Q & A With Joel Kotkin

Cities are “humankind’s greatest creation,” asserts Joel Kotkin in his new book, “The City: A Global History” (Modern Library). A contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section and contributing writer for this paper, Kotkin traces the rise of urban centers from Mesopotamia to Byzantium and the cities of the Middle East; from the rise of Venice and other commercial centers to the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles.
May 5, 2005


Cities are “humankind’s greatest creation,” asserts Joel Kotkin in his new book, “The City: A Global History” (Modern Library). A contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section and contributing writer for this paper, Kotkin traces the rise of urban centers from Mesopotamia to Byzantium and the cities of the Middle East; from the rise of Venice and other commercial centers to the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles. In looking at cities, Kotkin, who is speaking on May 17 as part of The California Agenda Public Policy Lecture Series, casts an eye on the human condition itself. Kirkus Reviews called Kotkin’s work, “A thoughtful survey, of interest to students of urban affairs and of world history alike,” while The Denver Post said it was “readable and pithy.”

Jewish Journal: Why did cities come into being? What roles did they play?

Joel Kotkin: Cities everywhere seem to have come into being to serve three essential purposes —- to be places of religious importance, refuges of security and centers of commerce. They allowed human beings to live in new ways, to perform new tasks collectively and expand the boundaries of knowledge. They are the essence of civilization.

JJ: When did Jews first appear in cities?

JK: Jews are history’s early birds. It is said that Abraham came from a city in Mesopotamia. That’s a start. Judaism, however, is mixed in its attitude to cities. The Prophets tended to be hostile to cities in many cases and celebrate the pastoral over the urban. The urban always brought the threat of contamination from paganism. Yet as a stateless people throughout much of their early history, Jews learned to survive in cities very early. Babylon is certainly an outstanding example from the past, but later Jews were prominent in Alexandria, Rome and many cities under the Roman dominion.

JJ: What percentage of Jews live in urban settings both in the United States and worldwide? In the United States, when did a majority of Jews first live in cities?

JK: I don’t have the exact number, but, from my previous book, “Tribes,” I learned that Jews tend to live not only in cities, but in the largest metropolitan areas — greater Southern California, New York, Houston, Philadelphia, the Bay Area. They are scarcer in smaller cities, even those that are growing.
In American history, Jews were largely urban, although many did move to the smallest settlements, whether in Deadwood, early Los Angeles, the towns along the Mississippi Valley, almost anywhere on the Western frontier. Sadly, many of those Jewish communities have shrunk and some have disappeared. I remember learning from the New Orleans Jewish community that they took care of the graves of old Jewish cemeteries upriver. Jewish communities barely exist now in places where, 50 or 100 years ago, they flourished. In many cases, the descendants of pioneer Jews either assimilated or moved to the bigger cities. Lack of numbers may have been a part of this, as well as the desire for upward mobility for the new generation. The gradual erosion of Jewish family-based department stores under the assault of Wal-Mart and other large chains may have accelerated this process.

JJ: Why are Jews such urban animals?

JK: Jews are a tiny group who have survived on their wits, or among the more witless, on the wits of their relatives. They did not come to America or most other countries with a great rural tradition. Also, in some cases, they came from places where they could not own land anyway. You do what you can do. You play the hand you are dealt. Jews were dealt a hand that required using their sechel [brains] to make it in the world; the best market for sechel tends to be in the city.

JJ: Where did Jews greatly improve cities through commerce, the arts or culture throughout history?

JK: Babylon, Alexandria and Amsterdam are outstanding examples from the past. New York, Los Angeles and Paris are fine exemplars today.

JJ: Where, throughout history, did political leaders marginalize Jews in their cities?
JK: Barnet Litvinov said of the Spanish Inquisition that as the Spaniards were gaining an empire, they lost an arm. The Jews were critical to the evolving Spanish commercial economy; indeed, some gentiles, as in Barcelona, actually opposed the Inquisition for being, well, bad for business. The example of Brazil is another. Jews settled in Recife early but left when the Portuguese took over. This retarded Brazil’s development. Finally, the most tragic example is Nazi Germany. The elimination of the Jews hurt Germany in many ways — commercially, scientifically, technologically and artistically. Many Germans today realize that the loss of the Jewish community there, and throughout Europe, was one of the continent’s great tragedies, not only for the Jews, but for them.

JJ: How does Los Angeles represent the next step in the evolution of the city?

JK: Los Angeles is the model of the multipolar city, where downtown is less than central to the region. It is also ground zero for the highly suburbanized, car-oriented city. This is the predominant pattern not only in the U.S., but in much of the advanced world.

JJ: Is Los Angeles a model for other cities, such as Asian urban centers?

JK: Los Angeles is more reviled than emulated consciously, but mimicked nevertheless. It is, as one observer noted, the original in the Xerox machine. Almost every major city in the Western world looks more like L.A. today than it did 20 years ago. Asian cities often try to do this, but they are constrained by land. They also sprawl, but tend to be it with greater density out of necessity.

JJ: When and why did Jews come to Los Angeles? What kind of discrimination did they face? When and how did they overcome it?

JK: Jews came early to Los Angeles. Initially they did very well, and in the first decades of American control made it into the upper echelons of the economic and political elites. Then, with the massive in-migration of somewhat anti-Semitic people from the rest of the country, Jews were pushed back a bit. But with the rise of Hollywood, the garment district and the powerful Jewish element in the real estate/development community, the walls against them could not hold. The political alliance with the African Americans under Tom Bradley breached the last resistance. By the 1980s, Jews were powerfully ensconced in the elites of L.A. and provided the bulwark of the then large middle class.

JJ: When were Jews at their pinnacle of political power in Los Angeles? What’s happened since them?

JK: Now you want to get me in more trouble, but here goes: After Bradley, Jewish power persisted for a while. Riordan was closely aligned with the Jews. The remaining industries after the aerospace bust — entertainment, real estate, schmattes — were heavily Jewish. But several factors are now at play. The Jewish community is becoming more diverse and divided. The Valley Jews, many of them from Sephardic backgrounds, are more middle of the road, and some are conservative. Sadly, many of these people, for understandable reasons, are leaving for places like the Conejo Valley or out of state.

The generally more affluent, and assimilated Westside Jews are increasingly in the ranks of the self-proclaimed “progressives.” With the community more divided, there is no coherence as there was during the rise of Zev Yaroslavsky. If Hertzberg had done as well among Jews as Villaraigosa did among Latinos, he would have won. He didn’t.

JJ: What difference does it make if Jews hold more or less political power in the city? Are there “Jewish issues” that Villaraigosa or Mayor James Hahn might not be as attuned to as Hertzberg is?

JK: There are really not Jewish issues, but class issues. Jews who are middle class, who own homes and businesses, but are not part of the cosmopolitan elite have interests that differ from those that dominate Antonio or Mayor Hahn. Antonio also, as Harold Meyerson points out, is popular among the young Jewish hipsters who, for the most part, are not homeowners or have to contemplate the reality of L.A. city schools.
The two candidates left now are products of a public employee and government feeder culture. This is less and less a Jewish culture. They have little appreciation for grass-roots capitalism, but may kowtow to the big business interests who provide a source for political funds. Hertzberg understood the middle-class and noncosmopolitan, Jews. This group will have little influence in the new L.A. political order, which will be centered on the public sector and the inevitable power of the Latino political machines. The rich, well-connected Jews will always have the power that money brings.

JJ: You have written about a political divide between affluent Westside Jews and middle-class Valley Jews. Was there always this chasm? What accounts for the increased division?

JK: Arnie Steinberg points out that this divide has been around, at least since the busing days. After all, the affluent Jews who backed busing generally didn’t send their kids to public schools. The [people] here in the Valley generally did. But this schism has grown with the increased level of assimilation among some Jews, particularly younger ones on the Westside, and the development of larger Conservative and Orthodox communities, partly as a result of immigration from Israel, Iran and other countries.
Finally Jews may be outgrowing the need for government. As they abandon the public schools, particularly in the later grades, their need to deal with the city political world declines. Fewer see government as a means to upward mobility. So they leave that to other people, except for a few politically committed types who continue to work in an advisory capacity.

JJ: What do you think the future holds for L.A. Jews? Do you expect them to grow in number or flee to other cities or states with better schools?

JK: Jews are weird. They will stay around long after their counterparts by class and education from other groups, including Latinos, Asians and African Americans, flee. The growth of Hebrew day schools, even among Reform congregations, may stem the outflow a bit as well. Long term, the economic conditions in L.A. may deal the worst blow, as people seek opportunity and more affordable housing elsewhere. But the Jews will be around in L.A. for quite a long time. We’re not so easy to get rid of, and I think even the next mayor, however noxious his politics, will recognize this and will try to appeal to us.

On May 17, Joel Kotkin will be speaking on “A New Progressive Vision for Los Angeles” as part of The California Agenda Public Policy Lecture Series presented by The Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs. 8:30-10:30 a.m. The City Club on Bunker Hill, 333 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Breakfast will be served. R.S.V.P. to (323) 343-3770.


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