Returning from my brief respite in the country, I am already pressed on every nerve end by being able to do no better than to double park behind a moving van which had picked the exact moment of my return to unload seven rooms of furniture into our usual mob scene of a West Side apartment house. I squeeze myself like a safecracker along the cars at the curb to unload my own car. And suddenly hear an insanely magnified voice screaming through a bullhorn, “Brownsville slumlord!”
Since I saw many evictions from the Brownsville tenement in which I spent my first twenty years, I feel much confused by the manic reversal on West End Avenue as I watch half a dozen young black women with placards denouncing the cheerful songwriter in the penthouse, whose father left him some property in that once prime (and most promising) American shtetl, Brunzvil. A young Jew with a bullhorn, who looks exactly like the pictures of Trotsky in 1905, is leading his chorus in a rhythmic chant. “Ostrofsky is a slumlord! We refuse to pay any more rent to Ostrofsky the slumlord! Brownsville demands decent living conditions! We protest!”
The Puerto Rican elevator men look on without malice and without comprehension. The passersby manage with that inimitable New York look of angry self-occupation to walk past the demonstration as if the blacks from Brownsville were shouting from a distant planet. All goes on as usual—the psychiatrists and museum curators in our building fight each other for taxis, transvestites wearing pink hair-rollers and needing a shave defiantly make eyes at glum, unseeing laundry drivers, the kook twins hold up crudely lettered pieces of shirt cardboard that denounce the nameless conspirators who have seized our government and are poisoning all the breakfast cereal. And I, staggering under my “portable” electric typewriter, cartons of books and papers, suitcases, and the certain knowledge that I will soon get a ticket and have probably left the key in the ignition, recognize that I am being welcomed back in style as the moving men, transporting their loads past me, hoarsely announce that I am in their way.
The songwriter in the penthouse, who is an amateur scholar of ancient American theology and has done an up-to-the-minute anthology called Jonathan Edwards On Hellfire, is aware that I was brought up in what is now the most undesirable of all living spaces since the Black Hole of Calcutta. In my time Brownsville was remote. As Mailer once wrote, Brooklyn is not the center of anything. But it was a great human community, and to tell the truth, there were people there, the purest of the old Jewish socialists and anarchists, whom almost forty years later I often talk to in my dreams as if everything that has happened since I left them need not have happened.
When Lindsay took some touring mayors down to see Brownsville last year, Kevin White of Boston called Brownsville “the first tangible sign of the collapse of our civilization.” My neighbor in the penthouse (the upstairsike, as my mother would have called him) has sharpened his keen sense of humor on Calvinist theology. He likes, on our occasional encounters in the elevator, to entertain me in deadpan fashion with new chapters in the rollicking saga of what it is like to be bequeathed a tenement in Brownsville. Since I, like my parents, have never managed to own any property, I smile in lieu of knowledge as he explains how he can never collect his rents without paying at the local precinct house for a guard. There are a lot of fires. Though the city constantly promises to buy up the property, more salable houses than his, caught between the rejection of Brownsville by the banks and by its own inhabitants, have been abandoned.
WOMAN SAYS SHE SET 2,000 FIRES
Suspect In Brooklyn Tells Marshals of 12-Year Total
A 23-year old Brooklyn woman arrested early Monday after she was seen running from a vacant Brownsville building that was on fire has allegedly admitted setting two to four fires every week for the last 12 years, or a total of more than 2,000 fires.
The woman, Priscilla Haynes of 419 Blake Avenue, in the Brownsville section, assertedly told fire marshals that she “liked to see the flames,” and got a thrill from watching fire equipment rolling up to a burning building.
The woman allegedly said that she would wander about the Brownsville section in the vicinity of her home looking for vacant buildings. Then, she was reported to have said, after selecting empty dwellings or tenements, she would return to them at night, start a fire, then watch from nearby as the firemen fought the blaze.
During acute depression and periods of romantic difficulty, Miss Haynes was quoted as having told the marshals, she would set eight or nine fires a day to relieve her despondency.
“She said that fires were the third biggest thing in her life,” Marshal O’Connor said. “First she said there was her mother, then her brother, then fires.”
—The New York Times,
August 2, 1972
Of course I wanted to say to the young Trotsky on West End Avenue: why don’t you and your clients use some of this energy cleaning the fucking place up? But I was too busy getting my belongings into the elevator and keeping an eye on my car. Anyway, Lev Davidovitch soon stopped, puzzled by the total indifference around him. After a few half-hearted threats to pursue Ostrofsky night and day until he made some major changes in their lives, the little band crept off. I couldn’t stand them and I couldn’t stand myself. No one except me knew what they were talking about.
I went down to Brownsville last year with the idea of doing the inevitable piece on a native’s return, or The Depression Revisited, but soon lost heart. The place looks worse than the East End of London did after the Blitz. Apparently the roofs are regularly set on fire, for the tops of the old tenements, built of New York’s usual cheap apartment house brown brick, are charred, blackened, firestreaked. When I walked down Sutter Avenue again for the first time in twenty years, I was stupefied by the look of rusted blood down so many windows, the heaps of garbage ostentatiously heaped in a continuing line down the middle of the avenue, the long line of empty boarded-up storefronts, and the dead angry silence in front of the stoops on the street where I spent so much of my boyhood playing catchball off the steps—on a street still named Herzl.
I see from Murray Kempton’s book-in-progress on the Black Panthers that the place overcame even Richard Moore, a militant Black Panther leader in from Oakland to rally the oppressed masses. “I have never seen people live like this.” On one occasion a dog crept in front of Moore’s slowly moving car and simply refused to move.
Brownsville is not the sort of place to inspire understatement, but its devastation is so complete that it is possible to view it, in fact, as the collapse of a former civilization. One walks through the rubble and refuse with the uneasy curiosity of a tourist at the Baths of Caracalla or in the Catacombs. The broken walls and gutted rooms breathe a dank, remote sadness, as of something very long dead. Nothing stirs, and no matter how long you stare, no secrets are yielded up.
By estimate there are about 100,000 not-at-all-ghostly men, women and children clinging to the wreckage of Brownsville, awaiting its promised salvage. Most of them are black or Puerto Rican and probably few of them are there by choice. They are largely the beneficiaries of thoughtful city agencies that gather up the rejects of other neighborhoods and house them wherever there is insufficient citizen organization to reject them again.
The poor blacks who had lived on the fringes of Brownsville—on Thatford and Sackman and Van Sinderen—moved into the first of the massive low-income projects at Stone and Livonia. But the bleak, cheerless projects were no better than vertical slums, one of the shameful failures of city planning.
As vacancies began turning up, urban renewal projects elsewhere in the city made Brownsville a convenient dumping ground for evicted tenement dwellers and welfare clients. With mindless efficiency, the city’s relocation agency shipped increasing numbers of Blacks and Puerto Ricans to Brownsville over the next decade, creating a vast, ruinous dependency in the four square miles of the district. Landlords took what they could from the new class of rent-payers, then began abandoning their 30- and 40-year-old buildings by the hundreds. Derelicts and junkies pitched camp in the emptied properties.
“Brownsville: All Fall Down”
Newsday, June 14, 1971
* * *
D., my old student at Amherst and now a detective in the New York Police Department, went down with me “to see the place I’ve heard so much about.” The only cheerful note of the afternoon was when I remembered to call back a government psychiatrist in Washington who had been pressing me to join his conference on suicide prevention because “I so much admired your writings on Herman Melville.” I was in a telephone box on Rockaway and Sutter to make this call, and noticed that D. was uneasily patrolling the space around me. He encouraged me considerably when, after two hours of despondent walking about past blocks of boarded-up storefronts, hills of garbage, addicts jerkily dancing in the gutter, he admitted that he had been expecting us to be jumped at any minute but that he had neglected to bring his gun.
D. is all on fire these days recruiting Ivy League graduates into the New York Police Department, and of course has a foundation grant. He is so full of his cop experiences, so eager to tell his old teacher what is really going on in New York, that I have come to think of him as the only informed sociologist I know. After all, all the other sociologists of my acquaintance were radical and are still ideologues. What is interesting to me about D. is that he relates all his material with passion, but there is absolutely no point to be drawn from his unbelievably charged chronicles of life in Fun City. Only recently he caught me coming down the steps of the courthouse when I was on jury duty, swept me off to lunch at an Italian restaurant back of Police Headquarters that seemed to serve up centuries of secrets with the fettucine, and told me so many tales of violence and corruption that I seemed to see humanity red-faced and straining on the toilet—and still eating.
D. is so worked-up, idealistic, defensive, overstimulated by his insatiable job, so electrically in contact with the constant humming of violence in New York, that his tales contradict his ingenuous belief that the Police Department can be an instrument of social reform—if only all the cops are nice Ivy League graduates like him, taking a PhD in urban problems.