Sunday, September 30, 2007

Saturday at the Dweck Center: Mike Wallace on The History and Future of Brooklyn

Here is the post from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Sundary, September 30, 2007:
On Saturday at 4 p.m. I was one of about a hundred people seated in the spanking-new auditorium of the Dr. S. Stevan Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture at the Grand Army Plaza Central Library to hear a riveting lecture, "The History and Future of Brooklyn," by Mike Wallace, a distinguished professor of history at CUNY, chair of the Gotham Center for New York History and co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Wallace discussed Brooklyn's past and future in terms of three currents in the river of history: Brooklyn's relationship with Manhattan, its macroeconomic base, and the demographic flows in and out of the borough.

As a colonial city, Brooklyn's role was to feed the profit centers of the British empire, the sugar plantations of the Caribbean whose land was too valuable to use for crops to feed the slaves who worked there.

Primarily agricultural hinterlands, Brooklyn also served as the port to send food and other supplies – some manufactured here – to the West Indies and in return to get sugar and rum. (That explains why the Havemeyers' Domino's Sugar and Revere Sugar built huge operations in Williamsburg and Red Hook.) Back then, Brooklyn's population was largely Dutch, English and African; slavery was widespread.

American independence cut off this trade and was an economic catastrophe until Brooklyn found new trading partners in the Spanish Caribbean, primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico. As the Erie Canal opened up New York's access to the agricultural Midwest, Brooklyn's farms were replaced by major manufacturing, with ironworks and furniture factories.

The industrial revolution eventually brought renewed trade with England, which got much of the cotton for its textile factories from the American South via ships from the port of Brooklyn. The port boomed, and around the same time, Brooklyn Heights became America's first suburb, a bucolic alternative to overcrowded Manhattan.

When Manhattan became the financial, entertainment and media capital of the nation, skyscraper office buildings proved more profitable than factories there, so manufacturers moved to Brooklyn with facilities like the innovative Bush Terminal, joining manufacturers with the port via its railway.

As Brooklyn became a major producer of beer and baked goods, it also served as home to a world-class resort, Coney Island, as well as baseball stadiums, movie palaces, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prospect Park, the museum and other venues for industrial age leisure.

Brooklyn capitulated, Wallace said, to the 1898 annexation into Greater New York because it needed access to Manhattan money and its water supply.

By the start of the 20th century, a great demographic shift occurred as Jews, Italians, Norwegians, Syrians and other ethnic groups flowed across the new bridges into Brooklyn; Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant become magnets for African-Americans from the South; Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens after 1898's other big event, the Spanish-American War, also move into the borough in large numbers; and Brooklyn's southern farms are broken up into suburban subdivisions, some as posh as Prospect Park South.

Foreign immigration is largely stopped by 1924's restrictive, xenophobic law – opposed by young Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler, who, as House Judiciary Chairman in 1965, would push through the relaxed immigration act that led to the waves of newcomers from all over the world, replacing older residents who fled the borough for the suburbs and Sun Belt.

Wallace discussed Brooklyn's important role in World War II and then its slow decline and deindustrialization as thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared. Most of the older crowd in the audience, including myself, remember the nadir of the 1970s.

I can recall a primary challenger to the seeming borough-president-for-life plastering Brooklyn with posters that read "Abe Stark, We Love You – BUT BROOKLYN IS DYING!" He didn't win but nearly all of us agreed with his sentiments.

The "turnaround" of the 1980s with renewed gentrification was really very small-scale, Wallace said; for a good part of Brooklyn, the key economic engine was actually the illegal crack trade.

Unemployment surpassed 10% as late as the early 1990s; AIDS and TB rates rose 700% in parts of Brooklyn; the old ethnic rivalries among Jews, Irish, Italians and Germans disappeared as they all became "white" and the new tensions were racial.

Wallace reminded the audience of the racial tensions of the era, from the 1968 teachers' strike – we old-timers recall the name of Rhody McCoy, the most well-known Brooklynite of the day (he was head of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district) – to the 1991 Crown Heights disturbances and the racially-charged Bensonhurst murder of Yusuf Hawkins.

Brooklyn's recent revival is the result of the same forces that have always shaped its history, Wallace said: its relationship with Manhattan (as those who could no longer afford to live there moved across the river as gentrifiers), and more importantly, the foreign immigration which has brought the world here – so much so that Brooklyn is now the third largest Ecuadorean city in the world, after Quito and Guyaquil.

Wallace ended his talk by showing a variety of maps of Brooklyn's changed demographics. Especially interesting was a map of census tracts showing which groups dominated each little neighborhood, with many an amalgam like "black-white" or "Hispanic-Asian."

This map showed how the city's third large Chinese neighborhood is developing as Hispanic residents push Asians south of Sunset Park into Bensonhurst as Russians move east from Brighton Beach, setting up the Chinese-Russian "frontier" I've noticed by the signs when I take the bus along 86 Street.

What happened to the Italian-American Bensonhurst of my youth, depicted in "Saturday Night Fever"? Essentially, Wallace said, though it still exists, the Italian community has "aged out" and is leaving the area one way or another.

Wallace mentioned how along Ocean Parkway, the Syrian Jewish community lives alongside Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh; how Brooklyn's Mexican residents have formed councils not just to send money to their home cities but to have a role in how it is spent; how former all-white communities like Canarsie and adjacent areas like my old block are now largely black (mostly West Indian).

Given these "amazing juxtapositions" and that today's immigrant communities, unlike those of the past, are still very involved in their native countries, Wallace said that some may think it is odd that somehow World War IV has not broken out in the borough.

A map and chart showed that at least one Brooklyn community seems to have no dominant group and is roughly one-quarter white, Asian, black and Hispanic. That's Ditmas Park ("Yay!" cheered the old ladies in front of me) – and surprisingly, it's not the border of adjacent ethnic communities, just a place where everyone seems to be content living side by side.

Is this too good to be true? Wallace asked. We will see if the subprime woes and the faltering financial markets – in evidence in Brooklyn by Wallace's ominous map of rising foreclosures in the borough (anyone on the Church Avenue bus in East Flatbush will notice "Avoid Foreclosure!" signs posted everywhere) – will change the comity between ethnic groups and jeopardize the revival. How will it play out if thousands are thrown out of their homes? Will there be a battle for space or will coalitions develop across ethnic lines?

Wallace said that Brooklynites – with its manufacturing base largely dead and those good wages replaced by low-paying retail jobs at places like Target, and with large numbers of borough residents living below the poverty line – may find that our current good will has been floating on a sea of relative prosperity.

He ended his lecture to a sea of applause. Most of us took the elevator up to a reception on the library's second floor as Wallace talked further about Brooklyn with individual members of the audience. I marveled that somehow he'd given a talk about Brooklyn's history and future without ever uttering the words "hipsters" or "Heath Ledger."

By the window overlooking Eastern Parkway, I can see the hundred-year-old Turner Towers, where my pediatrician Dr. Stein treated me from infancy to adolescent hypochondria.

Turner Towers is now covered with the black shroud that's at last being lifted from the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building -- I guess it's One Hanson Place now although those of us who suffered root canals and oral surgery at the hands of its former tenants still call it the Skyscraper of Pain.

I wonder if there are still doctors' offices in Turner Towers.

On my last visit before he retired, Dr. Stein gave me some kind vaccine on a Saturday morning and I called him frantically that afternoon to say that my upper arm had gotten very swollen and I needed to see him right away. He sighed and said he was finished for the day but if I could drive over fast, he'd take a look.

Dr. Stein could find no swelling and when I showed him what I meant, he laughed.

"You're flexing your triceps muscle," he said. "Have you been lifting weights?"

Embarrassed, I walked out of the office with him to our cars. He pointed to the Brooklyn Museum across the street. "You know," he said, "I've had my office here almost fifty years and I've never been in that place once."

I told him he should go there now that he was retiring.

"Maybe I will," Dr. Stein said. He lived in Marine Park, not far from my family's house.

Tama Janowitz, who kindly blurbed one of my books, lives in Turner Towers now.

Just down from Turner Towers, directly across as I look out the library meeting room's window, is the still-under-construction sleek glass of Richard Meier's new building, On Prospect Park. I wonder what kind of people will be able to afford to live there and what their role will be in the future of Brooklyn.

Then I leave the library and hop on a passing Flatbush Avenue bus going downtown.

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