It’s a rare book these days that gets one review in the New York Times, and an even rarer one that gets reviewed twice. As for books that get glowingly positive reviews in both the daily Times and the Sunday Book Review – well, it’s a select group indeed.
Into that choice category falls Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. The Sunday Times called the book “revealing and instructive” and said the author had covered herself in “glory.” The daily Times raved, “Her book is transfixing from its first sentence” and said the book “feels like something close to an instant classic.”
So just what is the story that garnered such lush praise from the Times? It’s the tale of Beryl Satter’s father, Mark Satter, a Chicago lawyer who, the book says, fought “exploitative Jewish slum landlords” until his death in 1965 and whose “thinking was radical, not liberal.” The NAACP, the Urban League, even community organizer Saul Alinsky were too tame for Mark Satter.
The book reports that Satter joined the Communist Party USA in 1945. The author tries her best to make excuses for her father’s decision to throw in with the Communists, romanticizing, “he shared their anger at gross social inequality and was drawn to their understanding of class as the primary divide in society. He admired the intellectual elegance of Marxist thought and the idealism that seemed to drive it.” Also, she writes that her father credited the Soviets for having prevented the Nazis from murdering all of European Jewry.
The two Times reviews – all 1,750 words of them – manage to omit any mention that the hero of the book was a Communist. (He left the party after a year, not out of any ideological epiphany, but because, the book says, “the discipline and personal subservience were not for him.”)
To its credit, the Washington Post, in its similarly effusive review of the book (“the most important book yet written on the black freedom struggle in the urban North”) at least mentioned the Communist angle.
There are other issues raised by “Family Properties” that a reviewer might tackle. For instance, Satter parrots her father’s claim that exploitative landlords “were robbing Chicago’s black population of one million dollars a day,” then goes on to tell of how the slumlords were “big Israeli bond donors” and that another motive for the exploitation was to allow the landlords to make contributions to their synagogues.
Also, Satter the author claims the big problems in urban America are not deindustrialization or the culture of poverty but greedy landlords and rapacious mortgage bankers. One might ask, then, why was there so much crime and so little hope in the government-run public housing projects of Chicago such as Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes? Neither housing project gets so much as a mention in “Family Properties,” which may be because their problems don’t fit neatly into the “intellectual elegance of Marxist thought,” with its conception that the problems of our minorities or our cities are the fault of “exploitative Jewish slum landlords” robbing the poor so they can donate more money to synagogues.