Do You Remember How It Was?

With the arrival of new residents and the approval of a rezoning plan, change is coming to East New York. But if the specter of gentrification looms, this wouldn’t be the first time the neighborhood sees rapid transformation. Over the course of the 1960s, the population, which had been nearly entirely white, turned almost uniformly Black and Latino. Buildings were abandoned and the environment deteriorated, seemingly in the blink of an eye. From a bird’s eye view, we can see how lending practices, law, and policy came together to transform the area. First, thanks to the federal “redlining” of this slice of Brooklyn, and of many similar neighborhoods deemed “insecure” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, prospective homebuyers struggled to find financing. Then, enterprising real estate agents profited from official prejudice through blockbusting, harassing white homeowners until nearly all fled the neighborhood. Those white migrants seeking to plant a flag in the suburbs received ample support; some moved into developments whose restrictive “racial covenants” blockaded even those Black buyers and renters who could afford to leave the city.

But on the ground, the experience was a deeply personal and painful one. Since 2014, Sarita Daftary has recorded interviews with more than 20 people who witnessed the precipitous shift. Their stories detail loss, confusion, and disruption. However, the early 60s also marked a rare instance of neighborhood integration, while in later years, residents demonstrated resilience, devotion, and resolve — East New York’s many community gardens, which grew up in the wake of vacancy, were the first spark for Daftary’s project. In the East New York Oral History Project, the realms of memory and history collapse into one another. Here, Daftary, compiler and custodian of this rich collection of recollections, speaks to their lessons for the present.

Explore the East New York Oral History Project website.

How did this garden grow?

I worked in East New York for ten years as a staff member at the East New York Farms Project; I was the project director for seven years. That was my starting connection to East New York.

In 1995, the Pratt Institute worked with local organizations to set up a series of community planning and community opinion forums in East New York, to determine needs and existing resources in the neighborhood. There was a slew of needs: more green and open space; safer public spaces; more convenient retail opportunities, especially for fresh food; more economic opportunity for residents; more opportunities for youth. The thing that residents repeatedly named as a resource was gardens. East New York at that time already had more community gardens than any other neighborhood in New York City. It’s a neighborhood full of people who know something about growing, who come from the South, the Caribbean, Central America, or South Asia. And there’s a large population of young people; a third of the population is under 18. So the East New York Farms Project started as a way to bolster those resources to address the needs that the community had identified.

East New York Farms! gardener Annie Wyche checks her plants in the Hands and Heart Garden. Photo courtesy of East New York Farms!
Althea Wilson, and Pauline Watson in Crystal Wells garden. Photo courtesy of East New York Farms!

But another reason that the gardens existed in such numbers was the amount of vacant land that had been available to the people who had founded them in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. As I was working with East New York Farms, my question became, “Why was there all that vacant land in East New York?”

The answer goes back to the 1960s, a decade of disinvestment. Vacancy and abandonment came about due to a vast exodus of white residents, a result of the blockbusting that was enabled by federal policies. These policies made it very difficult to get loans in “redlined” neighborhoods like East New York, and, coupled with rapid development in the suburbs, encouraged those who could to move out of the neighborhood. Even as more people of color moved into East New York, there weren’t quite enough people to fully replace those who left, and a number of landlords abandoned their empty rental properties. There were documented cases of deliberate arson, or cases of people living informally in abandoned properties and starting fires for heat, which led to the properties burning down. Over time some of the burned buildings were cleared and the lots were left vacant. When I started working in East New York in 2003, it seemed like there was still an abandoned lot or property on every block.

Home Owners Loan Corporation “Security Map,” East New York and Brownsville detail. Image via Mapping Inequality

I wanted to understand the experiences of people in the neighborhood who had witnessed that disinvestment. But I also wanted to understand the experience of that very brief time in which East New York was racially integrated. In 1960 East New York was more than 90 percent white, but by 1970 is was majority non-white. While it was a period of transition, it did mean that for some brief time there were white and non-white residents living in close proximity. In our country we don’t really have racially integrated neighborhoods that stay that way. They’re always in transition, which is a product of both racism and capitalism, in the sense that we have very few protections to regulate housing costs, and centuries of policy and practice that have prevented most people of color from accumulating wealth.

For this project, I focused on interviewing people who lived in East New York some time during the ‘60s — some people who lived there before and left during the ‘60s, some people who moved in during the ‘60s and stayed until present day. East New York is geographically one of the biggest neighborhoods in New York; there are maybe 180,000 people living there now, so there’s a large potential reserve of people who lived there at the time.

Looking back at East New York

A lot of the people I interviewed who had been young in East New York also stayed there until their 20s or 30s, and some lived there even longer. Since East New York Farms is a project of United Community Centers — which was founded in the 1950s as the first racially-integrated community center in public housing — a lot of the people who I connected with were members of UCC. People who were involved in that organization were more politically aware than the average person; in the interviews, they would mention redlining and blockbusting by name. But nobody mentioned restrictive covenants, which I found interesting because they are an important piece of explaining why Black middle-class families didn’t also leave the neighborhood when things got really bad, even though it was difficult for them to find a traditional mortgage there. I think about redlining as drawing a circle around an area and confining people there while denying them resources, and restrictive covenants as a trap door to let white people out.

“Racially restrictive covenant” agreements, like this one signed in Pinellas County, Florida, were contracts that prohibited landowners from selling or leasing to Black buyers and tenants. Image via Wikimedia Commons

White people who did leave because of a fear of their non-white neighbors were not necessarily well-represented in my interviews. One woman I interviewed lives in Upstate New York now; her family left when she was around ten years old. She was the person who most bought into the story that, once Black people started moving into the neighborhood, violence increased and white families left because of that; she repeated those myths more than anyone else. Since she was so young when they left, I wondered how much memory she really had. Her stories must have mostly come from adults.

Of those who stayed in East New York and witnessed the decade of transition, some were very direct about saying that this was a result of planning and policy, and not about individual decision-making or even individual racial animus. The term “white flight” is somewhat misleading, because it leaves out white people who weren’t particularly upset about their neighbors being black, but for whom it became a bad economic decision to stay because of the policies at the time. I definitely heard stories about the difficulty of relations across race. But listening to all of the stories, it did not sound like enough animosity that thousands of white people would have sold their homes. One of the narrators said, “Selling your home is a really big deal. Especially back then, when people didn’t move that much. People didn’t just do that because they were racist.” Some did — some people were very racist and that was motivation enough for them. But for the others, it was encouraged by policy.

I held a small listening party for the people that I interviewed for the project. I remember one exchange between an older Black man, who remembered all his white neighbors leaving, and then an older white man, from one of the families who had left. The white man was explaining, “We didn’t want to go. It wasn’t some choice we felt good about, we were getting all this pressure.” Some of the Black families that I spoke to remembered, “It seemed like people were just moving out at night.” People disappeared so quickly, they didn’t get to have those conversations. The white families did kind of slink out, especially if they had had relationships with their Black neighbors, but ultimately were bowing to a pressure that they didn’t feel good about. Sometimes I think about the interviews as a way to create a conversation that never got to happen in real time.

Mel Grizer was the director of United Community Centers, and has spent basically his entire adult life focused on organizing in East New York, especially interracial organizing. He certainly was aware that there were groups that were invested in creating racial tension and that had racist attitudes. But what I heard from him more was a sadness about getting to the point where UCC could not be an interracial organization in any real way anymore. There was a time where people believed that was possible, and it was exciting to people. They planned dances and other sorts of interracial events. But later on in Mel’s time at United Community Centers, the only white people left were really old. I think he said, “It could no longer be part of their life.” The window of opportunity to have real interracial community had closed.

United Community Centers was founded in 1954 by public housing tenants as a service organization providing integrated education and programming, including dances, to the neighborhood's children. Photo courtesy of United Community Centers

A lot of the white people that I interviewed, who stayed a long time, were members of United Community Centers, and committed to racial integration. But many of them left eventually. One woman moved when she was much older, in the 1990s, when there was a lot of crime and she had come to feel like a potential target. Other people said, “There was a point at which my kids were the only white kids left in school, and they were getting bullied, and I couldn’t justify putting them through that when I had the option to go somewhere that was more integrated.” One woman had worked in United Community Centers as a teacher when it was a deliberately racially integrated daycare. There was a point at which they couldn’t maintain that anymore, because there were no white people anywhere close enough. They bussed kids from Canarsie for a while, when there were still white people in Canarsie; they really tried to keep it integrated. But eventually her family moved to Baldwin, Long Island, because it was actually integrated. Her husband was Black and she was a white woman; she said, “It wasn’t that I was scared of my kid being in a class where they were the only white kid, but that isn’t what I signed them up for. I wanted to live in an integrated community and this was no longer integrated.” The only white person I interviewed who came to East New York before the ‘60s, and who has stayed through to today, never had kids.

There’s a real pain that comes from feeling like people didn’t want to live in integrated neighborhoods. Even the people of color who I interviewed seemed to feel some sadness about not quite understanding why all their neighbors left. If you understand it as an essentially personal decision then there’s nothing to do about it. But a lot of people were pretty clear about the importance of it being pushed in some way, and that people were harmed on both sides, even if the harms were different.

Mary’s family was from Virginia, and she was born in the Bronx. She moved to Brooklyn when she was a young adult with a new family and bought her house in the early ‘60s. She was deeply involved in United Community Centers, and particularly in their work around integrated education. She still lives in East New York.

Her description that “people moving in got battered, people moving out got battered” is relevant to what’s happening now. Maybe there are some super rich kids running around Brooklyn, but often there are young white people who are paying more than they can really afford. And they have the money to pay it, so in that sense they’re better off than people who don’t and have to leave, but it’s not a great arrangement for those young people either. There’s a smaller group of people who are really benefiting.

Mary lives in Starrett City now. If East New York at the beginning of the ‘60s was sort of utopian, if it represented the promise of a nice, stable, mixed-income, mixed-race community, Starrett City is kind of still that. When I asked Mary, at the end of our interview, what her hopes for East New York and for the world in general are, she said that she is hopeful for the possibilities of racial integration. She said, “The idea that people can’t live together, that’s ridiculous. They live together in Starrett City.”

Linden Houses in the ‘60s, seen from above Linden Boulevard. Image courtesy of United Community Centers

Public Housing and Fragile Utopia

Public housing was almost its own story; it seemed the most utopian, somehow, because it was all new housing. Linden Houses, which was completed in 1958, was considered a particularly desirable place to live. One Black person I interviewed remembered when they were invited to their neighbor’s bat mitzvah, the whole family went. Multiple people of color said, “It was a time when Black and white children used to play together, and that was normal. My friends were white, there was a lot of mixing.” But one man I interviewed, who was Black, remembered that he had white friends but never actually went into any of their houses. There were definitely lots of contentious stories about school integration, which seemed in some ways out of step with what people were describing about living in their neighborhoods and getting along with their neighbors. A theme arose about adults and institutions limiting the openness of children.

Here, Toni is talking to me about her best childhood friend, who was white. Toni’s family was one of the first Black families to live in Linden Houses. At one point Toni’s mother told her that she wasn’t going to be friends with the white kids anymore, because once they were old enough that dating became a possibility, it would be unacceptable for them to spend time together.

Toni’s story also speaks to something I became more aware of when I was working with young people at East New York Farms. Without other information about the history of vacancy and disinvestment, they were left to assume that the neighborhood conditions were the fault of the people living there. They would describe working with the gardens as “doing better” for the community, and “making people care.” But the people who didn’t care were the government, which was no longer compelled to take care of this neighborhood when it became a community of color. As Toni describes, she made those same assumptions as a child: that it was her neighbors being dirty, rather than the government’s failure to provide services, that was making Linden Houses decline.

She touches on another element of this: Racist results are possible even if the individuals involved have somewhat race-neutral attitudes. Someone may not blame people of color for the conditions of the neighborhood that they live in, but may still be fearful of living in that neighborhood because of what it means for their ability to get services. It’s going to mean more work. Particularly in a place like Linden Houses; a massive development like that, with so many people, only works with active maintenance.

“Leave before you lose everything”

Richard grew up in East New York in a Jewish family; his parents moved away when he was in college. He said, “My parents wanted to live and die in East New York. When they got their house there, they were so happy, so proud.” And then they ended up moving to one of the new developments on the outskirts of the city. They were the last white family on their block to sell, so they were getting repeated calls saying, “You should leave before you lose everything.” And it was a self-fulfilling prophecy — the property values did decline. It wasn’t a good time in his family’s life. They had been uprooted from a community that was really important to them.

All the Brooklyn neighborhoods that were redlined had a more than insignificant population of Black people; that’s how they got a D rating from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which was tasked by the Federal Housing Administration with rating the risk of lending money in different areas of more than 200 cities. But East New York was majority Jewish and Italian in 1937, when those ratings were released. The population of people of color was pretty small. Even though there were programs created later that allowed Jewish and Italian people access to the white identity and its benefits, at that time, there was a willingness to subject Jewish and Italian neighborhoods to the damage of redlining as well. His parents had a community in this neighborhood, and they wanted to be there for a long time. Their experience was one of disruption. When he said that they didn’t “expect to be treated as owners,” it’s a reminder of their vulnerable status. You can hear that this mirrors Mary’s clip in an interesting way, in the idea that there were victims all over the place.

Richard didn’t give much further analysis of his parents’ decision in our interview, other than to say that they were primarily pushed by the fear of losing the value of their house. There was one point in his interview when he said that they were very supportive of civil rights issues, but they weren’t necessarily going to “change their lives in a significant way.” At that time they didn’t see it as a larger force; the prevalence of the idea of “neighborhood change” allowed people not to see it as something more coordinated.

People have the benefit of being able to look back now. Toni Richardson noted that there was a period of time where you had a bunch of working class people – white people and people of color – living together and getting along pretty well, and “they had to break that up.” She was very direct that she now believes the integration of the neighborhood was perceived as a threat to the powers that be.

Friends playing at Linden Houses in 1968. Photo courtesy of Neal Last

Looking forward to East New York

The folks who stayed in East New York through the ‘60s and are still there are people of color. Given that experience, and the general experience of Black people in this country, there’s no reason for them to think that anything the government proposes will be to their benefit. That has just not been their experience. The feeling of being disinvested from was really intense in public housing, especially in Linden Houses, which was built to be a middle-income project. Residents’ descriptions of how it was when they first moved in and how it changed over time are really painful. People have no reason to trust when the city says that it wants to rezone East New York to make better conditions for everyone. This neighborhood needed that 30 years ago, but the city didn’t seem to care when it wasn’t an area of potential real estate development.

I started doing this project the month that the Mayor announced his intention to rezone East New York. Before that, people had general ideas about how gentrification in Brooklyn might affect East New York eventually, but it was not so pressing. East New York went from unknown and scary to potentially desirable, and therefore unaffordable for long-time residents, in seconds — those stages are overlapping, even now. There was no safe, comfortable time for the people who have lived there the longest.

One of the Black women I interviewed said, “No one’s really concerned about including us.” Meaning new residents are not going to actively lobby to move the Black people out of their neighborhood when they move in, but are they going to be invested enough to make sure that they don’t get priced out? No. “We won’t be able to afford to be their neighbors,” she said. That was an interesting recognition of what the arc of this looks like now: There can be displacement that totally pushes out people of color, but which happens in a way that is, at least at the surface, race-neutral. Defenders can say, “Well this is just about money.” But, obviously, we’ve pursued policy for decades that have created the reality that white people have money and people of color largely don’t.

Isaiah bouht his house in ’86, but he’d been living in East New York since the early ‘60s, when his parents brought him up from North Carolina to join them. They bought a house very close to where he later bought a house of his own.

You can hear him saying that it’s going to be a really great place to live, it’s getting back to its peak. And then he sounds very resigned. His attitude echoes what Richard said; he doesn’t expect to be treated like an owner. This man owns his house. Theoretically, if he wants to live there the rest of his life, he can. But he already feels like he doesn’t truly have freedom and agency.

East New York is rezoned, but we haven’t seen the construction that goes along with that yet; even with the very legitimate fear of displacement that the rezoning has kicked up, the general attitude towards East New York from the outside is still a combination of fear or ignorance. It will take some time before people who currently own properties on lots that have been rezoned get offers from developers that are lucrative enough that they would want to sell. But home prices are already going crazy. Like Richard described, East New York was always a neighborhood where working-class people could own a home, and it has been the last place in Brooklyn where that was possible. That’s already eroded.

What people have done to revitalize their neighborhood is heroic. Isaiah speaks to that too: the amazing vision and commitment that poured out any time that the city gave people some free rein to take ownership and do something. It took Gladys four to five years just to clean out the trash from the lot that would become this garden — how many people would stick with that longer than two weekends? Gladys’ example is pretty powerful, but there are more than 60 gardens in East New York. People did that more than 60 times over. As much as there is a horrific story of disinvestment, it’s not a pure story of victimhood.

After 1960 and into the ‘70s, as government resources and private investment were extracted in a deliberate way, it’s not like East New York just sat there. It wasn’t a wasteland. One Bushwick gallery moved to East New York recently, the owner said something that really annoyed me in an interview — “East New York is like Brooklyn in the raw.” But this is actually a very active and intact community.

I don’t think everyone would react to disinvestment that way. East New Yorkers really love their neighborhood and it really is a place, even now, that people only go to if they live or work there. The chances that anyone you see on any given work day will be familiar to you are very high. It has that small-town closeness. Everyone I interviewed had really warm memories of East New York, and people were really happy about having this history preserved.

The East New York Oral History Project collection is available as complete interviews at the Brooklyn Historical Society, as well as broken into thematic sections, organized by an interactive map and timeline, on the project website.

Sarita Daftary worked at United Community Centers from 2003 to 2013 as part of the food justice and community organizing project, East New York Farms! In 2013 she attended the Oral History Summer School Intensive Course in Hudson, NY. She currently works as a community organizer with JustLeadershipUSA, focused on the #CLOSErikers campaign, and is a proud East New York resident.

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