Brownsville and the curse of geography

“Every New York Jew could feel certain about one thing: he was superior to anybody living in Brownsville.”

– William Poster on the 1920s, as quoted by Wendell Pritchett

Brownsville has at times been a place for waste-disposal, a tenement slum, a haven for Jews before they were accepted, the cradle of a major crime organization, a testing-ground for public-housing and decentralized-education policies, and a high-crime zone during tough economic times. Today it’s home to the poor and to blue-collar workers, just as it was when it began.

The story of Brownsville is mainly one of poor geography. Originally a landlocked area of flood-prone marshes, its distance from Manhattan made it inconvenient as a place for the affluent to live, but convenient as a place to put up large projects for those of lesser means. It was tough on the nostrils, too: the area was used as a dump, and awful stenches wafted north from the glue factories of Jamaica Bay. (Ever wonder how Dead Horse Bay got its name?)

Brownsville during a 1923 flood. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

As you probably expect, the land was first used for farming by the Dutch. It was also a source of stone and other building-materials. William Suydam took a first stab at parcelling the land in 1860, laying out 262 lots, but he soon defaulted on his mortgages. This forced the land into an auction. The lucky winner: Charles S. Brown of Esopus, New York, a few miles north of Poughkeepsie.

Brown was so proud of his role as a “land speculator” that he listed it as his occupation. (For the record, I’m a “freelance researcher”.) Born in Vermont, he lived in Ohio for a while before moving back east, and in the 1880s he moved to South America for unknown reasons. He began to build “Brown’s Village” on his land after his 1862 purchase. By 1883, there were 250 houses in the area.

Brown might have had an ego, but he also had brains. He realized that no one would want to live in such an out-of-the-way, foul place unless there were no other options, so he marketed the area to the working class.

That story was furthered by Elias Kaplan, who in 1887 led the first large Jewish immigrant contingent to the area. Kaplan figured Brownsville was perfect as an alternative to the poor conditions of migrant workers on the Lower East Side. He could point to several perks: roomier spaces, open lots for recreation, easier on the wallet.

Tenement housing in Brownsville, circa 1910. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

But even with the opening of the Fulton Street el in 1889, not many residents wanted to make the daily trek to Manhattan, so Kaplan saw another opening. By putting his own factories in Brownsville, he managed to avoid the Lower East Side’s unions, which were advocating better conditions, fewer hours, and all of those other evil things that keep a capitalistic society down. In a genius touch, he built the area’s first synagogue, called Ohev Sholom, in his factory, predating Google’s ping-pong tables by over a century.

The early 20th century saw a boom in growth. Dozens of independent developers tried their hands at constructing tenements and factories (usually in the same building); in 1907, 96% of the neighborhood’s housing units were in such buildings. The city was slow to respond to the rapid pace of immigration, leading to woefully inadequate sanitation services.

And who exactly were these immigrants? Mostly Russian Jews. In 1910, first-generation Russians made up over half of the population, and they propelled Socialist Abraham Shiplacoff to the Assembly in 1916. In 1920, 80% of the 100,000 residents of Brownsville were Jewish, leading some to dub the area “Little Jerusalem”. The Hebrew Protection League was formed to deal with discrimination and threats from neighboring Catholic and Protestant communities. And in the 1930s, the Jewish organized-crime syndicate Murder, Inc. was born in Brownsville.

1936: Firefighters rescue several Torahs from a Brownsville synagogue. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

There were a few bright spots in the 1910s: the Brownsville Children’s Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, now called the Stone Avenue Branch, was the first children’s library in the United States when it was inaugurated in 1914. Also, Margaret Sanger opened the country’s first birth-control clinic on Amboy Street in 1916. (She went to jail for 30 days for being a ‘public nuisance’.)

Brownsville’s population-turnover has historically been high, probably because as soon as you have enough money, you get out of there. Brownsville “measured all success by our skill in getting away from it,” said writer Alfred Kazin. After World War II, the City saw it as an ideal place to try out a public-housing project as a way to clean up the slums in the more desirable areas. The white population didn’t take too kindly to this. (Sound familiar?)

The 1960s and 1970s were particularly bad times. In 1967, rioting broke out after 11-year-old Richard Ross was killed by NYPD officer John Rattley. Both parties were black, but that didn’t stop black nationalist Sonny Carson from spreading rumors that the officer was white and had killed Ross for fun. At the time, and even more so in the economic crisis of the 1970s, journalists from around the country used Brownsville as an example of the worst that America had to offer. One called it a “war zone”; another compared it to post-WWII Berlin.

Perhaps the most notable event in Brownsville’s history came in 1968, when a confrontation there ignited a months-long city-wide strike by schoolteachers. Many blacks across the city, angry at a perceived failure by the educational system to bridge the racial academic gap, had demanded a role in how the schools governed themselves. The City used JHS 271 and its feeder schools as a pilot for a new decentralized-education policy called the Bundy Plan.

Under the Bundy Plan, autonomous boards would have final say over most areas of each local school, including its staff and its budget. Tensions between the mostly white, mostly Jewish United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the mostly black community came to a head when the local board asked central headquarters to reassign 19 teachers and administrators. Charges of racism and anti-Semitism were lobbed back and forth. The experiment, needless to say, failed.

UFT President Albert Shanker leads a 1968 rally at City Hall. (William E. Sauro/The New York Times)

(JHS 271 was located in Ocean Hill, part of Brownsville; I plan to write about this time in greater detail when that neighborhood gets pulled from the hat.)

What does Brownsville look like today? Crime is still high, but is greatly reduced from previous decades. It’s also almost entirely black, with a large Caribbean population. Here’s a striking statistic: the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) controls more than one-third of all of the neighborhood’s housing units. Despite — or perhaps because of — decades of turnover, upheaval, and government attempts to bring prosperity (or at least tolerable conditions), Brownsville’s undercurrent is little changed from a century ago.

Bound sources:

The early history of Brownsville by Alter F. Landesman (Reprinted from The Journal of Long Island History, vol. IV, number 1, 1964).

Confrontation at Ocean Hill-Brownsville; the New York school strikes of 1968, Maurice R. Berube and Marilyn Gittell, Ed. (Praeger, 1969).

A community study of Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York by Hy L. Dubowsky (self-published, 1976).

All neighborhoods change: a survey of Brownsville, Brooklyn, U.S.A. by Rae Glauber (self-published?, 1963).

Urban renewal in Brownsville; the management of urban renewal in Brownsville area 15, 1960-1973 by Housing and Development Administration Study Group (self-published, 1973).

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the changing face of the ghetto by Wendell Pritchett (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Lots of reading this week.

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4 Responses to Brownsville and the curse of geography

  1. Pingback: Black neighborhood that is not poverty(no racist) - Page 15 - City-Data Forum

  2. Harley N says:

    As I recall Brownsville in the mid 1950′s, it had a very vibrant retail scene on Pitkin Ave. Everything from street vendors selling knishes and pickles to nice clothing stores. And exotic foods like pizza by the through a window slice! Heady stuff for a 6 year old that spent too much time in the burbs.
    The Loews Pitkin was truly a movie palace with stars twinkling overhead. Unlike today, you were transported to a magical place as you entered the theater; great stuff for broke folks; not to mention dish night! (before my time).
    Howard Ave featured a grass median with traffic towers that seemed to be knocked over on Saturday nights by errant motorists.

    Thanks Keith for distilling so much information in a great format!

  3. Elaine says:

    I grew up in Brownsville during the 60′s and 70′s
    we lived in a 5 story tenement building at 167 Dumont Ave. (btwn Amboy and Herzel streets) that had been abandoned by the landlord. the junkies stole all the pipes out of the building so there was no water then the fire dept put a cap on the fire hydrant so we could not use it to get the water we needed all of us kids in the building would go around the corner making as many trips as needed to fill up our buckets and pots for bathing and cooking and washing dishes when we moved to public housing we felt like we had moved up

  4. Laura morisch says:

    I grew up in Brownsville in the 50 ‘ s and early 60′s on Tapscott St..it was a mostly Jewish neighborhood at the time. I remember playing in the street until nightfall. Lots of good memories. The neighborhood started to change for the worse..full of crime and neglect in the mid 60′s..it was time to move out.. Hardly recognizable today.

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