The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999


"Life in the city, for the millions who lived it, was once something less than the sum of their lifestyle choices: they woke up, they ate, they shoveled coal, loved, hated, prayed, mated, reproduced, died. For most, the home was not a display object but a place to keep the few things they had managed to hold on to from the surpluses produced by their labor. Their material life was made of the things they didn't have to eat, wear, or burn right this minute. A concertina maybe? A family Bible? A hunting rifle?"


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"Life in the city, for the millions who lived it, was once something less than the sum of their lifestyle choices: they woke up, they ate, they shoveled coal, loved, hated, prayed, mated, reproduced, died. For most, the home was not a display object but a place to keep the few things they had managed to hold on to from the surpluses produced by their labor. Their material life was made of the things they didn't have to eat, wear, or burn right this minute. A concertina maybe? A family Bible? A hunting rifle?"

This life in "the old neighborhood," so lyrically captured by Ray Suarez, was once lived by a huge number of Americans. One in seven of us can directly connect our lineage through just one city, Brooklyn. In 1950, except for Los Angeles, the top ten American cities were all in the Northeast or Midwest, and all had populations over 800,000. Since then, especially since the mid-60s, a way of life has simply vanished.

Ray Suarez, veteran interviewer and host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation®," is a child of Brooklyn who has long been fascinated with the stories behind the largest of our once-great cities. He has talked to longtime residents, recent arrivals, and recent departures; community organizers, priests, cops, and politicians; and scholars who have studied neighborhoods, demographic trends, and social networks. The result is a rich tapestry of voices and history. The Old Neighborhood captures a crucial chapter in the experience of postwar America. It is a book not just for first- and second-generation Americans, but for anyone who remembers the prewar cities or wonders how we could have gotten to where we are. It is a book about "old neighborhoods" that were once cherished, and are now lost.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Clarence E. Page columnist, Chicago Tribune What makes us Americans move so much? Why has so much "black flight" followed so much "white flight"? Who's next? And what have we lost when we leave "the old neighborhood" behind? In exploring provocative questions like these, Ray Suarez offers us Americans a lively, authoritative, and unsentimental journey into the interior of our restless national soul. With a hard-edged reporter's insight and humor, The Old Neighborhood takes a top-down and bottom-up look at the perceptions and realities of urban and suburban American life and points the way to the threshold of a new century. I have been waiting years for a book like this to come along. It was worth the wait.

Robert B. Reich University Professor of social and economic policy, Brandeis University, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor No one hears more clearly than Ray Suarez the hollow echoes of America's cities, or records more compassionately the stories of those who have abandoned them and those who have been left behind.

Roberto Suro author of Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America Ray Suarez has added an important new chapter to the history of the American city with this revealing portrayal of the flight away from the urban center. Millions of listeners already know of his great skills as an interviewer, and with this book we discover that Suarez is also a graceful writer and an incisive observer of modern America.

Witold Rybczynski author of City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World Ray Suarez understands that there are no easy answers to the problems of America's declining cities. What he does in this provocative book is to record the voices of urban dwellers -- those who stayed and those who left.

Bruce Katz The Brookings Institution Ray Suarez has written a tough and passionate account of the fate of America's older cities over the past three decades. By talking to urban and suburban families, he draws out the real motivations behind the flight from cities: perceptions and realities about schools and crime and the persistence of racial and ethnic tensions. Suarez offers a stark picture of the costs of declining cities -- to the nation, to communities, to individuals -- and counters the notion that these cities have experienced a substantial revival in the 1990s.

Marc Ramirez
Poignant oral history, a tale of statistics brought to life, mainly through the words of those affected by the departure of the white middle class.
Seattle Times
James Grossman
[Suarez] walks the streets, talking with neighborhood activists or with people like the Cleveland homeowner he approaches after seeing a 'Sold' sign on the front lawn. He attends block meetings and interviews planners, sociologists, a member of Congress, a criminologist and a developer. In Philadelphia he treats us to sociologist Elijah Anderson's running commentary on the ecology of the inner city, delineating boundaries, subtleties and tensions. His talent lies in finding diverse voices, letting them speak, and providing a frame that balances respect with his own interpretative perspective.
Chicago Tribune
Kevin Harter
A good read for anyone who wants to know more about how postwar cities came undone and where they may be going.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a lively guided tour of America's once mighty, now imperiled urban neighborhoods, Suarez, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation, searches for clues to "the great suburban migration" of the past 30 years. Using his formidable skills as a radio producer, Suarez seeks out the person in the street as he steers through the desolate inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago, by a new housing development in Cleveland or past a derelict public schoolyard in Washington, D.C. Amid ample evidence of the larger, structural issues fueling "white flight" (redlining mortgage banks, plummeting property values, crumbling public schools), his interviews with longtime urban residents add specificity and character to the great urban debate. Senior citizens proudly resist the violence flaring up around them, while black kids elsewhere describe their suffocating lack of opportunity. Suarez dutifully cites experts on urbanism, but their broad statements don't shed much light on the issue. What the book reveals, it reveals through anecdote, not analysis. Suarez seems determined to probe a simple lack of honesty he finds in many Americans' retreat to the 'burbs. Even as we tell ourselves we're moving to escape crime or find better schools for our children, he writes, we're "consuming our way into little customized worlds, as individual as a thumbprint, yet as interchangeable as shoes in a shoe store."
Library Journal
Suarezessayist, journalist, and longtime host of National Public Radios Talk of the Nationpresents an account of the devastation wrought on American cities when families moved to the suburbs. Although he touches on the emptiness at the heart of suburbia and the lack of a sense of place, his main focus is on the continually weakening cities that have been left behind. Suarez gathered much of his data by walking through the neighborhoods of this countrys largest cities and talking to mayors, city planners, longtime residents, and clergy. He intersperses this with policy analysis and relevant statistics to make his case that Americans urgently need to deal with the issues of race, education, housing, and employment to save their cities and the treasures therein. Suarezs work complements John O. Norquists The Wealth of Cities: Revitilizing the Center of American Life (LJ 5/1/98), and Fred Siegels The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of Americas Big Cities (LJ 8/97).
— Deborah Bigelow, Leonia Public LIbrary, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
A fairly sophisticated description of the problem of urban flight from America's largest cities over the last three decades. Suarez, noted radio journalist and host of NPR's Talk of the Nation, is interested in providing what he terms a "dry-eyed" reevaluation of the suburban migration that has left our cities in their relatively impoverished condition today. Deftly juxtaposing statistical analysis, government reports, and personal oral narratives, he retells the story of urban flight to include the more malignant aspects of the phenomenon, which are often downplayed in accounts of how our older cities got into the "mess" we perceive them to be in. He foregrounds race as one of the primary factors in the migration by noting that the fastest-growing urban areas are precisely those which are becoming the whitest. He also views the unwillingness of many churches to take a more active role in saving neighborhoods, and the union-busting potential of relocating urban industrial activities to the suburbs, as contributors to the population drain from our largest cities. Many efforts at reform seem to exacerbate the situation—property tax abatements to draw young professionals into urban residential neighborhoods may impoverish local public schools, for example. Complicity between insurance companies, mortgage bankers, and investment firms to avoid doing business in minority neighborhoods also frustrates efforts at revitalization. Conversion of public housing projects into smaller, lower-impact, more widely dispersed units seems to be one of the few feasible alternatives to help ameliorate the situation. While Suarez bemoans the homogeneous suburban sprawl that has resulted from themigration and its tendency to isolate its inhabitants in an automobile culture, he doesn't really offer useful suggestions for facilitating a return to the coherence and stability of the postwar urban residential community. Well done, but it's a shame Suarez doesn't match his narrative of loss with potential scenarios for recuperation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684834023
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/1999
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,061,759
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ray Suarez is the longtime host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation®," heard on more than 120 radio stations around the country. His career in journalism has included time on radio and television, and in magazines, and has taken him to postings in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, London, and Rome. He currently lives and works in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
What We Lost
The fix was in. The whispers rasped over a million dinner tables and the numbers were crunched over a thousand conference tables as another family decided, "That's enough," and cities continued to slide down the population tables. Maybe you've heard of cities as the hole in the doughnut. Or maybe you've heard of chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs. Perhaps you've heard a recent speaker of the House denounce the cities as parasitic bodies living off their hardworking American host.
They now speak with an accent. Their plaster is shot. Their windows rattle in the sash. We eat in their restaurants, wondering if the car is safe. We listen to their symphonies and regret that long drive home. We remember a million years in ten million childhoods. We feel a mixture of sadness, nostalgia, and relief when we take that final turn and swing onto the freeway entrance ramp. We head home: to a place where we can choose our neighbors.
When you talk about the city, the conversation ends with an exasperated litany. In the city, the kids don't learn to read and still want more and more of our taxes to pay for their crumbling buildings, and to pay the salaries of the members of the teacher's unions. Violent young men commit random acts of mayhem. The cities satisfy America's craving for drugs, cheap labor, and expensive entertainment. In front of the late TV news we shake our heads in disgust over their comically corrupt politics, goofball racial agitators, and the parade of black and brown suspects into the back of squad cars.
Starting in 1945, one of the Great Migrations of American history took place, and it continues to shape the country to this day, politically, economically, and socially. Unlike the nineteenth-century flow of Conestoga wagons through the Cumberland Gap and on to the West, and unlike the early-twentieth-century black migration from the Jim Crow South to the urban North, this was a choreographed combination of mini-migrations: white migrants left the old neighborhood behind and left the very idea of "neighborhoods" behind. They left the old giants -- New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit -- and the industrial centers -- Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, and St. Louis. While the settlers a century ago, and blacks earlier this century, left all that was familiar to start again in a strange new world, these modern migrants sometimes headed just a little past the city line. Their old world was not "gone" but now just a car ride away. But the force of each small journey combined to slam the old cities of America like a hurricane. While those earlier migrations survive in family stories and fading photographs, this last one lives vividly in present memory. Maybe you or your parents were part of it....
Nostalgia, mixed with geographic proximity and racial resentment, creates a toxic potion. The pioneers of the postwar urban migration are convinced there was once a better city than the one we see today. We know there was because we used to live there. The old city lives on in the speeches of politicians and in flickering black-and-white reruns on a hundred cable channels. There's Chester Riley. And Ralph Kramden. And Lucy Ricardo. And Lou Costello. And Mrs. Goldberg. Urbanites all. They walk to the grocery store. They know their neighbors. They may have even walked to church (or shul).
It's not hard to get people to tell the stories of that good, gone life. In Cleveland's Buckeye neighborhood. In Philadelphia's Mantua on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. In Miami's Opa-Locka and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Back on Ninety-first Street in Chicago. Maybe you lived there. You may even drive by every now and then. Or maybe you find you want to less and less. It doesn't look like the place where you stood after your first Holy Communion, hair slicked into place, smiling through the gaps in your teeth.
There was constant talk during those years: Who was going? Who was staying? I think it made me cynical beyond my years. People would say, "We are not moving! We are not going! We are staying here forever!" Then they'd move at night! When the chips were down they would leave.
Bob Hartley, on Chicago's
Austin neighborhood in the 1970s
Everybody's got a story. Some are bathed in sepia, others filled with "begats," like an Old Testament book. The alibis are short, starting with, "Well, you know," and ending with "the schools," "the crime," or "the neighborhood." Where does folktale stop and reality begin? Now that the damage is done, and the cities are hollowed out, it still matters enough to you to point fingers, though you may not always be sure you're pointing them in the right directions. Can you assign culpability to a crime with ten million accomplices?
The year 1950 was the last full cry of urban America, at least on the surface. It was the year many of the cities visited in this book reached their historic peaks in population. Everybody was working, in folk memory, and in fact. Armies clad in overalls poured out of plants at quitting time or watched as the next shift filed in. Houses cost a couple of thousand bucks, or in high-cost cities some fifteen thousand. The mortgage was often less than a hundred a month. The teeming ethnic ghettos of the early century had given way to a more comfortable life, with religion and ethnicity, race and class still used as organizing principles for the neighborhood. The rough edges of the immigrant "greenhorns" were worn smooth, and a confident younger generation now entered a fuller, richer American life. Grandma and Grandpa had their accents and old ways intact, and still mumbled sayings in the language your parents used when they didn't want you to understand. You could still find Il Progresso, Freiheit, Norske Tidende, and Polish Daily Zgoda on the newsstands, but the neighborhoods themselves were no longer alien places. It was the ghetto, yes, but made benign by assimilation.
It was this world that the first surge tide into the suburbs left behind. They were people for whom the city had done its work, making Americans out of families from Dublin to Donetsk. America had given the urban young educations, and expectations. For many, those expectations had been nurtured through world war and economic depression. Something better was needed for the baby boomers.
Charles and Anne Marie Manelli both grew up in St. Louis neighborhoods. When they came back to the Midwest from a stint in Denver, young son in tow, they headed right back to Anne Marie's neighborhood on the far north side, not far from the city line, and now found something lacking. "I don't think we would have stayed in the city even if we could have found a big enough house on the same block where we were living," Anne Manelli says. "We wanted change. The neighborhood was getting older, though I guess at that time it wasn't really that old, maybe twenty-five years old or so."
Charles Manelli recalls the spirit of the times. "People our age at that time all wanted to buy houses, and there just weren't any houses available in the city of St. Louis. So they all moved, and bought homes out in the county. The city was really emptying out quickly at that time. So sure, there were houses, but they were not the houses that the young people would have wanted. There was a lot of old real estate in the city, and the new subdivisions was where the young people wanted to go.
"We bought our first home on the GI Bill, that's the way everyone was going then. You had two bathrooms, three bedrooms, it was different. And you could buy these houses for twenty thousand dollars, eighteen thousand dollars. That's what the young people wanted. They didn't want the big brick bungalows."
The Manellis were not alone. Millions moved from central cities to newly created suburbs, and from the northeast quarter of the country to the south and west. In 1950, the populations of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore reached their historic highs. Some, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cleveland, would soon enter free fall, shrinking by 50 percent or more. Others, like Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, had simply grown as much as the economic realities of the day would allow, and entered a phase of slow and steady population decline, while the suburbs around them grew.
  1. New York - 7,891,957
  2. Chicago - 3,620,962
  3. Philadelphia - 2,071,605
  4. Los Angeles - 1,970,358
  5. Detroit - 2,000,398
  6. Baltimore - 949,708
  7. Cleveland - 914,808
  8. St. Louis - 856,796
  9. Washington, D.C. - 802,178
  10. Boston - 800,000
  11. San Francisco - 775,357
  12. Pittsburgh - 676,806
  13. Milwaukee - 632,392
  14. Houston - 596,163
  15. Buffalo - 580,132
  16. New Orleans - 570,445
  17. Minneapolis - 521,718
  18. Cincinnati - 503,998
  19. Seattle - 468,000
  20. Kansas City, Mo. - 457,000

Take a look at the list of America's twenty largest cities in 1950, shown above. With the exception of Los Angeles, every city in the top ten is on, or east of, the Mississippi River. Among the top twenty, only Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Seattle fall out of the nation's northeast quadrant, running from Minneapolis in the north, along the Mississippi, to St. Louis in the south, east to the Atlantic Coast and north to Boston. Almost half of the top twenty had been sizable cities by the middle of the nineteenth century. Only five cities had populations of over a million, and only one city west of the Mississippi had reached that plateau.
These were the top twenty cities for 1960:
  1. New York - 7,781,984
  2. Chicago - 3,550,404
  3. Los Angeles - 2,479,015
  4. Philadelphia - 2,002,512
  5. Detroit - 1,670,000
  6. Baltimore - 939,024
  7. Houston - 938,219
  8. Cleveland - 876,000
  9. Washington, D.C. - 763,956
  10. St. Louis - 750,026
  11. San Francisco - 740,316
  12. Milwaukee - 741,324
  13. Boston - 697,197
  14. Dallas - 679,684
  15. New Orleans - 627,525
  16. Pittsburgh - 604,332
  17. San Antonio - 587,718
  18. San Diego - 573,224
  19. Seattle - 557,087
  20. Buffalo - 532,759

By 1960, Los Angeles had surged ahead of Philadelphia, growing by almost a third in size. Houston, through rapid growth and significantly, by annexation (it more than doubled from 160 to 328 square miles in area), jumped seven places. San Antonio and San Diego joined the top twenty, giving Texas and California three cities each on the list. The exodus from "old" urban America to the suburbs and the new cities of the Sun Belt was on.
Cities like Philadelphia and Detroit were shrinking in overall population, but the urban cores of metropolitan areas were still growing. Washington and St. Louis were already showing the early signs of their long, slow declines, while their metropolitan areas grew, and towns once little more than names on a map began to grow with increasing speed. By 1960 it is clear that the axis of growth in the country was moving away from the North and East toward the South and West.
The twenty largest cities in 1970:
  1. New York - 7,894,862
  2. Chicago - 3,366,957
  3. Los Angeles - 2,816,061
  4. Philadelphia - 1,950,098
  5. Detroit - 1,511,482
  6. Houston - 1,232,802
  7. Baltimore - 905,759
  8. Dallas - 844,401
  9. Washington, D.C. - 756,510
  10. Cleveland - 750,903
  11. Indianapolis - 744,624
  12. Milwaukee - 717,099
  13. San Francisco - 715,674
  14. San Diego - 696,769
  15. San Antonio - 654,153
  16. Boston - 641,071
  17. Memphis - 623,530
  18. St. Louis - 622,236
  19. New Orleans - 593,471
  20. Phoenix - 581,562

By 1970, as your late-night local news weatherman would say, the map is really in motion. Houston nearly doubled in size since 1960, again through annexation, but also through robust population growth. The populations of Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Boston are heading to the new suburbs surrounding those old cities. Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, San Diego, and San Antonio continue their steady growth. Indianapolis (another product of suburban annexation) jumped from nowhere to eleventh on the list.
Here's 1980:
  1. New York - 7,071,639
  2. Chicago - 3,005,078
  3. Los Angeles - 2,966,848
  4. Philadelphia - 1,688,210
  5. Houston - 1,595,167
  6. Detroit - 1,203,339
  7. Dallas - 904,074
  8. San Diego - 875,538
  9. Phoenix - 789,704
  10. Baltimore - 786,775
  11. San Antonio - 685,809
  12. Indianapolis - 700,719
  13. San Francisco - 678,974
  14. Memphis - 646,356
  15. Washington - 638,333
  16. Milwaukee - 636,212
  17. San Jose - 629,442
  18. Cleveland - 573,822
  19. Columbus - 564,866
  20. Boston - 562,904

The dynamic we saw at work in 1970 had taken hold more fully by 1980. New York City lost more than eight hundred thousand people in the 1970s. Think of it: a loss larger than the entire city of Phoenix at that time. Factories continued to close. Fortune 500 corporate headquarters continued their steady flight from the city. New Yorkers left for other regions of the country and for the burgeoning suburbs of northern New Jersey, Westchester County, and Nassau and Suffolk counties, which the census bureau would soon classify as a separate metropolitan statistical area -- no longer an appendage of the city. The economic decline of New York's bread-and-butter industries, like clothing, printing, and shipping, landed heavily on all New Yorkers. The poor saw themselves as stuck. The rich could surround themselves with physical barriers, continuing to live a charmed life in a declining city. The middle class lacked the cash to insulate themselves from the diminishing quality of services, but they had one thing the poor did not: mobility.
In the 1970s, large-scale population loss continued in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore, while the metropolitan areas of all these shrinking big cities continued to grow. Columbus, its economy built on state government and insurance, was on its way to becoming the largest city in Ohio, while metal-bashing, blue-collar Cleveland continued its decline. In just ten years, Phoenix jumped from twentieth place to ninth on the list. San Jose, a small city of just ninety-five thousand in 1950, living in the shadow of nearby San Francisco, was now nipping at its heels (in part by growing from 17 to 171 square miles). This was Cleveland's last appearance in the top twenty, and St. Louis had already dropped from it, never to be seen again.
By 1990, America's urban future is more clearly visible. The 1990 census is the last time any city with fewer than one million inhabitants will appear on the list of the largest American cities. But at a time when magazine covers and conferences bemoan the "decline of urban America," not all of urban America is in decline. Just the old one. Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Dallas, Phoenix, San Jose, and San Antonio continued their rapid growth in the 1980s. Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Washington, and Boston continued to shrink. From an urban population concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the country in 1950, America's biggest cities have become a far more diverse group, now straddling the coasts and the southern tier of states. The Metropolis of the Prairie -- Chicago -- will be the only city of the ten largest cities outside the Old South and the coasts in 2000, but it will have lost nearly one million people since 1950. Philadelphia, according to census estimates, will have shrunk by a third. Detroit's population will have dropped in half, that of St. Louis by almost two-thirds. Washington continues its rapid decline and may be down to half a million people by the turn of the century. In other words, the capital of the world's remaining superpower will be home to fewer people than the capital of Ohio. Sparks, smells, the hum of the mill, and the clank of the machine are out. "Clean" industry, government employment, retirees, and service industries are in.
The twenty largest American cities in 1990:
  1. New York - 7,322,564
  2. Los Angeles - 3,485,498
  3. Chicago - 2,783,726
  4. Houston - 1,630,553
  5. Philadelphia - 1,585,577
  6. San Diego - 1,110,549
  7. Detroit - 1,027,974
  8. Dallas - 1,006,877
  9. Phoenix - 983,403
  10. San Antonio - 935,933
  11. San Jose - 782,248
  12. Baltimore - 736,014
  13. Indianapolis - 731,327
  14. San Francisco - 723,959
  15. Jacksonville - 635,230
  16. Columbus - 652,910
  17. Milwaukee - 628,088
  18. Memphis - 610,337
  19. Washington - 606,900
  20. Boston - 574,283

Hidden in the raw numbers, there is another math at work dictating the fates and fortunes of the country's big cities: Race. As the cities that have become the home to the largest minority populations are consistently described as places of "blight" and "decay," the largest and fastest-growing cities, with few exceptions, are inhabited by whites in percentages higher than that of white people in the overall national population.
Some cities now face declines in their overall black population as well: In Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, for example, middle-class blacks can use the same mobility wielded by their white counterparts twenty and thirty years ago to head for the suburbs.
I felt kind of threatened that my neighborhood was being invaded by these people. It proved difficult for one kid, that moved in that was a new pupil, and his name was Andre Baker. I really made it rough. We had a big fight, it came to blows. I really beat the crap out of him, and that was it. And then, as time went on, we became best friends. We got together, we were friends all the way through high school.
As the neighborhood started to change the first black families moved awayjust like the white families did, and they started to be replaced by a lowerclass of black people, and it started to get rough. I really got beat up a lot.Then the reverse happens. They become very aggressive, and I was the littlewhite kid. I was really intimidated. And all my friends were gone. I felt veryalone. My only friends were at high school. It was really rough. I had to ridethat bus and walk from the bus every clay.

Walt Zielinski, Cleveland
American Latinos, too, are a highly urbanized people. Their presence has grown markedly in the obvious places, like Southern California and Florida, and in the not-so-obvious places, like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. When you compare the gross population data from the census counts, from 1950 to 1990, and break down those figures by racial composition, a striking number of figures emerges. Cities that appear to have maintained their populations end up occupying a very different place in the imaginations of the largest single population group in the country, the white middle class. While population plateaus or gentle decline from historic highs give the appearance of a certain viability, another look at the statistics illustrates a verdict pronounced by the white middle class.
Between 1950 and 1990, the population of New York stayed roughly level, the white population halved, and the black population doubled. As Chicago lost almost one million people from the overall count, it lost almost two million whites. As the population of Los Angeles almost doubled, the number of whites living there grew by fewer than ninety thousand. Baltimore went from a city of three times as many whites as blacks in 1950 to a city that will have twice as many blacks as whites in the year 2000. All this has happened while the number of blacks in the United States has stayed a roughly constant percentage, between 11 and 13 percent.
By contrast, here are the breakdowns for some of the fastest-growing cities in the country during those same forty years.
The population of whites declined as these cities moved in the years after the war from small and midsized regional population centers to major national players. Though the overall percentage of white population has declined in all of them, the number of whites has more than doubled in San Jose and grew by almost four hundred thousand in Houston. Latinos in large numbers -- almost half a million in Houston -- don't yet seem to scare off a growing and stable white middle class.
It's no longer worthwhile to ask, "What do Americans want?" There are too many of them who want too many different things and are simply too different from one another to get an answer that makes any sense. But it is valid to say tens of millions of Americans -- tens of millions of white middle-class Americans -- don't want to live in cities at all. Millions more don't want to live in cities with large minority populations.
Scott Thomas, author of The Rating Guide to Life in America's Small Cities, found that many of the fastest-growing small cities, where the residents report a very high quality of life, are also some of the whitest places in America.
"I was looking at 219 different areas, and only about a quarter of themhad the proportion of black population comparable to what you find inthe country as a whole. With the Hispanic population, there are very fewsmall towns, most of them near the Mexican border, with anywhere neareven the national average."
Thomas says that looking at these "micropolitan" areas demands a wider set of variables when assessing people and the way they live. "Diversity is something that goes beyond some of the simple racial categories. I think adults are generally less educated in the communities I profiled. You're going to find less depth of experience or fewer adults who have gone beyond college degrees, and if that's something that's important to you you're not going to find it except in the college towns like Pullman, Washington, or Ames, Iowa, or Ithaca, New York." Thomas points out that the populations of these small cities, many now enjoying robust growth, are almost entirely native-born. New York and Los Angeles, meanwhile, the two largest cities in the United States, are now home to millions of foreign-born and first-generation Americans.
When discussing their own family's history in America, many people plead "not guilty" to the charge of being an accessory to the postwar meltdown of many older cities. "We just wanted a better life," they say, "and this was the only way to get it." It is easy to forget how many people made their first class adjustment by moving up, but not out: the west side of Cleveland, the neighborhoods along City Line Road in Philadelphia, a string of neighborhoods at the south end of Brooklyn. For hundreds of thousands of families, these neighborhoods became the waiting room for getting out. Getting out didn't have to be the only choice facing a family, since many cities offered a wide range of housing stock and a wide range of lifestyle options. When your family's fortunes began to improve, you could live with people at roughly your own income, without leaving the city.
There was crime in the old neighborhood, but not the kind of crime that's launched ten thousand nightly reports "live, from the scene," on your eleven o'clock news. The unlocked door is a potent symbol in the collective memory of the white-flight generation. As if you've never heard it before, or perhaps knowing you've heard it a million times, as a rhythm of ritual and truth builds during your second decade on the rosary. "We never had to lock our doors. Everybody knew everybody. We weren't afraid." Afraid was later. Afraid was coming.
Schools were far from perfect back then. Before 1940, only a minority of the fresh-faced ninth graders who walked in one end walked out as eighteen-year-olds with a high school diploma in their hands. There was teenage pregnancy, but it ended in marriage more often, which helped camouflage its presence in the neighborhood scene.
For all its shortcomings, life worked. Millions in the American middle class stand on the shoulders of urban America and its public institutional life. The parks and their leagues and summer camps. Varsity teams and school bands. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, Girl Scouts, and Brownies, in units sponsored by public schools and PTAs. Public libraries. Public schools. Public universities that extended the privilege of higher education to an academic elite rather than one created by "good" families and fat bank accounts.
Today, at the other end of the migration, the change is palpable. The era of American urban decline tracks nicely with the decline of a consensus culture. There was a time when the broad American masses all "knew" the same things. Colliers, Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post didn't deliver wildly different versions of America in their pages, nor did any of those magazines drop a very different America into the mailbox from the one you heard about on the big radio and television networks. There was a widely shared set of norms in the 1940s, 1950s, and even the wildly oversold "counter culture" 1960s that gave Americans very definite instructions about what to think. These instructions could be a straitjacket, and they could be merciless to those who colored outside the lines; but the broad consensus culture for white, economically active Americans made community life more reassuring than confining.
For all the wild racial mythology that marked these same decades -- the deep separation that actually existed between Americans -- those outside the white mainstream bought into the same bourgeois dreams as their distant neighbors. Black workforce participation, marriage, divorce, single parenthood, and other rates far more closely resembled that of the national average than they do today.
I've spoken to hundreds of white city residents who see their lives as conditional, temporary, and fragile. "We can only stay until Jenny hits third grade, then we're out of here," says one. "As long as my son is small, and I can keep an eye out, we're fine. Once he starts moving around by himself more, we can't really stay," says another. The examples are legion: we're staying as long as..., we can only stay if..., we're only here until..., if we couldn't afford private school, we'd be gone. Implied in each qualifier is the assumption of mobility, the understanding that the moment a family wants to pull the plug on urban life, it can. It's an option not as easily invoked across the racial divide or lower down the economic scale.
Eventually, goes the story for today's urban sojourners, "compensation fatigue" sets in. The strain of having eyes in the back of your head, higher insurance, rotten local services, and the day-upon-day-upon-day stream of bad news finally carries you across a line you were inclined to cross one day anyway. Your parents are already "out there"; so are your brothers and sisters and your friends from high school. The bragging rights of the hardy urbanite are trumped by the brownie points of "doing the right thing."
Back in the city, choices for thousands of other families were already narrow and kept on narrowing. The white working class could head to the new blue-collar suburbs just over the city line, but those new communities would be effectively closed to black home buyers for years to come. In the cities being abandoned, lower-middle-income and poor city dwellers lost the political clout of their middle-class neighbors, who had held institutions like public schools to an acceptable baseline of quality; at the same time, they were losing the kind of economic opportunities that might have allowed them to choose private or parochial education for their children, as businesses followed their owners and their middle managers to the suburbs.
There was a period early on, when it was mixed half-and-half maybe, and you could see that it was working, and it was fine. Then all of a sudden there was a big rush and it was totally changed. But there were so manythings...the principal at my old school, at Louella, he was a bastard! Hehad been kicked out of another school, I think by the community, in a blackarea. I remember him saying to us at meetings, "There's a monster out therewaiting to devour you and you better stick together." He was talking aboutthe changes in the community!
Metta Davis, on the Chicago public schools
in the early 1970s
After taking a ferocious pounding in the 1960s, the bottom was dropping out of America's shared assumptions in the 1970s. We no longer "all knew" the same things. The further we moved from each other in distance, in racial segregation, and in class stratification, the more different our various Americas became. By the 1980s, along with the steady erosion of the consensus culture there came a lack of affinity and empathy for all those who couldn't share our assumptions. That lack of affinity for those over the line dovetailed nicely with the fiscal realities of new suburban life. The suburban homeowner could target his spending in a way no urban taxpayer ever could: he could decide to send his money to the things that mattered to him -- his own kid's school, his local public park -- and deny money to things he wanted no part of -- urban school systems and public libraries.
It might have been a comforting illusion to believe there was once an America where we were "all in it together." To the extent that it was ever true, the myth was shattered in the thirty years from 1950 to 1980. By the 1980s, not only was it crystal clear that we weren't "all in it together," nobody even had the desire or the energy to pretend it was true.
A feedback loop was established that destroyed the heart of some of America's great cities: Those Americans given a leg up in the new economy -- arbitrageurs and software writers, intellectual property lawyers and plastic surgeons -- pulled up stakes from shared institutions, weakening them, and took their presence, influence, and money elsewhere. For each family that decided to stick it out, the decision to stay became harder and harder to make as the quality of common life sagged. The migrants were the Americans most likely to demand solutions for municipal problems, most likely to vote, and most likely to get attention. The more this group left its fellow Clevelanders, Philadelphians, New Yorkers, and St. Louisans behind, the more those left behind needed them.
When we no longer lived and worked in proximity to one another, we no longer knew the same things. Once we no longer knew the same things, we no longer had a need for cultural cohesion. Once we no longer had cultural cohesion, it was easier and easier to draw circles of concern more and more narrowly around one's own doorstep....
Let me explain what was happening in Louisville at the time. Urban renewal had come and torn down half of downtown, and blacks started moving west. The minute that happened you could hear people saying it, adults, children repeating what they had heard at home, "The niggers are coming. The niggers are coming," as if it was the plague or something. The questions people asked revolved around it: "When are they going to get here? What does it mean for me?"
Regina Lind, on Louisville in the 1960s
This latest Great Migration has left deep, unacknowledged scars in the lives of millions of families. They were obeying the American siren call to mobility; they were only doing the best thing for their children; they were spending new money in search of space -- but the scars were still there. Not all the changes were for the better; not all the motivations were unsullied.
Millions of us feared, fled, and hated. Today we look back on it all in hurt and wonder. How did this happen? Where did that good life go? When an accidental detour or a missed expressway exit brings us into contact with the world we left behind, we can still place all the blame firmly and squarely elsewhere. The shuttered factories and collapsing row houses, the vacant storefronts and rutted streets are regarded with the same awe reserved for the scenes of natural disasters. We look out on a world that somehow, in the American collective memory, destroyed itself.
When we left in '76 there were still houses there. The grammar school is right down here....I got seven kids through that school, I raised seven kids here...we had one more after that. Seven sons and a daughter. The Furmans lived here...can't remember all their names...Scotty and his brother. One of the things you've got to consider in all this is the upward mobility, the desire to be in a better place than your mom and dad were, to want more for yourself and your kids, too. So the upward mobility might not be hinged on what the racial makeup of a neighborhood is, but the desire to improve themselves.
And then there are the senior citizens, what with the constant barrage from kids who had either moved out early and moved to the suburbs or simply moved into some other white sections, saying all the time, you better get out of there. It's not safe for you to be there.

Tom O'Connell, touring his old block in Chicago
It wasn't all the desire for a bigger kitchen and a parking space for the car the family could finally afford that had families in their tens of thousands loading up the moving vans and heading out. What is quite apparent, and what no one wants to admit, is that the forces behind white flight were in part malign: redliners, panic peddlers, and blockbusters.
Mary Gallagher recalled the struggles she joined with her husband, Phil, during the 1970s and 1980s to shore up a Brooklyn neighborhood targeted by business interests. "One of the battles, there was a plague of real estate people who descended on us, in all these little storefronts there'd be another Realtor moving into this area. One of the fights we had in our street was over a house diagonally across from us which was put up for sale and one of those Century 21 signs went up and people were afraid there would be, suddenly, twenty signs on their street, that property values would plummet because of that. We tried to get the guy to remove that sign, he didn't want to take it down so we went to the Realtor."
Phil Gallagher remembers trying a less confrontational approach at first. "We tried talking to Realtors for about a year, and that turned out to be completely nonproductive I'd say. We began to realize that there was an enormous difference between dealing with bankers, who didn't take what we did, the pressure we were bringing, personally, and dealing with real estate brokers who always took it personally. We chickened out when we started to be threatened with having our legs broken and things like that. We decided to play it more institutionally and we began writing these somewhat amateurish legal briefs; we're not trained as attorneys in any way [but we] started going after the banks."
Real estate agents hoped to contain racial change by writing off marginal neighborhoods, the way crews in the Rockies set new fires to put existing fires out. Banks redlined. Builders didn't build where the demand was and instead set off to create new demand elsewhere. Churches were silent from the pulpit. Industries fled from unions, minorities, work rules, and high wages. First the federal government subsidized "greenfield" housing, then built the highways to get you there. After waving its magic wand to create acres of mind-numbingly banal new towns in rings around the city, the Feds developed the black arts in the core city, with badly conceived and administered loan programs, bringing chaos and destruction to previously stable areas.
Older neighborhoods did not suddenly fill up with black renters and aspiring home buyers by accident. A couple of generations of racial inequality came roaring back to bite us. GIs getting married had to choose between overcrowded urban housing and new suburban construction. Mayors tried to straddle the desires of middle-class whites who were offended by suddenly not winning every argument, and underserved black and Latino residents who were bursting out of the ghettos.
Even good intentions can end up leaving scars. The impulse to start over that once got millions of our families here in the first place, and sent people streaming out of the exhausted farm areas of New England and the stinking tanneries, rendering pits, and sewers of the big cities of the East, has allowed Americans to sever more completely the connection between place and well-being than any other people on earth.
The creation myths of people the world over, not to mention American Indians, feature first-men and -women who are products of the very soil that is still their home. This is potent stuff, the starting point for a narrative that follows the life of a place and the people who live on it from a time before memory until today. Americans are missing that gene. One place, we've told ourselves, is interchangeable with another, and the landscape we've built in the last fifty years seems to bear that out.
If you were to be kidnapped in Southern California, your captors might not even have to blindfold you. You could drive for hours and not think you had gone anywhere. If you were to break away and reach a phone, your surroundings -- a 76 gas station, a Taco Bell, a Pep Boys, a used-car lot, and mountains in the smoggy distance -- would be of no use at all to the police.
Making a home in America today is nothing more than the exercise of options, a bewildering array of appliances, bathroom towels, sofa sets, local schools, and bus, train, and car routes to work. We choose -- pick a life off the shelf. We act on desire and personal decision, consuming our way into little customized worlds, as individual as a thumbprint, yet as interchangeable as shoes in a shoe store.
But that would mean that millions of Americans happily "choose" to sit in crawling traffic, or freely opt to make cathedral ceilings the chic home builders' accessory of 1990, or request a life that forces women to drive their children from place to place to place, since no place is within walking distance.
The Manellis, even after thirty-five years in their St. Louis County subdivision, yearn for the closeness, the coherence, that an old urban neighborhood gave their lives.
ANNE: There's no place around here to walk to. Not even a grocery store.
CHUCK: There's an area downtown called Columbus Square, and I'd love to live there, but the surrounding area is just terrible. It would be great for us, we could walk right downtown. It would be nice, but I wouldn't move there because the surrounding area's bad. No way you could walk around there at night. Downtown St. Louis closes up at night. Unless there's a ball game or something down there, but now, after the ball game, everyone leaves.
ANNE: I found out within the last three or four years that I had cataracts, and I couldn't drive. So I was stuck here, in this house, waiting for Chuck to take me any place and every place I wanted to go. That I was not prepared for. I got the eyes operated on, so now I can see and I can drive.
CHUCK: It was just a wonderful place. These kids are missing so much now. I just can't believe...I know it will never go back to the way it was, but that's a shame because it was great. It's the reason for a lot of the problems we have now.

Life has increasingly become a string of pearls, incidents and encounters staged in a wide range of almost random physical locations, strung together by the automobile. We get in our cars and watch the passing urban scene, not realizing the ride is poisoning the very landscape we watched through its windows. The automobile, that ultimate isolator, turned life into a TV show, a mediated set of images seen through the "screen" of our windshields. The deadening touch of the automobile created empty, uninviting streets. Those now auto-mobile dictated a world built for their infernal combustion convenience, a bad fit for the chock-a-block life of an old-style city. Then the migrants lit out for the "built to suit" wide-open spaces of Auto Suburbanalia.
The dense space of the city, built for an age of easy economic intercourse, was eventually infected and weakened by the automobile. It couldn't beat 'em, so it joined 'em...and lost anyway. The downtowns of city after city -- Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis -- peter out, ending in a raggedy edge of parking lots. It is a symptom of terrible rot when the space once occupied by offices and stores now becomes yet another lot. Sitting with a few tons of paying customers from nine to five has become the highest and best use for these pieces of land. But the unraveling of urban life, when married with wasteful suburban-style land use, isn't simply confined to the blight of lots.
What does five o'clock look like on Ashland Avenue in Chicago? Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn? Euclid Avenue in Cleveland? Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles? Five or six lanes of slowly moving traffic and near-empty sidewalks. Try selling furniture with no foot traffic. Or men's clothing. Or kid's shoes. Merchants once courted success by going where the customers lived. To survive they got off the neighborhood streets in search of where the cars go. When neighborhood commercial life erodes, other uses evolve for the space. Into the linear vacuum moves other, less desirable uses. They are often uses that continue to fuel the desire for the holdouts to surrender, and go.
The most serious decline and loss of population has come in the quadrant of the country east of Saint Louis and north of Washington, D.C., the home of America's oldest big cities. But the Sun Belt has not escaped the telltale signs of urban planned obsolescence either.
Crime has gotten worse. The number one concern we get when we're talking to potential buyers up north, or prospects for our communities, their number one concern is security.
Jerry Schwartzwelder develops retirement communities near Tampa, a fast-growing area of Florida far from the white-hot negative publicity of Miami. He told NPR that doesn't make that much difference.
It used to be, go do a seminar up north, which is what I do, and they'd ask you a question, "Well, what about the bugs in Florida?" and all this other stuff, or "What's the weather like?" or "What kind of terrain do you have, et cetera, et cetera, in your part of Florida?"
First question I get today is, "What's the crime like in your area? Is it as bad as they say on television?"

Life in the city, for the millions who lived it, was once something less than the sum of their lifestyle choices: they woke up, they ate, they shoveled coal, loved, hated, prayed, mated, reproduced, died. For most, the home was not a display object but a place to keep the few things they had managed to hold on to from the surpluses produced by their labor. Their material life was made of the things they didn't have to eat, wear, or burn right this minute. A concertina maybe? A family Bible? A hunting rifle?
This world, of tiny accumulation, of life lived very close to the edge, is not a remote part of our national past. Many people in our midst still remember it. For some it was such a terrifying experience that the rest of their lives has been marked by an odd relationship to money and things. Our Masterpiece Theatre social class swoons over the portraits of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century existence brought to fussy, golden-lit life from the pages of Edith Wharton novels. The real-life mass class of new Americans who lived in New York, Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Newark, and Pittsburgh through the early years of this century would more quickly recognize their own lives in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle than in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, or a TV season's worth of miniseries draped in antimacassars and fringed in bric-a-brac.
The streets and parks and skylines of the early-twentieth-century American city are built on the bones of a worker's army put into harness by the new men of the country's commerce. The moneyed boys made big plans, paid little wages, and built the wonders of their age. Central Park is a beautiful place, but it's also an example of the transformative spirit of American capitalism wrought in boulders and meadows, ponds and promenades. Carnegie's Pittsburgh, Field's Chicago, Busch's St. Louis, Morgan's Manhattan were not yet the mature machines for living they would eventually become for millions of Americans in the new middle class. They were still home to desperate families living by piecework, child laborer's photographed by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis.
After World War II, the bosses were making so much money that even the workers were in for a taste. Unions, growing along with the employment options created by the enormous concentration of productive capital in the fastgrowing cities, made peace for the price of a fatter paycheck. Labor peace created more prosperity, and sowed the seeds for destruction later. The high cost of urban labor became the justification when manufacturing fled the cities. Not just labor's cost, but the inflexibility of work rules, the costs of shedding and hiring workers -- all the humanizing guarantees hammered out with management to buy peace -- now had a greater cost than anyone had contemplated.
The urban interplay between home and workplace, conceived and nurtured for its efficiencies and unquestioned economic benefits, was now, we were told by the 1950s and 1960s, the city's greatest weakness. Drive around Detroit, and see the twisted skeletons of factory buildings no one can afford to pull down. These derelict factories are often surrounded by neighborhoods similarly emptied of life. Detroit has been left to the poor. The corporations with monstrous piles of capital already invested there are stuck, and try to make the best of it. A walk through the deserted downtown, the sight of large, boarded-up office buildings on block after block, closed hotels, and shuttered stores is a shock. This is where the disease you can see in its early stages in so many other downtowns finally leads.

Today a lot of homeowners will tell you they have bought exactly the life they want, and I have no doubt they believe it. Talk with people about how they once lived, how they grew up, and how they live today. Many people have performed a fascinating sleight of mind. They say life was better "back then," as many remember their own urban past. Because the good urban life is placed in a no-longer-retrievable past, suburban exile is thus made "necessary," and unavoidable. But that former life so precious to them in memory and story is not one they would choose to live today. Making it unobtainable helps sustain the fantasy that the suburban present is an unsought "necessity." The people who made this modern, less satisfying life necessary are always offstage, the blacks, the blockbusters, the developers.
Charles Manelli, more than forty-five years after leaving the neighborhood of his youth around Blessed Sacrament Parish on St. Louis's north side, was still poking around his old neighborhood in the car. He would drive by his house and take the car up the alleys where he played ball as a boy before the war.
CHUCK: It was pretty scary. I just went because I loved it so much, for sentimental reasons. I wanted to look at the old house and the old neighborhood, and reminisce. I don't do it anymore but I did it up until a few years ago. Now I'm afraid to go there.
I have mixed feelings. I'd love to live in St. Louis now, in the same atmosphere we had then. But I know it can't be done. It happened so fast, I mean, my gosh...overnight. It was like an exodus...zoom, everybody was gone! I'd say it was a five-year period, the whole city of St. Louis changed. And I think it was because of panic. The whole atmosphere of the city changed, and everybody just panicked, and left. Oh, I'd love to live there now, in the same atmosphere as it was, but back then it was just panic.
We don't have that neighborhood life here.
ANNE: It was like living in a small town. We're Catholic, so we lived in a parish. That parish was everything to us. You were like in a small town and everybody knew everybody else, everybody in the whole parish.
CHUCK: You had a parochial school on one corner, and down the street was the public school. It was a neighborhood, and it was like that all over the city. And everybody knew everybody, whether you went to parochial or public school, it was just a big neighborhood; you could walk anyplace in the whole area and you knew everybody. You had places to go...drugstores, hamburger places, school grounds. It was unbelievable.
My son's growing up was completely different. He had to take a bus everywhere.
It was great. Kids today don't know what they're missing.
In this neighborhood...we've been here thirty-five years and we hardly know anybody.
ANNE: The people on the block we know, but the people on the next block we don't know. But, in Mt. Carmel Parish, where I lived, way down, you knew the people who lived in every house on every may have lived seven or eight blocks away, but you knew them, I don't know why.
CHUCK: Because you walked those streets. You played with the kids. You knew them. The summer playgrounds were all in the public schools. That's another thing they don't have today...everything's organized now. And you've got to drive to it. And you've got to wear uniforms. We just played. We made up our own games. We played ball in the alleys and the vacant lots. We didn't need any supervision.
ANNE: Right now we live right across the street from the parish grounds, and they have this huge park across the street. A ballpark. A soccer field. You'll never see any one person just playing by themselves. When they're there, they're with an organized team, with coaches and the whole thing, everybody's there.
To just go over there...a bunch of kids getting together to just hit the ball around, or kick a soccer ball They don't do that.

We lost plenty in those years after World War II. People talk about the closeness, the intimacy of the old urban neighborhood. People talk about their friendships found and lost, the adventures of city life, waiting for the old man to come home from work. We knew each other then. We saw our own faces plainly, in the mirror and in each other's eyes.
Today, with bookstores crowded with new books on the search for lost community, with a whole "communitarian movement" dedicated to reclaiming these lost values, are we ready to be honest with each other about what we've lost? Apparently not yet. We assign to that long list of the differences in daily life in the recent past a particularity that can't survive close inspection. Look at a picture of people today, and compare it with one from "back then." People are people. We were not so different forty years ago. The basic furniture of life was very, jobs, commerce, church and synagogue. We had two arms. Two eyes. Two legs.
So to write this book, I headed out to American cities with a tape recorder and a notebook, and started to gather the stories of families loading and unloading the moving trucks. Often, what people thought, believed, and felt simply didn't match what was actually happening on the ground. But an examination of both the interior landscape and the world waiting outside the doorstep is necessary to understand this latest Great Migration.
This is a tour of the places people lived in, loved, and left. These are the places left to face the consequences of postwar America's choice: to run away from home.
The fictional retelling of recent American history as a move toward a color-blind society, the venomous tirades against immigration and affirmative action, the paradoxical urgings of the white middle class to others -- be like us, just don't try to be like us and move into our neighborhoods -- all call for a dry-eyed accounting of white flight and the hollowing out of the American city.
I have spoken to hundreds of people who mourn the loss of a sense of place tied to block, school, and neighborhood church. When you talk to them further, you may also find that they were busily helping to create the new rootlessness during the years of urban change. Many conclude there was no other way for things to end up. I'll insist until the day they're tossing spadefuls of city soil on my casket that we gave up far too easily, driven by a range of forces in the society we did not recognize.
Copyright © 1999 by Ray Suarez

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Table of Contents

1. What We Lost
2. Chicago
3. The Church and the City
4. Philadelphia: The Most American City
5. Side Trip -- St. Louis
6. The America Factory, Brooklyn, N.Y.
7. The Persistent Significance of Race
8. Gentle Decay? Staving Off the Future in Cleveland
9. Washington, D.C.: "Will the last one out please turn off the lights?"
10. Still a Stranger: Latinos and the American City
11. Side Trip -- Miami
12. Looking Ahead to the Next City
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First Chapter

Chapter 6

The America Factory, Brooklyn, N.Y.

It covers just seventy-one square miles on the western tip of an offshore island of the United States. It hasn't been a city in its own right in one hundred years. It hasn't had its own daily newspaper since the Daily Eagle folded in the 1950s. It hasn't had its own major league baseball team since the last day of the 1957 season. These few square miles loom large in the American mind. Though a little less than 1 percent of all Americans live here -- when John Travolta crossed the disco floor in Saturday Night Fever and Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can never go home again," and Jackie Gleason growled, "To the moon, Alice!" and Neil Sedaka sang, "Breaking up is hard to do ..." and Walt Whitman wrote, "I hear America singing," and Spike Lee brought us inside Joe's Bed-Stuy Barber Shop, into pizzerias and brownstones, and Woody Allen drove Annie Hall across the bridge to show her Coney Island -- that was Brooklyn talking to you, America.

Excuse me if I break the bounds of journalistic restraint and rhapsodize a little. Brooklyn is my hometown. Within its watery boundaries live some two and a half million souls, making it larger on its own than most of the ten largest American cities. It was once a mighty factory town. It made everything, employed prosperous, overall-wearing masses, and turned people from everywhere into Americans.

The factories are for the most part gone. Like members of a vanishing species, some hang on in tiny ecological niches, near the canals and expressways and docks. You'll see places that once provided work and money and new shoes and Catholic school tuitions for generations ore-scorched brick aren't fully rented.

Here my mother used to roller-skate and walk home from school. My father delivered the Eagle and met my mother on his route. He had arrived from Puerto Rico just a few years before. She was a Yankee, a Brooklyn native. They married in the mid-fifties. He headed off to sea, and she took the train to Wall Street. I started life on the same block where my mother grew up.

When the 1960s began, my mother was pregnant again, and the family concluded that the long-term prospects for the area were not good. The people you saw shopping, in school, and at the church on the corner all your life were disappearing. The elderly were urged by their children to come to other parts of Brooklyn, to Long Island, to New Jersey, and to the fancier sections of the Bronx. The impact of all those people making their decisions, in effect, forced you to make your own.

We moved from Crown Heights to Bensonhurst, also in Brooklyn. Both sets of grandparents also left white-flight areas of northern Brooklyn and settled in new neighborhoods, Bensonhurst and Flatbush. The new neighborhood was much like the old one physically -- apartment buildings and row houses and nearby blocks of single-family homes. But everything in Bensonhurst was newer. Once home to a Dutch settlement and, later, truck farms, this part of Brooklyn only revved up and developed after the streetcars and subways had extended out to the rest of the borough from its historic heart near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Unlike other national foundry towns -- Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland -- Brooklyn did not shrink. Somehow this vast world of apartment houses, parkways, docks, and elevated trains has remained fu ll, dense, bustling. Today the borough's population is not far below its historic high.

One of the best places to see Brooklyn is from the elevated trains. From where I grew up in Bensonhurst, the distant vista of the Manhattan skyline floats just above the tops of apartment buildings in the foreground. The shrieking rails are your Yellow Brick Road, the skyline your beckoning Emerald City. Today, I'm heading toward Coney Island. There, I'll change trains to ride through the heart of Brooklyn for a look at what recent decades have wrought. I've ridden this line nearly all my life and rode it daily from the time I started high school to my mid-twenties, when I got married and moved away. What I left in 1980 was old Brooklyn. What was waiting for me on the train was new Brooklyn. Chinese have moved by the thousands into the south and west of the borough, Hasidim have spread out of the small enclaves in Borough Park and Crown Heights and made the sight of men in long black coats and side locks (peyes) more common throughout the city. Two men huddle in one corner, having an argument in Russian, and right across from them a young Puerto Rican woman locks her stroller wheels and smiles at her baby as the train jerks into motion. At one time all these people would have called vastly different parts of Brooklyn home. Now, the lines of demarcation are fainter. Fewer areas are ethnic ghettos where different kinds of people are unlikely to set eyes on each other or hear another language.

We rumble along above Eighty-sixth Street, the main street of Bensonhurst. The din inside the train is exceeded only by the roar on the sidewalks. This was once a family shopping district, a place where a car was un necessary. The boom families of the 1960s strolled Eighty-sixth Street on the prowl for kids' shoes, baked goods, jewelry, and ladies' clothes -- "popular" and "better" in the jargon of the garment district, where many of the men in the neighborhood made their living.

The train passes over busy stores, over the "two-up, one-down" three-family brick houses (buildings with two apartments stacked at the top of a flight of stairs, with a garden apartment at ground level next to the garage) that rose all over this part of Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s. The homes are in orderly rows along the side streets which end in huge apartment buildings on the main streets. The "nicer" part of Eighty-sixth Street had always been known as "The Avenue," and the discount stores, odd lots, and fruit-and-vegetable stands that start on Bay Parkway were called "the Market."

I'm above the Market now. The Italian-born greengrocers have now given way to Korean families with Mexican employees. In the distance I can see K Mart, inside what was once EJ Korvette, a middlebrow retailer for a middlebrow neighborhood. It was predicted, in the sixties, when Korvette's opened its doors, that it would destroy Eighty-sixth Street. Family-owned businesses catering to shoppers on foot had been hurt by the opening of department stores in many other parts of New York City. But it didn't happen quite that way. What brought down Eighty-sixth Street was the same change that eventually brought down Korvette's itself: the transformation of consumer taste -- the "un-middling" of retail, as merchants were forced to head way up- or way down-market or close their doors.

Macy's thus transformed itself in the late 1970s and early 1980s fro m a middle-class department store to a high-end emporium, devoted to meeting the needs of that newly emerging person created by the baby boom and a few decades of steady economic growth: the yuppie. Korvette's, Alexander's, Abraham & Straus, and many other department stores that neither followed Macy's up nor remade themselves as discount marketers eventually closed their doors. Sears and JC Penney, faced with many of the same pressures created by the evacuation of the middle range, held on only because of their huge size, market penetration, and, eventually, their aggressive, creative management.

Though a shopper strolling Eighty-sixth Street's market would be less likely to hear the Italian and Yiddish of the 1960s than today's Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish, there are still plenty of cues to indicate that the Italian presence remains strong. Italian social clubs proclaim their allegiance to a particular town or province in Italy. You can buy a first-rate espresso on Eighty-sixth Street, and it's unlikely Starbucks will ever open anywhere near here.

If you're wondering why you know that name -- Bensonhurst -- there may be many reasons. Most benignly, I suppose, is its fictional role as the home of The Honeymooners. (Though the neighborhood was and is home to many Ralphs, Eds, Trixies, and Alices, the real Chauncey Street, television home to the Nortons and Kramdens, is clear on the other side of Brooklyn, in Jackie Gleason's own neighborhood of Brownsville.) Bensonhurst also served as the set for Saturday Night Fever on the big screen and Welcome Back, Kotter on the small one. When the Italian-American woman who falls for a black colleague in Spike Lee's Jungle F ever heads home, she takes the very same train I'm riding through Bensonhurst. When The French Connection's Popeye Doyle made his terrifying high-speed run under the elevated tracks in Brooklyn, he was screaming up Eighty-sixth Street, and when a drug dealer met his end, shot in the back while running up the stairs to the elevated track, he did that at the front entrance of my own alma mater, John Dewey High School.

Less benign is Bensonhurst's membership in a litany of names that includes Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, and Howard Beach, where particularly shocking race-based crimes, or racial confrontations, have made it possible to invoke outrage by using one loaded word. Bensonhurst. In 1989 a black teenager, Yusuf Hawkins, was shot to death by Bensonhurst teens when he and some friends came to the neighborhood to look at a used car. The crime set off months of racial confrontation, with that professional protester, the Reverend Al Sharpton, leading marches through the streets of the neighborhood, jeered at and baited by local boys and men.

Much of the reportage at the time, in local papers and from national networks, portrayed an all-white enclave where strangers and minorities were rarely seen. Those reporters may have been working from memory; that Bensonhurst was already gone. Today quiet young Muslim women in hijabs (head scarves), Indians in electric-colored saris, and Caribbeans of various complexions are searching the bargain bins in "the Market" for a good buy, jostling newly arrived Russians who've traded in their old lives, never-ending scarcity, and food lines for a streetscape promising endless "Sales!" Yet the killing of Yusuf Hawkins did tell the world of an angry and unreconstructed racial bias that still exists on many streets. But the lily-white Bensonhurst of newspaper reports and TV documentaries, where a lone black teenager could count on an invigorating sprint to the train station with white boys hot on his heels, is gone and has been for a long time. At a late-night pizza parlor in Westchester County, I recently observed a young Italian man from Bensonhurst asking for directions for home. The pizza maker asked how things are going in Bensonhurst, and the young man answered, "It's totally gone. All we got left is Eighteenth Avenue."

Brooklyn's white underbelly, which ran all the way from Sunset Park, overlooking Upper New York Bay, along the waterfront past Coney Island, Brighton, and Manhattan Beach, to Bergen Beach, Mill Basin, and the border with Queens, is no longer very white. Over the decades the Finns, Norwegians, Irish, Italians, Jews, and Italians who inhabited the broad crescent of southern Brooklyn have moved in the hundreds of thousands, and in doing so made room for the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, American and West Indian blacks, Russians, Pakistanis, and Indians, who quietly infiltrated once-closed parts of Brooklyn. A piece of folk wisdom has grown up in many of these neighborhoods in the decades since World War II, often repeated as a boast or an indictment. "Jews run," Italians can still be heard to say, "but we defend our neighborhoods." But the zeal for battle appears to be sagging. Nowadays, as our man in the pizza shop would indicate, many Italians see themselves locked in a war of attrition. Many of the streets where "we" once held sway are, alas, "gone."

But from my perch on the B train, I can still see t he backyards where Italians grow grapes on trellises, and the front yards where delicate fig trees will soon be bundled up to weather another winter in a climate where they don't really belong.

Continuing toward Coney Island, with the ocean now visible in the distance, we pass the town-sized public housing development -- acres and acres -- that make up the New York City Housing Authority's Marlboro Homes, while on the other side Bensonhurst's Lafayette High School, once virtually all white, now uneasily integrated, looms as large as the projects.

People who grew up in school districts where a whole town, or sometimes half a county, would feed the local high school wouldn't be ready for Lafayette High. It is a huge, blunt building. Metal screens -- the kind you often see in factories -- cover the windows. The daytime home of three thousand students, its population is itself larger than hundreds of school districts in America. Lafayette is really three schools; one institution prepares the college-bound for higher education, another slaps the patina of education onto people heading out to work, and a third provides custodial care to young people who are in school only because it is required by law.

Across the tracks, Marlboro did not use as its model for public housing the large, apartment-block towers so prevalent in other cities, and even in other parts of New York City. Perhaps because they had space to work with, perhaps because the surrounding community would not have supported them. Marlboro is built to human scale. The entryways to clusters of apartment buildings face each other. Built in 1958, the project is so old the trees are actually mature, and give one an idea of what the architect s probably had in mind: small parks, shady trees, and lots of paths for strolling. But that sun-dappled vision, quickly built for a city in the midst of a housing shortage, has not exactly come to fruition. Once an integrated development, Marlboro is now primarily black and Latino. Once the home of middle-class and working-poor renters, it is now more uniformly poor; thus it is a frightening place to people who have never seen anything but the outside of the development, who drive by on the two main drags that border it and mutter about "the projects."

Next to the projects sits John Dewey High, a public high school that draws its student body from all of Brooklyn. On a recent graduation day, you could see the changes in the borough, in flesh and bone, as a smiling queue of seniors, snaked its way to the risers set up on the school's front lawn to receive their diplomas. On this particular June morning, more than twenty years after my own long march to the platform, with many of the same teachers seated in folding chairs and looking on, came a fascinating parade of Indians and Pakistanis, Chinese and Vietnamese, Russian-born graduates, and young Muslim women who wore mortarboards over their head scarves, as tiny Asian grandmothers craned their necks for a glimpse of their own American Dream. The Latinos in line were no longer exclusively Puerto Ricans; they now had company from the Dominican Republic and the rest of the hemisphere. If you looked at my own yearbook you would have seen page after page of Jews of Eastern European extraction, Italians from two or three earlier waves of immigration, and scattered among the grandchildren of European immigrants, blacks (American-born and Caribbean), Puert o Ricans (island- and mainland-born), and Chinese (rarely children of American-born parents). Now the black faces were not scattered here and there but were a major presence in the class. In the hundreds of names in the columns of graduating seniors, only a few were Italian, Irish, and Jewish -- the names that had once formed the majority of the class.

From my train car now, you can see Coney Island in the distance, a view bracketed by enormous apartment complexes wound in highway interchanges and elevated tracks. My train crosses reeking, stagnant Coney Island Creek and pulls into the station that millions before me have rolled into -- a bathing suit and a towel tucked under the arm -- ready for a day of swimming, the amusement park, fried clams, and Nathan's hot dogs and fries.

You can still see, in the faded advertisements painted on brick walls, and in shuttered storefronts, what fun this place was thirty, forty, and fifty years ago. The bathhouses and the restaurants, the attractions and the Atlantic. After the war, with low unemployment and a winning ball dub, and the diversions of Coney waiting at the end of a short train ride, Brooklyn must have seemed like the best of all possible worlds for many of its residents. "It was a great place to grow up, and a good time for Brooklyn," says my mother, Prospect Heights High School, class of 1955. "Who knew about drugs? Who was afraid of being murdered on the street? We went everywhere, and we weren't afraid. Coney Island. Ebbets Field. The Fox. The Paramount. I saw Alan Freed at the Brooklyn Paramount, and I waited for hours in the freezing cold for a ticket."

Today, the bathhouses are gone. George Tilyou's Steeplechase Park, granddaddy to tod ay's theme parks, is gone. Ebbets Field is gone. The streetcars that my parents rode on dates are gone. So are the Fox and the Paramount.

By 1998, much of the middle class had little interest in the attractions of Coney Island. In Coney's heyday, only a wealthy few could fly to places like Florida, California, or the Caribbean. The ancient, creaky rides can't hold a candle to modern theme park rides for gravity-defying terror, or to Disney and Universal for high-tech polish. Those who have grown up with the ability to fly to interesting places, who are not prisoners of this island for recreation and are not drawn by the gypsies offering to guess your weight, the Wax Musée, the cotton candy, or the fried dams, can find it hard to remember that Coney invented a form of beachside recreation, surf, and fun for the masses.

The beach was a leveler, a democratic piece of public real estate where a young clerk or salesman could play handball with a garbageman or ogle a domestic or a shop girl. The swimsuit made them all equal. Barriers of neighborhood, social distance, the inhibitions of Old Country ways could be dropped in that strip of blocks between the subway and the surf. While the amusements sought might vary a bit according to education or income -- music halls for some, dance floors for others, hootchie-kootchie girls for still others -- it was all a nickel away by subway for everyone who needed a break from the sweltering streets of crowded, pre-air-conditioned Brooklyn.

One of the last vestiges of the old "beach resort" shoreline has finally thrown in the towel. The Brighton Beach Cabana Club, the in-town vacation for generations of Brooklyn Jews, watched as its clientele slowly aged an d departed this world. There were no longer leathery brown ladies in cat's-eye glasses kibitzing over mah-jongg tiles, watching children swim and play ball from the corners of their eyes. Their children are scattered to the four corners of the country. The people who once rented cabanas year after year have a much wider choice of entertainment open to them elsewhere. Flying is no longer only for the wealthy.

The land where the Cabana Club's showers, courts, pools, and card tables once stood is now more valuable as housing: A high-rise, ocean-view condo complex is proposed for the lot, responding to the sudden demand for new housing. As my D train rolls into Brighton Beach, I can see the billboard and business signs in English and Cyrillic: There are more than a hundred thousand Russians in Brooklyn now, and Brighton is a locus for their community life.

There are immigration lawyers and computer schools, nightclubs and smoked fish stores. If you stroll under the train tracks, above the din of Coney- and city-bound trains, you can hear women coo to their babies while pushing strollers, men talking business, and kids running along, all chatting in the new language of commerce for Brighton Beach Avenue: Russian. At the Brighton stop, whole families board the train. The children still look foreign -- sandals and socks, very short shorts, and smallbrimmed sun hats. The older children have quickly taken to American hip-hop wear: Nikes and baggy jeans, headphones around their necks, portable cassette players on their hips. The young women are more likely to be heavily made up, wear "done" hair, and have elaborately painted nails, than the other Brooklyn women on the train.

One of the business niches n ow filled by Russian women in many neighborhood storefronts is the nail salon. With few capital costs and almost no overhead, a nail salon is the perfect immigrant business. The business gets its revenue from hundreds of hours of labor put in by young Russian women hunched over tables, squinting through tabletop magnifiers. The money to open the nail shops and other businesses comes from the pooled capital of family and friends, which blossoms into an array of businesses based on lots of sweat equity. There are many signs for PECTOPAH, that is, "restaurant" in Russian script, and plenty of signs reading MAGAZIN, the "grocery store" filled with Russian-style breads and canned goods from back home.

This is the kind of neighborhood renewal that can never be created by urban planners or dreamed up by urban economic development commissions. Until the late 1970s, Brighton was on the wane, a largely Jewish neighborhood watching its children move on to greener pastures and its aging move on to retirement communities. But the thaw in Soviet-American relations, American pressure in the form of the Jackson-Vanick amendment, and the mobilization of American activists to "save Soviet Jewry" brought waves of Russian Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn. Once in New York, they found a long list of voluntary agencies ready to smooth their entry into American society: language classes, social workers to fill out food stamp applications, Hebrew schools to teach thousands an only half-remembered faith.

Brooklyn's future has been built every bit as much by the State Department and the U.S. Congress as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the city's own government. When America threw its doors open wide in the early years of this century, Brooklyn filled up with people from Cork and Calabria, from Oslo and Oswiecim. When the Depression and a shrinking tolerance for open immigration slowed the flood to a trickle, these immigrants and their children assimilated, and the Old Country became a place in fading photographs. But in the 1960s suburbanization, changing immigration laws, and American involvement in places like Haiti and the Dominican Republic brought recurring waves of their people to Brooklyn. Think of Brooklyn as the America Factory. It finished with the children of Naples, Bialystok, and Bergen, and watched them move on. Today Brooklyn is fulfilling the same function for migrants from Gaza and Bangalore, Santo Domingo and St. Petersburg.

The panic-peddling and blockbusting of the 1950s and 1960s, and the wholesale white flight and economic turmoil of industrial decline, have given way to something far more subtle than those brutal methods of bringing urban change. One day a new shop opens on Coney Island Avenue. It might have been a clothing store, or a kosher butcher. It might have sold car stereos or kids' shoes. Now it bears a business name in Urdu, while larger letters above it proclaim Halal Meats. Not too long ago it didn't seem as if there were very many Pakistanis in the neighborhood. You might have occasionally seen mothers in head scarves, loose trousers, and long, flowing tops talking to their children or getting into a car. Now there are enough to support a butcher for ritually prepared meat, and the clients don't come by car from far-off parts of Brooklyn but stroll through the door from the surrounding neighborhood.

Little by little, the D train moved from having a few Ch inese passengers, loaded down with groceries from Manhattan's Chinatown, to carrying entire cars full of Chinese traveling between lower Manhattan and what everyone has taken to calling "Brooklyn Chinatown."

After making a long, lazy loop through Brighton toward Midwood, we begin our descent. For the next several stations, we'll roar through backyards and underneath street traffic. Kitchens and bathrooms look over the tracks. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of a woman in a housedress watching a pot on the stove, or kids in pajamas hunched over a bowl of cereal.

This part of Brooklyn is an odd mix, of gentrified housing, now included in a historic district, built early in this century as "suburban" housing, on beautiful tree-lined streets. These houses would look at home in Brookline, Massachusetts, or Scarsdale, New York. A few blocks away you then confront massive ranks of apartment buildings -- row on row, block after block -- an immense parade. I have never seen anything like them, in this number, outside Brooklyn. This density of construction, thousands of families housed in the space of just a few blocks, was why Brooklyn, not even the largest borough, is the home of almost one out of three New Yorkers. Many of these apartment houses suffered in the 1960s and 1970s as both tenants and landlords moved away. Farther east, toward the border with Queens, some Brooklyn neighborhoods have hit bottom. But these buildings have storm windows and working intercoms, clean lawns and working laundry rooms. They don't offer much in the way of luxury, but they are decent housing a working family can afford.

From our ride through backyards we roar into a tunnel. If you stay onthe IRT, you will not see daylight again until the train crosses over the East River on the Manhattan Bridge. I get out at the corner of Prospect Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's masterpiece in the heart of northern Brooklyn. Here the great architects and landscapers built their Champs Élysées, their American Arc de Triomphe.

The east side of the park is talked of as the "bad side" in the white parts of Brooklyn. "Bad" is a designation saved for neighborhoods that are now mostly black. The lexicon is simple. When "we" lived there, the neighborhood was good. Then it started to "get bad." That's when "we" left.

I climb the steps from underground and reach a sun-drenched street. There's a coin-operated laundry (very few tenants can have washing machines in their apartments), a locksmith (an important business in a neighborhood where property crime had been rampant), a pizzeria (no matter what neighborhood it is), and a McDonald's. When I pass through the golden arches into what is arguably the most American-associated of fast-food chains, a quiet calypso is playing on a radio. The bunting over the counter sports Haitian, Guyanese, Jamaican, and Dominican flags. These are the big four of central Brooklyn's immigrant groups. From a small strip of neighborhoods along Flatbush Avenue, the West Indian presence has radiated out through the center of the borough to become a power-house on the local scene. In Community District 9, Prospect/Lefferts Gardens, Crown Heights, and Wingate, a third of the 110,000 residents in the 1990 census were West Indian. In Community District 14, Flatbush, Midwood, and Ocean Parkway, it's one out of five. In Community District 17, East Flatbush and Remsen Village, it's pushin g one out of two.

As Italians, Irish, Germans, and Jews left the neighborhoods around Prospect Park for other parts of Brooklyn, or left the city altogether, the median family incomes were not drastically reduced, putting the lie to the perception that things were now newly "bad." In fact, in Flatbush and Midwood, real per capita income rose almost two thousand dollars per head, nearly 20 percent. In East Flatbush, household income rose by a third in constant dollars, as did per capita income. This occurred while whites were pouring out of Flatbush and East Flatbush, and against stereotype and deeply ingrained belief, blacks replaced whites, with more green, too.

Mary and Phil Gallagher moved to East Flatbush just in time to watch their white neighbors leave. Phil was a professor at nearby Brooklyn College. The row houses lining the streets of East Flatbush were well kept and affordable, a magnet for a young couple with a child looking for a home, and the local elementary schools had terrific reputations. Mary's older neighbors didn't see it that way. "A lot of people who lived in this neighborhood grew up here; their parents had moved into this neighborhood long before, and anyone who was from the outside, anyone who looked different was a threat. We moved in here shortly after our daughter was born in 1974; we lived in an apartment just a few blocks away, and at that point we were completely unaware of the dynamics of this area. Neither of us is from New York.

"A lot of things had happened here during the sixties. Previous legislation on FHA and VA mortgages [mortgages provided or underwritten by the Federal Housing Administration or the Veterans Administration] had specifically proscribed t hat you couldn't use a mortgage to destabilize a neighborhood." Federal mortgage programs were openly racist for decades, and later denied blacks housing assistance by prohibiting loans for the purchase of existing housing. This meant that blacks, who lived in areas underserved by savings and loan associations and heavily in the market for limited urban housing, were virtually shut out of home ownership. But during the Johnson administration those limitations were removed and went too far in the other direction. FHA loans were written willy-nilly, without enough regard for family income or the condition of the home. Federal housing assistance had earned the resentment of blacks by shutting them out of the market, but it turned out that running headlong in the opposite direction didn't work either. The combination of housing-hungry blacks, whites desperate to sell, and sloppy administration from the FHA was like a wrecking ball in many older cities.

Mary remembers the process as more benign in East Flatbush. "When those provisions were removed, all of a sudden people could get government-insured mortgages to move in here. There was also a significant wave of immigration from the West Indies. Many of the white people who had lived here from before had gotten very used to the idea that this was their neighborhood, and they began to feel they had completely lost control of it."

In the heart of the neighborhood also sits an enormous housing complex, the Vanderveer Estates. Fifty-nine buildings, 2,500 units. Well into the 1960s, the use of heavy screening and plain old racism kept many blacks out. The John Lindsay administration forced the management of this project, financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to take welfare tenants. Within a few years, the vast complex turned over completely, earning a well-deserved reputation as a dangerous, sometimes fatal place to be. On a summer night, drivers waiting for a red light at the project's edge could hear gunshots in the distance. Capital fled the nearby commercial streets. Aging homeowners took what was happening in Vanderveer as a sign.

Phil Gallagher found it was tough to work against "urban lore," once homeowners were convinced they could not stay. "One of the rumors that went on in regard to this was that there was a murder a week over here that never made it into the newspaper. It was just what people three, four, five blocks away would say, and they believed it. They would repeat it with some certainty. I suspect there was some violence in here...occasionally, I'm sure, people were shot. The people on our block didn't talk so much about this. They were worried about their children, like anybody else would be."

By the time the Gallaghers moved in, the main shopping strip, Avenue D, had declined. There were many empty storefronts. Burglar bars, the kind of roll-down barriers that covered the entire window, became the rule, giving a sinister air to the street. The local elementary school, despite its good reputation, was finding it hard to hang on to white, middle-class students. The Catholic churches were watching parishioners who had been baptized, schooled, and married here head for Queens and the suburbs.

Phil and Mary became part of a small group of people who decided the neighborhood did not have to become a slum. The issue was not race but income. If the banks persisted in redlining East Flatbush as whites left, capital's loss of faith would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They embarked on what would be a fifteen-year labor of love, stabilizing their neighborhood with the Bank on Brooklyn campaign. The racial rules of commercial investment in those days were ironclad. As the black portion of the population rose, longtime merchants left, and national chains would not move in. Mary remembers, "one of the major fears was, if the neighborhood goes black, then the neighborhood would go to hell. What we were trying to do with Bank on Brooklyn was say, 'We want access to credit for qualified buyers, whatever their color; and we want them to have mortgages. We don't want some sort of absentee landlords picking up these properties and renting to people who are totally unable to manage a home in the sense that they're on drugs.' This is one of the tactics that was used in the multiple dwellings around here. Seed it with a couple of drug dealers, and drive out the tenants."

Phil is adamant that the appeal was always grounded in the bottom line -- not an appeal to the better nature of bankers. "Our argument was: We're not asking the banks to be eleemosynary institutions. We were asking them to behave as responsible business people, and back up the investment they had made in this area, and not lose it, by continuing to invest in it. Not to walk away from it. We told them we didn't like the idea of throwaway neighborhoods, any more than we liked the idea of throwaway beer cans. This was totally irresponsible. We were asking them to act as good businessmen, we weren't asking them for any giveaways."

It worked. The housing is solid. The sidewalks are swept clean. Sharp new cars line the streets. You'll still see a white face here and there, but this neighborhood is now home to a stable population of middle- and upper-middle-class West Indians: civil service managers and dentists, beauty shop owners and police sergeants. The area bursts into music and block parties during the autumn Carnival season. The subway stop and major intersection are known as "the Junction," where two major streets -- Flatbush and Nostrand avenues -- meet; the smells of jerk chicken, curried goat, and meat pies waft from open shop windows. Jitney cabs pull up and their minivan doors swing open. These private services are unregulated, unlicensed, and a source of concern for city fathers. They mutter, sometimes loud enough to hear on Flatbush Avenue, about regulating the jitneys or shutting them down. I stand at the junction, for some time, watching the smooth operation of a business you would find on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, or Bridgetown, Barbados. There are no signs saying This Is the Place. There are no route numbers, ticket takers, or cops. An older lady pushes up those last few steps at the top of a long staircase from the IRT platforms below the street, her arms pulled down by shopping bags. She peers along Flatbush and, seconds later, steps from the curb. A green van pulls over, the driver helps her in, the door bangs shut, and she's gone.

In other cities public transportation consultants are commissioned to do six-figure studies on how to get people to use "intermodal" urban transport. A regional authority pushes ahead with public transit plans and somehow services the loans while waiting for the customers to come. Here in Brooklyn, on a busy Saturday, West Indian shoppers easily move around in a world th ey understand. When the businesses around the junction were all owned by Jewish and Irish immigrants, and Brooklyn College students poured from the trains to walk to class, this place did not look very different. The heavy traffic on the broad streets, the massive apartment blocks, and the rows of small shops marching up Flatbush toward the Brooklyn Bridge have shaped the American Dream of thousands of Barbadians, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Haitians, and St. Lucians. Now the Junction is being shaped by them.

The Gallaghers look at their neighborhood today with tremendous satisfaction. At the height of their activism, Mary specialized in the commercial strip, Phil in housing. New regulations, and a new spirit among some bankers, led to a de-escalation of the 1970s conflicts over housing. "We shifted gears all together, and got the same banks that we'd been picketing, with whom we'd developed personal relationships over the years, to come in and fund neighborhood housing services. Between 1980 and 1990 we rehabbed about a hundred-and-some houses here. It all worked out well, as far as we're concerned. We're delighted with the feel of the neighborhood."

After they had done their bit, Phil figured, it was time to hand on the cudgels, for other reasons. "When I was forty-eight, I realized, hey, one quarter of my life, I've been doing this. It's time to resign. The second reason -- we felt strongly about this -- you really shouldn't have corporations in neighborhoods like this that are 95 percent black with all the leadership coming from a couple of white people."

More than twenty years after coming to the neighborhood, Mary still "can't help but wonder if the racial issue in America will ever be s olved. I have complete faith that, if I ever needed anything, all I'd have to do is ring the doorbell next door, and I'd have it -- like that. We live with wonderful people."

One longtime friend was a young engineer named Felix Bartholomew. Like many of Phil and Mary's new neighbors, Felix was a West Indian immigrant, who came to Brooklyn in 1962. After finishing college and starting a career and family, Bartholomew took what you might call an engineer's approach to picking a place to live.

"I went about buying in a sort of methodical way. I got the demographics. I wanted to move to Brooklyn. I didn't want to move to Jersey, I didn't want to move to Long Island, I wanted to stay in New York City, and Brooklyn was for me a nice area, I didn't particularly care for Queens or the Bronx. I got the demographics from the New York Times on the seventy-eight precincts, that gave the information like, what was the population makeup of each precinct, what was the percentage white, the percentage black, the percentage Hispanic. It gave you information like, what was the income level. It told you what the percentage of families on welfare was. It gave you homicides per thousand. All that information.

"From that, I selected a precinct that I thought had a nice racial mix. A precinct that I thought I would be able to fit in and live comfortably. At that time what we did, my wife and I, and by that time I had my son, we began to drive through these precincts, and look at these different areas.

"We would drive through at different times of the day...on different days of the week, but especially on a Friday evening, Saturdays, and Sundays, to see what the community was like. To see if there were peopl e standing outside, whether they were making noise on the sidewalk, whether there were drums and whatnot. Based on these analyses, and visual observation of the area, we picked out East Flatbush.

"Then I went to the real estate agent, and said, 'I'm looking for a house. I wanted so many bedrooms, and I'd like to have a garage, I would prefer something with a fence, and I was prepared to spend between forty and forty-five thousand dollars. And this is the area that I would prefer.' I gave her the precinct. I mapped out the blocks that I thought I would like to buy in. And something strange happened.

"The real estate agent took us riding on Kings Highway, though we told her we wanted to look in East Flatbush, and she would take us all the way to the East New York section of Brooklyn. She would show us one house after another, and then she would ride us back through the East Flatbush section. We would say, how much is one of those houses over there? She would quote us some number that she knew was way out of our price range....I didn't feel like I could afford sixty-five thousand dollars worth of mortgage, or she would say that the people were not yet prepared to sell. Those were the two answers I got.

"And then one day my wife made contact with someone who knew somebody who was selling a house, and that's how we finally found a house within that same locality. On East Forty-eighth Street and Clarendon Road, and we liked that house. I didn't just say, suddenly, one day, here we go, we're moving to Brooklyn. I studied the matter. There was a method to my madness."

Bartholomew says he realized his agent was purposely steering him away from blocks of white homeowners. Not the confrontationa l type, he politely asked about houses he found out about on his own. "I wanted someplace where I could afford to live, and someplace I could fit in and be comfortable. When the real estate agent took me someplace else, I would say, 'No, that's not what I want,' and bring her back and point out, how about this, how about that, hoping that she would realize what we were looking for. I wasn't angry, but I looked for ways to get around her. It might have been that I still had a certain amount of naïveté, I didn't know. So the real estate agent taking me to those other places was no surprise. I wasn't as militant as I would become later in East Flatbush. I didn't really know what was happening until after I moved.

"There were tree-lined streets. Very clean. The trash was picked up three days a week. It was a nice neighborhood. It was a neighborhood I enjoyed living in. The block where I lived was approximately sixty-forty...60 percent white, 40 percent black. The block just north of where I lived was almost all white...but I don't know why my block was different. I'm not sure.

"Then one morning as I was driving north I saw these signs farther up East Forty-eighth Street, on the doorways or in the windows of the houses. The signs said, 'I Am Staying!' 'I Am Staying!' I wanted to know what was going on. People who saw me on the block every day would talk to me, so I inquired about the 'I Am Staying!' signs. I had an idea of what it was, but I needed to verify my idea. What had happened, there was the first black family that bought a house on that block. When they moved in a number of families on that block received a real estate agent's letter soliciting their homes, indicating that the bloc k now had a black family and things were going to change...things were going to be different from now on. And that block, I guess, the people got together, and people began to put signs in the window, 'I am Staying!' The real estate agents were trying to infiltrate that block. But over time, the people who had declared 'I Am Staying!' saw their neighbors move, saw their friends move, and then, what happened? They moved. The real estate agents were able to do exactly what they set out to do.

"That's what I saw in a changing neighborhood. A neighborhood that was primarily white, after about five years becoming a neighborhood that was predominately black. You saw the changes in the schools, you saw the changes in the grocery stores, you saw other changes in the shops around.

"At first what I saw was their loss being my gain. Because what I discovered in those black families that moved to the neighborhood...they were like myself. They were young families...they were professional...they were people who had the same aspirations, the same dreams that I had. They were people who were willing not only to invest in their homes but were willing to maintain their homes to the same standards that were in force when they met it. Living was still comfortable. Living was still easy. The guy next door was white. He was a teacher, a principal, his wife was a teacher, but he still lived there....he's still living there today! We would stand around and chat in the morning. Whenever I go back to Brooklyn I always stop in to visit. There were many [white] people on my block who continued to live there. There was a dentist and his wife....They were comfortable living with me, and living with other people like me. They were older, they were professional people. You learn something from living with them. But it's those people who were ignorant who just see something coming, see you coming, and just run across the street without really knowing who you are."

Bartholomew wrestled with one of the central paradoxes of white flight for the black middle class. Yes, wholesale flight often causes economic dislocation and wrenching adjustment for those leaving, those arriving, and neighborhood businesses. While recognizing that the departure of frightened white homeowners was bad for the neighborhood, Bartholomew recognized that their staying put would have been a mixed blessing as well.

"Did I really want to live with someone who was as prejudiced as that? Who didn't want to know who I am? Who didn't really care to know who I am? Do I want to live with that person? Not necessarily." Yet Bartholomew is quick to add that his experience did not sour him on the possibility of peaceful, sustainable integration.

"During that period I was able to meet some people who I was able to work with. I got introduced to community groups....It was the first community group I joined after I had lived in the area for about three years. It was called the Farragut Association. The group worked to maintain the sense of decorum that exists in the neighborhood. In the summer we had house tours, where people who were interested in living in East Flatbush, similar to what they do in Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill, would come in and see what it is East Flatbush had to offer. This Farragut area, we called it 'a small town in town.' Because it was a community 'in which people began to live together, to do things to not only uplift their own ho mes, but the area surrounding their homes as well.

"There was an ice cream parlor on Avenue D that burned down, and the people began working with a block association to create the first community garden in that space. That was the first time I ever knew about community gardens. That was my first experience with people coming together to work on beautifying the neighborhood.

"We had a group called Bank on Brooklyn. Then Peg Horneckle decided to create the Flatbush East Community Development Corporation, where we were now concentrating on an even bigger area. Very early, through the efforts of the Flatbush East Development Corporation and the efforts of people working with us, and some of the businesses, we were able to petition the city and we were given six million dollars for capital improvements, and for commercial revitalization. Once that money was approved Flatbush East went out and got a contractor. We had to develop some kind of program. We worked with the merchants to improve storefronts. The city undertook the capital development on the strip -- the new sidewalks, the new gutters, the new crosswalks, the new lighting, the new signs. The Flatbush East Community Development Corp. created a program where a merchant would receive up to 25 percent of the cost of refurbishing the front of a store. Anything on the front. Many of the merchants at that time were not really willing to spend money on improvements. So here was an opportunity for them to get something.

"The merchants formed the Avenue D Merchants Association, and they had Alan Spiro. Alan was a very energetic carpet store owner. He eventually moved out but he got the merchants to come to meetings and he would get them together wit h the development corporation, and tell them all these beautiful things we were going to do and what was going to happen, and many of the merchants did agree to participate in the program. Without that deterioration and that blight setting in that shopping strip started to turn around and people began to see results.

"Instead of people getting in their cars and driving to the mall at the south end of Flatbush Avenue, or getting in their cars and driving even farther away, people were beginning to walk with their shopping carts on Avenue D, and walking to the different stores."

Racial integration in East Flatbush was to be a lost cause. Longtime white families remain, and the neighborhood's overall viability helps keep nearby residential areas from catching the infection of panic. Most intriguingly, the economic models regarding resegregation and neighborhood decline were not valid in this part of Brooklyn. Usually, the momentum of decline is easy to see: once black homeowners arrive on a block, every subsequent white-owned house going on the market becomes increasingly unlikely to find a buyer at the asking price, since the house is increasingly less likely to attract all qualified buyers in that price range. Instead, once a block is believed to be "going black," only the market subset of buyers, black buyers, will likely browse, bid, or buy. In this way two of the main props under home prices, desire and competition, are kicked out. Bartholomew reports that with price this was not the case when he reluctantly sold his house.

"My house in East Flatbush cost forty-five thousand dollars. I sold my house just recently. I held on to it even though I have been living in the Washington area for some time now, because I love Brooklyn, and I love that house! I got one hundred seventy thousand dollars for it. I think a white person who would buy in that area would get something you might want to call a steal."

Bartholomew concedes, with some regret, that his area will attract few white buyers of similar education, income, and aspirations. "But we share the same concerns! About five years ago rap music had just come into vogue. There was a young man who lived right across the street from us. He and his friends were on my side, where our house fronted onto Clarendon Road. They were blasting the music, screaming obscenities, and making rude jokes. My wife came out of the house and said, 'Darwin, I don't stand in front of your house and scream and make this kind of noise. And further I do not talk this kind of talk. If you and your friends want to talk that kind of talk you can take it to your house, or just take it out of here. But not in front of my house.' Those kids got up. They were young kids. If we all just take that approach...they don't want it, we don't want it either. It's not that whites are more concerned than us. We are just as concerned about the same things, and we have to exercise our rights. I was a little concerned about my wife confronting these kids, but I guess those are just chances you have to take."

When our conversation turned to the future of Brooklyn, and where and when neighborhood decline was reversible, Bartholomew got a twinkle in his eye and smiled broadly. He counseled patience and said history was on his side. "Take a look at what has happened in the Crown Heights neighborhood. In 1962 my brother moved from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to Crown Street. I think it was 421 Crown Street. Right on the corner of Crown Street and Brooklyn Avenue. When we moved over there I saw a change in that neighborhood from a Jewish neighborhood to a black one. Blacks began to buy the houses and the Jews began to move out.

"Years later a friend in the area told me about his house, that at that time he was able to buy for sixteen or eighteen thousand dollars. The Jews sold, the blacks bought. Then, years later the blacks began to move out, too, because they considered that part of Brooklyn no longer desirable; they started to move to Long Island, too. And who began to move in? A new group of Jews who were now buying on that street! The neighborhood is not necessarily a better place....I guess because of the religious beliefs of the new Jewish neighbors it may be a little quieter...You don't have so many kids running up and down the street. I remember Jim telling me, 'Someone just offered me eighty-four thousand dollars for my house,' after he paid sixteen thousand dollars for it! Could that happen to the East Flatbush section if people realize what's there? It began at one time. I remember families who moved from the area where we were and went to Long Island. Five years later some of them were looking for houses again in the East Flatbush section. They didn't necessarily come to the same streets, the same community where they had lived before, but now they were a little lower down, near the bay.

"If you go out there to Long Island and you're disillusioned, you may want to come back, and if you can't afford to live in an expensive seaside community, well, hey man, we have affordable houses in East Flatbush. And you know those know they're strong houses , well built, clean. So? Who knows!?"

While Crown Heights has been remade by an influx of new white buyers long after the area was written off as a desirable home, the relations between black and Hasidic Jewish residents have struggled toward civility. If the name Crown Heights strikes you as familiar, it may be the recollection of murder and racial strife after the accidental killing of a young black boy by a driver in a Hasidic motorcade. For a place like Crown Heights -- which has seen its fortunes rise as segregation declines -- to become a model, there have to be changes in much more than home prices.

There must also be new neighbors like Felix Bartholomew, who believes new arrivals will share his goodwill. "I don't know about a change of heart, maybe a change in expectations. Maybe things didn't live up to their expectations out in Long Island. Remember, when they moved to Long Island, I could have moved to Long Island also! Who knows? I never really investigated...but I know it is not beyond my means to purchase a house next door to them, wherever, in Hempstead. Where are they going to go? What are they going to do?"

Copyright © 1999 by Ray Suarez

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