Brownsville: Blessed with a Bad Location

The More Things Change the More they Stay the Same

While fancy coffee shops dot many city streets, neither chic restaurants nor glass-covered high rises have made their way into the far edges of Brooklyn. In a neighborhood where boarded windows remind residents of hard times, a little gentrification in Brownsville may not be that bad.

Gang life a reality for Brownsville residents.
Gang life a reality for Brownsville residents.

Lured by a proximity to Manhattan, access to the waterfront, proactive economic development policies and responsive leadership, higher income households have moved into former urban working class districts and most New York City neighborhoods have been unable to thwart the movement. Supporters claim gentrification brings needed services to communities and improves the safety of the neighborhood. However, with or without gentrification Brownsville and its 85,000 resident have historically not been an economic development priority for city agencies.

“We look for neighborhoods where zoning could foster a positive economic development that would provide new and affordable housing and job opportunities in an appropriate place,” said Jennifer Torres, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning via email in response to questions about Brownsville exclusion from the agency’s strategic plan.

However, the city’s most impoverished and crime-stricken neighborhoods should be considered for economic development projects. The proximity of communities like Brownsville to Manhattan should not deny them the benefits that arise when landowners, the gentry, spend their wealth in local real estate and businesses.

“I haven’t studied crime,” said Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. “But I think there is a link between real estate prices going up and crime going down.”

Wasserman, who researched migration patterns of New Yorkers within the city, noticed patterns where the city’s wealthy lived in the center of the city while the poor lived in the outskirts. Then the wealthy moved out and the poor moved in. But now, “the wealthier people want to come back,” said Wasserman.

“In the 80s, I didn’t think developers wanted to build in the Lower East Side,” she said. “Look at it now.”

However, not all of Brooklyn has been immune to gentrification. Gentrification first began downtown and near the rivers.

“I was in Red Hook 15 to 20 years ago and it lacked the vibrancy of the rest of the city,” said William S. Wilkins, the Empire Zones coordinator for the Local Development Corporation of East New York. Red Hook, the westernmost Brooklyn shore once thrived as a busy port, then suffered a loss of waterfront jobs and now has been rediscovered by retailers like IKEA, condo developers, and even cruise ship companies. “Now you can’t live there,” said Wilkins about how expensive the area has become.

Still, progress has sprouted in Brownsville. Royal King Homes, a realtor, has a few three-bedrooms three-family homes on sale for $709,000 dollars off Pitkin Avenue. The Loews Pitkin Theater, which has been closed since the 1970s, will reopen as mixed market and affordable housing coupled with retail space as early as next summer. Common Ground, a New York non-profit, wants to purchase the old Chase Bank and hopes to convert the space to a community center, credit union and café.

Critics contend that gentrification changes the unique characteristics of an area and displaces local residents. Even Wasserman of the Gotham Center pointed out that even though Brownsville might be one of the last places to experience gentrification, “unfortunately, [the city is] becoming more homogenous white and wealthy,” she said.

Homogeneity, race and class have played major roles in Brownsville history. In Dr. Wendell Pritchett’s book entitled “Brownsville, Brooklyn,” the historian and lawyer examined Brownsville growth from a farmland prone to flooding, to a ghetto for Jewish immigrants priced out of the wealthier Jewish Lower East Side — which peaked in population in 1925 to 108,097 — to a modern Black ghetto strewn with public housing but with little else in public or private support. The common thread has been the population’s status as a working class landless people last on the city government’s list of the priorities. Things only got done in Brownsville after the city felt the pressure from local organizations.

But City Council Member Charles Barron, whose district includes a small part of Brownsville, blames racism in the allocation of New York City budget and a lack vision by the local leaders of the community, “except for Councilwoman Mealy, she’s new.” Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, who has a majority of Brownsville in her district, however, declined to comment and Community Board 16 District Manager Viola Green did not return a request for an interview for this article.

“I always tell Mayor Bloomberg, ‘well when crime goes up you bring in more police, how come when unemployment is in the double figures you don’t bring in more jobs,’” said Councilman Barron. “Police containment cannot be the approach to stopping crime. It must be economic development.”

Crime in Brownsville has dropped, nonetheless the neighborhood remains one of the city’s most dangerous. For example, the first day of spring greeted Brownsville with the horrible 30 minute rape of a 19 year-old, the second one in two weeks to occur in the Van Dyke housing projects and the fifth in the previous 28 days. In the same time period, Brownsville chalked up four murders, a figured that doubled from the same time last year. In fact, the New York City Police Department and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sent more rookies into Brownsville to participate in Operation Impact, an effort by the department to fight crime in the city’s worst neighborhoods.

But opponents of gentrification don’t want to change the character of the neighborhood, a risk that could continue to condemn Brownsville to the black hole of city planning. “There’s a benefit that it does not look like the rest of the city,” said Wilkins of LDCENY. “It may be the ghetto, it may be impoverished but it looks like Brooklyn.”

This attitude may not help sixteen year-old Antoinette Nimmons, who lost one cousin to gun violence and has another paralyzed from a gunshot wound. Nimmons doesn’t like the crime in Brownsville. To cope she found an escape.

“I go into Manhattan for the clothes, the stores, the shopping,” said Nimmons a Brownsville-native, who likes the retailer H&M and goes to the 42nd Street Loews Movie Theater. “It even smells better. Like coffee.”

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