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.