How East New York Became a Ghetto

By Mohl, Raymond A. | Urban History Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

How East New York Became a Ghetto


Mohl, Raymond A., Urban History Review


Thabit, Walter. How East New York Became a Ghetto. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 304, maps, notes, index.

Inner-city communities across the United States have experienced devastating decline over the past half-century. How did it happen that stable working-class communities turned into decimated, depopulated, dangerous, riotous, and burned-out ghettoes in the space of a single generation? Why has it been so difficult to turn these urban disaster zones around since the 1960s? Urban politicians, planners, and policy-makers have been working on inner-city solutions for decades, but why has so little been accomplished? Walter Thabit's book takes on these questions in a case study of the Brooklyn community of East New York. In 1966, the Lindsay administration engaged Thabit's planning firm to develop community-based programs for low-rent and moderate income housing in East New York. Over the next five years, as the anti-poverty and Model Cities programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society came and went, Thabit's work involved intensive community participation aimed at the development and implementation of a local housing policy. Consequently, his book combines aspects of urban policy, recent urban history, and memoir.

Originally settled by Dutch colonial farmers around 1690, East New York by the late nineteenth century had become home to prosperous German immigrants. In the early twentieth century, Jews, Italians, Poles, and Lithuanians spilled out of Manhattan's immigrant ghettos into East New York, attracted by the area's new tenement and two-family and four-family housing, as well as by its numerous factory jobs. By World War Two, East New York had become a stable, relatively prosperous, working-class community, anchored by schools, synagogues, Catholic churches, and a thriving retail sector. The postwar era, however, brought rapid change to East New York on many fronts, change that within the space of a decade produced a devastated, burned-out, depopulated ghetto of African American and Puerto Rican newcomers. One of the strengths of Thabit's book is his analysis of the powerful forces at work that produced the East New York ghetto.

East New York's rapid decline stemmed primarily from the combined effects of postwar prosperity, new migration patterns, ruthless real estate practices, and failed government policies. The postwar suburban boom pulled whites, especially younger families, to better housing in Canarsie, Queens, and Long Island. Population pressure in the nearby black ghettoes of Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant, partially produced by the widespread housing demolition that accompanied urban renewal, first brought blacks to East New York in a desperate search for affordable housing. Agricultural mechanization in the American South and in Puerto Rico drove hundreds of thousands of both minorities to New York City, many finding their way to East New York. The area's population turned over quickly in the early 1960s: 85 percent white in 1960, the community was 80 percent black and Puerto Rican by 1966.

The local real estate industry hastened the racial transition in a variety of ways. Landlords converted older houses into multiple dwellings, intensifying overcrowding. As minorities moved into apartments and tenements, landlords raised rents and cut back on maintenance, contributing to ghettoization. Many landlords abandoned their buildings altogether. Blockbusting by real estate agents and redlining by banks and mortgage companies stimulated neighborhood turnover and decline. As Thabit writes: during the early 1960s, some 200 real estate firms "worked overtime to turn East New York from white to black" (p. 1). At the same time, massive urban renewal destroyed housing and disrupted community stability. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) policies generally supported segregated housing into the 1960s, thus strengthening the racial divide that ghettoized East New York. …

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