City Limits Investigates: Bushwick Under Bloomberg

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Come Election Day, votes will be cast in the mayoral race at P.S. 6 on Page Avenue near the southern tip of Staten Island, a mere 3,000 feet from the waters of Raritan Bay. Thirty-five miles away, ballots will be cast in the same race at the Olivet Gospel Assembly on Dyre Avenue, a short walk from the city’s northern border in the east Bronx. Meanwhile, at Young Israel on Beach 9th Street in Queens, voters from the far end of Far Rockaway will weigh in, some 45 minutes by car from City Hall.

They will all pick one mayor for the same city, even if – in each area – the past eight years have looked very different.

Trying to size up all the ways New York City has changed since Michael Bloomberg became mayor is difficult. But in a single neighborhood—like the neighborhood that lies at the geographic center of New York, ZIP code 11237 in north Bushwick, Brooklyn – the story is still complicated, but a little clearer. This autumn’s issue of the quarterly magazine City Limits Investigates, 11237, tells the tale.

Few neighborhoods reflect the arc of New York’s recent history more dramatically than Bushwick. Once a thriving locus of immigrant New York, the neighborhood became synonymous with urban decay in the 1970s when it was plagued by arson, abandonment and one infamous night of riots. During the 1980s, the use and sale of crack brought bloodshed and more blight to 11237. But an infusion of government money for new housing, and a stunning reduction in crime, began to turn things around by the mid-1990s. Proof of how far the area has come is that Bushwick is becoming a choice location for people moving east from Manhattan and Williamsburg—spurring worry in the neighborhood that rising rents will squeeze current residents out.

From 2001 to 2008, crime in the 83rd Precinct that covers most of 11237 dropped 18 percent. The drop in crime is what area residents mention first when asked about recent changes. “Ten years ago, this was all gang-related,” said Lisette Jimenez, a 38-year resident of the area, pointing around Maria Hernandez Park in the heart of 11237. “You had to walk through very fast and find the nearest exit. No strolling.”

Now, the park feels very safe—at least during the day. At night, the area still sees an active drug trade. And while many residents are pleased with the job the police have done, others are concerned about the thousands of police stops of innocent civilians, which post a stark contrast with other areas of the city. For every violent crime suspect in the first half of 2009 on the Upper West Side, cops in that area searched four people. But for every violent crime suspect in Bushwick, the police stopped 14 people.
While several blocks of 11237 are still dominated by industrial activity, the number of blue-collar jobs in the area has fallen over the past eight years. Forces outside the city’s control—like globalization—have shaped that trend. But the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning of manufacturing areas to residential use has added to the pressure on local businesses. The use of welfare is down, food stamps and Medicaid are more widely received, and the mayor’s anti-poverty initiative has several pilot projects at work in the area.

Test scores have improved in nearly every grade of every school in both math and English language arts, and the graduation rate has soared from the abysmal levels of the old Bushwick High School to higher rates at new, small schools in Bushwick that lead the city. “Our schools are doing so good, I don’t know where to begin,” says Elizabeth Rodriguez, interim president of the local community education council. But as is the case elsewhere in the city, there are major questions about the sustainability of the gains high schools have made—and the impact of the new, small schools on the remaining large high schools that often have to accept overflow students.

Housing in 11237 has seen both sides of Bloomberg’s New York: thousands of units of affordable housing built or preserved under the mayor’s $7.5 billion housing plan, and a high-rise, high-rent tower rising like a sore thumb above a block of run-down walk-ups. Local pols praise the mayor’s affordable housing initiative, but rising rents in the area have been accompanied by a high foreclosure rate and an abundance of housing violations.

(See this related story for more on housing in Bushwick.)

Together, the trends have put new pressure on 11237’s families. “There are people who come in and tell me they are going to move to Pennsylvania,” says Sister Kathy Maire, a local housing advocate. Others, she says, “move in with a relative, creating a problem for the relative, who’s then threatened by their landlord [because] they’re overcrowded. It’s a vicious cycle.”

All this is playing out in a neighborhood whose face, literally, is changing thanks not only to gentrification but also immigration, legal and otherwise, from Mexico and Ecuador. The shifting demographics are the product of global forces but have a very local political dimension: As the neighborhood changes, the power base of its dominant player, Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic chairman Vito Lopez, could be eroding—and with it the link between Bushwick’s needs and the government funding that can address them.

The story of this one ZIP Code – told in full in the current issue of City Limits Investigates – may not reflect the full picture of how the entire city has fared under the current mayor. But it’s a part of that picture—one of successes that beget new challenges, and old problems that still persist.

– Jarrett Murphy

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