Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Tale of Two Boroughs: Class and Race Segregationi in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx

A Tale of Two Boroughs- A Look at How New Housing Construction in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx Intensifies Class and Race Segregation in New York City Segregation

Dr Mark NaisonFordham University

Last week, I had a chance to do an oral history interview with a lifelong resident of the Bronx named Robert Peterson.. Mr Peterson, now 83 years old, spent most of his childhood and youth in a cold water flat on Elon Avenue and 160th Street, in neighborhood that contained a cross section of Irish, Italian, and German residents until Puerto Rican and Black families began moving in during the 1960’s. Unlike most of his white neighbors, Mr Peterson remained in the South Bronx when that neighborhood was underwent physical deterioration and ethnic succession, and purchased an apartment in Concourse Village in 1965, where he has lived to this day.. Mr Peterson, handsome and physically fit, still attends mass at St Peter’s and St Paul’s RC Church, the parish he grew up in and like his mostly African American neighbors shopping, watching movies and eating in the Concourse Plaza shopping center adjacent to his building

After our interview was completed, Mr Peterson took me and his niece Kathy Palmer, who helped me conduct the interview on a walking tour of his old neighborhood, a journey which took us past several key landmarks from Mr Peterson’s youth, including St Peter and St Paul’s Elementary School, the Bronx Union YMCA (now a drug treatment center for youthful offenders), and a German language theater which now holds doctors offices. Mr Peterson could not get over how many new town houses and apartment houses were being constructed on blocks where houses had been abandoned and burned during the 70’s and remained vacant and dangerous through the 90’s. I was equally impressed. On 159th Street and 160th Street, we passed rows of new townhouses with beautifully kept flower gardens in front and saw large apartment buildings being erected near the old Bronx courthouses on 161 St near Third Avenue. Despite the recession construction crews were at work all over the community, and it seemed that every vacant lot in the neighborhood was being turned into a construction site or was slated to be one.

While these signs of economic vitality were deeply gratifying, one thing did disturb me. With the exception of me, Kathy and Mr. Peterson, and a few of the construction workers, I did not see a single white person in the neighborhood. The shoppers, the children and teens playing in the schoolyards, the kids in summer day camp uniforms, the senior citizens sitting outside in folding chairs, the people watering flowers in front of their town houses were all Black and Latino.. What you had was a spanking new, working class and middle class neighborhood, where every single new resident was a person of color, and virtually none had the affect and appearance of the city’s wealthy professional class or even its. counterrcultural, artistic intelligentsia.

Now flash back to the van tour I took two weeks ago, with a former student and her boyfriend, of the wave of new housing construction in North Brooklyn neighborhoods. There in our drives through Park Slope Flatbush Extension, Fort Greene Clinton Hill, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, we passed at least eight condominium complexes and luxury towers that had been built in the last five years. Some of these buildings were completely or partially vacant, but those that were occupied seemed to be populated almost entirely by wealthy young white people, with a smattering of Asians, blacks and latinos of comparable incomes.

Think about the contrast. In one neighborhood, all of the new construction is luxury housing, with rents set by what the market will bear. In the other, the new housing is wholly or partially funded by tax credits and government. subsidies, with rents and housing prices set at rates that upper working class and lower middle class families can afford

.What is the result? Class segregation! In North Brooklyn, the new housing being constructed not only creates housing opportunities exclusively for economic elites, it forces up rents in the existing stock of private rental housing, forcing working class and middle class families out. In Park Slope, Williamsburg and Greenpoint and increasingly in Fort Green and Clinton Hill, a family forced to move because of rising rents simply cannot find anything affordable in their neighborhood . No matter how long they have lived in the community, they will have to find housing in another part of the city, almost inevitably in a neighborhood where there is little economic or racial diversity.

This is where the Bronx comes in. During the last ten years, the existing stock of housing in the Southern part of the borough has grown enormously. Mott Haven, Melrose. Morrisania, Hunts Point and Trememont, even Highbridge and Morris Heights, have been ablaze with new construction, much of it sponsored by local churches and community groups. But this new housing has done nothing to relieve the Bronx’s shameful recent history of hyper segregation. All, and I mean ALL of this housing has been purchased or rented by Black and Latino families, many of them recent immigrants, but virtually all of them people who have been priced out of “hot” neighborhoods like Harlem, the Lower East Side, Park Slope and Williamsburg, were rents have been driven up by a deluge of wealthy new residents

This is the paradox of Michael Bloomberg’s New York. During his six years as Mayor, there has been a residential building boom throughout the city. Incredible numbers of residential structure have gone up in many different parts of the city, including some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But with rare exceptions, affordable housing construction has been concentrated in already segregated neighborhoods while the city’s few racially mixed neighborhoods have been deluged with luxury housing.The result-the entire Bronx ( with the exception of Riverdale), most of Southern Queens, and huge sections of Central and South East Brooklyn have become places where no white people live at all, while Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Fort Green, the Lower East Side, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side are rapidly losing most of their working class black and latino residents.

Is this the kind of city we want to live in? Is the destruction of the city’s few mixed neighborhoods something we want our housing policies to encourage?

If we want to preserve and expand neighborhoods where people of different backgrounds and incomes live together, we need to consider the following two policies

1, Begin converting abandoned and partially occupied luxury buildings into affordable housing

2. Require that every new residential building going up in New York City designate at least 35% of its units as affordable housing and set rents and apartment prices accordingly

The City Council and the State Legislature need to act immediately to implrement these measures. Misguided housing policies are fast making New York City one of the most segregated municipalities in the entire nation
Mark Naison
August 12, 2009