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Opened in 1929, Loew's Pitkin Theatre became a church in the '70s and a discount furniture store in the '80s. It has been renovated by Poko Partners of Port Chester, NY.

Opened in 1929, Loew’s Pitkin Theatre in Brownsville Brooklyn became a church in the ’70s and a discount furniture store in the ’80s. It has been renovated by Poko Partners of Port Chester, NY.

Is Brownsville Brooklyn””long regarded as one of New York’s most troubled neighborhoods””ready for its comeback? There are some hopeful signs. The once-gorgeous Loew’s Pitkin Theatre, which debuted in 1929 and closed in the late 1960s, has undergone a $43 million renovation by Poko Partners, reopening with an Ascend charter school on the top floors and retail on the ground floor.

Pitkin Avenue itself, Brownsville’s crucial commercial corridor, has a revitalized Business Improvement District, headed by lifetime Brooklynite Daniel Murphy. A handsome 12-unit condo building developed by Habitat for Humanity welcomed its new owners in April. The percentage of students performing at grade level in reading and math is increasing, allowing StreetEasy‘s ads for modest houses to confidently stress the “transformed public school system.”

And why not? Geographically, Brownsville is the next in line to receive the youngsters and members of the creative class (to use Richard Florida’s term) that helped pull Bushwick up from the economic devastation wrought by the arson and riots of 1977. If Bushwick, Brooklyn (despite high crime) can attract investment and income diversity then so, surely, can Brownsville. Indeed, the L train””which cuts in a straight line across Manhattan’s 14th Street, plunges under the East River, and emerges in Williamsburg-Greenpoint before rather jauntily swerving through Bushwick””shows the way.

With multiple trains and good bus service Brownsville is a candidate for transit-oriented development.

With multiple trains and good bus service Brownsville is a candidate for transit-oriented development.

Rosanne Haggerty, an internationally renowned expert in housing and social issues who is now the president of Community Solutions, calls the L the “gentrification train,” which can bring income diversity to Brownsville while providing its residents with access to jobs. Also served by the IRT’s 3 line, Brownsville is a prime candidate for transit-oriented development. After all, as NYU’s Furman Center points out, over 85% of Brownsville residents live within a half mile of a subway or rail entrance. Haggerty has a plan, partly inspired by Jane Jacobs’s ideas in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for how to harness the forces of gentrification, attracting far better retail and services, without displacing any residents or demolishing any housing units.

Can this work? Many New Yorkers, especially those with roots in Brownsville, would like to see the neighborhood do well. In its comeback journey, Brownsville’s vivid history is a potential asset.

A Neighborhood of Strivers

“Brownsville has always been a neighborhood of strivers,” says Daniel Murphy. “People want their children to do better than they did.” In his memoir of New York, A Walker in the City, the writer Alfred Kazin recalled the pressure of his upbringing in Brownsville, which in the early 20th century was a Jewish neighborhood known for radical politics. “It was not for myself alone that I was expected to shine,” wrote Kazin, “but for [my parents]””to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. . . . Anything less than absolute perfection in school always suggested to my mind that I might fall out of the daily race, be kept back in the working class forever.”

Though Brownsville has New York's largest concentration of public housing, it also has a range of housing options, like these small brick residential buildings.

Though Brownsville Brooklyn has New York’s largest concentration of public housing, it also has a range of housing options, like these small brick residential buildings.

Kazin was especially fearful of falling into what he called the “criminal class,” because Brownsville, Brooklyn was home to Murder, Inc. and its mobsters, including Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. Nonetheless, Brownsville also produced celebrated New Yorkers, including composer Aaron Copland, comedian Danny Kaye, television host Larry King, public intellectual Norman Podhoretz, and historian Howard Zinn. Most of these achievers had been raised in the tenement housing stock built in the late 19th century and demolished in the 20th””often to make way for federally funded public housing, built for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

Jewish households left Brownsville in large numbers after World War II. In the 1960s the neighborhood, which had become mainly African-American, remained poor and crime stayed high. Brownsville was seared by a damaging riot in September 1967, which drove even more merchants out of business, followed a year later by the devastating Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, which seriously frayed the relationship between New York’s black and Jewish communities, says historian Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

While the first floors of Pitkin Avenue's intriguingly diverse architectural stock are mostly rented to commercial businesses, the upper floors are often boarded or bricked up--closed to all uses.

While the first floors of Pitkin Avenue’s intriguingly diverse architectural stock are mostly rented to commercial businesses, the upper floors are often boarded or bricked up–closed to all uses.

The ’60s had been bad for Brownsville, and the ’70s weren’t much better. New York City’s near bankruptcy in 1975 followed by years of fiscal crisis, raised taxes, and depressed city services, left Brownsville isolated and pretty much abandoned to its own resources. Violent crime became so endemic that architect Oscar Newman, author of Defensible Space, based his argument that high-rise buildings were inherently unsafe on the daily crime in the Brownsville and Van Dyke projects. Coverage in mainstream media over the next few decades focused on little other than crime. The occasional good-news piece was usually about one of Brownsville’s gifted athletes””Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Shannon Briggs, Willie Randolph””or entertainers””Masta Ace, M.O.P., and The RZA.

True to its earlier heritage, Brownsville continues to produce writers. Music critic and filmmaker Nelson George, for example, whose family had moved to New York from Virginia, says they were part of the wave of black and Latino immigrants from the South and from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was still sufficiently Jewish and Italian for George to grow up eating knishes, going to bar mitzvahs, and consuming Italian food. His mother was upwardly mobile and determined to go to college to become a teacher while bringing up George in the Tilden projects, “where the threat of violence” swept up “out of the ground.”

Playwright and performer Elaine Del Valle, author of Brownsville Bred, also grew up in the projects, in her case, the Langston Hughes Houses, which she recalls as the “toughest buildings in Brownsville.” She set herself firmly on the upward path by getting admitted to Brooklyn Technical High School, thanks to her teachers at PS 284, who “were kind, compassionate, empathetic, ready to help us succeed, to teach us pride in who we are””even though everybody outside looks at you as if where you live is the worst place on earth.”

Now vacant PS 125 on Rockaway Avenue, where playwright Elaine Del Valle's father was a janitor when she was growing up. Rosanne Haggerty hopes the building will become senior housing.

Now vacant PS 125 on Rockaway Avenue, where playwright Elaine Del Valle’s father was a janitor when she was growing up. Rosanne Haggerty hopes the building will become senior housing.

Tough Buildings

Brownsville has the highest concentration of public housing projects in New York””and thus probably in the country. The projects’ design””which almost no one defends today””developed from the ideas of eminent mid-20th century planners, dubbed “Decentrists” by Jane Jacobs, who borrowed the term from housing activists. Decentrists thought urban streets were destructive environments for human beings, and recommended turning housing inward toward sheltered greens, away from the street. The basic unit of design would be the block, especially the superblock. Commerce would be segregated from residences and parks, and limited according to scientific calculations of what residents needed. By design the projects became what Jacobs called “self-isolating.”

Brownsville's existing site, as rendered by Alexander Gorlin Architects, shows the inward-looking, self-isolating design so familiar in public housing.

Brownsville’s existing site, as rendered by Alexander Gorlin Architects, shows the inward-looking, self-isolating design so familiar in public housing.

The Decentrists’ ideas are starkly laid out in Brownsville, whose immense projects are built on superblocks stripped of retail, making a mockery of Jacobs’s description of urban neighborhoods as “delicate, teeming ecosystems.” Ironically, despite their seeming density, the projects are inefficiently built in contemporary terms, with large amounts of deserted open space””in other words, space that offers an opportunity to develop something better without displacing any residents. Indeed, architect Alexander Gorlin estimates that Brownsville has some 2 million square feet in unused air rights. Fred Harris, NYCHA’s Executive Vice President for Development, is supportive, noting that “the forms of our buildings that look nice on a map often feel insecure and exposed at ground level. We’d like to see our streets lined with stores, welcoming entrances off sidewalks, maybe even a new residential tower close to the subway station, which might be a candidate for housing for moderate-income households.”

Indeed, in his well-received book, Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, historian Wendell Pritchett points out that while many employed, moderate-income residents left in the 1970s, many stayed, in part because they moved into the Nehemiah Houses, constructed by the East Brooklyn Churches. In other words, the demand for moderate-income housing, such as that identified by Harris, remains strong in Brownsville.

Rosanne Haggerty hopes to start with a particular spot””Livonia and Rockaway, an entrance to the Tilden Houses that now looks bleak and empty, except for some garbage bags and parked cars.

Instead of being a welcoming presence for residents and visitors, the forlorn entrance to Tilden Houses is devoted to parking and garbage collection.

Instead of being a welcoming presence for residents and visitors, the forlorn entrance to Tilden Houses is devoted to parking and garbage collection.

The very fact that Haggerty has a plan brings hope to people struggling to turn Brownsville around. Her efforts in other neighborhoods””Times Square, for example””have been so successful that people new to New York often regard the bad old days as urban myths. They have trouble believing that Times Square hosted heroin addicts, street prostitutes, and vicious violent felons. Haggerty’s ability to look upon even the most troubled person as a human being worthy of respect combined with her acute analysis of the social problems associated with living on the street helped her formulate a remarkably effective strategic approach to combating homelessness. (As a “pioneer in the development of supportive housing and other research-based practices that end homelessness,” Haggerty received the Rockefeller Foundation‘s 2012 Jane Jacobs Medal, administered by the Municipal Art Society. The award cites Common Ground, which she founded in 1990, for providing “innovative shelters for homeless adults” through a “network of well-designed, affordable apartments, which link people to the services they need to maintain their housing, restore their health, and regain their economic independence.”)

NYCHA has chosen top companies””Blue Sea Development Company, Pennrose Properties, Duvernay + Brooks, and Rosenberg Housing Group””to redevelop the huge, empty Prospect Plaza project, just a few blocks north of Pitkin, as a mixed-use development.

NYCHA has chosen top companies””Blue Sea Development Company, Pennrose Properties, Duvernay + Brooks, and Rosenberg Housing Group””to redevelop the huge, empty Prospect Plaza project, just a few blocks north of Pitkin, as a mixed-use development.

But in her Common Ground days she observed that many families who applied to live at city shelters had come from a few neighborhoods, suggesting the need for place-based solutions. One neighborhood was Brownsville. “Follow the data,” she says, “and you’ll see concentrated problems. You’ll find that a large percentage of people who are homeless had been in the child welfare system. At the same time Brownsville has huge clusters of young men who have never worked. Many dropped out of high school. Brownsville also has high levels of obesity and diabetes, indicating that it matters how a neighborhood gets its food, it matters what people eat.” Thus Gorlin’s renderings of how public housing might be reconfigured include reestablishing the street grid, as Jane Jacobs suggested, and also providing community and rooftop gardens.

Brownsville public housing has enough open space to develop greenhouses and  gardens.

Brownsville public housing has enough open space to develop greenhouses and gardens.

Haggerty’s approach involves working with talented people from all fields””health, education, justice, housing, parks, business””“chipping away at the problems, starting to produce change.” To move the plan forward the Brownsville Partnership will build on its remarkable range of partners to hold community discussions and conferences. Reflecting on his life in old age Alfred Kazin commented, “Brownsville is the road which every other road in my life has had to cross.” Brownsville is itself now at a crossroads. The future won’t be easy, but Brownsville’s energy and aspirations, Haggerty’s ideas, Gorlin’s renderings, and NYCHA’s receptivity to reintegrating its projects into city life bode well.

24 Comments

  1. Julia Vitullo-Martin says:

    Thanks for the comment–and the reminder of how important schools & dedicated teachers are to upward mobility.

  2. Paula Quick says:

    Oh to see a picture of PS 125! Lived in the Brownsville Projects in the 50s and 60s before it got run down . As children we played outside and didn’t see ourselves as poor – because we weren’t. We had wonderful parents and had a rich upbringing . Glad PS 125 hasn’t been torn down. I had excellent teachers. I went on to graduate from NYU. I sincerely hope Brownsville makes a comeback. I’m sure it will!

  3. HERBERT KEITH says:

    HELLO, I’M FROM BROWNSVILLE MYSELF, AND I SURE WOULD LIKE TO SEE BROWNSVILLE IMPROVE. I KNOW BROWNSVILLE IS HIGH IN CRIME. I GOT TO BROWNSVILLE IN 1955 AND LEFT IN 1981. I LIVED IN 383 LIVONIA AVE AND THERE WERE TIME WHEN I LOVED IT AND TIMES WHEN I HATED IT. BUT IF I HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, I WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING.

  4. Myra Miller says:

    Growing up on 140 Amboy Street across the street from the Amboy Street Synagogue is the fulcrum of my life
    Promenading with friends on Pitkin Ave and Eastern Parkway on the High religious Jewish Holidays
    attending the Hopkinson Ave Jewish Theatre (terrible was demolished to make room for a parking lot
    Going to the Pitkin Ave Cafetaria with my divorced mother Ida Jeane and her boyfriend Lou where I first started sketching oon the paper napkins with her boyfriend listening to endless conversations late into the night
    The hum of the hot summer nights sitting on the stoop playing on the streets under the watchful eyes of our grandparents …
    running under the water hydrants to cool off
    expiencing so much movement talk street family life
    the Loews Pitkin Cinema was our palace … subsequently Living in Europe I’ve been to many European Palaces
    but my memories going to the splendid sumptuous Loews Pitkin has me captivated

  5. mrkareemruiz says:

    Sounds great!!

  6. mrkareemruiz says:

    White people are evil. They do nothing but kill others.

  7. […] Brownsville public housing has enough open space to develop greenhouses and gardens. Is Brownsville Brooklyn Ready for its Jane Jacobsian Comeback? | Untapped Cities […]

  8. […] And when bobos bearing yoga mats do hit Brownsville, there’s at least one person who won’t be surprised: Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Regional Plan Association. In January she penned an article for Untapped Cities asking, “Is Brownsville Brooklyn Ready for its Jane Jacobsian Comeback?“ […]

  9. Andreaawilson says:

    The community doesn’t care to know what’s going on. If they did, they would inform themselves and pay attention to what’s going on. Moreover, they would takecare of where they live and be more mindful of how they live. IJS!

  10. Jgfffhhj says:

    You can make brownsville into a palace with beautifully crafted buildings and 5 star restaurants but the place will still be over run by violent uneducated and dangerous “ghetto people” who hurt others and are drug oriented. Something has to be done about these black rats then maybe brownsville can become a decent place and you can worry about making it as pretty as you want.

  11. therealguyfaux says:

    The question is why high-rise architecture, in and of itself, is such a bad thing when applied to housing projects, and an unalloyed good when applied to, say, the East Side in Midtown. Obviously it is a function of the people who live there. Broken people live in broken housing, which becomes ever more broken, in a death spiral, till someone comes along and says, “Enough!” If the superblock were per se a horror, Stuy-Town and Cooper Village would be the modern Five Points. It is obvious that the city at some point abdicated its responsibility to maintain public order in certain areas, both social and geographical. It became way too easy simply to warehouse certain types of people, whose children would become the future residents of housing in Upstate facilities, owing to the lack of interest in any meaningful attempts to address economic and social disparities, because of “bien-pensant theories” of years gone by that never quite panned out, and by the time this fact was seen, a rotten cynicism had taken root. In many cases it is those whose theories were faulty who object the loudest to gentrification, in apparent solidarity with the poor they would claim, but they cannot answer this question: When will we be able to pay for the kind of world you want, if we don’t have a tax base of sufficient size to do so? If wealthier people move in to any area and start paying higher income and property taxes, even if there is a housing project nearby, haven’t we brought Mohammad to the mountain instead of vice-versa in regard to economic/income diversity in a neighborhood? And aren’t we more likely to pay attention to a neighborhood, and what problems may still exist there, if we have more than just “those people” (however defined) living there? There are hidden agendas going on here, and they are on the side of the argument that bemoans and bewails how gentrification can only hurt the poor as a whole. Of course there can be immediate dislocations, and of course those being dislocated aren’t going to like it much, but people in the South Bronx used to get dislocated whenever they were burnt out of their buildings. When townhouses started being built and sold on the newly-cleared blocks, you saw how The Bronx, as a whole, turned around; there is every reason to believe the same will happen in Brownsville; we can’t allow it to go otherwise, can we?

    • Ami says:

      You are correct – that many of those things have already take place in parts of the South Bronx. Melrose, Mott Haven, Longwood, and even Hunts Point to an extent. It doesn’t get as much press because Brooklyn is the media darling nowadays. Funny enough – I was helping at a farmer’s market/community Garden on 139th St. and St. Ann’s Ave. and there was a film crew from Belgium (yes in Europe) who were mapping out a documentary on how the South Bronx was an example of slum renewal.

      Just one caveat though… it wasn’t in all cases the residents were “burned out” back in the 70’s in the South Bronx. In fact – in some cases the residents did it – once they realized they would be placed in housing by the city. Also – often the neighborhood gangs were paid off by the landlords.

  12. In June 2010, construction began on a new transit oriented development , “Brownsville Transit Village”, on the 5.8- acre Brownsville Metrorail station parking lot. The project cost $100 million to build, and is composed of 467 units in five high-rise residential towers with ground-floor retail centered around the Brownsville Metro station. The project was partially funded by the ‘American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009′, and is one of the largest transit oriented development and affordable housing projects in Miami .

  13. Snailface8 says:

    I’d be concerned about gentrification. Has the community been engaged in the discussion and the planning? Sounds like they are being told what is good for them instead of being consulted…

    • Mary says:

      The article makes it pretty clear that the community is involved–Haggerty is pretty well-known for that

    • Julius Freeman says:

      Snailface8,

      I live 2 blocks away from Prospect Plaza & remember playing Basketball in “the hole”, Football around the back of the building which is always displayed, as well as other games in general. There was absolutely NOTHING wrong with these houses until the crack era hit, an era which affected many other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

      Beyond that, I believe that there was never any true intent of renovating Prospect Plaza. At one time, the fire department used the buildings for training purposes, but that was about it. From word “go”, I believe that this was some bull that was laid on thick. For example, the first building to go was 430 Saratoga Avenue, which also housed a much-used & much-needed daycare center directly next to it.

      As soon as they got the residents out of there, suddenly, the building developed errrrr…”structural defects” & so, they demolished the building & that was done years ago. The moment that that happened, I said then that they were going to take all of those buildings down. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the future for Prospect Plaza & here we are today.

      The residents were told one thing & over a span of 12 years NOTHING ever materialized. In my heart I know & I also believe that if we could see into the hearts of those involved, the sad truth would be revealed that this was yet another scam involving a land grab for developers & nothing less than that.

  14. Notlzay says:

    How come the locals didn’t buy the properties dirt cheap and fix them up?
    I tell you why, just like every other blighted neighborhood… they were too lazy
    to take care of their home. When you don’t take care of things someone smarter
    will always come in and buy it out from under you.

    • Guest says:

      Wow. That’s a pretty ignorantly formed opinion.

    • Julius Freeman says:

      This has got to be one of the most ignorant responses that I’ve read, though sadly, a typical one made by people whom are too lazy to do their homework.

      If you actually knew ANYTHING about the history of Brooklyn, you know how housing developed in Brooklyn & you’d also know why Brownsville was built, whom it was built for, whom built Brownsville, as well as why Brownsville became what it is today.

      SInce you have no idea, a little history lesson for you…

      I’ve lived in Brownsville since 1969 & contrary to your belief, the Black homeowners whom lived here took good care of their property. But as Brownsville’s reputation sunk lower, the banks weren’t interested in investing in the neighborhood. Many homeowners, my own landlord included, couldn’t obtain home improvement loans from the banks & for obvious reasons.

      There were many people whose first home was a HUD house, houses that they would fix up themselves. As the 70s turned into the 80s, a nasty little thing began occurring called “REDLINING”. If you don’t know what that is, look it up, I won’t do all of the work for you.

      Either way, suddenly all of those vacant homes were no longer available for purchase, so many of them sat & rotted due to the elements. And as far as the owners (whom WERE NOT Black nor Hispanic), more than a few of the landlords of those buildings were caring enough to pay a junkie a few dollars to light them up, as to them, a building in disrepair which had several violations looming against it, wasn’t worth fixing up when insurance money paid so much better.

      You make it sound as though the people whom were left behind were the owners of these buildings & if so, again, do your homework, as this history is very easy to obtain. Beyond that, many of these buildings were already dilapidated & beyond hope from the start.

      Again, before making such idiotic statements, I suggest that you study the history of the ghettos & projects of Brooklyn came to be. And here’s a clue…it wasn’t due to the Blacks nor Hispanics whom tended to be victimized by greedy, & unethical landlords.

      But why bother with speaking facts when the ignorant stereotypes are so much more romantic & massage the feelings of superiority so well?

      Ridiculous, but oh, so typical :)

      • Julius Freeman says:

        I also neglected that these properties were redlined as being “undesirable” in a VERY “undesirable” neighborhood, as well as one with the worst reputation in the city. The smart money was on allowing that neighborhood & those homes to hit as close to rock bottom as possible, then selling large parcels of it to people with money, aka DEVELOPERS aka LAND GRABBERS, whom have NO spirit of community, NO loyalty to community & NO ties to that community.

        They buy that property at a relatively cheap price for a corporation or a LLC to swoop down, build substandard housing, that they then sell for $400k.

        Tell me, with kickbacks, nepotism & the like being so popular, exactly WHOM do you believe that the banks were going to cater to?

        Think…it ain’t illegal yet!

  15. Vader says:

    Beware the hipster invasion that will drive up rents and drive out locals.

  16. crawford57 says:

    Sounds promising! Brownsville is finally making real strides, and has a much brighter future.

  17. […] post Is Brownsville Brooklyn Ready for its Jane Jacobsian Comeback? appeared first on Untapped New […]

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