Brownsville in New York City

Friday, 11 June 2021 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, New York City
Reading Time:  21 minutes

Zion Triangle Park © Jim.henderson

Zion Triangle Park © Jim.henderson

Brownsville is a residential neighborhood located in eastern Brooklyn in New York City. The neighborhood is generally bordered by Crown Heights to the northwest; Bedford–Stuyvesant and Cypress Hills to the north; East New York to the east; Canarsie to the south; and East Flatbush to the west. The 1.163-square-mile (3.01 km²) area that comprises Brownsville has 58,300 residents as of the 2010 United States Census. Founded in its current incarnation in 1858, Brownsville was initially a settlement composed of Jewish factory workers. The neighborhood underwent a major demographic change in the 1950s that saw an influx of African-American and Latino residents. Since the late 20th century, Brownsville has consistently held one of the highest poverty and crime rates of any neighborhood in New York City.

Brownsville was predominantly Jewish from the 1880s until the 1950s. In 1887, businessman Elias Kaplan showed the first Jewish residents around Brownsville, painting the area as favorable compared to the Lower East Side, which he described as a place where one could not get away from the holds of labor unions Kaplan built a factory and accommodations for his workers, then placed a synagogue, named Ohev Sholom, in his own factory. Other manufacturers that created low-tech products like food, furniture, and metals followed suit throughout the next decade, settling their factories in Brownsville. This led to much more housing being built there. The area bounded by present-day Dumont, Rockaway, and Liberty Avenues, and Junius Street, quickly became densely populated, with “factories, workshops, and stores” located next to housing. The farm of a local farmer, John J. Vanderveer, was cut up into lots and given to Jewish settlers after he sold it in 1892. Within three years of the first lot being distributed, there were 10,000 Jews living in Brownsville. By 1904, the lots comprising the former Vanderveer farm was entirely owned by Jews, who were spread out across 4 square miles (10 km²). An estimated 25,000 people lived in Brownsville by 1900, most of whom lived in two-story wooden frame accommodations built for two families each. Many of these buildings were grossly overcrowded, with up to eight families living in some of these two-family houses. They were utilitarian, and according to one New York Herald article, “grossly unattractive”. Many of these houses lacked amenities like running water, and their wood construction made these houses susceptible to fires. New brick-and-stone houses erected in the early 1900s were built with indoor plumbing and less prone to fire. The quality of life was further decreased by the fact that there was scant infrastructure to be found in the area, and as a result, the unpaved roads were used as open sewers. Compounding the problem, land prices were high in Brownsville (with lots available for $50 in 1907, then sold for $3,000 two years later), so in order to make their land purchases worthwhile, developers were frequently inspired to build as many apartments on a single lot as they possibly could. Within twenty years of the factories’ development, the area acquired a reputation as a vicious slum and breeding ground for crime. By 1904, 22 of the 25 housing units in Brownsville were tenement housing; three years later, only one of these 25 housing units was not a tenement. It became as dense as the very densely packed Lower East Side, according to one account. This also led to dangerous conditions; a 1935 collapse of a tenement stairway killed two people and injured 43 others. This overcrowding was despite the availability of empty space in the fringes of Brownsville. There were also no playgrounds in the area, and the only park in the vicinity was Betsy Head Park.

In the early 20th century, the vast majority of Brownsville residents were born outside the United States; in 1910, 66% of the population were first-generation immigrants, and 80% of these immigrants were from Russia. By 1920, over 80,000 of the area’s 100,000 inhabitants were Russian Jews, and Brownsville had been nicknamed “Little Jerusalem.” In the 1930s it was considered the most densely populated district in all of Brooklyn. Brownsville was also considered to have the highest density of Jews of any place in the United States through the 1950s. The population remained heavily Jewish until the middle of the century, and the neighborhood boasted some seventy Orthodox synagogues. Many of these synagogues still exist in Brownsville, albeit as churches. Brownsville was also a place for radical political causes during this time. In 1916, Margaret Sanger set up the first birth control clinic in America on Amboy Street. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the neighborhood elected Socialist and American Labor Party candidates to the state assembly. Two Socialist candidates for mayor in 1929 and 1932 both received roughly a quarter of Brownsville residents’ mayoral votes. Socialist attitudes prevailed among Brownsville residents until World War II. The area’s Jewish population participated heavily in civil rights movements, rallying against such things as poll taxes, Jim Crow laws, and segregation in schools.

The area was fairly successful in its heyday. In 1942, there were 372 stores, including 8 banks and 43 stores selling menswear, along a 3-mile (4.8 km) stretch of Pitkin Avenue, which employed a combined 1,000 people and generated an estimated $90 million annually (equal to about $1,426,000,000 today if adjusted for inflation). The median income of $2,493 in 1933 (about $49,841 today) was twice that of a family living in the Lower East Side, who earned a median of $1,390 (about $27,789 today) but lower than that of a middle-class family in outer Brooklyn ($4,320, inflation-adjusted to $86,367) or the Bronx ($3,750, inflation-adjusted to $74,971). The Fortunoff’s furniture chain had its roots on Livonia Avenue, its flagship store overshadowed by the tracks of New York City Subway’s New Lots Line from 1922 to 1964, eventually expanding elsewhere in the New York metropolitan area.

Parkway Theater, now a church © Smallbones/cc-by-sa-3.0 Street market on Belmont Avenue in 1962 © loc.gov - Roger Higgins Zion Triangle Park © Jim.henderson Goodwill Tapscott © Jim.henderson Marcus Garvey Houses © Jim.henderson
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Street market on Belmont Avenue in 1962 © loc.gov - Roger Higgins
In the 1930s, Brownsville achieved notoriety as the birthplace of Murder, Inc. (Jewish-American organized crime), who contracted to kill between 400 and 1,000 people through the 1940s. Starting in the 1930s, the demographics of the population pivoted toward an African-American and Latino majority. Most of the new residents were poor and socially disadvantaged, especially the new African-American residents, who were mostly migrants from the Jim Crow-era South where they were racially discriminated against. In 1940, black residents made up 6% of Brownsville’s population, but by 1950, there were double the number of blacks, most of whom occupied the neighborhood’s most undesirable housing. At the same time, new immigration quotas had reduced the number of Russian Jews who were able to immigrate to the United States. Spurred on by urban planner Robert Moses, the city replaced some of Brownsville’s old tenements with public housing blocks. Although the neighborhood was racially segregated, there were more attempts at improved quality of life, public mixing, and solidarity between black and Jewish neighbors than could be found in most other neighborhoods. However, due to socioeconomic barriers imposed by the disparities between the two populations, most of these improvements never came. Compounding the matter, the newly arrived African-American residents were mainly industrial workers who had moved to Brownsville just as the area’s factories were going out of business, so the black residents were more economically disadvantaged than the Jews who had historically lived in Brownsville. Finally, although both blacks and Jews living in Brownsville had been subject to ethnic discrimination, the situation for blacks was worse, as they were banned from some public places where Jews were allowed, and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) generally behaved more harshly toward blacks than toward Jews. The breaking point for the area’s Jewish population came about in the 1950s, when the New York City Housing Authority decided to build more new public housing developments in blighted portions of Brownsville. The Jewish population quickly moved out, even though the new NYCHA developments were actually in better condition than the old wooden tenements. Citing increased crime and their desire for social mobility, Jews left Brownsville en masse, with many black and Latino residents moving in, especially into the area’s housing developments. For instance, in the Van Dyke Houses, the black population in 1956 was 57% and the white population that year was 43%, with a little over one percent of residents receiving welfare benefits. Seven years later, 72% of the residents were black, 15% Puerto Rican, and the development had the highest rate of per-capita arrests of any housing development citywide. Through the 1960s, its population became largely African American, and Brownsville’s unemployment rate was 17 percent, twice the city’s as a whole. The newly majority-black Brownsville neighborhood had few community institutions or economic opportunities. It lacked a middle class, and its residents did not own the businesses they relied upon. In his book Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, W.E. Pritchett described the neighborhood as a “ghetto” whose quality of life was declining by the year. The NYCHA housing encouraged the creation of an African-American and Latino population that was poorer than the Jewish population it replaced. In 1965, sociologist and then-future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report about black poverty entitled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, in which he cited the fact that the 24% of the nation’s black communities were single-mother families, an attribute closely tied to poverty in these communities. At that time, Brownsville and East New York’s single-mother rate was almost twice the national rate, at 45%. Backlash against the report, mainly on accusations of victim blaming, caused leaders to overlook Moynihan’s proposals to improve poor black communities’ quality of life, and the single-mother rate in Brownsville grew. In 1966, black and Latino residents created the Brownsville Community Council in an effort to reverse the poverty and crime increases. The BCC secured welfare funding for 3,000 people, secure housing tenancies for 4,000 people, and voting rights for hundreds of new registrants. It closed down a block of Herzl Street for use as a play area, and it created the biweekly Brownsville Counselor newspaper to inform residents about government programs and job opportunities. However, in spite of the BCC’s efforts, crime went up, with a threefold increase in reported homicides from ten in 1960 to over thirty in 1966; a doubling of arrests from 1,883 in 1956 to over 3,901 in 1966; and claims that there could actually have been more than six times as much crime than was reported. Multiple robberies of businesses were reported every day, with robbers simply lifting or bending the roll-down metal gates that protected many storefronts. City officials urged people to not use public transportation to travel to Brownsville. Brownsville began experiencing large-scale rioting and social disorder around this time. These problems manifested themselves in September 1967. A riot occurred following the death of an 11-year-old African American boy named Richard Ross, who was killed by an African-American NYPD detective, John Rattley, at the corner of St. Johns Place and Ralph Avenue. Rattley believed Ross had mugged a 73-year-old Jewish man. The riot was led in part by Brooklyn militant Sonny Carson, who allegedly spread rumors that Rattley was white; it was quelled after Brooklyn North Borough Commander Lloyd Sealy deployed a squad of 150 police officers. Officer Rattley was not indicted by the grand jury. Then, in 1968, Brownsville was the setting of a protracted and highly contentious teachers’ strike. The Board of Education had experimented with giving the people of the neighborhood control over the school. The new school administration fired several teachers in violation of union contract rules. The teachers were all white and mostly Jewish, and the resulting strike badly divided the whole city. The resulting strike dragged on for half a year, becoming known as one of John Lindsay‘s “Ten Plagues.” It also served to segregate the remaining Jewish community from the larger black and Latino community. By 1970, the 130,000-resident population of Brownsville was 77% black and 19% Puerto Rican. Despite the activities of black civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League< whose Brooklyn chapters were based in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, they were, overall, less concerned with the issues of the lower-income blacks who had moved into Brownsville, thus further isolating Brownsville’s population. These changes corresponded to overall increases in segregation and inequality in New York City, as well as to the replacement of blue-collar with white-collar jobs. The area gained a reputation for violence and poverty that was similar to the South Bronx‘s, a reputation that persisted through the 21st century. Meanwhile, rioting and disorder continued. In June 1970, two men set fire to garbage bags to protest the New York City Department of Sanitation’s reduction of trash collection pickups in Brownsville from six times to twice per week. In the riots that followed this arson, one man was killed and multiple others were injured. In May 1971, the mostly black residents of Brownsville objected to reductions in Medicaid, welfare funds, and drug prevention programs in a peaceful protest that soon turned violent. In the ensuing riot, protesters conflicted with police, with windows being broken, children stealing rides aboard buses, housewives tipping over banana stands, and the New York City Fire Department fighting over 100 fires in a single night. By then, people were afraid to go out at night, yet the 400 or so white families in south Brownsville were primarily concerned about housing remaining affordable. The streets had empty storefronts, with one block of Pitkin Avenue having over two-thirds of its 16 storefronts lying vacant. In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay referred to the area, which had been the city’s poorest for several years, as “Bombsville” because of its high concentration of empty lots and burned-out buildings.

After a wave of arson throughout the 1970s ravaged the low-income communities of New York City, many of the residential structures in Brownsville were left seriously damaged or destroyed, and Brownsville became synonymous for urban decay in many aspects. Even at the beginning of this arson wave, 29% of residents were impoverished, a number that would increase in later years. The city began to rehabilitate many formerly abandoned tenement-style apartment buildings and designate them low-income housing beginning in the late 1970s. Marcus Garvey Village, whose townhouse-style three-story apartment buildings had front doors and gardens, was an example of such low-income development that did not lower crime and poverty, as was intended; instead, the houses became the home base of a local gang, and poverty went up to 40%. However, the East Brooklyn Congregations‘ Nehemiah Housing, which also constructed buildings in East New York and Spring Creek, served to help residents find affordable housing with a good quality of life. The neighborhood’s crime rate decreased somewhat by the 1980s. Many subsidized multi-unit townhouses and newly constructed apartment buildings were built on vacant lots across the 1,200-acre (490 ha) expanse of the neighborhood, and from 2000 to 2003, applications for construction of residential buildings in Brownsville increased sevenfold. By 2015, many community organizations had been formed to improve the quality of life in parts of Brownsville. Changes included temporary markets being erected there as well as commercial developments in residential areas. However, these improvements are limited to certain sections of Brownsville. In 2013, 39% of residents fell below the poverty line, compared to 43% in 2000, but the poverty rate of Brownsville is still relatively high, being twice the city’s overall rate as well as 13% higher than that of nearby Newark, New Jersey. Brownsville families reported a median income of $15,978 as of 2008, below the United States Census poverty threshold. There is a high rate of poverty in the neighborhood’s northeastern section, which is inhabited disproportionately by African-Americans and Latinos. The overall average income in Brownsville is lower than that of the rest of Brooklyn and the rest of New York City. The reasons for Brownsville’s lack of wholesale gentrification are numerous. One reporter for the magazine The Nation observed that the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pico-Union, which had a poverty rate similar to Brownsville’s in 2000, had become a Businessweek “next hot neighborhood” by 2007. Brownsville had not seen a similar revitalization because, unlike Pico-Union, it had not been surrounded by gentrified neighborhoods; did not have desirable housing; and was not a historic district or an area of other significance. In addition, Brownsville is unlike similar neighborhoods in New York City that had since gentrified. The South Bronx’s coastline gave way to attractions like Barretto Point Park; Bedford-Stuyvesant offered brownstone townhouses comparable to those in affluent Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights; and Bushwick and Greenpoint became popular places for young professional workers once Williamsburg had become highly sought due to its waterfront location and proximity to Manhattan. By contrast, Brownsville is surrounded by other high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods like East New York, Ocean Hill, and East Flatbush. Its high concentration of public housing developments has traditionally prevented gentrification in this area. Brownsville is still majority African-American and Latino, with exactly two Jewish-owned businesses in Brownsville in 2012. A columnist for The New York Times, writing for the paper’s “Big City” section on 2012, stated that the many improvements to the city’s overall quality of life, enacted by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg since 2002, “might have happened in Lithuania for all the effect they have had (or could have) on the lives of people in Brownsville.” On the other hand, the area’s lack of gentrification might have kept most of residents’ money within the local Brownsville economy. The area’s largest employer is supposedly the United States Postal Service, and the lack of mobility for many residents encourages them to buy from local stores instead. Kay Hymowitz wrote in her 2017 book, The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back, that Brownsville was “the permanent ghetto” and that despite the gentrification in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, Brownsville contained a “concentrated, multigenerational black poverty” that caused its development to “remain static.”

Read more on UrbanAreas.net – Brownsville, Niche.com – Brownsville and Wikipedia Brownsville (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Johns Hopkins University & Medicine - Coronavirus Resource Center - Global Passport Power Rank - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.






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