Sunday, August 28, 2016

Growing Up in the Shadow of Trump Housing; Coney Island Memories by Brian Purnell

 I grew up across the street from Trump Village in Brooklyn, and across the Belt from Beach Haven, the place Trump's father developed where Woody Guthrie lived and said it was racist as hell. Dollars to donuts, from their inception these places were designed to be racially segregated. In Coney Island they existed as a racial barrier zone between the private houses of Brighton Beach, Sheepshead and Gravesend and the NYCHA developments west of W8th Street, and further down Stillwell Avenue towards Bensonhurst. There were so few Black and Hispanic people living in these buildings that, because I was so much lighter skinned than my mother and older brother as a baby, people on the regular thought my mother was my nanny, and treated her as such -- asking if she would take on more children to watch, or more laundry to do, and she's like, I live here and these are my kids. She never made a big deal of it, but that stuff gets to you, no matter how unflappable the personality. Now, the only reason my parents got an apartment in these developments was because my dad got moved to the head of the list for being (A) a Vietnam Vet and (B) and NYCTA union worker; otherwise there's no way we would have lived there. Almost all the families had one parent who was a city worker. No one wore a tie and suite to work. In the 1980s, almost all the residents were older and Jewish; some were Holocoust survivors. For the most part, these people were very nice. One couple even adopted my brother and I as surrogate grandparents. But I never associated the word, "schwartza" with a benign description. It was always used in reference to the people who lived deeper in Coney Island. Then in the late-1908s, as the first generation of original residents started to pass on and move out, the people who replaced them were all immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, or former Soviet countries. A few - very few - Black and Puerto Rican families moved in at that time. Our next door neighbors to this day were Black and moved from Marlboro Houses when a space opened up in our building. And they spoke openly of how hard it is to move from public housing into one of these Mitchel-Lama complexes. The conventional wisdom, sometimes even spoken, was that "the Russians" (again, not all of the new residents were Russian) got in to stop the Blacks and Puerto Ricans from the projects from moving in.
So -- perhaps the racial composition of the buildings did not happen from "overly" racist practices, but racial discrimination definitely played a role in the buildings' history; and it shaped the culture and demography to this very day.


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