"Taxation without Sanitation Is Tyranny": Civil Rights Struggles over Garbage Collection in Brooklyn, New York during the Fall of 1962

By Purnell, Brian | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2007 | Go to article overview

"Taxation without Sanitation Is Tyranny": Civil Rights Struggles over Garbage Collection in Brooklyn, New York during the Fall of 1962


Purnell, Brian, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


During the early 1960s, many residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant saw the neighborhood's filthy streets as a sign of their community's low status in New York City. The trash that accumulated on sidewalks and in streets crowded public space with its bulk and its stench. Children had to play around hulky abandoned cars. Pedestrians on their way home from work dodged rats and vermin that darted from the asphalt to alleyways where bags of uncollected household garbage sat festering, sometimes for days at a time. Over the years, residents periodically complained to elected officials and appointees to the city's Sanitation Department, but the problem only worsened. Bedford-Stuyvesant inhabitants even organized periodic neighborhood clean-ups through local block associations. (2) Their efforts brought temporary relief to certain areas, but failed to remedy completely the overall problem. At its root, the abundance of garbage was linked to the scarcity of resources in this overcrowded residential area. Bedford-Stuyvesant required increased garbage collection and the city was failing to provide it. That this was a neighborhood with one of the fasting growing Black populations in the entire city added a racial insult to an already odoriferous injury.

As historians Harold Connolly, Clarence Taylor, Craig Wilder and others have meticulously shown, Bedford-Stuyvesant was a community shaped by two different histories: the hope and optimism of its working class families, of which Blacks were at one point one group among many; and the racial ideologies and policies that slowly made the community an overcrowded, economically stagnant and racially segregated black neighborhood. Over the course of the nineteenth century, transportation developments in the form of rail lines and trolley cars that crisscrossed Brooklyn's north-central thoroughfares transformed the area from a sleepy farmland hamlet to a bedroom community for working- and middle-class families. Irish, German, Scottish, Dutch, and a sizable community of people of African descent, who labored in King County's downtown business and commercial districts that centered on the waterfront, made their home in the towns of Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights. During the antebellum period, black people established two independent communities in Bedford--Carrville, founded in 1832, and Weeksville founded in 1838. Bedford's population continued to soar after the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883, and the nation's first elevated railroad stations stretched across Brooklyn in 1885. By 1920, Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights combined and became known as Bedford-Stuyvesant and throughout the 1940s the neighborhood was racially integrated (49 percent white and 51 percent black) and one of the few communities in New York City where African Americans and West Indians could purchase their own homes. (3)

All of that changed during 1950s and 60s. Economic and political policies that went into affect during the New Deal played on racial fears and prejudices and caused middle and working class whites to abandon the community. Discriminatory policies that "redlined" the neighborhood, which were sanctioned by banks and real estate agencies under the banner of New Deal home owners' development programs in the 1930s, made it impossible for Bedford-Stuyvesant residents to finance home improvement projects. Realtors practiced "blockbusting" tactics, which reaped for them handsome profits but also contributed to the deterioration of the neighborhood's housing. Real estate agents played on racial fears and plummeting real estate prices to convince white homeowners to sell their property. The area's brownstone and limestone houses, became carved-up into three, sometimes four apartments. On top of that, bigots refused to rent apartments or sell homes to black families in other parts of Brooklyn, which would have relieved overcrowding in the neighborhood and placed less strain on its housing stock.

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