Tag Archives: Brownsville

The New Brooklyn: The ups and downs of a very frenetic borough

The subtitle to Kay S. Hymowitz‘s engaging and often provocative new book The New Brooklyn: What It Takes To Bring A City Back is a bit of a misnomer.

Brooklyn is not back in any conventional sense of the word. It has not returned to any kind of sense of normalcy or financial stability. In fact, Brooklyn has never felt more granular, a borough with newly formed and slightly unstable multiple personalities. If it were a person, you might medicate it.

Brooklyn is back — for many, safe, vibrant and livable but it is also beyond. It’s in a category all to its own.

Below: The new Williamsburg

Courtesy John/Flickr

Brooklyn is also my home. I live two blocks from a row of millionaires to the east and two blocks from working class residents in a housing project to the west. Retail options are frayed and deeply unsatisfying to all — expensive boutiques next to drug stores with lines down the block. No grocery stores in sight. A few blocks away lies the Gowanus Canal, a perilously grim body of water that now, in 2017, attracts glassy chemical films on its surface and luxury condos at its banks.

The past two decades in Brooklyn have been transformative in a way that few places in the world have experienced. This is certainly the most tumultuous era for the borough since it was dragged into the embrace of Greater New York — via the Consolidation of 1898. 

It can be one of the greatest places to live in the United States. It can also be a frustrating, hopeless place. Its dysfunctions are legion. The pockets of Brooklyn which foster great cultural changes are never far from others that are (intentionally or otherwise) closed to any sort of change.

Below: Sunset Park

Courtesy Barry Yanowitz/Flickr

Recent shifts began in the early 1990s when younger people, mostly single, began flocking to the industrial neighborhood of Williamsburg after they couldn’t find acceptable space across the river in the East Village and the Lower East Side. This, in itself, was not a new phenomenon; Brooklyn Heights saw a similar ‘bohemian’ gentrification a century ago, as did Park Slope in the 1960s and 70s.

But the Williamsburg migration initiated a widespread lurch of gentrification into Brooklyn — some of it, as Hymowitz notes, with great degrees of population displacement. Gentrification is considered a bad word for many, a sign of Brooklyn becoming deeply homogenized to the detriment of its working-class residents.

The New Brooklyn
What It Takes To Bring A City Back
by Kay S. Hymowitz
Roman & Littlefield

Roman & Littlefield

In The New Brooklyn, Hymowitz looks at the more nuanced effects of gentrification by diving into the histories of seven neighborhoods — Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Sunset Park and Canarsie. (My only objection to this book is that the surveys are so engaging that I would have loved to read her take on other intriguing corners — Red Hook and Brighton Beach, for example.)

Below: Brownsville

Courtesy Nathan Prelaw/Flickr

She notes that gentrification, even of the most well-intentioned kind, is always fated for a rough landing. “When the educated middle class sets up housekeeping amid people from a different culture — whether white working class, poor black or immigrant  Hispanic, Chinese or whoever — tensions are inevitable.”

Gentrification in Brooklyn has come in all forms, with varying degrees of displacement. While sensitive liberal tenancies among current displacers has made gentrification into a bad word, this was not so deeply concerning in the 1960s — in Park Slope, for example — when the city was spiraling towards financial doldrum.  Writes Hymowitz:

“[G]entrification can drive out residents by increasing evictions, demolitions and landlord harassment, and raising rents to heights that existing tenants cannot afford. This kind of displacement has a decades-long history in gentrifying Park Slope. In the early days (and despite their countercultural sympathies), brownstoners made no bones about wanting to evict tenants whom they often inherited with their newly purchased brownstones.”

Below: Park Slope

Courtesy John-Paul Pagano/Flickr

Yet the Williamsburg-into-Bushwick-and-beyond form of gentrification is of an entirely different breed; it became an international model for urban renewal. “Everyone, including people who might have once aspired to the Ritz, whether in Tokyo, Stockholm, Berlin, Philadelphia or Chicago, wants to be cool in a Brooklyn sort of way.

While this has made Brooklyn an overall safer place to live, it’s also created an experience quite out of reach for many. In Hymowitz’s survey, she also visits Brownsville, a neighborhood almost entirely closed off from the so-called “rebirth,” a place where residents, mostly poor and working class African-Americans, are struggling to break free from life in “the permanent ghetto.”

The New Brooklyn is anchored firmly in history with an excellent overview of Brooklyn’s past upfront and startling neighborhood histories beginning each chapter. History explains the reactions to modern changes.

In Bed-Stuy, longtime residents are concerned that rapid gentrification is changing the nature of this historic center of black culture. While in Sunset Park, as Hymowitz notes, “you’d be hard-pressed to find any anti-gentrification protests or activists taking up the cause.”

— By Greg Young

Below: Bedford-Stuyvesant

Courtesy Melissa Felderman/Flickr

 

 

Top picture — Brooklyn 1945, courtesy New York Public Library

 

New York City’s “stripped and abandoned” car crisis

The fate of an automobile at Breezy Point, 1973 (Courtesy US National Archives)

The abandoned car, that most dramatic symbol of urban blight, is a sight that has pretty much vanished from most New York City streets. (Most, not all.)  In a city refitted for the automobile by the mid 20th century, people just began leaving their cars everywhere, either vandalized beyond repair or too expensive to tow when their vehicles became unusable. These husks of metal were scavenged for parts, then left to rust, the city’s sanitation crews unable to keep pace of the growing problem.

I recently found an intriguing article in New York Magazine from 45 years ago, titled “Stripped and Abandoned,” outlining the causes of the city’s sudden population of vehicular remains:

“Last year, by Department of Sanitation records, 31,578 cars were abandoned in New York City.  Some were wrecks; some were stolen, then stripped; some were involved … in minor highway mishaps which caused their owners to leave them — to expert instant strippers, who evidently abound.”

By 1969, the problem had grown so unwieldy that the city hired third-party contractors to take care of most of it, but its budget for such removal would only shrink as the city entered the hard-knock 1970s.  Within a few years, the city would not even bother to remove such blight from certain neighborhoods.

“At any one time,” wrote author Fred Ferretti in 1969, “there are about 2,000 cars strewn about the highways and local streets.”

Below: From the New York Magazine article, the fate of a vehicle in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side (photos by Robert D’Alessandro):

In 1970, standing in stark contrast to a city of polluted, automotive remains, one artist at the very first Earth Day celebration in Union Square attempted to address the problem.  A crushed sedan sat alongside the environmental merriment with a sign: “57,742 Cars Removed in 1969; 21,635 Removed in 1970, as of April 21.”  The New York Times would later note a total of 72,961 abandoned cars in 1970. [source] [source]

They weren’t just eye sores.  What wasn’t pilfered or siphoned out was left to rot in the elements, leaking oil, attracting vermin.

New York City was only one problem spot within a new American crisis, with millions and millions of cars across the country already overfilling scrap yards.  Here, however, it was a harbinger of hard times on the way.

“Everywhere you look, there are abandoned cars, stripped and junked,” said one resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, returning to his deteriorating neighborhood in 1970.

A car almost completed ingested by Jamaica Bay, 1973  (Courtesy US National Archives)

Abandoned vehicles became the New York Sanitation Department’s biggest issue in the 1970s, although by the new decade, there was some improvement.  According to a New York Times article from 1981:

“Total abandoned-car collections declined from more than 79,000 in 1978 to 33,112 last year and to 14,900 in the first half of this year, officials said. Robert Hennelly, chief of cleaning operations, said he thought the drop was ”perhaps because the cost of cars has gotten so high that people are holding on to them longer.”

Some cynically still considered the abandoned vehicle to be a recognizable mark of New York City, even in the 1980s, a sort of native animal.

Not that an abandoned car couldn’t have some useful purpose, as this picture by Camily Jose Vergara illustrates. (Click here for more of his terrific photography)

With the general infrastructural improvement of the city during the 1990s, the beast had receded somewhat from view in most neighborhoods.  There are still abandoned cars galore — here’s the city’s current policy for reporting derelict vehicles — but few are so unscrupulously picked clean or left to decay into a rusty shell.

Below: As with the others above, Jamaica Bay 1973, near JFK Airport (US National Archives)

Close shave: A century ago, barbers riot through New York, leaving half-shaved men in vacated barber shops

A barber shop at the Hotel de Gink on the Bowery, circa 1910-15 [LOC]

The fight for worker’s rights swept through a variety of occupations over a century ago as New York City laborers rebelled against unfair corporate practices and unsafe working conditions.

Garment workers marched the avenues in protest following the tragic Triangle Factory fire of 1911, as did underpaid street cleaners and ashcart men, leaving heaps of un-retrieved rubbish on the street in protest.  The following year, the waiters and staff of dozens of New York’s finest hotels took to the streets for better pay. Why, by 1913, even some players on the Brooklyn Dodgers were unionizing!

And one hundred years ago this month, it was the barbers turn to march.
Many of the same leaders from other occupational strikes were at the center of the barber strike, which got its footing in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.  Soon, barbers across the city had dropped their razors and foaming brushes and left work in consolidation for better hours.
A letter-writer to a wonderfully named 1913 journal called Journeyman Barber, Hairdresser, Cosmetologist and Proprietor wrote, “I will say that on a certain bright morning in the month of May, I found that the entire barber industry was paralyzed.  Nearly 13,000 workingmen were out on strike. Isn’t that a miracle?  Thirteen thousand barbers on strike!”
Mayhem reigned upon the craggy, unshaven faces of Brooklyn men.  “From Bushwick to Bay Ridge haggard men go about with the telltale blemish encroaching upon their visages like a noxious fungus.  Half-shaved men slink about the alleys, avoiding the light of day.” [source]
Scenes of violence did erupt throughout the city, as strike-breakers were attacked and angry mobs filled the street.  A mob of 5,000 strikers — “singing socialistic songs,” noted the New York Tribune — clashed with police in Brownsville on May 7th, customers fleeing barber shops in “a shower of vegetables” and the occasional flying rock.

Below: a cheeky editorial cartoon from the May 8th 1913 Evening World

A couple days later, thousands of barbers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to Union Square, gathering up working men along the way, emptying barber shops of employees and leaving stunned customers in their chairs.  In Union Square the strikers heard speeches from organizers including Joseph James Ettor (pictured below), who had helped organize the waiter’s strike just a few months before.

The Evening World makes curious note of one exception to this striking throng. “ONLY LADY BARBERS WORK IN BROOKLYN WHILE MEN STRIKE” went the headline.  “Such a business as the feminine barber shops did!”

Manhattan barbers joined their Brooklyn brothers by mid-month, setting up a Manhattan strike headquarters at 140 Second Avenue.  (Today, that the address of the Ukrainian East Village restaurant.)  Arlington Hall at nearby St. Mark’s Place was the scene of several union gatherings for striking barbers.

Descriptions of rioting barbers sound a bit like scenes from the Civil War draft riots, although much of that description was the newspaper flourish of the day.

Below: Thousands of barber shop workers and their supporters gather in Union Square in 1913. I believe this is the northwest corner of the park. (LOC)

But it does sound like a violent few days in Manhattan.  Shop windows were smashed by rioters in the Ladies Mile shopping district, and altercations with store owners put many in the hospital.  The Sun noted: “Window smashing and attacks on workers, common all day, culminated in dozens of small riots all over the city, so many and so rapid that police headquarters heard of them in bunches.”

Eventually, the strike proved a success, as barbershop owners agreed to worker’s demands.  According to one source, instead of working up to 92 hours a week, employers now agreed to the relatively mild 62 hours a week for their workers, with one entire day off on Sunday! [source]

“2,300 Boss Barbers Capitulate,” declared the Evening World on May 30th. “Brooklyn Strike Over.” By the first of June, it was safe again to go to a barber shop.