Saving Brownsville, Brooklyn

Canadian author Doug Saunders suggests in his book “Arrival City” that poor immigrant neighborhoods can thrive when certain conditions, such as access to property and education, and a minimum of social infrastructure is provided. How can these lessons be applied to one of the poorest and neediest neighborhoods of New York City, Brownsville?

The past two hundred years or so, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the late 1700s, have seen the dramatic social and economic transformations that has turned a largely rural, agricultural population of peasants and farmers into city dwellers. In the U.S, in 1800, only 5.11 percent of the population lived in cities, compared to almost 80 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. During the same period of time, the population increased by a factor of almost 45, from six million to more than 280 million. This process of urbanization is still ongoing, especially in the developing world, and by the end of the 21st century, the vast majority of the world’s population will live in cities. New York City is very much part of this process, with more than one third of its population being foreign born, although we do not necessarily know if they are truly “rural” arrivals.

In his Book “Arrival City” Canadian-British author Doug Saunders proposes that successful urbanization hinges on particular places called arrival cities. According to Saunders, arrival cities are not purely the point of entry where the rural population lands, but they have important functions in the transformation of peasants and farmers into city dwellers, a process that takes a generation or two. How successful this transformation is depends on how well the arrival city functions, and Saunders provides some of the factors that make the arrival city work. Arrival cities provide a network of contacts and connections that help the new arrivals finding housing and jobs; often, these networks consist of people that come from the same regions or even villages as the newcomers. Also, the arrival city must be easily connected to the labor market and services of the core city, either by sheer proximity or cheap transit access. Other factors include some form of legal status, such as citizenship or work permits for arrivals from abroad which allows the newcomers to enter the (legal) job market, including opportunities for small businesses; and rudimentary services such as basic infrastructure, health care and banking. The two most critical factors, however, according to Saunders, are the ability to own property (which helps building equity that could be leveraged for investments in new businesses) and education, which allows the newcomers to enter the middle class. Says Saunders: “poverty is, fundamentally, not the dearth of money or lack of possessions or a shortage of talent and ambition, but the absence of capacities (i.o.)” (p. 280).

If one follows Saunders’s thought, there must be two kinds of poverty, then. The first kind is signified by lack of material wealth, but with the opportunity of change and social mobility; the second one is lack of material wealth without the opportunity of change. While both forms of poverty look the same on the surface and in the statistics – a low or very low income – the prospects of either one are vastly different. The first one carries the promise of social ascendancy and a better life in the future, while the latter one perpetuates poverty with all its negative side effects for generations to come.

When wandering the streets of New York, I often wonder why poor neighborhoods often look (and feel) dramatically different. Take Washington Heights or Astoria, and Brownsville, for example. While Brownsville clearly ranges at the very bottom when it comes to income in New York City – Brownsville residents’ income was 36% of the City’s median income, according to this nifty map –  Washington Heights and Astoria are by no means rich, with 40% of the city’s median income and 59%, respectively. Yet Astoria is bustling with the activity of small stores and restaurants, while the main shopping strip in Brownsville, Pitkin Avenue, feels sleepy even on the best of days, lined with empty store fronts, dollar stores and fast food joints. There is also a contrast in the amount of violent crime. For example, while in Brownsville, 26 people were murdered in 2011, only 8 were murdered in Washington Heights, according to NYPD’s CompStat, even though more than twice as many people live there  and though not too long ago, Washington Heights also had a serious violent crime problem . The neighborhoods described here also share the distinction of being arrival cities – although  immigration has taken place at different times. Many newcomers in Washington Heights and many other neighborhoods in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, are populated by recent arrivals. While Brownsville has also seen its share of quite recent immigration, a large proportion came in an earlier wave, as a result of the “Great Migration” that brought African Americans from the rural Southern States to the industrial centers of the north after World War II.

Shops without shoppers at Brownsville’s main retail strip, Pitkin Avenue

What, then is the difference between these two Arrival Cities/Neighborhoods?

The difference between thriving poor neighborhoods, like Washington Heights or Astoria, and stagnating ones, like Brownsville, is not a result of the wealth but of the capacity and the outlook of the residents. Brownsville, as an arrival city, has largely failed. Arrival cities, per Saunders’ definition, function mainly as conduits for social mobility, and while the people who live there are often poor, they don’t stay poor. Brownsville stayed poor. The reason for this was that the African-American immigrants here were faced with significantly higher obstacles than more recent immigrants – virtually no access to credit, and little opportunity to build equity as homeownership was (and is) limited, compounded by an educational system that has been failing for decades and chronic crime.

Despite the rumbling 7 train above, Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, is bustling with activity

From a planning perspective, the question beckons – what can be done to fix a place like Brownville? In his book, Saunders gives encouraging example of Slotervaart, an Amsterdam suburb. Until the early 2000s, Slotervaart faced similar, or even worse problems  than Brownsville. Immigrants living there, mostly from Arab countries, lived in poverty and isolated from mainstream Dutch society in low-density public housing projects leaving them virtually no avenue for integration and upwards social mobility. The neighborhood became a hotbed for Islamic radicalism. The murderer of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker (and, yes, a distant relative) who had made a film highly critical of Islam, a crime that shook the Netherlands, was a radicalized Dutch-born second-generation immigrant from Slotervaart. The crime created some significant backlash, giving rise to an anti-immigrant movement and calls for tough punishment and deportations. It did, however, also lead to significant changes in Slotervaart, empowering the residents of this arrival city. Residents established self-government, and, with the help of the municipal government, policing was increased and radical mosques shut down, complemented by heavy investments in education. Most dramatic, however, were the changes to the urban landscape. When built in the 1960s, Slotervaart was the Corbousian dream of low-density development with wide-open spaces and a strict separation of uses, limiting retail to a small shopping strip surrounded by public housing. After the van Gogh murder, zoning rules were relaxed and high-density infill took place:

“Gone were the quiet meandering lanes. Gone were the green spaces between buildings. In their place were noisy, shop filled market plazas, straight streets designed for vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and blocks of buildings, all in different plans and designs and heights, packed tightly together in a solid wall facing the street, with apartments on top and commercial spaces below, playgrounds and shopping courts behind”. (Saunders, Arrival City, 292)

Also, home-ownership opportunities were added to what formerly was rent-only public housing, allowing for people from other parts of town to move in and attracting the middle class.

What does the example of Slotervaart mean for the equally failed arrival city of Brownsville? First, that there is hope. Second, that there is no cheap or simple solution. To be successful, the issues of crime, education, governance, property structures and the physical form of the city need to be addressed comprehensively and simultaneously and it would be an illusion to believe that this could be done on the cheap.

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