SFS: First, congratulations Bruce Phillips on being chosen for the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry's (ASSJ) 2016 Marshall Sklare Award.
ASSJ mentioned your interdisciplinary approach to your work. I think of demography as a lot of counting and statistics, but you obviously have a broader view of the field. How would you describe what you do?
BP: Well what’s interdisciplinary about is that I bring perspectives from other fields to bear when looking at Jewish research. We have about 200 community studies in the North American Jewish Databank. So we know where Jews lived in a number of metro areas of over time. The question I’m asking “how do we understand where Jews live in the context of urban studies ideas and theories."
For example, there is an emerging body of research on the fate of inner-ring suburbs. This are suburbs built in the 1940s/50s/60s that are close to the city. The majority of these suburbs are experiencing decline in some way: declining housing stock, unemployment as factories close down, and poorer schools as the tax base moves out to the outer suburbs. Most middle class and upper middle class whites live in the outer suburbs which are newer, have better schools, and are geared to the modern economy. One would think then that Jews would also live in these outer suburbs. But it turns out that the majority of Jews live in the inner-ring suburbs which I interpret as part of the metropolitan urban area and in fact Jews may have helped to stabilized inner-ring suburbs in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and Los Angeles.
Another idea from urban studies is that of “ethnoburbs.” This concept was created by social geographers to explain why Chinese immigrants move to suburbs like San Gabriel and Monterey Park instead of Chinatown as immigrants did. They’re not moving to the suburbs to assimilate, they’re moving there to preserve Chinese culture. This also explains a lot Jewish suburbs (like Evanston and Skokie outside Chicago, and Encino and Sherman Oaks outside LA) in which many Jewish institutions have been established.
Another interdisciplinary technique I use is to apply the insights of multiracial children to understand young adults who have been raised in mixed marriages.
I also use old census data that has recently become available to do historical demography.
SFS: You’ve studied a lot of Jewish communities around the country. What change startled you most in a community over time?
BP: I think that the most interesting thing that I’ve seen is that San Francisco became more Jewish. In the 1950’s the Jews there were very assimilated with high intermarriage rate. But the emergence of Silicon Valley brought many Jewish migrants from more conventional Jewish communities who, unlike the older Jewish San Franciscans were more likely to have a Jewish spouse, send their kid to religious school, and to join a synagogue.
SFS: And what differences between communities were most striking?
PB: Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Older communities like Pittsburgh and Baltimore have long standing Jewish communities. Close to half the Jews in Pittsburgh lived in or near the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. In contrast, in Atlanta and Phoenix, it’s hard to find a noticeable geographic concentration of Jews. Mostly like this is because these cities are new and expanded very quickly.
SFS: While you have studied communities all over, your own roots are here in Los Angeles. Do you have any insider observations about LA?
PB: The thing I’m most impressed with about LA is that it has always had Jewish geographic concentrations. Most interesting is the Pico Robertson area. This is a rare example of a Jewish neighborhood being created out of a black one instead of vice versa.