I was twelve years old when my mother told my brother and I we were leaving Ridgewood. It was 1984 and we were moving to Starrett City, just beyond East New York. Then as now Starrett is the largest federally-subsidized housing project in the country and stood at the very gutter’s-edge of Brooklyn, at the foot of a garbage dump. Clouds of pigeons and gulls flew above more trees, grass, community, and middle-class diversity than we could have fathomed. Our new home—a spot in one of the 46 towers—would overlook a series of footpaths, playgrounds, sandpits, benches and ball fields that softened the complex’s otherwise harsh geometry. Barred from the complex were tenants entirely dependent on welfare, and having been such ourselves, we knew what we were fleeing.
We toured the high-rise development before moving, Mom acting the part of real-estate broker. “Look at all the paths! You can ride your bikes for hours,” she said. “And you’ll make so many new friends.” She was right. We lived in the “H” building—Hornell—where we spent most of our days, sometimes pedaling to a final building, across six intimidating lanes of Pennsylvania Avenue where the Belt Parkway spit out its rapid-fire traffic. We had traded the fire hydrant for the pool club, unaware we were members of a fading plan, tokens of Starrett management’s intention to keep white people from fleeing black people.
Starrett City was conceived in the late ’60s as a high-rise project for the middle- and working-class—the brainchild of a consortium of labor unions eager to find affordable co-op housing for its members. During construction, the project had grown too expensive for co-ops, and Starrett Housing Corporation determined to rent the units, a plan that shocked and angered neighboring white communities such as Canarsie and Howard Beach, which were fearful of an influx of poor blacks.
But Management, too, was wary of such a trend and opened in 1974 with a policy to maintain a tenant ratio of 70 percent white and 30 percent black among its almost 6,000 rental units. Despite its complex goal of integration, the policy left countless blacks on a waiting list while units available only to white tenants stood empty. And because the majority of Starrett’s residents received some sort of federal assistance, management’s policy was challenged in court in the late ’70s and early ’80s, one case in 1998 reaching the Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court ruling that said the policy violated the Federal Fair Housing Act. Management abandoned the quotas, and Starrett began screening tenants on the basis of income, rather than race.
Black families eager for Starrett may have gained by the ruling, but the complex changed. There had been something—if naive and complicated—to the idea of forced integration. Today, most of Starrett’s residents are black, while most of the remaining ten percent are Russian-speaking immigrants and seniors. Fairness is fine, and a proper goal for government. But people tend to flock together, and Starrett tried to alter the impulse for self-segregation, a far more difficult task than ensuring race isn’t a factor in awarding federal grants.
Still, for every white family that fled, another family moved in. As neighboring East New York experienced a decades-long economic rebirth, Starrett helped anchor that change. The complex changed its name in 2002 to Spring Creek Towers, though most people, especially residents, stick with Starrett (or “Star-Right City,” depending on your preference). The bike paths are there, and the ball fields fill up on summer weekends. The pool club—now the Brooklyn Sports Club (1540 Van Siclen Avenue, 718-643-2720)—is still popular among residents of Starrett and the surrounding areas. The Fountain Avenue landfill closed long ago, capped, and is now a grassy hillside.
Starrett continues to offer a middle class lifestyle to the working class. It might not be an experiment in integration any longer, but the 20,000 people who live there aren’t concerned with social engineering so much as they want good schools, a safe place for kids to play, and a clean spot of the city to call their own. In that way, the place hasn’t changed a bit.
Goods news: Starrett’s multitudes hunt provisions in a clean, well-lighted place.
photo: Russ Heller
Transportation: Commuting to Manhattan will take over an hour. Bus: B83 through East New York to the Broadway Junction station; or B82 to the L terminus at Rockaway Parkway.
Average Price to Rent: Apartments in Spring Creek Towers include fair-market prices for one-, two-, and three-bedroom spots. Tenants eligible for federal housing subsidies pay a sliding-scale rate. Call 718.642.7000 for more information.
Shopping: Chains such as Blockbuster and Payless anchor the strip mall at the center of the Spring Creek Towers complex, but the big shopping news is the Gateway Center, opened in 2002: Less than a mile north, it is a sprawling, suburban-style shopping center featuring Old Navy, Target, Circuit City, and Olive Garden, among other chains. State Senator John Sampson says Starrett is still waiting for a direct transit route to take residents the half-mile across Brooklyn’s marshlands to shops that otherwise require an hour or so by bus.
Crime Stats: Crime has dropped in all seven major categories in the 75th precinct, which includes parts of East New York and Canarsie, where crime rates are higher. Taking that into account, there have been four murders in 2005, down from six during the same period last year; 13 reported rapes, down from 21 last year; robberies have dropped to 105 from 141 last year; 109 assaults, down from 152; 82 burglaries, down from 110; 124 grand larcenies, down from 157; and 99 car thefts, down from 116.
Politicians: City Councilman Charles Barron, State Senator John Sampson, Assemblywoman Diane Gordon, and Congressman Edolphus Towns, all Democrats.