Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
Above: My grandparents Mary (Driscoll) McDonnell and Joseph McDonnell at my mother's college graduation, 1960
I'm interested in the history of my grandfather's relationship to his Jewish neighbors. Specifically I wonder how he ended up building his retirement home in 1949 in the then-predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Tower Hill in Lawrence Massachusetts, moving from his prior home in the Irish section of South Lawrence, along Kingston Street by St. Patrick's Church
If I consider this move, along with other indicators – for example, that every winter he and his wife would travel to Fort Lauderdale Florida for their annual vacation, or that he was a smalltime real estate developer, or that he may have had a tendency to obfuscate his Irish Catholic background (he told mill overseers his surname was McDonald, which was Scottish, and which allowed him a better job) – the pieces of a puzzle perhaps begin to emerge.
Consider Lawrence in the 1940s. When he began building his house in 1949 at the age of 60, the city was still regional center, although on a terminal decline. He had worked for four decades as proprietor of hotels and rooming houses and was entering retirement with his wife. Summers were spent running the properties at a New Hampshire resort for the workers, Hampton Beach, and winters were spent in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Tower Hill in Lawrence, the location of his new home, had in the postwar years become the preeminent Jewish neighborhood of greater Lawrence. This period, especially the early 1950s, was marked by the construction of two synagogues on the upper part of Lowell Street and a Jewish community center (JCC) within 100 yards of the site of his new house. (One of them, Temple Emanuel, moved to Andover in 1979 and its buildings became the Bruce School annex magnet school mentioned in my blog post on the 1984 Lawrence riot.)
The local public school, the Bruce school, which I attended for nine years starting in 1976, apparently allowed days off for Jewish holidays and was at one point in the early 1960s over half Jewish.
Question: did my grandfather choose the neighborhood because he perceived it as an appropriate home for a successful businessman, much like the other residents of this neighborhood; or did he have specific personal links to some of the Jewish residents? And, tangentially, why did he winter in Fort Lauderdale? He had been going there for years, and in 1926 purchased a significant parcel of land which they later sold in the 1950s.
I'm not sure it's possible to gather any more information. From talking to my mother, I get the impression that his friends were mostly related to his wife, my grandmother Mary Driscoll, a sociable and gregarious woman who had a penchant for Cadillacs and fur coats.
Yet I can also imagine a separate sphere of business colleagues, untethered from being "couples friends" – men who developed apartment buildings and commercial real estate, or who had businesses focused on hospitality - who might have influenced his choice of where to retire.
The final puzzle piece is his choice of developing property in Hampton Beach, N.H. This town was restricted, and covenants running with the land routinely prohibited sales of property to Jews, unlike the practices in the neighboring seaside resort areas of Salisbury, Mass. For this reason alone, I have concluded that any decisions of my grandfather to retire to Tower Hill in Lawrence, or to winter in Fort Lauderdale, had nothing to do with whether they were Jewish areas.
Nevertheless, I will cotinue to investigate this topic.
ULDATE MARCH 7, 2018: I have since learned that, whereas Miami Beach was considered fairly Jewish, Fort Lauderdale was “waspy”. Thiis plus the restricted nature of Hampton Beach probably kills my thesis that my grandfather moved to Tower Hill because he had Jewish business connections.