City Lit: Deconstructing the Ghetto

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How East New York Became a Ghetto
By Walter Thabit
New York University Press; 291 pages; $29.95

A Way Out: America’s Ghettos and the Legacy of Racism
Edited by Joshua Cohen, Jefferson Decker and Joel Rogers
Princeton University Press; 130 pages; $19.95

In 1966, New York City hired Walter Thabit’s consulting firm to conduct housing surveys and develop a program for low- and moderate-income public housing in central Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. The area had just undergone a rapid decline, and to Thabit’s eyes it hadn’t been accidental.

“At the start of the 1960s,” he writes in How East New York Became a Ghetto, “the population was 85 percent white. By the end of 1966, the population of 100,000 was close to 80 percent black and Puerto Rican.” That white flight was accompanied by a devastating withdrawal of economic resources.

How East New York Became a Ghetto chillingly recounts the neighborhood’s speedy and deliberate destruction and analyzes the efforts aimed at its revitalization. The book is a standout among a recent crop that seeks to answer the complicated question of how policymakers can improve the lives of those inhabiting America’s ghettos. And Thabit is an able representative of a school of thought that believes the solution can be found in the human agency–political, civic, business and religious–of ghetto residents, and the unique informal networks that hold those neighborhoods together.

Thabit stresses that East New York did not become a ghetto merely because of the increased black presence–as implied by the so-called tipping point hypothesis, which says whites will flee a neighborhood once its black population surpasses a small percentage of the total. He cites Starrett City, a mammoth housing project in Brooklyn, as a striking example of a place where blacks, whites and Latinos are willing to live together. To Thabit, the real “tipping point” in East New York’s destruction was the moment when a consortium of white bankers, landlords and real estate brokers constructed a fundamentally racist system of redlining, blockbusting and foreclosure–not to mention arson and the wholesale abandonment of properties–in an effort to flip the demographics.

Banks began to systemically withdraw mortgage loans to East New York residents and landlords once blacks and Puerto Ricans moved in. At the same time, welfare recipients began concentrating in the neighborhood, quickening the area’s economic demise. “Of the eighteen community districts in Brooklyn,” Thabit writes, “East New York contained the second highest number of welfare recipients.”

Close to 40 years of relentless social collapse followed this literal corralling of poor blacks and Puerto Ricans into East New York. Thabit describes the New York City Board of Education’s failure to repair old schools–let alone build new ones to meet the demands of an exploding population of children. And he mourns the senseless moral decline and abdication of civility–spawned from hopelessness and a lack of economic opportunities–that has plagued East New York, making it a haven for homicide and crime.

But Thabit does not view East New York with the telephoto lens too many academics and public policy analysts wield. He has been at the scene of a social crime, and he’s chalk-marked it. As a result, Thabit’s prescriptions for where the troubled neighborhood can go from here are not limited to impractical theories. He points instead to the talent and human resources prevalent among its citizens and leaders.

Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood is one of those people. The dynamic pastor of St. Paul’s Community Church has been leading community development efforts for decades, and was a key player in the Industrial Areas Foundation’s famed Nehemiah Plan, which built 500 affordable single-family homes in the area. These are the sort of successes Thabit sees as possible when revitalization is community-led, and he illustrates several that are slowly changing the troubled neighborhood. “When we left [East New York] in the 1970s,” he explains, “less than one-third of the housing stock was viable. Today, more than 2,500 new and rehabilitated housing units are liberally sprinkled throughout the community.”

Thabit holds steadfastly to the idea that poor people deserve to live with dignity, even if in poor neighborhoods. But How East New York Became a Ghetto also demonstrates that he understands that the lives of poor blacks and Latinos cannot be romanticized. The complicity of poor people in the destruction of their own neighborhoods, through vandalism and neglect, as a result of a deep-seated lack of self-respect, also has to be acknowledged. Yet, as Thabit reminds us, “Any basic improvement in ghetto conditions requires that white society begin to accept its responsibility for those conditions.” Here, one thinks of the raw political will that came unleashed to clean up the World Trade Center site after the tragedy of 9/11. Can that political will be conjured and directed toward ghettos like East New York? “Community improvements aren’t going to come about,” Thabit concludes, “simply because community-oriented politicians are elected. They require the active collaboration of all the major forces for good in the community.”

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Where Thabit is an advocate of the revitalization of ghettos as a slow but crucial process, Owin Fiss, a Yale Law School professor, contends that ghettos are irredeemable “structures of subordination” in his provocative essay “What Should Be Done for Those Who Have Been Left Behind?” published in Princeton University Press’ new collection, A Way Out: America’s Ghettos and the Legacy of Racism.

“More than a sum of individual disadvantages,” Fiss writes, “the ghetto is a mechanism through which we have created and maintained the black underclass, a group saddled with a multitude of burdens–above all, joblessness and poverty–that relegates its members to the lowest stratum in society and locks them into it.”

Fiss advances the radical assertion that the only way to save American ghettos, where close to six million members of the black “underclass” (as he characterizes them) live, is to dismantle them and relocate their residents to largely white middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. “Pursuing this remedy requires providing those who are trapped in the ghetto,” Fiss writes, “with the economic resources necessary to move to better neighborhoods–black or white–if they chose.” He estimates a price tag of $50 billion per year.

Fiss’ plan (and one must resist the temptation to dismiss it as a feeble attempt at science fiction) is modeled after a 1976 Supreme Court decision in the landmark case Hills v. Gautreaux. This decision came about as a result of the Chicago Housing Authority’s determination to provide white city council members with the power to prevent the construction of public housing projects in the white communities they represented. The Supreme Court ruled that this practice was unlawful and forced HUD to provide rent subsidies to CHA residents–subsidies that enabled them to move to white suburban communities.

But Fiss’ integrationist fantasy is contingent upon a goodwill that has never before existed. The plan would first have to eradicate the same racism that brought about ghettos like East New York in the first place. Unlike Thabit, Fiss does not acknowledge the revitalization of ghettos as a possibility. Nor does he see localized institutions (such as the black church) as having any real significance in the lives of poor blacks. And as borne out in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s acclaimed Random Family, ghetto residents rely upon informal networks to survive. Poor folks levy their circle of familial, social, religious and economic ties to piece together everything from housing to childcare. Simply dispersing the ghetto’s inhabitants into more affluent neighborhoods breaks apart these crucial networks–without replacing them with real services.

Fiss writes about ghetto subordination, historically and otherwise, as if the systematic redlining of, and failure to provide essential services to, neighborhoods where poor blacks and other people of color reside happened coincidentally. He morally pontificates, as if poor communities’ proximity to garbage dumps and industrial waste stations was arranged by ghosts. If ghettos are structures of subordination, who are they subordinated to? He ignores the sort of history Thabit painstakingly details and opts, instead, to propose a plan that leaves us betting on the welcoming arms and liberating presence of whites as gleeful next-door neighbors.

J. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor of political science at Columbia University, is one of several essayists in A Way Out who writes a wonderful response to Fiss. “So long as white Americans are willing to tolerate a few middle-class blacks in their midst, they can absolve themselves of charges of racism,” Thompson argues in his essay “Beyond Moralizing.” “Trying legally to force white Americans to integrate against their will, in a country where they are the voting majority,” he later warns, “has not worked and it will not work.”

Thompson is getting at the larger and crucial point: “structures of subordination” are not geographic. Poor blacks and Latinos are trapped between white largesse and America’s structural and attitudinal racism. Until we face that brutal reality, and provide the Reverend Youngbloods of our cities with the resources they need to rebuild their communities, the degradation of ghetto life will persist.

Hakim Hasan is the director of the Urban Institute at Metropolitan College of New York. He can be reached at hhasan2@aol.com