Pitkin Avenue is a three-mile stretch of central Brooklyn beginning just past the eastern boundary of Crown Heights, extending into East New York, and leaving its greatest claim to distinction in Brownsville. From the 1910s through the ’40s, when Brownsville’s population was composed largely of Jewish immigrants, Pitkin Avenue and the various side streets emerged as Brooklyn’s most significant retail thoroughfare, supplying poor and working-class residents with what they needed—vegetables, shoes, chickens—and outsiders with what they desired: refrigerators, sofas, jewelry. The prosperous Jews of Eastern Parkway—the “alrightniks,” as Alfred Kazin, who grew up in Brownsville, described them—typically owned the businesses and supplied the consumer base. In his 2002 book Brownsville Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, Wendell Pritchett, formerly a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that in 1942, 372 stores on Pitkin Avenue—among them eight banks and forty-three men’s clothing shops—employed 1,000 people and generated $90 million in annual business, which would translate to more than $1.2 billion today, or roughly the yearly revenue of Zappos.
By the early 1930s, few of Brownsville’s families had managed to join the middle class, but the median income of a family there was still nearly twice that of a household on the Lower East Side. Today, the median household income in Brownsville is nearly a quarter lower than it is on the Lower East Side, a quadrant of the city where in 2013 it is possible to spend $665 on men’s shell cordovan wingtips, and just as much for a room in a hotel whose promotional material describes the surrounding area as Manhattan’s most “authentic” neighborhood. Although the percentage of Brownsville residents living below the federal poverty line has decreased since the beginning of the millennium, from 43 percent to 39 percent, the figure remains remarkable—nearly twice the rate of the city’s as a whole, and thirteen points higher than Newark’s. Brownsville possesses an authenticity for which there is no external market.
One of the most dangerous places in the city, Brownsville remains a nexus of gun violence and all of the anxiety that attends it, with crossfire a persistent worry. In October 2011, a young mother was shot to death picking up her child from school as gang members exchanged gunfire, with one shooter taking aim from a rooftop. Parents are afraid to send children to and from school on their own. Barring absolute necessity, going out at night is something to be avoided. One winter evening, I visited a community center in the Van Dyke Houses on Blake Avenue and met Orlando Santos Jr., the director of a successful after-school program run by Good Shepherd Services. He hadn’t worked in Brownsville very long, and when I asked him how he found the neighborhood, he gestured that it wasn’t as menacing as its reputation suggested. He had witnessed only a single shooting, he told me—just outside Van Dyke—and that was six months ago.
By the late ’60s, deterioration and misery had become the way of things, with Brownsville bearing the marks of civic abandonment that so many poor urban neighborhoods bore. In the wake of a particularly brutal few days in the spring of 1971—after demonstrations, looting and arson had erupted over cuts that proposed to curtail Medicaid, public assistance and anti-drug programs; after the Fire Department had reported fighting more than 100 structural fires in the neighborhood on a single evening and clashes with police raged along Pitkin Avenue, including windows being smashed—a headline in The New York Times read: Brownsville Back to Normal Despair. By that point, the South Bronx and Brownsville had become the two poorest neighborhoods in the city. Four decades later, that reality remains unchanged.
The Bloomberg era has produced an enormous amount of physical and psychological reorientation in New York—evident in large part in the emergence of Brooklyn, or a psychographic element of it, as a new center of gravity and an internationally recognized way of life—but it has not produced, nor have many other American cities created, a model for dramatically transforming struggling neighborhoods absent the mechanisms of gentrification. There is no formula for renewal outside the visual, stylistic and cultural clichés of renewal. The reimagined neighborhood is always essentially reimagined the same way.
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A Sense of Enclosure
According to 2000 Census figures, Pico Union—a crime-ridden neighborhood adjacent to downtown Los Angeles that similarly had a large white and Jewish population until the mid–twentieth century—had a poverty rate virtually equal to Brownsville’s. In 2007, Pico Union was selected by Businessweek as one of the country’s “next hot neighborhoods,” a judgment rendered by virtue of soaring housing prices that still remained within reach of the young professional class. Pico Union had a number of things to recommend it: proximity to other neighborhoods that had become increasingly fashionable (thus providing the spillover that it could absorb), desirable housing stock (Victorian bungalows), and its designation as a historic district.
Brownsville, by contrast, has none of those things. Nor does it have coastline, which in the South Bronx has resulted in palliatives like the modernist floating pool in the East River at Barretto Point Park. Bedford-Stuyvesant began to recast itself when its brownstones became marketable to those for whom Park Slope, Fort Greene and Prospect Heights had become too expensive. Bushwick and Greenpoint began to draw young liberal-arts graduates and papermaking visionaries and tapas once adjacent Williamsburg—and all the waterfront development that has gone into it—began to seem like a place for finance hacks with creative pretensions. Brownsville, which encompasses two square miles, is a troubled place surrounded, essentially, by other troubled places: East New York on one side, Ocean Hill on another, East Flatbush on yet another.
The neighborhood is distinguished perhaps above all else by its high concentration of public housing—the highest anywhere in the country. There are many spots where you can stand and see nothing but the high-rise towers of the New York City Housing Authority in every direction, which perhaps more than anything else adds to the area’s sense of enclosure. Brownsville is a maze of NYCHA buildings, with approximately 21,000 people living in them—a number greater than the population of TriBeCa.
The preponderance of public housing in Brownsville leaves it with an unusual kind of promise: it is a place so immune to gentrification that it is also immune to the negative fallout from gentrification, which means it has the capacity to serve as a template for a different model of revitalization.
Several years ago, a woman named Rosanne Haggerty was approached by the Robin Hood Foundation—a New York anti-poverty charity largely funded by the hedge fund industry—and asked if she would be interested in working with them on the issue of family homelessness. Haggerty runs a group called Community Solutions, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent homelessness in areas of concentrated poverty. She had gained renown in the 1990s for her work in supportive housing, eventually winning a MacArthur grant. When Haggerty looked at the data on troubled neighborhoods across the city, she was struck by the fact that, according to nearly every metric of social malady, Brownsville ranked among the most imperiled places in the city. Brownsville has the highest incidence of infant mortality, for instance, as well as the highest percentage of pre-pregnancy obesity among mothers. Studies indicated that an enormous chunk of the state’s prisoners came from a handful of New York City neighborhoods, and Brownsville was one of them. In certain pockets, the state had been spending $1 million per block annually on incarceration.
Haggerty conducted further research, culling data block by block with the help of a graduate student, and discovered that although approximately one-third of the neighborhood population lived in housing projects, the greatest concentration of people sent to prison, placed in foster care or becoming homeless came from public housing. When families from the projects became homeless, Haggerty found, it was often because they were evicted for occupying apartments illegally, after the original leaseholder had either died or gone to jail, rather than for nonpayment of rent. “You would think that having affordable housing would be a protective factor against homelessness, but it turns out that it isn’t enough,” Haggerty observed. In Brownsville, it soon became clear, any path to renaissance for the neighborhood had to rely on reworking public housing and radically improving the lives of the people who lived there.