The Tragical History of New York

One hot day in the summer of 1991 I lost my way in the middle of Brooklyn. Driving aimlessly along rutted Broadway under the elevated tracks, I soon saw that I was heading for Bushwick, where I had not been for thirty years or more. But as I passed a stretch of burned-out stores and shattered side streets where only a few rotted and abandoned houses stood, nothing was familiar to me. I remembered Bushwick as a self-satisfied Brooklyn neighborhood, warm but not welcoming, a small city in its own right, with three-story wooden houses along treelined streets, churches, ice cream parlors, children on bicycles. Bushwick, when I had known it, had its own minor league baseball team and had made its money mostly from breweries. I remembered the sharp smell of hops and yeast on clear mornings. Now it was a slum.

The sight of a devastated New York City neighborhood was nothing new, but Bushwick, which lay in ruins along either side of Broadway, was different from other New York City slums, most of which had shallow roots. The Bushwick that I had known began as a Dutch village some three hundred years ago, and prospered well into the twentieth century as a largely German and Italian working-class neighborhood, the site not only of breweries but of knitting factories and other small manufacturing plants, whose owners and employees had once lived in mansions along Bushwick Avenue and in the frame houses along the now desolate side streets.

Bushwick’s taxpayers had, in their day, contributed as much to New York’s prosperity and stability as the millionaires on Park Avenue, maybe more, for Bushwick was not one of those barracks neighborhoods like Brownsville, thrown together along newly built subway lines by speculators before the First World War to house immigrant factory workers, neighborhoods that were never more than temporary roosts on the road to something better or worse. Bushwick had a rooted culture and an economy of its own well before the Civil War, when Park Avenue was still undreamed of. Now, after some three centuries of more or less steady growth, it was, as I could see, no longer a source of wealth, but a festering claim against the city’s already overburdened taxpayers and hell for those who had to live there.

When I first visited Bushwick in the late 1940s, returning veterans with their GI loans and FHA mortgages were already leaving for the suburbs, and a few ambitious black families from Bedford-Stuyvesant and other ghettos had begun to move in. Playing on the fear of white homeowners that these blacks were only the first of many and that their property would lose its value as Bushwick itself became a black ghetto, real estate speculators, hoping to turn fear into panic, moved the most “boisterous, undesirable people” they could find into houses vacated by the departing whites. Then they distributed circulars saying, “Houses wanted. Cash waiting. Don’t wait until it’s too late …

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Letters

How New York Fell’: An Exchange June 11, 1992