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Book Review: 'Family Properties' by Beryl Satter

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For black purchasers struggling to make inflated monthly payments, dividing and overcrowding their properties to generate income was a common solution. But that choice sapped aging structures, and it strained the fabric of many communities. In Chicago's tough West Side neighborhood of Lawndale, for instance, school enrollment increased 286 percent between 1951 and 1965.

Even more than Hyde Park, Lawndale plays a central role in Satter's book, both because it experienced the worst concentration of Goran-style real estate sales and because it's where her father grew up. In the 1920s and '30s, when Mark Satter was a boy, the neighborhood was largely Jewish. He attended law school on scholarship, dabbled briefly in the Communist Party and gradually bought four small Lawndale apartment buildings to supplement his modest law practice.

Between 1940 and 1960, Chicago's African American population surged from 277,000 to 812,000, and Mark Satter was one landlord who happily rented to blacks. "He was passionately, ideologically dedicated to the ideal of an interracial community in Lawndale," his daughter writes.

In 1953, however, construction of what today is the Eisenhower Expressway "sliced the neighborhood in two and essentially destroyed it." The following year Mark Satter moved his family to a more middle-class area, and in 1955 Lawndale's major Jewish institutions decamped as the neighborhood became predominantly black. Real estate rip-offs proliferated.

Satter was just 6 when her father died in 1965 at age 49, exhausted by his losing struggle to keep his Lawndale properties in respectable shape. Soon after his death, a grassroots group called the Contract Buyers League emerged and fought back against unfair real estate contracts by picketing banks and withholding payments to exploitative agents such as Goran. It had mixed success -- 70 families lost their homes -- but its battles led to congressional enactment of mid-1970s mortgage reform laws that improved banks' home loan practices and that Satter views as the "crowning achievement" of the activism her father pioneered.

Half a century after her 1959 eviction, Sallie Bolton, now 88, still lives on Chicago's South Side, although not as close to the Obama family's grand home as she once briefly did. Predatory lending practices have reemerged in the form of subprime loans, and Satter reports that "between 2004 and 2006 the American city with the most residents holding subprime loans was . . . Chicago." "Family Properties" is a superbly revealing and often gripping book, one that will remind Chicagoans on temporary assignment in Washington all too poignantly of home.

David J. Garrow is the author of "Bearing the Cross," a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

He is researching a pre-presidential biography of Barack Obama.

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