“Brownsville and East New York: Whole Neighborhoods Dealt a Cheap Hand of Discriminatory Neglect”

When looking at different neighborhoods in New York City, one might find several in which racial, religious, and economic discrimination is rampant. One would be hard-pressed, however, to find entire neighborhoods being marginalized and receiving unfair treatment. That is, unless one takes the 3 or L train to Brownsville or East New York.

Beginning in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Brownsville, and later East New York, neighborhoods of East Brooklyn saw a major population shift, with throngs of Eastern European Jews and Italians leaving and a massive wave of African Americans taking their place. As the neighborhoods became more Black, quality of life began to steadily decrease. The decrease was not a coincidence, unfortunately. Through various discriminatory means, the City of New York managed to turn its back on the Black residents of Brownsville and East New York, and even somewhat continues to do so today. While there are many ways that the Black populations of Brownsville and East New York are mistreated, two of the most explicit and damning ways are when it comes to policing and basic living necessities.

When many New Yorkers hear the words “Brownsville” or “East New York”, they picture a dangerous God-forsaken place. The picture is pretty accurate; these two neighborhoods are very dangerous– both have been named the least safe neighborhood in New York City multiple times over the years and remain towards the bottom of the list even today [1]. Even worse, Brownsville was, for a while in 2010, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the entire United States [2]. East New York, meanwhile, had the most crime of any New York City neighborhood twenty years straight– from 1996-2016! [3] As one Brownsville woman put it, “you can get a gun like a box of Pampers around here!” [4]

Clearly, Brownsville and East New York are not getting policed as well as they should. According to Reuters reporter Daniel Trotta, the police officers in Brownsville are often young and White, and straight out of the Academy. In addition, as journalist Kevin Heldman pointed out in a series called “What the Hell Happened in East New York”, officers on foot patrol– which have a great impact in scaring away potential crime doers, are much harder to find in East New York than in other Brooklyn neighborhoods. In addition, although the city has deployed more police officers in Brownsville and East New York, the officers often do not want to be there, and some officers have even opted to retire rather than be relocated to duty in these two neighborhoods [5]. When police officers do not like the place they work in, and not even the people they are supposed to protect, or are just plain scared to be there, it can lead them to decrease the effort with which they do their job, a lack of care that can even cost civilian lives. Police officers take an oath to defend the public and it is very sad to see how easily that oath becomes moot when the police do not respect the public around them. The discriminatory way Brownsville and East New York are unfortunately policed can be summed up well by the remark of one Brownsville woman: “The cops are scared if they’re not crooked… nobody don’t care no more. There’s no love.” [6]

The lack of safety due to discriminatory policing paves the way for the second major discriminatory treatment of the Black populations of Brownsville and East New York residents– an overall lack of daily living needs. Because of the high crime rates in these neighborhoods, many businesses such as grocery stores, laundromats, and department stores– businesses that people rely on for everyday necessities– choose not to open up in them, and if they are already there, they try to get out as soon as possible. As James Brodrick of the Brownsville Community Justice Center accurately pointed out, “if you tackle the safety issues, you’ll start seeing more economic opportunities”[7], so one cannot blame the business owners for their decision. However, one can blame the city for not stepping in to take their place, while at the same time improving the neighborhoods to the point that private businesses will move back in. If not providing residents with necessary services, the city should at least subsidize the private businesses enough to persuade them to remain. That is what the city has been doing to support and improve other neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant for years, where living conditions have improved so much, that they are now facing a real estate boom [8].    Yet, the difference between Crown Heights and Brownsville is that Crown Heights has recently become a home for hipsters and also the predominantly White middle class– whom the city obviously has an obligation to support. Brownsville has not received any young White hipsters, however, and, therefore, has received no city help, resulting in an astonishingly dire day to day situation for the poor Blacks of Brownsville and neighboring East New York. According to a 2017 Daily News report, “four in ten Brownsville residents don’t live within walking distance of a supermarket… nearly a third of Brownsville residents don’t live within walking distance of a bank”, and only the northern part of Brownsville has access to fresh produce. The worst part is that according to the report, only a third of residents live within walking distance of a subway– the lifeline that connects isolated, jobless Brownsville with the outside, minimum-wage paying world [9]. Oh, and that subway stops running at midnight, even though some Brownsville residents can only get jobs in the middle of the night.

According to reporter Kevin Heldman, East New York is not faring much better and lacks many of the same basic needs like fresh produce [10]. It is, therefore, no wonder why a 2015 Mount Sinai Hospital and Brooklyn Hospital Center study found that as late as 2012, a whopping 20% of self-reporting East New York residents had diabetes [11]. Without healthy, fresh food in their diets, it is a wonder that 80% of East New Yorkers have not developed diabetes. More recently, Mayor de Blasio thinks he is being generous in promising a new career finding center in East New York. Given the poor track record of his nineteen other career finding centers for placing East New York residents in jobs– only 600 out of 4,000 applicants have gotten jobs [12]— that career finding center might be more helpful if it were a grocery.

Brownsville and East New York residents are tired of the neglect they have been receiving from the police and the mayor’s office, and they know that it is costing them their safety and access to basic everyday needs. As James Brodrick complained, “It really blows me away how everything else in New York City and Brooklyn has changed– and yet Brownsville still feels like this isolated neighborhood.” [13] Of course, the explanation for the situation is simple; to the city and its employees, Brownsville and East New York are just dead end, dangerous, Black neighborhoods that are not racially or economically beneficial, so why give them the fresh fruit, the subway stops, the little stimulation they need in order to turn themselves around.? Why give them the safety and security they need in order to step foot outside without worry of getting shot?

I don’t know. Maybe because this country was founded on the belief that all men are created equal with inalienable rights. One of those rights is the right to live. Take a subway ride to Brownsville or East New York, walk a mile to where people actually live, and you might find more dead than living.