Book Review of Wendell Pritchett's Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto

Guy Davidson

For the English novelist Anthony Burgess, writing on New York in a 1976 contribution to a Time/Life series of books on cities on the world, the mainly black neighbourhood of Brownsville constituted the nadir of American urban decline. Burgess described the district as "a wretched patch of carious buildings, dead shops, filthy tenements, dejection, alienation, families with little or no income" entirely unrelieved by the partially redeeming features of Old World slums such as the "picturesque" look of Naples or the lively, if "sordid," "gaiety" of "the old East End of London." The "problems" in Brownsville, the "rock-bottom" of black disenfranchisement and poverty, Burgess concluded, "are so immense that they just have to enforce action".1 In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Wendell Pritchett also uses the metaphor of "rock bottom" to describe the neighbourhood in the 1970s (the relevant section is titled "Hitting Rock Bottom"). In the 1970s, Brownsville was plagued by terrrible poverty (more than 30 per cent of residents earning incomes below the poverty level in 1970), very high rates of unemployment (30 per cent of males in 1973), and an escalating crime rate, with "crimes against the person" (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) especially high. The crime rate increased dramatically city-wide during this period, but Brownsville was at the forefront of the crime wave (250-52). Such devastating problems indeed demanded "action," as Burgess puts it. But Pritchett’s book documents not only the efforts of "external" agencies (implicitly appealed to in Burgess’s peroration) to alleviate the problems of Brownsville, but also a tradition of neighbourhood activism: an ongoing struggle for economic and social services and opportunities which goes back to Brownsville’s beginnings, which continued through the very worst of times for the district, and which testified to a sense of community (if not gaiety or picturesqueness) undiscernible in Burgess’s characterisation of Brownsville as a peculiarly New World ghetto defined by a combination of dejection, alienation and urban decay.

The detailed account of the efforts of grassroots organisations to bring about social change - and the way in which these efforts were frequently stymied by the indifference and neglect of city, state and federal governments, as well as unions, charitable organisations and advocacy groups - is perhaps the major achievement of Pritchett’s book, an achievement which revises the received view of Brownsville as a black hole of urban blight. Pritchett does not sentimentalise or romanticise this struggle "from below," however, but also provides incisive analysis of the ways in which social, political and racial divisions compromised and inhibited co-operation within neighbourhood groups, thereby complicating "the idea of community" which the existence of such groups invokes (272). The political struggles and social dynamics recounted in this history are offered by Pritchett as relevant for an understanding of urban America as a whole: Brownsville is presented as exemplary of the changes within inner-city working-class neighbourhoods throughout the twentieth century. "By closely scrutinizing the actions of Brownsville’s residents and the responses of New York’s political and institutional elites," Pritchett aims to "illuminate the complicated process of neighbourhood transformation," and reveal how the conflicts between residents, politicians and elites have helped shape the contemporary American city (7). The particular detail of Pritchett’s social history is accordingly articulated with a more wide-ranging account of nationwide governmental initiatives and cultural trends.

In its original manifestation, consolidated in the late nineteenth century, Brownsville was a predominantly Jewish working-class neigbourhood. The district was, as Pritchett puts it, "‘born’ a tenement community", specifically built for workers - a contrast even with the Lower East Side of Manhattan, originally an area of single-family homes (13). While always poor, and fairly consistently characterised by gang violence as well as "higher" levels of organised crime (most infamously during the 1920s and `30s, which saw the reign of Abe Reles’ "Murder Incorporated"), the Brownsville of the pre-World War II period was notable for the vibrancy of its commercial, social and political life. The shopping district, centred on Pitkin Avenue, was one of the largest in Brooklyn, attracting even customers from Manhattan with its specialty furniture, household appliance and clothing stores. The liveliness of this commercial enterprise was matched by a vigorous political radicalism: socialist groups were active in the political life of Brownsville throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Prichett notes that Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth-control clinic in the neighbourhood in 1916, and that her "groundbreaking efforts were nurtured by an atmosphere of progressive experimentation that infused Brownsville" (34).

The optimism of this period of Brownsville’s history reached a high point in the 1940s. This decade saw neighbourhood groups secure significant gains in community facilities; they also forced government and private institutions to take more responsibility for protecting the poor from the many housing, health and social problems that marked the neighbourhood (53). Brownsville by this time harboured increasing black and (to a lesser extent) Latino populations who lived alongside the established white population relatively peacefully: the racial tensions which flared up into violence in other changing inner-city districts in the United States at this time remained attenuated in Brownsville. However, while neighbourhood groups were open to blacks and Latinos, there was little attempt made by white activists to involve them. The anti-integrationist attitude common among Americans at this time was evident in more aggressive form in the policies of the New York City government, which ensured that the large public housing projects that began to be built in Brownsville in the 1940s were effectively segregated. These racist institutional initiatives, along with increasing white "upward mobility" during the period of post-War prosperity, meant that by the late 1950s Brownsville, along with adjacent Bedford-Stuyvesant, formed part of one of the largest black and Latino ghettos in the United States (121). A white population remained, but it was mainly older and steadily decreasing.

It is from this period that the long period of decline which culminated in the "rock bottom" of 1970s Brownsville set in. The decline was exacerbated by both the action and the inaction of New York’s municipal government, which regarded the area as little more than a dumping ground for problem populations. However, although neither Brownsville nor its neighbourhood organisations ever became truly integrated, its grassroots political culture persisted. Pritchett focuses on two contrasting examples of neighbourhood organisation in the post-War period, presenting them as indicative of the changing state of race relations - not only locally but also nationally.

The first, the Beth-El Hospital strike of 1962, involved the successful agitation for improved pay and working conditions for the mainly black and Latino "nonprofessional" employees of a not-for-profit hospital, which, as a "voluntary" institution, was exempted from minimum wage laws. The strike drew for its success on the support of New York’s liberal community for the Jewish-led union with its predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican rank and file. For Pritchett, the strike, "[i]n the midst of the southern civil rights revealed the promise of a northern movement that crossed racial and ethnic lines" (176).

The progressive promise of this interracial movement, however, dissipated in the increasingly riven years that followed. The New York Teachers’ Strike of 1968, centred on Brownsville and the neighbouring district of Ocean Hill, demonstrated just how deeply racial divisions had become entrenched. The strike arose out of and exemplifed a battle over the "community control" of schools. Frustrated after years of trying to integrate New York’s public schools, many activists, influenced by the Black Power movement, shifted towards agitation for parental control of curriculum. The introduction of an "Afrocentric" curriculum would, it was hoped, be affirming and meaningful for black students. Although the scheme was supported by much of New York’s elite, it was opposed by the United Federation of Teachers, which feared that community control would interfere with job protection. The ensuing conflict was bitter, marked by accusations of racism and anti-Semitism. Eventually the teachers won, thereby ending the experiment in community empowerment. The conflict has been much studied by historians of race relations in the U.S., who generally regard it as anticipating unresolved contemporary conflicts between whites and blacks over the meanings of key political terms such as "equality" and "pluralism" (237). Pritchett’s account of the strike discusses for the first time the vital role of the pro-community control Brownsville Community Council, thus illuminating the connections between local and national manifestations of Afrocentric political organisation.

While the U.S. remains a society significantly structured around divisions of racial inequality, and Brownsville today continues to exemplify these divisions, Pritchett’s book concludes on a note of qualified optimism. The dark days of the 1970s have passed, and although Brownsville remains a poor area, it is once again "a vibrant, working-class community," due to the efforts of neighourhood groups at revitalisation, more active governmental involvement, and the " ‘trickle-down effect of New York’s booming economy’" (270). Pritchett notes, however, that "if the past is any predictor, Brownsville will once again struggle, and indices of social problems will rise" (270).

Pritchett’s approach is comprehensive and scholarly. His generalisations about Brownsville are often illustrated and enlivened by the life histories or personal accounts of Brownsville residents of the past; these are frequently used to frame the discussions of the various chapters. There are also occasional references to the representation of Brownsville in works of literature and popular culture, which, as a literary academic myself, I would have liked to see expanded. Given the neighbourhood’s eventual, notorious status as an emblem of urban decline, it would have been interesting to see more argument about the changing place of Brownsville in local and national imaginaries. But cultural representation is not really Pritchett’s brief. This is an engaging work of social history which will be of value to scholars and students of the contemporary American city.

Brownsville, Brooklyn:Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto was published by University of Chicago Press, February 2002, ISBN: 0226684466.


1 Anthony Burgess and the editors of Time-Life Books, New York (Amsterdam : Time-Life Books, 1976).