Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Battle For Bed-Stuy

battle

Battle For Bed-Stuy –
The Long War on Poverty in New York City
By Michael Woodsworth
Harvard University Press – £27.95

We must maintain our commitment to act, to dare, to try again. The plight of the cities, the physical decay and human despair that pervades them, is the great internal problem of the American nation, the challenge which must be met.

                                                                                            Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

What I particularly like about this book is it’s considered, yet ultimately down-to-earth approach on a grossly unnecessary subject matter, many might consider heartbreaking and inflammatory at best.

Indeed, as the United States self-implodes beneath a seemingly unstoppable torrent of racism, division, myopic stupidity and hatred, it could well be argued from afar, that much of the populace cannot, or will not, appreciate just how much is at stake in next week’s Presidential Election.

As the ultimate wretch, Donald Trump – who Robert de Niro has described as a ”punk” and Richard Branson as ”vindictive in the extreme” – continues to placate a menagerie of yahoos with his vile and spurious rhetoric of fundamentalist bollocks; it becomes increasingly hard to remember (let alone act upon) that of the opening sentiment quoted above. Although Battle For Bed-Stuy – The Long War on Poverty in New York City is a most worthy testament to that of the Kennedy era.

Moreover, that brothers John and Robert were both conveniently murdered by way of a lunatic with a firearm, acts as something of a current-day template for what’s happening amid so many of America’s inner-cities. Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighbourhood upon which this fine book is essentially based, being a prime example.

An area which houses 400,000 predominantly black, poor residents, it is often derided as America’s largest ghetto; which, for all intents and investigative purposes, these eight chapters do much to bring to our attention. As already mentioned, Michael Woodsworth (who teaches history at Bard High School Early College in Queens) has approached this book with a most approachable and open manner.

From the very outset, he intersperses the socio-political with humanistic values: ”Elsie Richardson stood shivering on a windy street corner in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district, one of the poorest places in New York City. A gray midwinter sky hung low above her head; beneath her feet, a thin layer of wet snow concealed crumbling sidewalks. Richardson was a mother of three who spent her days working as a school secretary and packed her nights and weekends with community organizing and committee meetings. The next few hours would define her career as an activist – but the main thing on her mind was the cold […] When Elsie was ten and her family was living in East Harlem, her father lost his job working in a tie factory; days later, the family saw everything they owned disappear in a tenement fire that killed five people. It was 1932 – the depths of the Great Depression. They’d seen the fire coming, suspecting the landlord might burn the building down to collect an insurance payout. Elsie’s father had even placed a ladder by the back window of their third-floor apartment, just in case. The ladder saved Elsie and her three siblings. But they reached safety too late for their father to scramble up and salvage his last paycheck, which sat neatly folded in the pocket of his work pants, waiting to be cashed. Elsie desperately held onto is legs, afraid he would try to clamber back into the blaze. Then the air filled with the screams of children – Elsie’s neighbours – burning to death. For the rest of her days, that indelible memory would inspire Richardson’s activism.”

Such reading, only highlights both the shame and the travesty with which so much of American society, or Western society in general, still operates and unfortunately conducts itself. Whether it’s the Great Depression or the scandalous banking crisis of 2009, the fact that scumbag landlords are still burning down buildings (quite often with tenants inside) to pocket an insurance payout, or simple, endemic racism. The latter of which has also been on the increase in the United Kingdom thanks to Brexit.

Gritty and earthy, factual yet never dull, Battle For Bed-Stuy makes for powerful and at times, poignant reading; although I can’t imagine it’ll be on Trump’s bedside table.

David Marx

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The New York Nobody Knows

NYNY

The New York Nobody Knows –
Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
By William B. Helmreich
Princeton University Press – £19.95

In 2009, Running Press published New York 400, a visual history of America’s, if not the world’s, greatest city – to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival along the river that continues to bear his name. It’s a fascinating book that alluringly invites one to investigate the Big Apple from that of a visual perspective.

This book on the other hand, delves unto a far grittier and deeper premise, by literally investigating the city, borough by borough, street by street. And I have to say, having lived in New York for a number of years, I know first hand that walking a mere three streets in any direction, is a lot more acute, radical, potentially leery and conspicuous, than walking three streets in any direction in say London, Berlin or Paris (where I have also spent a significant amount of time). The prime reason being, three blocks away in New York, can account for an entirely different world, which, I suspect, constitutes for author William B. Helmreich having undertaken such a mammoth task to begin with.

Mammoth being the operative word here, for New York is as dense and diverse a city, as it is chaotic, exotic and simply brilliant, and this is resolutely pronounced in The New York Nobody Knows – Walking 6,000 Miles in the City’s Introduction: ”There are too many ways to analyse the city of New York. One approach is to use its geographical division into boroughs and neighbourhoods and carefully examine each of them. Another approach is to think of the city in terms of categories – Asians, whites, New Yorkers, Brooklynites, organizations, small stores, sports, seniors, children. The city can also be evaluated in terms of issues – immigration, gentrification, crime, and education. Yet another method is to look at New York City as a patchwork of physical spaces. These include streets, buildings, walls, statues, playgrounds, and memorials. All of these lines of inquiry are employed in this book, because each one helps us to better comprehend this complex metropolis.”

Halfway through this book, one does inadvertently find oneself coming to terms with and comprehending New York City in such a way that might not otherwise be possible via other publications. For how else might one find oneself in such a similarly, quixotic and dare I say it, prized persuasion?

As Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan is quoted as saying: ”Helmreich has walked everywhere and read everything pertinent on New York, and has many astute observations about both the essential spirit of the Big Apple and its rapid changes.”

Along with topographical and infrastructure changes, it’s New York’s inexorable social changes that ultimately account for it’s magnetic allure and accountability; segments of which are touched on in chapter two (‘Selling Hot Dogs, Planting Flowers, and Living the Dream – The Newcomers‘): ”[…] groups are aware of their past differences but may wish to seize a fortuitous opportunity to try to repair them. And in that sense the city becomes a hothouse laboratory for conflict resolution, demonstrating that in another context warring groups can live together in harmony. It’s a view that reinforces the most optimistic hopes of the immigrants – namely, that they can leave their age-old conflicts behind them and start over again. Whatever the individual motivations, by the time second-generation immigrants have reached adulthood, they have been here for most of their lives, and cannot relate to conflicts with which they have no real familiarity. At the same time, if group members are taught prejudice, it may take hold.”

Such clear-cut analysis, surely warrants another book in its own right?

Returning to the book in hand however, my one and only gripe is that I wish the collection of twenty-nine, black and white photographs appeared in the book as they were written about, rather than merely being placed together in its centre. As by the time one stumbles upon them, it’s all to easy to forget what they’re in reference to.

But other than that, The New York Nobody Knows really does (socially) traverse the New York nobody knows; while in so doing, invariably opening a menagerie of colourful doors I suspect most people didn’t even know existed. Myself wholeheartedly included.

David Marx