their more sedate neighbors; but there wasn’t much space for building left after World War II. Careful zoning restricts the amount of land available for structures.

Bronxville does have a peculiar architectural form—the community house. This is a local adaptation of the row house, a single structure containing from six to fifteen attached individual houses, each with five or six rooms plus tiny front and back yards. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Brooklyn, the row house is considered socially inferior to the detached house. In Bronxville, no such social stigma attaches to it. One longtime Bronxville resident explained that “the young people live in the community houses, waiting until they can afford a real house.” (Community houses cost about $28,000.) Another villager maintained that the row houses were not only for young families but for bohemians.

Although Bronxville residents include advertising men, TV producers and actors, public relations men, and publishers, the proportion of communications people is lower than in racier communities on Long Island Sound, elsewhere in Westchester, and in Fairfield County. Bronxville, however, does have a strong contingent of industrial and financial executives. Top executives of Standard Oil, National City Bank, International Business Machines, Consolidated Edison, Rogers Peet, Home Insurance, Ward Leonard Electrical have served as mayors and trustees of the village. Several internationally known clergymen also make their homes in Bronxville.

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The village was incorporated in 1898, but it was Bronxville long before that. Its largest church, the Reformed, was opened in 1850. The railroad, then the New York and Harlaem, came to the village in 1846. The entire area was deeded in 1666 to the white man by Gramatan, sachem of the Mahicans, an Algonquin tribe. The local hotel, called the Gramatan, was opened in 1897. (It accepts Jews.) When periodic efforts are made to change the village name (to avoid confusion with the multi-racial Bronx), “Gramatan” is usually one of the alternative names suggested.

A local historian writes that the Hotel Gramatan was frequented in its early days by “those of artistic and literary turn of mind,” including William Howe, Herman Schladermundt, Kate Douglas Wiggin, and William Smedley. Later guests included Greta Garbo, Theodore Dreiser, and Peter Lorre. Residents point out old mansions with great expanses of north-light glass as evidence that Bronxville once housed many painters.

The first of the “old” families came to Bronxville in 1835 when Alexander Masterson built a mansion in the village to be near his quarries in Tuckahoe. Another historian dates the village’s beginnings from 1863 when Alexander Masterson, Jr., moved his family to Bronxville. In either case, this family set the local pattern: Tuckahoe as the place for working folk, Bronxville for gentlefolk. Today Bronxville’s maids, cooks, shopkeepers, gardeners, and plumbers, its policemen, teachers, and garbagemen, still live in Tuckahoe and other surrounding communities. But Bronxville has long had a paternal interest in its hewers and drawers. Louise Masterson, niece of Alexander, Jr., tells how Tuckahoe “was overrun with saloons, and to curtail them, my uncle had built a Temperance Hall in Tuckahoe.” Tuckahoe, about three-fifths the size, still has more saloons than Bronxville. On the other hand, Bronxville contributes far more than its numerical percentage to the regional Community Chest. It also has one of the nation’s largest chapters of the Daughters of the British Empire.

The village got its real start when William Van Duzer Lawrence bought the 86-acre Prescott farm in 1890. Lawrence, a retired Canadian manufacturing chemist, didn’t think much of the land, but “yielded to the urgings of friends who said they would like homes on the Prescott property.” (It is not explained why these friends couldn’t buy direct from Prescott.) He soon bought neighboring tracts as well, and most of the incorporated village is on former Lawrence land. According to a Lawrence Management employee, Lawrence companies still own 97 per cent of the rental housing in the village (including several substantial apartment developments) and 98 per cent of the business area.

William V. D. Lawrence founded, and his heirs still run, Lawrence Investing Company, Lawrence Management Company, Davis and Lawrence, and the Lawrence Park Light, Heat and Power Company. He gave $250,000 to found Lawrence Hospital in 1906—a great deal of money then. He also founded Sarah Lawrence College, named for his wife, and gave it part of his estate just outside Bronxville in Yonkers. Lawrence was closely involved in setting up the college and there is no evidence that he differed with the college’s liberal social policy.

As a matter of fact, Lawrence wrote in 1898 that his aim in Bronxville was to assemble “people together who should be congenial in each other’s company . . . to select the people who are to live together so that they may have a wholesome respect for each other. Belonging to the same plane of social life, they are working to the same ends, even though they may have different views on politics and religion and other subjects of everyday life.”

There is no indication as to whether Lawrence had in mind Jews when he spoke of those who “may have different views on religion.” He did live through the first thirty years of the village’s incorporated existence, and must have known of its pattern of exclusion. In any event, the homogeneity Lawrence sought and Bronxville has maintained in the three decades since his death is self-perpetuating. In such a group the pressure to conform is greater than in heterogeneous groups, and so are the social penalties for breaking the patterns. Bronxville’s social pattern, as we shall see, includes real estate anti-Semitism: to break it is to betray your friends and neighbors, people who would remain friends even after you left Bronxville. The community includes important figures in most industries; to incur their enmity in Bronxville might later cause you trouble on Park Avenue or Wall Street. Rigid enforcement of the rule against Jews does not require the active assistance of the majority of the population, but it does require—and evidently commands—the majority’s assent. Finally, the dominance of the Lawrence complex in the real estate of the village, and possibly in other matters, may be a factor in enforcing the “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

Bronxville’s homogeneity extends to its politics. In 1956 the village gave Eisenhower 3,803 votes to Stevenson’s 400. In 1958 the vote for Governor went 3,209 for Nelson Rockefeller to 287 for Averill Harriman. Bronxville also gave the nation troglodyte Congressman Ralph Gwinn, who retired undefeated in 1958, after fourteen years in the House. Mr. Gwinn regards the U.S. Post Office as an example of state socialism, and said so in a speech at Sarah Lawrence College in 1956. Last fall, he had kind words for Arkansas’s Governor Faubus.

Bronxville’s school system is something else again. The village spends more than $800 per student annually, placing it first or second in the national averages each year. The school system is one of the most progressive in the country—it is, in fact, one of the showplaces of Columbia Teachers College and of Dewey disciples. Comments a village historian: “One of Bronxville’s amazing paradoxes is that in a community where conservatism plays a major part in politics, economics, and general philosophy, its school system is one of the most modern in the country. The answer probably lies in the fact that most residents of the village have always belonged to a discriminating [sic] category of American citizen who desires the best for his family and most of all for his children. Whereas conservatism in politics seems the best expression of good judgment, conservatism in education would be folly.”

But Bronxville’s school district, it should be noted, is one of three in Eastchester Township. District One covers the north end of the township, with the boundary drawn in such a way as to include most of Tuckahoe’s commuter areas and exclude Tuckahoe’s Negroes. District Two covers the mid-township, including most of the village of Tuckahoe. District Three’s boundaries coincide with the outlines of Bronxville, thus excluding Jews and Negroes.

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Lower Westchester county accepts Bronxville’s anti-Semitism as a fact of life. I have not heard even of any Jewish organizational protest. A few weeks ago, I decided to test the validity of this acceptance. I decided to try to buy a house in Bronxville.

Examining the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory, I found ten real estate firms listed with addresses inside the “Holy Square Mile,” and decided to try five of them at random. I assumed a cover name and a cover story: I was “Harry Greenberg,” about to be transferred from Philadelphia to New York and seeking a suburban house. I was under instructions from my wife, a confirmed PTA’er, to buy only in the Bronxville school district. Thus, with a name I assumed would be taken immediately as Jewish, and a strict mandate not to accept a house outside the village, I moved in on Bronxville.

Bronxville’s real estate offices range from an august, marble-fronted, family-bank-type temple-of-business, through a charming, white-painted brick cottage complete with fireplace, to an ordinary storefront with too many desks. My reception seemed to vary with the outward appearance of the office. The lady in the bank building greeted me austerely; the lady in the cottage was charming; the man in the storefront was businesslike.

I waited five minutes in the first office before I was noticed. After telling the lady who asked my business that I wished to buy a house, I was ushered into a small room furnished with three chairs and a table. A tall, middle-aged woman, wearing pince-nez and looking like my sixth-grade teacher, entered carrying a large black book.

“I’m looking for a house in Bronxville,” I said.

“Yes,” she sniffed and looked me over, hat to shoes. I was wearing a suburban-looking hat with a cord band, a gabardine topcoat, tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, flannel trousers, Hathaway shirt, and knit tie. I passed inspection.

She asked my name, address, and business address. I said: “Greenberg, Harry Greenberg. I’m from Philadelphia and am being transferred to New York.”

Her face fell—no doubt about that. But she opened her book and began leafing through it. “What price did you have in mind?” she asked.

“Oh, about $35,000,” I answered. Prior research showed that Bronxville houses didn’t come cheaper.

The real estate lady continued turning pages in her book, pointing out items and offering explanations. “No, this one wouldn’t do. . . . That one’s gone. . . . Here—no, we sold that this morning.”

Finally, she found one: “Here’s a lovely house. Just what you want. It’s about five minutes from the station—on the other side.”

“Is it in Bronxville?” I asked.

“Well, it has a Bronxville address.”

“But is it in the Bronxville school district?”

“No, but they have an excellent school over there.”

I explained that I had instructions from my wife to consider only houses within the Bronxville school district. I acted as though I myself were amenable, and put the onus for my stubbornness on my absent wife.

It continued that way for the rest of the interview: she trying to interest me in a house outside Bronxville (though not very hard), me sticking to my desire for a Bronxville house.

When I insisted on a definitive answer—wasn’t there a single house in the entire village?—she went through her book once again. “Well, of course there are some. Here’s a house at $55,000, but it has only three bedrooms. And we have several more in the high fifties and sixties.”

Consideration of a house costing $20,000 more than my original price would have looked suspicious, so I thanked her and left.

My next stop was in a large, well-appointed suite that looked like an estate office. The woman who received me was pleasant and helpful. I told her my name, but it seemed to make no impression. She had plenty of houses in my price range—which now started at $40,000.

We went out and looked at six houses within $12,000 of my stated price. Some were quite pleasant, although $10,000-$20,000 over-priced by non-Bronxville standards. As she drove me through the village, the agent pointed out the school, library, the pleasant streets, beautiful homes, the field club (“open to residents, but of course it’s a membership club and you have to be voted in”). She spoke of the Women’s Club, the country club, and other glories of Bronxville. During this trip I found that I couldn’t interrupt the lady without raising my voice; she was hard of hearing. I wondered if she had heard my name and what I could do about it.

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On our way back we passed the lovely Bronxville Reformed Church. “We have a Catholic Church,” she said, “a Lutheran Church, an Episcopalian Church, and this is the Reformed Church. But it has a Presbyterian minister and it’s really a community church. Everyone goes there.”

This was the opening I sought. “We are Jewish,” I said in a loud, clear voice. She didn’t say another word until we stopped in front of her office. We carried on the rest of our business seated in the car.

As soon as we had parked, she launched into a paean of praise about Scarsdale, four or five miles north. She spoke about Scars-dale’s beauty, its excellent school system, the friendliness of its people, its size—which would give me a far greater choice of houses. I insisted that my wife wanted Bronxville. She broadened her field, and told me what beautiful homes could be purchased just outside Bronxville, for half the prices asked in the village. I insisted that one of the houses we had seen in the village impressed me, and that I wanted to bring my wife out to see it. This left the agent with only one choice, obviously unpleasant.

“Mr. . . . eh.”

“Greenberg,” I reminded her.

“Mr. Greenberg, you want me to be frank,” she began,

I admitted I preferred frankness.

“Then I have to tell you that you wouldn’t be comfortable here in Bronxville. There are no Jewish people in the village.”

Some phrases have become so clichéd that you don’t expect to hear them from normally aware persons. “Some of my best friends are Jews” is one which I heard several times that day, and this agent was the first to use it.

“Some of my best friends are Jews,” she said. “And I wouldn’t want you to be hurt. It’s not even you and your wife so much. You’re probably used to it. But your children. You know how cruel children can be. Think of your son and daughter exposed to the cruelty of the other children.”

She kept on long after she should have stopped. “Now you’re nice people. You wouldn’t want to live in Tuckahoe.” (We do live in Tuckahoe, and it was rather disconcerting to get the Bronxville view.) “It’s mostly Negro and Italian.” (We have fair percentages of both groups, and families of Jewish, Irish, English, German, and Scandinavian background as well—a Fourth of July orator’s dream.) “But you would love Scars-dale. The people are just like those in Bronxville, but it’s mixed, as it should be.”

Trying to ease the situation, she explained that it wasn’t the old Bronxville families who objected to Jews, but the “new rich.” (This doesn’t square with the fact that Jews couldn’t buy in Bronxville in the years before the “new rich” got rich.) Her clincher was probably a subconscious reaction to my open avowal of Jewishness. “Besides,” she said, “Scarsdale’s taxes are much lower.” (They aren’t.) The poor woman insisted that I let her call a friend in Scarsdale who would take good care of me and find me a real bargain. I finally agreed to look him up.1

The next agent, a decent, older man, took me to see several houses in my declared price range even after he knew my name as “Greenberg.” But the only house available for immediate sale had six small rooms, stood on a small plot, and cost $45,000. A buyer would have to be desperate to swallow it at that price.

Back at the office, the real estate man explained his position: “I’m in the real estate business and I’ll try to sell you any house on my list. After that, I’ll try to see that the sale is closed. But whether you’ll be happy here if you do buy is another matter. Bronxville is 100 per cent Christian. You won’t be comfortable.”

I asked him how he knew this; whether it wasn’t an old pattern being continued through inertia; whether a Jew wouldn’t be decently received if he did try to settle. The real estate man had an answer to these questions, too.

“A couple of years ago a rich Jewish family did buy a house in Bronxville. They bought it direct from the builder.” (I took this to mean that the sale would not have been consummated had the buyer approached a real estate agent rather than an out-of-village builder.) “But the family stayed less than a year. I had the house for resale, and the man told me they hadn’t been comfortable in the village.”

I thanked him for his frankness and moved on. The story from the next agent was that there just wasn’t anything available in the village. It was the wrong season—before Christmas. No one, I was told, puts his house up for sale before the holiday season; they don’t want a bunch of strangers trooping through the house; spring is a better time. If I needed a house in a hurry, I had better look elsewhere (where, presumably, people did not mind strangers tracking through their houses).

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The fifth agent was most charming. She told me about her family, her grandchildren, her Thanksgiving dinner. She wrote down my name and asked whether we spelled it with an “h.” This confused me. Then I remembered that Eastchester’s neighbor to the northwest is Greenburgh Township—and it wasn’t named after a Jew. I disclaimed the Aryanizing “h,” but it was obvious that the real estate woman hadn’t made the connection.

We went the rounds again—some of the houses I had already seen, and some new ones. I saw the pleasant streets again, the business district, the school, and the library. When we passed the Reformed Church, the agent gave me the same listing I had heard a few hours before.

“We have a Catholic Church, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and this is the Reformed Church. But they have a Presbyterian minister and everyone goes here. It is a community church.”

On that note, I made my ploy: “We are Jewish.”

“Oh,” she said.

Back at her office, I heard once more that I was an intelligent man and therefore I would want her to be frank. She did not want us to be hurt, she continued, particularly the children. “In the entire ‘Holy Square Mile,’ I am sure there isn’t one Jew,” she said.

She was effusive in her wonder at how well I took this disappointment. Then she asked if I knew Dr. X, a psychoanalyst, who lived in the township. He had come to her for a house in Bronxville, just as I had, and when she had explained things to him, he had been most understanding and allowed her to sell him a house in Eastchester—outside the village.

“It’s a lovely house,” she said, “almost an estate. And we have become good friends. I was invited to the housewarming. It was lovely. And I was the only Irishman there. Oh, what wonderful food they had.”

Here, in a shiny nutshell, was the entire stereotype—the doctor-Jew, a symbol of cleverness; the riches, his “estate”; the clannishness, she was the only “Irishman” there; the exotic-outlandishness, expressed in the food symbol.

I said goodbye and went home—one mile due north of her office. On our street are twenty-four houses. About half of the families living in them are Catholic; perhaps eight are Protestant; four are Jewish. No one has indicated any economic, social, or recreational disadvantage in living near us.

Some time later, I asked a non-Bronxville real estate operator what would have happened had I insisted on buying one of the houses that had been shown to me. He assured me that the deal would have fallen through at some point. By the time I could get my wife up to see the house, it would have been sold or taken off the market. If I had insisted on putting down a binder immediately, the agent would have accepted it subject to the owner’s approval—which would not have been given. And, if I had passed these and a few other hurdles, I might have had trouble getting a local mortgage at favorable terms.

One Bronxville resident took issue with the conclusions I drew from my experiences with the real estate agents. They did not speak for all Bronxville, he argued. His argument did not impress me. Real estate operators are in business to make money. One, two, or even three of the five I visited might be so bigoted as to refuse to do business with a Jew. But their unanimity, as well as their ex parte comments, showed that more than real estate agents’ prejudices were involved. These people were expressing a community feeling, following instructions from community leaders who could enforce them. The Jew who bought a house from a builder, and then had to move, was not made “uncomfortable” by real estate agents.

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Although several Bronxville real estate agents had said that the village was 100 per cent non-Jewish, I made another test. I studied the Bronxville telephone book. After digging out all Jewish-sounding names, I checked addresses with the police station to throw out those living outside the village boundary. I was left with four names which sounded Jewish. I surveyed these by telephone. I reached three.

One said, “I am a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.”

Another said, “We are Protestant.”

The third actually was Jewish. But he was a shopkeeper and didn’t live in the village.

This is not a scientific determination. The familiar-name method was proved to be at least 25 per cent off in a survey of medical school students. Many Jews do not have what we assume to be Jewish-sounding names, and the other way round. Possibly there are some Jews in Bronxville, with non-Jewish names. But none of the Bronxvillians I asked, in addition to the real estate people, could name one. Several said, “There must be,” but couldn’t produce any when pressed.

The telephone book offered still another test. The classified section lists 130 physicians. Seven have possibly Jewish names. Only one has a Bronxville address. Thirty dentists are listed. Two names sound conceivably Jewish. One might have a Bronxville address. Again, this is not legal proof. Those with Jewish-sounding names may not be Jewish, and those with non-Jewish names may be. But as a rule of thumb in this second half of the 20th century, any community around New York City with a substantial number of physicians and dentists and no Jews among them, has made a determined effort to remain Judenrein.

I also discussed my experiences with a professional schoolman with an intimate knowledge of the Bronxville school system. He insisted that Bronxville schools did have an occasional Negro student, the child of a resident maid, and that the child was well received by his “peers.” He remembered some Jewish children, too, but admitted that they were few and far between. Bronxville did employ Jewish teachers, he said, and they were respected by the students. (I checked his statement that there had been some Jewish children in school by looking through the high school yearbooks from 1950 to 1958. During these years there were five students with possible Jewish names, though they could just as well have been German.)

When I offered the socio-psychological thesis on which the Supreme Court based its desegregation order—that segregation, even with equal facilities, is bad for the children of both the segregated and the segregating groups—he said that he had seen no evidence of this among Bronxville’s students. Bronxville’s graduates, he maintained, were as “liberal” (his word) as their peers from more heterogeneous schools.

Despite this educator’s informed view, his statement is open to serious question. Most children growing up in a community which openly says “we do not want Jews as neighbors” come to accept this attitude as right and just. Certainly, some children will question it, as they question all the verities propounded by their parents. But most do not examine too deeply. They accept the gentlemen’s agreement and assume that it is one of the things that makes Bronxville living so pleasant—like having money, cars, servants, and straight teeth. There remains the disturbing possibility that if, on leaving Bronxville, they should ever lack money or cars or servants, they may decide to blame their deprivations on having to live among Jews.

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Footnotes

1 As a matter of fact, there are some tight little neighborhoods in Scarsdale with gentlemen's agreements, but they do not have the cover of a political entity. It's not socially correct in Scarsdale to be openly exclusionary, at least as regards houses. The difference is in degree.

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