"A professor of history at Rutgers-Newark and a native of Chicago and its environs, Beryl Satter skillfully and creatively weaves the story of her own family into a powerful narrative of neighborhood decline, economic exploitation and individual and community activism. The result is a moving and eloquent account of the forces black Chicagoans were up against, and the efforts of reformers, black and white, to combat them. Hers is a complicated story that is extremely well told . . . Family Properties is organized around two interrelated themes—a neighborhood's decline and the crusade of Satter's father on its behalf . . . Based on his own investigations, Mark Satter estimated that as much as '85 percent of the properties purchased by blacks were sold on contract' in 1950s Chicago. Driven by the 'heartbreaking details of his clients' lives,' Satter waged a lonely and largely unsuccessful crusade against contract selling and related practices in the courts, newspaper columns, speeches, and television and radio appearances. In waging his one-man war, Satter—who his daughter acknowledges was a complicated, difficult man—made countless enemies. Family Properties doesn't end with Mark Satter's death. Nor does the familial angle lead Beryl Satter down the path of romanticizing her father, his clients, or blacks and white activists. She also guards against the temptation to demonize the speculators her protagonists campaigned against. Her focus remains on the broader system of discrimination and the many agents—speculators, bankers, judges, lawyers, government officials and white homeowners—who made that system function and profited handsomely from it. To her credit, she is one of those rare writers who avoids oversimplification of a politically volatile topic. In her remarkably balanced conclusion, Satter appreciates the positive changes that have occurred since the 1960s at the same time she acknowledges the persistence—and even worsening—of various exploitative real estate and credit practices."—Eric Arnesen, Chicago Tribune "Every now and then, the zeitgeist smiles down upon a writer and makes the subject she’s been toiling over for a decade a hot topic at the time of publication. Such is the case with Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black America. Through the lens of history, Satter sheds crucial light on both the current subprime-mortgage crisis and the importance of community organizing in Chicago. If anyone still questions the significance of such organizing in the inner city, she should read Family Properties for a lesson in just how hard a job it is. The narrative—and the author’s inspiration—begins at home. '"If there’s no limit to how much a man can make, and it doesn’t matter how he makes it, God help us,"' Satter’s grandfather, Isaac, used to say. But it was her father, Mark Satter, who put this philosophy into action by representing disenfranchised African Americans in Chicago . . . The author follows several of her father's legal cases in detail, bringing to life not only the poor families involved, but also the predatory contract sellers, whose greed she seeks to explain without ever rationalizing it . . . In painstaking detail, Satter traces King's fight with the powers-that-be in Chicago, namely Mayor Richard Daley and his Democratic machine . . . Satter wears the mantle of historian throughout, keeping her emotions in check even when she discusses the members of her own family. It should be noted that when her father died in 1965, the author was only six years old. She has no direct memories of him or of her grandfather. But thanks to one of her brothers, mark Satter's legacy was preserved in a dozen large scrapbooks. These scrapbooks, plus Satter's interviews with the large cast of characters, are what give Family Properties the density of a good novel. And by means of this exhaustive and exhausting research, the author allows the personalities of the key players to shine. She never backs away from difficult territory, delving into cultural stereotypes of both the African-American and Jewish communities . . . The story itself is so politically and emotionally charged that the book becomes a page-turner, as the reader roots for the underdogs . . . In her conclusion, written just before publication, Satter draws direct parallels between the contract seller of the 1950s and 1960s and the predatory lending practices of the last few years . . . Before his death, Mark Satter argued that the federal government needed to right its many wrongs by creating 'job opportunities for all who would work' through a WPA-like program. It seems to be one argument he may finally win."—Helene Stapinski, Columbia Journalism Review"For African Americans in 1950s Chicago, buying a house was nearly impossible. Federal mortgage insurance didn't cover homes in integrated neighborhoods, making getting a loan difficult; in black neighborhoods, predatory sellers jacked up prices and forced buyers to pay outrageous monthly fees or face eviction. The resulting financial strains only compounded black Chicagoans' housing problems and drove their neighborhoods into decline. Satter, a history professor at Rutgers University, illustrates her lucid analysis of race and class on Chicago's West Side with the experiences of her father, a white lawyer and landlord who crusaded against the city's discriminatory policies and fought those who exploited black homeowners. But the story doesn't end with his premature death in 1965, at 49. By the late 1960s, an increasingly informed and outraged community was fighting back on its own. The ultimate result was the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which required banks to document their loans and outlawed discriminatory practices."—Frances Romero, Time"This sweeping chronicle of greed and racism combines a noble and tragic family history with a painful account of big city segregation and courageous acts of community resistance. In riveting stories and thoughtful analysis, Satter powerfully discloses how manipulation and abuse shattered lives and deepened urban inequality."—Ira Katznelson, author of When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America"Beryl Satter brings Chicago’s West Side to life in this vivid history of a neighborhood fighting for survival. She gives the urban crisis a human face in unforgettable portraits of the slumlords and the activists and lawyers (including her father) who battled valiantly against them."—Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North"This history of a place called Lawndale, on the west side of Chicago, is an archetypal American story of struggle and rise, race and divisiveness, justice denied and then justice achieved. Clyde Ross, Ruth Wells, Mark J. Satter, Monsignor Egan, Jack Macnamara, and the others—these are American heroes. I was privileged to be briefly involved, and I'm so glad to see Family Properties, after all these years, that I could hoot with joy, and then weep."—David Quammen, author of Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction"This is how the story of urban America after the Second World War ought to be written, with gritty realism and no illusions. Here is urban history as a drama of moral conflict and religious passion. Family Properties is a searing and deeply moving work, by a loving daughter and a great historian."—Robert Orsi, Professor of Religion and History, Northwestern University"One of the most contentious issues of twentieth century America was the transformation of middle-class white neighborhoods into African-American slums. The cast of characters is familiar—unscrupulous realtors, heartless slumlords, promiscuous welfare mothers, rapacious drug dealers, corrupt politicians, discriminatory savings and loan associations, and a racist government. But Beryl Satter tells a different story, a nuanced story, and a personal story in this compelling re-examination of a phenomenon everyone knows about and no one understands. Family Properties will change the way you think about history and about causation."—Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University"The search for the absent father—whether he’s literally or emotionally absent—is a pervasive theme in theater, books and film. Rarely, however, does an author inject this theme into a work of scholarship, as Beryl Satter has in Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. Satter’s approach makes a lot of sense. She began to explore racist real estate practices in Chicago after she read her father’s papers detailing his efforts to defeat these practices in the 1950s and ’60s. This never-resolved creative tension between the personal and the academic animates Satter’s book . . . Beryl Satter uses her history to shed light on a few larger debates. She links, for instance, the unscrupulousness of the real estate speculators to the excesses of lenders in the recent subprime mortgage crisis. In both cases, mortgage granters used legal means to prey on unknowing borrowers, and in both cases, minorities were more likely to be the victims . . . A thought-provoking contribution to recent urban history, more emotionally satisfying."—Peter Ephross, The Forward"An engrossing look at the history of racist real-estate practices in Chicago, and the activists who fought for justice. Satter views this issue through the personal lens of family history. Her father was a civil-rights attorney who represented many black families against exploitative real-estate contracts in the 1950s and '60s. Taking advantage of the fact that few banks would give mortgages to African-Americans, owners pushed a scheme called 'contract selling,' which was basically a high-interest installment plan with exorbitant monthly payments. The houses were often in disrepair and grossly overpriced; initial down payments were massive. One late monthly payment allowed the owner to void the contract, evict the tenants and start the process anew with another family. Even if they managed to stay afloat financially, black families often had to contend with hostile, even violent, white neighbors. Satter writes of one chilling case in 1957, when a mob of 200 teenagers gathered outside an African-American homeowner's house, chanting, 'We want blood.' When they sought redress in the courts, plaintiffs often met opposition from openly racist judges. Subsequent chapters depict the campaigns for social justice that arose from these practices. The author profiles Chicago activists like community organizer Saul Alinsky, who organized pickets against landlords, and movements such as the Contract Buyers League, which in the late '60s and early '70s spearheaded payment strikes and successfully challenged the legality of Illinois's eviction law. Much of the book's second half chronicles serpentine courtroom struggles; it's a testament to Satter's skill that these sections are among the most riveting and at times read like a legal thriller. Many of the problems and injustices she writes about still exist today, and she does an excellent job of documenting and explaining them for the lay reader. Comprehensive and compulsively readable."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)"In the early 1950s, Mark Satter opened his law practice in the Chicago suburb of Lawndale, but his life's work really began in 1957, the day a black couple, Albert and Sallie Bolton, walked through his doors needing a stay on an eviction from a home they had just purchased. Satter uncovered a citywide scheme, in which landlords sold African-Americans overpriced homes, keeping the titles until black homeowners paid them off, while charging excessive interest rates to insure they never could. Called contract selling, the practice cost thousands of migrating blacks their livelihoods. Mark Satter died of a heart condition eight years after the Boltons crossed his threshold, but nearly 50 years later, his daughter, Beryl, a history professor at Rutgers, picked up where he left off. Setting out to prove that the decline of black neighborhoods into slums had nothing to do with the absence of African-American resources and everything to do with subjugation and greed, Satter draws on her father's records to piece together a thoughtful and very personal account of the exploitation that kept blacks segregated and impoverished."—Publishers Weekly
Beryl Satter was raised in Chicago, Skokie, and Evanston, Illinois. A graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and the Yale American studies program, she is the author of Each Mind a Kingdom and the chair of the Department of History at Rutgers University in Newark. For her work in progress on Family Properties, Satter received a J. Anthony Lukas citation. She lives in New York City.