Apartheid, American-Style?


Euphemisms, Orwell argued, are not only inaccurate but often intentionally misleading, so it’s right to start off with a description of East New York as a ghetto. Language choice is of paramount importance, especially when exploring the tangle of politics, race, greed, and poverty that went into the erosion of the southeast Brooklyn area. It’s not the “inner city”—especially considering the neighborhood’s location on the city’s fringe—nor is it an “urban desert,” but a true ghetto in the Warsaw sense: a location designed to house (barely), contain (effectively), and thin out (ultimately) entire groups of people deemed unwanted or parasitic by the powers that be. It’s necessary to remember the genocidal etymology of the word.

Walter Thabit, a longtime city planner who had a ringside seat to the engineered decimation of East New York (for it was nothing less) that began in the late ’60s and who had a role in early attempts to stem the decay, chooses words and villains carefully in his analytical How East New York Became a Ghetto. “Ghettos are created by the apartheid policies of white society,” he writes in the introduction. By exploring the predatory forces that controlled the ethnic shift in East New York from a formerly poor, majority Italian and Jewish neighborhood to a blighted hellhole open only to blacks and Puerto Ricans (and only then as a last resort), he shows that however corrosive the phenomenon of white flight may be, it didn’t occur in a vacuum.

Area banks, with their racist and usurious lending practices, get a fair share of the blame from Thabit. So do real estate interests, with their unscrupulous greed that fed off the knowledge that white residents, properly motivated by blockbusting tactics (“a horde of brokers and speculators flooded ‘ripe’ blocks with scare literature, hinting that ‘the time to sell is now’ “), will flee an area once it reaches a supposed “tipping point” (“another racial gambit masquerading as social reality”) that triggers widespread white flight. The blockbusters were after the quick cash that resulted from the desperation of those black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers who were willing to pay more to live in East New York just because it was, at the time, one of the few areas of the city open to them. Add to that the decline in basic city services (like proper schooling and health care), the impact of crime and drugs, and the misery resulting from the sense that there was little anyone could do to effect meaningful change, and the result was a process that for decades resisted all attempts to reverse it.

Thabit, whose planning firm was contracted by then mayor John Lindsay to help design a revitalization plan for East New York after rioting broke out in 1966, is in a uniquely informed position to detail the myriad causes that contributed to the destruction of the neighborhood and the continued neglect of the following decades.

And though he may not place enough of an emphasis on personal responsibility, preferring instead to focus blame on social forces for the existence of the criminals and pushers who contributed to the neighborhood’s despair, he does a fine job of putting into context all of the other challenges that faced the area’s new black and Puerto Rican residents—problems their white predecessors did not face and, by leaving and taking much of the local economic engine with them, helped to cause.

The book is most damning when chronicling the various schemes used not only by banks and real estate interests, but also by community organizations and local activist groups, who all fed from the corruption trough made possible by unresponsive federal programs such as Model Cities and the Federal Housing Act. Publicly funded housing projects progressed in fits and starts, were beset by corrupt contractors and managers, and were often shoddily completed.

The unchecked rot of East New York gets obsessively detailed until the early ’70s, when Thabit’s role in the redevelopment efforts ended. Thabit later revisits the neighborhood and finds not the decaying blocks he remembers, but an area in the process of rebirth. While he’s careful not to overstate the case, he does marvel at the ways in which East New York is improving. Chief among them is the flurry of new and rehabilitated housing he finds on one of his late-’90s drive-by “windshield surveys.” With public-private partnership programs like the Nehemiah Houses and the locally organized rehab efforts of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the area’s housing situation has begun its long-needed turnaround.

With a little help from the robust economy of the ’90s and an influx of child care, health care, and commercial services (like the new Gateway Center shopping area located in nearby Spring Creek), East New York is pulling itself out of hell and back toward vitality. There remains much to be done (schooling is still subpar, housing is still too expensive, and aggressive policing has taken its toll), but Thabit reminds us that in an area that for so long found no reason to hope, there are, almost all of a sudden, signs of progress everywhere he looks. It’s enough to justify his guardedly optimistic epilogue, which would not have been plausible had he told this story just 10 years ago.

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