The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis

The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis

by Jerald E. Podair

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On May 9, 1968, junior high school teacher Fred Nauman received a letter that would change the history of New York City. It informed him that he had been fired from his job. Eighteen other educators in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville area of Brooklyn received similar letters that day. The dismissed educators were white. The local school board that fired them was…  See more details below


On May 9, 1968, junior high school teacher Fred Nauman received a letter that would change the history of New York City. It informed him that he had been fired from his job. Eighteen other educators in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville area of Brooklyn received similar letters that day. The dismissed educators were white. The local school board that fired them was predominantly African-American. The crisis that the firings provoked became the most racially divisive moment in the city in more than a century, sparking three teachers’ strikes and increasingly angry confrontations between black and white New Yorkers at bargaining tables, on picket lines, and in the streets.

This superb book revisits the Ocean Hill–Brownsville crisis—a watershed in modern New York City race relations. Jerald E. Podair connects the conflict with the sociocultural history of the city and explores its legacy. The book is a powerful, sobering tale of racial misunderstanding and fear, a New York story with national implications.

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Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis
By Jerald E. Podair

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08122-7

Chapter One


New York City, 1945-1965

In 1945, New York was a blue-collar, working-class city. In 1965, it was a white-collar, middle-class one. The economic, social, and cultural divisions that eventually caused the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict had their roots in this elemental shift. The face of New York changed profoundly in this twenty-year period; in many ways, it became a new city. New York's economic base shifted from manufacturing to service industries. Its corporate, financial, real estate, legal, insurance, and banking sectors boomed, expanding white-collar employment opportunities. The city spent prodigiously on state services, creating thousands of new government jobs. And government housing policies spurred an upsurge in the construction of middle-income rental and cooperative apartment units both in Manhattan and the outer boroughs of the city. This shift created a new middle class in New York. It was composed largely of those from working-class and impoverished backgrounds, who were the first in their families to work in a coat and tie. But New Yorkers did not share these new opportunities equally. The city's new middle class was composed primarily of whites, not blacks. The uneven black and white rates of participation in this process of middle-class formation between 1945 and 1965 would create the two New Yorks that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy symbolized.

In 1945, New York City was the premier industrial city in the United States. It had more manufacturing jobs than any other American city; in fact, it had more such jobs than any two other American cities combined. This industrial preeminence did not immediately meet the eye, however, overshadowed as it was by the city's reputation as an intellectual and cultural center. New York had no single dominant industry, equivalent to steel in Pittsburgh or automobiles in Detroit. Instead the city boasted thousands of relatively small, decentralized factories in a variety of fields-apparel, printing, small machinery, toys, and paper products, among others.

These industries were housed in buildings which often did not resemble "factories" in the commonly accepted sense. They were not self-contained and surrounded by fences and parking lots, but rather tenement-style buildings intermixed with residential housing and office buildings. Often, an industrial building contained a series of manufacturers in unrelated fields, reducing efficiency and snarling traffic on narrow city cross-streets. While dirty, unsightly, and environmentally hazardous, these multistory factories provided employment to over a million New Yorkers, approximately 40 percent of the city's total working population. Moreover, the vast majority of these jobs required little or no education. A New York City high school dropout in 1945 had options in semiskilled or unskilled employment-grueling, repetitive, and sometimes dangerous, to be sure-but viable employment nonetheless. Thousands of such dropouts poured into the city's economy each year, riding subways to midtown and downtown Manhattan, where many of these jobs were located.

Outsiders may have misapprehended New York's status as a manufacturing center, but city leaders did not. They took measures to protect and encourage industry, including keeping subway fares low to expedite the flow of workers to their jobs, and exercising a relative leniency in zoning practices that made downtown Manhattan an anarchic mix of factories, offices, and apartments. New York City in 1945 may well have been an urban planner's nightmare, but for a man without an education who worked with his hands, it was a relatively hospitable place. It was no workers' paradise, to be sure, but it was unquestionably a thriving working-class city.

All this changed after World War II, as the city's economy shifted from a reliance on manufacturing and port activities to one based on the provision of services. Municipal leaders began to view the tenement buildings that housed small factories as hazardous eyesores that destroyed the ambience of the city. The years after 1945 in New York were dominated by urban renewal. High-rise office buildings and white-collar employees began to replace tenement factories and working-class New Yorkers. These were also years in which centralization as an operational and philosophical tenet of municipal governance went virtually unchallenged in city life. In this view, a decentralized series of small factories scattered around downtown Manhattan made no sense. They were "in the way," as were, for that matter, neighborhoods anywhere in New York that stood in the path of the city's new direction. Between 1945 and 1965, the man who did the most to bring this new vision of the city to fruition was Robert Moses.

Moses wielded unprecedented power during this period. He served at various times-and often simultaneously-as chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, head of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance, City Parks Commissioner, and New York City Coordinator of Construction. Moses' vision was that of an efficient and clean city that offered a high quality of life to its residents. "Quality of life," to Moses, meant most of all the absence of "slums," whether residential or commercial. Moses' New York would be a city of office buildings, not factories; of white-collar jobs, not blue. Under his influence, midtown New York underwent a high-rise office building construction boom in the late 1940s and 1950s. During this time, the city became the corporate headquarters of the world. Changes in zoning regulations, subsidies, and tax incentives spurred private real estate construction. This public-private partnership changed the landscape of the city. High-rise offices, hospitals, university buildings, and cultural centers replaced tenement apartments and factories.

More than just the city's physical landscape changed as a result of Moses' vision. The manufacturing jobs provided by the tenement factories began to disappear or relocate, replaced by those connected with the "service" industries housed by the new developments. Between 1945 and the early 1970s, New York lost almost half of its jobs in the manufacturing sector. During roughly the same period, it added approximately 350,000 white-collar jobs. Employment in finance, insurance, and real estate grew by almost 30 percent during the 1960s, with the securities industry alone adding 60,000 jobs. Unlike those they replaced, these white-collar jobs required education-high school at a minimum, and often more.

The other growth industry in New York during the two decades following World War II was government. The city bureaucracy grew steadily, and with it opportunities for employment. The public sector added 155,000 jobs and grew by 38 percent during the 1960s, and by the latter part of the decade New York's proportion of government workers per 10,000 residents was higher than in any other American city except Washington, D.C. Like the jobs created in the private service sector, these civil service jobs had educational prerequisites; most demanded the ability to pass written examinations.

The years between 1945 and 1965, then, saw New York shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one centered around service industries and government. A 1960 Harvard University study of the changing New York economy bore this out. It predicted that the new service-oriented jobs being created in the city would counterbalance those lost in the manufacturing area. Whether this would prove true or not-and the events of the 1970s would certainly call these forecasts into question-it was clear that New York's shift to a postindustrial economy was profoundly affecting class and racial relations in the city. It was, on the one hand, creating an upwardly mobile, mostly white, middle class, positioned by education and training to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the expanding service and government sectors. On the other hand, the city's growing black population, trapped by de facto residential and educational segregation, failing public schools, and a shrinking unskilled job market, was falling further behind, and separating out into social, political, and cultural isolation. These two parallel trends, both the result of the deindustrialization of New York, would define the racial politics of the city in the 1960s, and eventually lead to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis.

The "new middle class" of New York City's postwar years had three major historical patrons. Fiorello La Guardia, mayor from 1934 to 1945, laid the initial groundwork for the development of this class. La Guardia was a political reformer in the New Deal mode. He established government operating through a centralized bureaucracy as the city's primary service provider, wresting this function from Tammany Hall and its allied political machinery, and paving the way for its eventual demise. La Guardia changed the political culture of the city to one based on the idea of the municipal government as central planner, distributor of resources, and major employer. This last feature was most important to the growth of the city's new middle class after La Guardia's mayoral career ended. La Guardia established a ladder of upward mobility through government employment that thousands of New Yorkers would climb during the post-World War II years.

In addition to helping turn New York into a postindustrial city after 1945, Robert Moses was instrumental in changing its residential face. Moses' primary goal here was to provide housing for middle-class and middle-class-aspiring New Yorkers that was physically separated from that of the poor. His tool for this undertaking was Title I of the Federal Housing Act of 1949, which permitted government assistance to private land developers of "blighted and deteriorated" areas. Moses used subsidies, tax breaks, and other benefits to induce these private developers to raze residential tenements and replace them with middle- and high-income housing. He also supported the Mitchell-Lama cooperative program, which provided subsidized "co-op" housing for middle-income New Yorkers; by the mid-1960s, some eighty thousand Mitchell-Lama housing units had been constructed in the city.

Robert Moses was a middle-class moralist at heart. He believed that tenement life sapped the respectable, sober virtues essential to middle-class living. He wished to separate the "responsible" working class from what he considered the "undeserving poor" through housing policy. In practice, this meant de facto residential segregation, since Moses essentially viewed the first group as comprising whites, and the latter, blacks. Under Moses, "slum clearance" consisted of constructing apartments for middle-class whites through private firms and shuttling blacks into physically separated public housing projects. His preoccupation with whites and the middle class at the expense of the black poor was never in doubt. In 1966, a typical year, 4,851 low-income, 6,158 Mitchell-Lama, and 21,122 private rental housing units were constructed in the city. Moses has been justly criticized for housing policies that reinforced residential segregation in New York. He did, however, succeed in retaining much of the city's white middle-class population, preventing the mass exodus that befell most large American cities during the postwar years. At a high price-one that many would argue was exorbitantly high-Moses helped keep the new middle class in New York City.

If La Guardia provided the white middle class with jobs, and Moses with housing, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., mayor from 1954 to 1965, offered security and material largesse. Wagner's father, Robert, Sr., had sponsored the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 as senator from New York, and his son resolved to do the same for New York City municipal employees during his tenure. One of his first acts as mayor was to issue an executive order, which, for the first time, gave city workers the right to organize unions. In 1958, Wagner's Executive Order No. 49 awarded collective bargaining rights to these unions. His negotiating posture with them was much more avuncular than confrontational. Wagner counted on municipal unions for political support, and he could usually be relied upon, after some ritual posturing and brinkmanship, to deliver generous wage packages. It was once said of Wagner that if a government employee in Brooklyn awoke with sore feet, the mayor's arches hurt.

The ethnic, religious, and social makeup of the middle class that La Guardia, Moses, and Wagner helped create contrasted sharply with that of its heavily white Anglo-Saxon Protestant prewar predecessor. Largely second-generation Catholic and Jewish and of working-class parentage, its members were often the first in their families to attend college. After World War II, many of the social barriers that had hindered Jewish and Catholic advancement in New York's corporate world began to break down, the casualty of the wave of cultural pluralism that had swept the nation as a whole during the war. (25) Opportunities in government employment, with its examination-based, "objective" hiring criteria, were also expanding. By the early 1960s, when median family income in New York exceeded the national average by 8 percent, the city appeared to be entering a new era, one in which social status and inherited wealth mattered less than at any other time in its history. To the New Yorkers who availed themselves of these heretofore unobtainable opportunities in the corporate and public service spheres, the city seemed to be well on its way to becoming a true meritocracy. To them, New York was an essentially fair place in which to live and work. It rewarded education, knowledge, and expertise, not group origins or personal connections, and promised opportunity and advancement to those who worked for it.

Perhaps no group better epitomized the city's postwar new middle class and its values than its public school teachers. Most were Jewish or Catholic, and educated either at one of the tuition-free city colleges or on the GI Bill. They were the beneficiaries of the vast increases in government spending in public education in New York after World War II. Between 1948 and 1965, annual municipal spending on the city's public schools more than quadrupled, from $250 million to $1.1 billion, despite only a small increase in total student enrollment. In the early 1960s alone, the number of educational personnel hired rose by almost 60 percent. By the mid-1960s, per pupil expenditures in the New York public schools exceeded that of virtually every other major American city, and most suburban systems. Thanks to this upsurge in available funds, the aura of flush times surrounded New York's public education system in the decades after World War II.

This had not always been the case.


Excerpted from THE STRIKE THAT CHANGED NEW YORK by Jerald E. Podair Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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