Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto.
Beginning with the Jewish community, Wendell Pritchett documents both continuity and change in Brownsville's history over more than a century of time. Brownsville changed from an ethnically and to some extent racially diverse rural community before the 1880s into the largest Jewish community in the U.S. by 1930; from Jewish to a predominantly African American and Puerto Rican community by the 1960s; and from an industrial to an increasingly post-industrial environment during the late 20th century. Within the context of each major historical change, Pritchett documents certain enduring continuities from one era to the next. These continuities revolved around Brownsville's emergence and persistence as a predominantly poor and working class community through the closing years of the 20th century.
Pritchett does not make the point explicitly, but Brownsville, Brooklyn is organized around the complicated interplay of "structure" and "agency" in the lives of African Americans and Jews. While African Americans would face the most entrenched and implacable forms of racial and class discrimination, Jews and African Americans gained employment in low wage and largely nonunionized jobs in the industrial workforce (particularly the garment industry); occupied tenements and rental structures rather than single family homes; and lived in the most unhealthy part of the city's environment. Like African Americans, Jews also confronted barriers to their movement out of Brownsville into other areas, and were largely excluded from teaching positions in the public schools, until the onset of World War I and the 1920s. Moreover, Brownsville's Jewish community expressed increasing concern with juvenile delinquency (particularly youth gangs) and adult crime, including the activities of syndicates like the so-called "Murder, Inc" (p. 44). As African Americans and Puerto Ricans gained ascendancy during the post-World War II years, outside perceptions of the community as a socially and culturally "inferior" and isolated slum/ghetto intensified.
Spatial and social separation from the city was not an entirely demeaning feature of life for Brownsville's workers and their communities. During the era of Jewish ascendancy, a thriving commercial center and open air pushcart market, respectively, emerged on Pitkin and Belmont Avenues. At the same time, the community founded a variety of synagogues (many of them storefronts), women's societies, and civic, education, social welfare, labor, and political organizations: the Hebrew Ladies Day Nursery, the Hebrew Educational Society, and the Brownsville Labor Forum (later the United Hebrew Trades union), to name only a few. In a careful analysis of the ideological and philosophical foundations of Jewish organizations, Pritchett shows how Brownsville's Jewish community developed a radical socialist ideology and promoted interracial cooperation. Under the impact of the Great Depression and World War II, changes in the labor movement brought even greater emphasis on interracial cooperation among the community's black and white industrial workers. These activities gained focus in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (i.e., the Industrial Union Councils) and local branches of the Communist party, the Socialist party, the American Labor party, and later the Democratic party.
Despite the Jewish community's effort to combat class, ethnic, and racial in-equality, it failed to fully embrace its growing African American and Latino communities. As the black population gradually increased during the late 19th and early 20th century, African Americans endured racial as well as class barriers to their occupational, housing, and social mobility. Although large scale white mob violence did not greet the Great Migration of African Americans into Brownsville, both Jewish and non-Jewish whites alike "tolerated" rather than accepted blacks on an equal footing.
While a coterie of Jews forged cold war era civil rights alliances with black residents through organizations like the Brownsville CIO and the Brownsville Neighborhood Council, white activists viewed race as a problem of the Jim Crow South rather than the urban North. Thus, they largely ignored the mounting racial barriers confronting African Americans in the day-to-day life of Brownsville: police brutality and disproportionately poor social services, dilapidated housing, declining quality of public schools, and jobs at the cellar of the urban economy. Pritchett concludes that, "Brownsville's was not an integrated community, but rather two communities resolved to avoid conflict" (p. 83).
Following the lead of other postwar studies of black urban communities, Pritchett documents the role of federal, state, and local governments in creating a racially segregated community in Brownsville by the 1970s. Urban renewal not only took its toll on historically Jewish institutions, but displaced large numbers of New York's poor and working class African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Yet, white elites largely ignored the destructive impact of urban renewal on Brownsville in general and the black community in particular. At the same time, whereas Brownsville's elites had supported federally funded housing during World War II and its aftermath, they responded to the rising African American and Puerto Rican populations with concerted campaigns for private middle income houses to offset the spread of public housing.
Although African Americans did not build the broad range of institutions that characterized the experiences of their Jewish counterparts, they nonetheless developed a substantial infrastructure of churches, social service, and civil rights organizations. Where possible, they also forged bonds with white workers and strengthened their ties with the predominantly white labor movement. By the early 1960s, African Americans and Puerto Ricans made up a majority of the Jewish-led local 1199 of the Hospital Workers of America. In 1962, Local 1199 launched and won a successful strike against the low wages and poor working conditions at Beth-El Hospital. Buoyed by their victory in the Beth-El strike, African Americans formed the cross-class Brownsville Community Council (BCC) in 1964 and escalated their civil rights activism. The Brownsville Community Council fought for a role in the emerging federal War on Poverty programs, and became one of the earliest of the federally funded Community Action Programs. Along with its fight for jobs, education, and a variety of social services for the black community, the BCC also placed increasing emphasis on the development of cultural programs and community education. Such programs accented the theme of "black power" and helped to pave the way for the rise of the Black Power movement in Brownsville.
The Black Power phase of Brownsville's black freedom struggle gained its most intense expression in the struggle for community control of public education. In 1968, the BCC gave vital organizational support to the grassroots struggle for local control over Brownsville's public schools. This movement pitted local activists against the predominantly white and heavily Jewish United Federation of Teachers (UFT). The teachers union resisted the community control movement in Oceanhill-Brownsville by launching a series of three city wide strikes against the New York public school system, particularly its approval of an "experimental" grassroots "governing board" designed to shape school policy at the local level. White teacher resistance resulted in the destruction of the local control movement when the New York State Education Commissioner dissolved the "governing board" and placed the Oceanhill-Brownsville school district under state trusteeship.
In addition to paying close attention to inter-ethnic and interracial racial relations, Pritchett examines the dynamics of intra-ethnic and intra-racial relations. He documents the tensions that characterized relations between the older first generation of Jewish immigrants and their children; between elite garment manufacturers and landowners and their workers; and to some extent among synagogues comprised of Jews from diverse nationality backgrounds. Although less intense, similar conflicts characterized the social struggles of African Americans. While the Beth-El strike attracted broad cross-class support within the black community, the Urban League and the NAACP offered less enthusiastic support to the Oceanhill-Brownsville struggle for local control of schools. Moreover, when the BCC won better employment opportunities for African Americans, middle class and educated blacks received the lion's share of benefits. By the early 1970s, in addition to the "Trash Riots," i.e., the illegal burning of garbage in protest against inadequate garbage pickups, the outbreak of violence among Brownsville's poor and working class blacks underscored a rift in the African American cross-class alliance.
Despite the important contributions of this book, Pritchett does not claim a comprehensive community study of all facets of the neighborhood's history. He provides a fine profile of jobs occupied by Brownsville residents, but there is little analysis of workplace experiences and struggles beyond the Beth-El strike of 1962. Moreover, while this book is about both African American and Jewish victimization and agency, it treats the Jewish community in somewhat greater detail and with greater sensitivity than the African American community, which no doubt left fewer formal records for the historian to examine than its Jewish counterpart. Thus, Pritchett's book underscores the ongoing need for oral history methodology in research on African American urban history. Finally, Pritchett's study has broad ranging implications for a variety of historiographical and theoretical debates on the interplay of class, race, space, and social change, but these issues are embedded in the text and developed less explicitly than they might have been.
Nonetheless, Wendell Pritchett's book demonstrates the ongoing vitality of African American urban history as a field of scholarship. He adopts the neigh-borhood rather than the city as his primary unit of analysis; explores the experiences of Jews, African Americans, and to some extent Puerto Ricans within the same space; and moves the temporal focus forward into the emerging postindustrial era. As such, Brownsville, Brooklyn should facilitate fresh research on the African American experience at the neighborhood level.
Joe W. Trotter
Carnegie Mellon University
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|Author:||Trotter, Joe W.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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