Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews and the Changing Face of the Ghettoby Wendell E. Pritchett
From its founding in the late 1800s through the 1950s, Brownsville, a section of eastern Brooklyn, was a white, predominantly Jewish, working-class neighborhood. The famous New York district nurtured the aspirations of thousands of upwardly mobile Americans while the infamous gangsters of Murder, Incorporated controlled its streets. But during the 1960s,
From its founding in the late 1800s through the 1950s, Brownsville, a section of eastern Brooklyn, was a white, predominantly Jewish, working-class neighborhood. The famous New York district nurtured the aspirations of thousands of upwardly mobile Americans while the infamous gangsters of Murder, Incorporated controlled its streets. But during the 1960s, Brownsville was stigmatized as a black and Latino ghetto, a neighborhood with one of the city's highest crime rates. Home to the largest concentration of public housing units in the city, Brownsville came to be viewed as emblematic of urban decline. And yet, at the same time, the neighborhood still supported a wide variety of grass-roots movements for social change.
The story of these two different, but in many ways similar, Brownsvilles is compellingly told in this probing new work. Focusing on the interaction of Brownsville residents with New York's political and institutional elites, Wendell Pritchett shows how the profound economic and social changes of post-World War II America affected the area. He covers a number of pivotal episodes in Brownsville's history as well: the rise and fall of interracial organizations, the struggles to deal with deteriorating housing, and the battles over local schools that culminated in the famous 1968 Teachers Strike. Far from just a cautionary tale of failed policies and institutional neglect, the story of Brownsville's transformation, he finds, is one of mutual struggle and frustrated cooperation among whites, blacks, and Latinos.
Ultimately, Brownsville, Brooklyn reminds us how working-class neighborhoods have played, and continue to play, a central role in American history. It is a story that needs to be read by all those concerned with the many challenges facing America's cities today.
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Brownsville, BrooklynBlacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto
By Wendell E. Pritchett
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2003 Wendell E. Pritchett
All right reserved.
1 - Building an Immigrant Mecca: Brownsville, 18801940
Samuel Tenenbaum and William Poster both grew up in Brownsville during its early yearsTenenbaum in the 1910s and Poster in the 1920s. While both moved up to more affluent New York neighborhoods, each had a dramatically different recollection about Brownsville's role in their growth. For Tenenbaum the neighborhood was a cauldron of intellectual ferment where school "represented a glorious future that would rescue [a person] from want, deprivation and ugliness." Poster remembered a brutal, violent place that was "one huge cesspool of illiteracy and hoodlumism." The stories of Poster and Tenenbaumboth of them truthfulhighlight the contradictions of the working-class section of Brooklyn named Brownsville. Brownsville was a vibrant community with communal and religious institutions, a shtetl-like feeling, and opportunities for advancement. It was also a dangerous, dirty slum looked upon with disdain by the "better classes" of Brooklyn and the rest of New York City.
In a period of fifty yearsfrom its founding in the late 1800s to the beginning of World WarIIBrownsville changed from a community of small farms to a dense neighborhood of tenements holding the largest concentration of Jews in the United States. Brownsville's development demonstrates the impact of immigration on American cities and shows the complex relationship of housing development, commerce, ethnicity, culture, and politics in creating urban communities during a period of dramatic city growth. Destined as a working-class area from its inception because of its poor geography, Brownsville was marked by lack of planning, shoddy building, poor city services, and weak provision for parks and recreation. Individual decisions by hundreds of builders shaped the community, and these men developed a neighborhood where people struggled to maintain minimum standards of health and sanitation.
Despite its problems, in the early 1900s Brownsville was a dynamic, working-class Jewish community. The affinity fostered by close contact of peoples of common heritage attracted recent immigrants, many of them traveling directly from Ellis Island to Brownsville. Communal societies, religious institutions, political organizations, and specialized commercial stores all added to the area's desirability. While shabby from inception, Brownsville offered much more than the Lower East Side; larger tenements, open (though ramshackle) spaces for play, and cheaper rents. The speculative nature of the neighborhood, however, created long-term problems for Brownsville residents. Housing stock declined quickly, and community institutions could not adapt to the changing needs of the residents. The early decades of the 1900s brought fantastic growth to Brownsville, but by the 1920s the area was outdated, and its population began to decline.
Brownsville played an important role in the acculturation of Jewish immigrants to the United States, serving as a way station for tens of thousands of Jews. While many looked back on their old neighborhood with nostalgia for the community and the opportunities it provided, most area residents shared the view of the writer Alfred Kazin, who once called Brownsville "a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it." And the outside world looked at Brownsville with contempt. William Poster remembered that in the 1920s, "every New York Jew could feel certain about one thing; he was superior to anybody living in Brownsville." As many Jews achieved economic stability in the 1920s, they no longer believed that Brownsville's image reflected their success, and they moved to more genteel neighborhoods.
A Working-Class Suburb
Before the 1880s, the area of eastern Brooklyn that was to become Brownsville was known as New Lots. This territory was primarily farmland, but it was also the location of the city's largest waste dump, as well as the site of several facilities that supplied stone and other building materials. In its early history, New Lots had a diverse population. English and Irish settlers, Jewish immigrants, and a small number of African-Americans farmed the land. Many of the area's families had only recently immigrated to the United States but, unlike the majority of their compatriots, they rejected the industrial lifestyle of the Lower East Side. Others were attracted to the area by the open space and relatively fresh air it provided. Middle-class Jews and gentiles often summered in the area.
In 1858, William Suydam, who owned a large farm in the northeast section of New Lots, subdivided his property into small lots and built several small single-family houses that he hoped to sell to working-class New Yorkers. Whereas most of Brooklyn in the nineteenth century was built for the middle class, geography and industrial development discouraged more upscale development in Brownsville. The area was full of low-lying marshes, prone to flooding, and had few of the aesthetic attractions of other parts of Brooklyn. When the wind blew, residents frequently smelled the bone-boiling plants from Jamaica Bay. Brownsville was built for the workers, and Suydam constructed what were little more than two- to four-room shacks for prospective purchasers. Shoddy from the beginning, Brownsville offered relief to the working classes from the congestion of the Lower East Side, and that was how he marketed the development. However, Suydam's subdivision plan failed to attract sufficient interest, and he went bankrupt. In 1861 real estate speculator Charles Brown purchased the remaining lots at foreclosure, renamed the area Brownsville, and set out to market it to Jews from Manhattan. By 1883 there were 250 frame houses in the village.
Early settlers in Brownsville were attracted to the open spaces that seemed far removed from the congestion of Manhattan. However, they could not avoid the economic expansion of New York, and industrialization soon came to Brownsville. Workers typically followed industry in American cities, but in Brownsville the reverse occurred. By the mid-1880s, many Brownsville residents who bought or rented Brown's shacks commuted by trolley to Manhattan to work in the factories, and several manufacturers in the garment trades saw in the neighborhood an opportunity to expand their operations and secure relief from the congestion of Manhattan's industrial districts. Among the first manufacturers to do so was Elias Kaplan, a garment producer who built a factory employing 100 workers on Watkins Avenue in the 1880s. Businessmen like Kaplan hoped that by leaving the Lower East Side, where labor organizations were flourishing, they would disconnect their workers from the union organizers and other "agitators" seeking to increase the power of the working class. Kaplan also had paternalistic intentions. In Brownsville he built housing for workers, rented it at a profit, and located the area's first synagogue, Ohev Sholom, in his factory.
Other manufacturers involved in low-technology production, in particular food processing, furniture production, and metal working, followed during the 1890s. These businesses accelerated the development of new housing, and more workers moved to the area. Multifamily houses were built around these factories, and the workplaces also served as centers for worship and entertainment.
Most of the housing development in early Brownsville was done by the manufacturers themselves, who saw home building as an adjunct to their main business. Almost all the housing was rented. Brownsville's working class, many of them recent immigrants, could not afford to buy, and Jewish businessmen who achieved success on the Lower East Side saw in Brownsville the opportunity to increase their wealth through real estate. Tenancy also provided employers greater control over their workers. By 1900 almost twenty-five thousand people lived in Brownsville, most occupying wooden frame, "double-decker" houses designed for two families. When demand increased, owners subdivided many of these houses, and, with a partially finished basement, a home built for two families now accommodated eight. Most buildings had only one bathroom, and only a few had hot running water. Predictably, these houses were fire hazards and frequently burned to the ground.
From its origins at Watkins and Thatford Avenues, the community grew during the 1890s to encompass what became the northeast section of Brownsville, from Dumont Avenue on the south to Liberty Avenue on the north; Rockaway Avenue on the west to Junius Street on the east. The recently completed elevated railway served as the southern border, and the Long Island Railroad provided a "natural" eastern limit to the neighborhood. Residences shared streets with factories, workshops, and stores. In 1890, there were seven tailor shops along Pitkin Avenue between Sackman and Thatford, and another five along Blake Avenue between Christopher and Thatford. While developers continued to build residences in the spaces between the shops, much of this area remained undeveloped. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that in the 1890s residents walking at night in the area frequently fell into unfinished cellars, and that the lack of paved streets resulted in puddles "large enough to drown a horse." Street paving, sewers, and other government services followed several years after settlement and were not completed until early in the 1900s.
As Suydham had done years before, several developers constructed cheap, small buildings to accommodate this wave, but with increasing demand larger apartments became the norm. While even the Lower East Side was once an area of single-family houses, Brownsville was "born" a tenement community. High land costs, created by speculation and immigration, necessitated higher densities to ensure profit for developers. The construction of the elevated railway caused a dramatic escalation in land prices in the late 1890s. Lots that sold for $500 to $1,000 in 1890 traded for $4,000 to $5,000 by 1900. By 1890 the majority of new buildings were multifamily, and by 1895 the tenement, typically comprising five units, was the predominant building type.
Ethnic tensions also shaped the community. To the west and east of Brownsville were, respectively, the villages of East Flatbush and East New York. Both areas, home to English and Irish residents, responded violently to the increasing Jewish population, and many Protestant landowners in these areas refused to sell to Jewish developers. In 1890, Brownsville residents created the "Hebrew Protection League" in response to several attacks on local Jews. The need for collective security, coupled with discrimination, pushed Brownsville's development upward instead of outward.
Between 1900 and 1920 Brownsville boomed, growing from a small hamlet to a teeming ghetto. The population of 37,934 in 1905 doubled to 77,936 five years later. By 1920, 100,854 people called Brownsville home. Many of the residents came from the Lower East Side, which lost 60 percent of its population between 1905 and 1915. The construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 and the Manhattan Bridge in 1909 spurred Brownsville's growth by uprooting thousands of residents on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. The expansion of the subway system through Brooklyn also supported the growth of the Brownsville area, both by dislocating people living near the subway construction and by providing a convenient means of transportation to the neighborhood.
But dislocation was only one cause of the dispersal of Manhattan's population. The main reason former immigrants departed the Lower East Side was upward mobility. Economic growth at the turn of the century, coupled with increases in immigrant education, enabled thousands of New Yorkers to establish better lives for their families. The most successful immigrants moved to northern Manhattan or the Bronx. Those with a more tenuous hold on economic success moved to areas like Brownsville, which offered fresher air and comparably better accommodations. Immigrants also continued to settle in Brownsville throughout the period from 1900 to 1920. Many of them, particularly those from Russia, heard about the difficulty of life on the Lower East Side, and they chose to come directly to Brooklyn. Others quickly moved to Brownsville, after a short stay in Manhattan, when they discovered that they could get more for their money in Brooklyn. By 1910, 65 percent of Brownsville's males had resided in the country less than ten years, 43 percent less than five years. In 1910, two-thirds of Brownsville residents were first-generation immigrants, and 85 percent of these residents were from Russia. While not as desirable as the new communities on the Upper West Side or in the Bronx, many viewed Brownsville as an improvement. In Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep, the Schearl family is forced by economic circumstances to move from Brownsville back to the Lower East Side, and David, the main character, experiences the terror of poverty for the first time. In contrast to their new neighborhood, Brownsville was idyllic.
During the 1900s, Brownsville experienced a building boom as thousands of tenements were constructed, and the community expanded to the south and the west. Established residents occupied these newer buildings, while more recent immigrants, as well as a small number of African-Ameri-cans, took their places in the older structures. The new accommodations were made of brick and stone, had indoor plumbing, and were comparatively modern, but they were still cheaply built and lacked hot running water. In a decade of dramatic expansion, Brownsville's developers re-created the surroundings of the Lower East Side, erecting cramped, high-density, multifamily tenements on narrow blocks. The streets were congested, and there was little greenery. One former resident described the area as "rows and rows of tenements and jerry-built, identical private houses, all railroad flats, so that light and sun were . . . precious." The architecture of the community had very little rationale or plan. "The dwellings were of every variety and looked as though they had been dropped chaotically from the sky," said another former resident.
The tenement was an unavoidable part of Brownsville life. In 1904, 88 percent of the dwelling units in the area were in tenements. By 1907 this percentage rose to 96 percent. Most dwellings were three- or four-story structures housing four of five families apiece. Generally some type of commercial activity occupied the first floor. Immigration at the end of the cen-tury's first decade caused another speculative boom in Brownsville, and the price of vacant land again rose dramatically. Lots that sold for $50 in 1907 were flipped for $3,000 in 1909. Boom and bust cycles were compressed in Brownsville's development. Because of the speculative nature of development, builders earned good returns one year only to declare bankruptcy the next. Most of these developers were small, operated on tight profit margins, and relied on locally acquired capital that often dried up. Sixty-four percent of the builders in the area produced fewer than five houses. A few developers like Ira and Jacob Goell created stable, large-scale operations, but most builders did not achieve lasting success. Financially insecure and opportunistic developers built for quick profit, not for long-term occupancy, which contributed to the low quality of housing in Brownsville.
Excerpted from Brownsville, Brooklyn by Wendell E. Pritchett Copyright © 2003 by Wendell E. Pritchett. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Wendell Pritchett is a visiting assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and assistant professor of history at Baruch College of the City University of New York.
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