FALL 2009 VOL. 33 NO.

03

11237

One New York City Neighborhood in
the Bloomberg Era
By Jarrett Murphy and Neil deMause

A mural in 11237 traces Bushwick’s history. Cover: Zip code 11237 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, August 27th, 10:29 a.m. Photos: Jacob Silberberg
Statement of ownership, management and circulation, required 39 U.S.C. 3685: Title of Publication: City Limits. Publication number: 498890. Date
of filing: October 2009. Issue frequency: Quarterly (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter). Number of issues published annually: 4. Annual subscription
price: $25 Individual and $50 Organizations. Complete mailing address of publication: City Limits, 120 Wall Street, New York, NY 10005. Complete
mailing address of publisher: City Futures, 120 Wall Street, Floor #20, New York, NY 10005. Publisher: Andrew Breslau, Executive Director, City Futures, 120 Wall Street, Floor #20, New York, NY 10005, Editor: Jarrett Murphy, City Limits, 120 Wall Street, Floor #20, New York, NY 10005, Owner: City
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2

FALL 2009

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

FALL 2009 VOL. 33 NO. 03

The nearly eight years of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty have been nothing if not ambitious. Whether it’s rezoning much of the city, adopting a high-stakes education strategy that
achieved authority but limited public input or pursuing an aggressive approach to policing that
produced a record number of “stop and frisks” and a remarkable reduction in crime—many
of the mayor's achievements have sharp double edges. Even the luster of the administration’s
historic affordable housing plan is dulled by doubts over whether it will meet its announced
goals. Equally uncertain is the ultimate impact of its much admired anti-poverty plans, which
so far have seemed to be more about interesting experimentation than meaningful scale.
Despite this mixed accounting, it’s clear the one thing that cannot be said of Bloomberg’s
tenure is that it has been inconsequential.
The mayor's consequence has been amplified and abetted by his unprecedented ability
to dominate discourse in this city. In addition to the power and prerogatives of his office,
Bloomberg wields a personal fortune virtually beyond compare, enjoys the silence and cooperation that his huge corporate and philanthropic reach buy, engages in almost unimaginable campaign spending and—if all that weren’t enough—also basks in the consistent and
comparatively docile editorial support of the city’s mainline dailies.
So, as this uniquely powerful mayor seeks a third term facing a new opponent in Comptroller William Thompson, how do we best assess this sprawling record and legacy? We
could try a fly-over of the length and breadth of his administration or a return to well-charted territory like the controversies over term limits or congestion pricing. Ultimately, we
thought that an in-depth portrait of one piece of the city over these last eight years might
give us a better insight into what this mayoralty has meant--not just to a specific neighborhood but, by extension and resonance, to us all.
In this issue of CLI, Neil deMause and Jarrett Murphy start with the center: ZIP Code
11237—Bushwick, Brooklyn. A neighborhood of change, contrasts and economic stress—
and one that just happens to occupy the geographic center of our city.
In an era where the gulf between New Yorkers rich and poor continues to grow ever
wider, where unemployment exceeds 10 percent for everyone and double that for men of
color, where the laying down of middle-class roots seems an ever more distant opportunity,
the story of one small place may tell us the bigger story. What progress has been forged,
what has been lost, what our choices are and where the future lies may well be found along
the streets of Bushwick.

11237

One
neighborhood
through the
Bloomberg years
ChapterS
I. The Center
II. Crime
III. Jobs
VI. Schools
V. Housing
VI. Change

p.5
p.7
p.13
p.19
p.25
p.33

in focus
Matters of Life and Death
Health and hospital visits
Bank on It
Haves and have-nots
Ticket to Ride
Travails on the rails to work

p.11
p.15
p.29

—Andy Breslau,
Publisher
CORRECTION: The Summer 2009 issue misidentified Dr. Robert Newman as the current president of Continuum Health Partners. He is the president emeritus. A chart on page 24 included
misprinted dates. For the corrected chart, go to www.citylimits.org/magazine.

City Limits Staff

Jarrett Murphy

Investigations Editor
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www.CITYLIMITS.ORG

©2009 BlueSky, 2009 Digital Globe, 2009 Sanborn; Courtesy Google Earth

City Limits Investigates

I. The Center
In the nearly eight years since
Michael Bloomberg was elected
mayor, 870,000 babies have
been born in New York City,
and 400,000 people have died.
More than 5.8 billion car trips
have been made into and out
of the city. Forty thousand new
buildings have been started.
The fire department has battled
more than a quarter million
blazes and people have reported
180,000 robberies to the police.
John F. Kennedy International
Airport has seen 2 million takeoffs and landings. The Yankees
and Mets have played almost
2,600 times, while Staten Island
ferries have logged enough
nautical miles to go to the moon
and back three times. On 19,000
occasions, St. Patrick's Cathedral has celebrated Mass. Ten
billion shares changed hands at
the stock exchange.

W

hen New Yorkers head to the
polls in November, they will
decide whether the mayor will spend
another four years in office. Whatever the outcome when the votes are
counted, an election is a time to size up
how the city has changed—is it better,
worse or just plain different?—during
the Bloomberg era.

©2009 Sanborn, 2009 TeleAtlas; Courtesy Google Earth

New Yorkers live in a metropolis,
but they dwell in a neighborhood,
probably in a section of city consisting of a few blocks. It's there that they
live, shop, catch the subway to work
and bring the kids to school, and it's
where the city's successes and failures
are most keenly felt.
One such area is ZIP code 11237 in
Brooklyn. One of New York's 300-odd
ZIP codes, 11237 has the distinction of
containing, according to the Department of City Planning, the geographic
center of the city of New York, on the
block of Stockholm Street between
Wyckoff and St. Nicholas avenues.
When the federal government last
counted in 2000, there were 48,642 people living in the ZIP, which comprises
the northern half of the neighborhood

of Bushwick.
A lot has changed in 11237 during
Bloomberg's time as mayor. Reported
crime is lower and the schools are
posting better scores. Thousands of
manufacturing jobs have vanished and
housing has become harder to afford.
Most of the changes have roots that go
years deep, and some are the product of
forces well beyond any mayor's control.
But city policy has played a role in all of
it. Over the past eight years, there has
been real progress against old problems in Bushwick, and new problems
have emerged.
This is a look at some of what has
happened in one ZIP code since 2001.
What follows might not encompass the
full story of the wider city. But it is part
of that larger tale.
FALL 2009

5

The 83rd Precinct building was constructed on a site cleared by a devastating
fire during the neighborhood's darkest days.
Photo: Jacob Silberberg

6

FALL 2009

City Limits Investigates

City Limits Investigates

II. Crime
"Kid, you're on your own."
On a sultry Sunday this August, two groups of old men
play dominoes on tables on the
Knickerbocker Avenue sidewalk
outside Maria Hernandez Park.
Inside the park, which covers a
whole block, infants lie next to
moms or nannies on the grass,
and older kids swarm over the
shiny new playground in the
center. Near the basketball cage,
a small-squad softball game
gets under way. Church ladies
distribute bookmarks bearing the
Ten Commandments. A shirtless, sculpted man does set after
set on a chin-up bar while his
decidedly less sculpted friend
watches. They're next to a plaza
where skateboarders roll lazily
between stunts. The summer
wind carries a faint chorus of
ambulance sirens from nearby
Wyckoff Heights Medical Center
and ice cream truck jingles and
car radios from the streets.

L

isette Jimenez, who has lived in the
area for 38 years, stands on a shaded
knoll. She says that day's picture is stark-

ly different from what one would have
seen before the Bloomberg administration. "Oh definitely—especially the park.
Ten years ago, this was all gang-related,"
she says, gesturing in a wide circle. "You
had to walk through very fast and find
the nearest exit. No strolling."
When asked to reflect on the past
eight years, people in 11237—be they
residents, real estate agents, pastors,
activists or politicians—first point to
the reduction in crime. Adam Schwartz,
a local historian, agrees. There was a
music festival at Maria Hernandez Park
earlier in the summer. In the Bushwick
of old, he says simply, "You wouldn't
have had festivals in parks."
Glenn Ho, owner of Hoskie, a meatpacking plant several blocks north
of the park, says that area is also less
seedy than it was. "Years ago, we would
have hookers walking around the
blocks," he says. "Those girls seem to
have retired."
In a place once famous for disorder
and violence, safety has changed the
game for residents and business owners. Behind the feeling of security is a
complex story, reflecting both successes and failures on the city's part, some
by the Bloomberg administration and
some spanning two decades.
Maria Hernandez Park is at the heart
of the 11237 ZIP code, a slab of north
Brooklyn running northwest to southeast along the Queens border, a sort of
rectangle 40 blocks long and five blocks
wide at its thickest. At the northwest
end, which starts south of Grand Street,
the area is heavily industrial—populated
by metal factories and concrete plants,
as well as warehouses. South of Flushing Avenue, the zone turns residential.
Most commercial activity is along Knickerbocker Avenue, which runs the length

of the residential area and anchors the
densest housing of the zone—a ridge
of tan apartment buildings. Turning
off Knickerbocker toward Queens, one
sees mostly smaller buildings, like twostory row houses. Myrtle Avenue slices
through the width of the area and separates the blocks of chain stores and big
retailers in the northwest from quieter
streets dominated by walk-ups and bodegas in the southeast. At the south
end, the ZIP code ends at the Cemetery
of the Evergreens.
According to the Department of City
Planning, that area of Brooklyn (Community Board 4, which encompasses
11237 and the rest of Bushwick) is
67 percent Latino and about 24 percent black, with the remainder split
between whites and Asians. In 2008,
48 percent of the population received
some form of public income support—
mostly Medicaid, but also welfare and
disability income.
Forty years ago, the statistics would
have been starkly different. Bushwick
was German and Italian until suburbanization drew an increasing number of
white families away in the 1960s. They
were replaced first by middle-class
blacks, then by poorer blacks and Latinos. Exactly why the neighborhood
turned less affluent is still debated.
Some attribute it to federal immigration laws that choked off the flow of
middle-class newcomers to areas like
Bushwick. Others blame city cutbacks
in other areas for causing conditions
that led people to flee east. In any case,
the newcomers came, and more of
the whites began to leave. Real estate
agents redlined. Property values sank,
and some owners set their properties
alight to collect insurance. Others just
moved out.

FALL 2009

7

City Limits Investigates

Going Down

Reported major felony crimes decreased in the 83rd Precinct, which covers most of
ZIP code 11237, from 2001 to 2008. The percentage decrease in rapes in the 83rd was
considerably greater than the fall citywide. Local larcenies, however, rose against a
citywide reduction.
Change in Number of Crimes 2001-08

City
30

AUTO THEFT

LARCENY

BURGLARY

ASSAULT

RAPE

10

MURDER

20

ROBBERY

83rd Precinct

O

0
-10
-20
-30
-40
-50
-60
Source: NYPD

The decline became a nosedive when
a 1977 blackout struck and the neighborhood erupted in riots. Sister Elizabeth Nickels, then a school principal in
the area, sat on her stoop and watched
people she knew loot stores. Ralph
Ehresman grew up in 11237 and was
a teenager hanging out with friends
when they happened upon the violence.
His mom worked as an aide in the local
precinct, so he asked a police officer
for help. "He said, 'Kid, you're on your
own,' " Ehresman recalls.
The explosion of violence earned
the neighborhood a measure of infamy. When New York hit its '70s nadir,
Bushwick symbolized the despondency. "We had 1,820 abandoned lots
in the district—worse than East New
York or Brownsville," says Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the powerful Brooklyn
8

FALL 2009

made Bushwick synonymous with the
"death of New York."
"There are a couple big events in
Bushwick's history," says Nicole Marwell, a political science professor at Baruch College and author of "Bargaining
for Brooklyn," a book that examines the
role of neighborhood organizations in
reviving areas like Bushwick. "The riots were one. The next big moment was
the crack epidemic. Bushwick was the
center of crack in the city and maybe in
the Northeast."

Democratic chairman who represents
the area. "Buses used to have tours for
people from Europe to see the ruins."
While 11237 was mostly spared the
fires that plagued Bushwick's southern portion, it followed the rest of the
neighborhood down.
In some ways, the riots were a beginning, not an end, to the problems.
Many minority homeowners were terrified by the violence, sold out and left.
Stripped of their stabilizing presence,
the area decayed further. The park
where the men play dominoes on an
August Sunday used to be called Bushwick Park but was renamed for Maria
Hernandez, a neighborhood resident
who organized her community to oppose drug dealers before being killed
by shots fired into her home. She died
in 1989, a full 12 years after the riots

f course, Bushwick was no utopia before the riots. "I wouldn't
trade my childhood for the world. But
there was a lot of violence," Ehresman
says. "There were race riots then and
again. We had the Italian cafés on the
block. They had a lot of issues with
race, especially if they saw a black guy
with a white girl." And drugs were a
problem well before crack. In the '70s,
angel dust was in such demand that
people would break in to Bushwick
funeral homes to steal the embalming
fluid, which could be combined with
the dust to make a potent cocktail.
Soon after the blackout, Bushwick suffered the All-Hands Fire—the biggest
conflagration in city history before
Sept. 11. On the ashes, the city built
a new headquarters for the 83rd Precinct, the police command responsible
for most of 11237.
Ehresman, a police officer for 18
years who retired in 2001, worked in
that precinct for three years in the late
1980s. By the middle of the decade, the
area was already a hot spot for people
from Queens and the burbs to score
heroin. But crack was signally devastating, partly because its price spurred a
raft of other crimes. Crack was so cheap
that you could steal virtually anything
and pay for a hit. "If you saw something
in somebody's car, you took it," Ehresman says. "If you sold something for
five or 10 bucks, you get a rock." In other words, crack lowered the threshold
for addicts to feed their habit by thieving. The drug triggered more serious
crime as well. Cops in the 8-3 had a pool

City Limits Investigates

for when the first homicide would happen each year. One year's contest was
over by 12:07 a.m. on Jan. 1.
"There was a sense of lawlessness
on the streets," recalls Realtor Patrick
Huang, who works on Wyckoff Avenue
and has been in the neighborhood since
1982. "They would sell drugs in front of

to bring TNT to the streets of 11237.
The heavy manpower, checkpoints
and klieg lights got rid of the dealers,
says Marwell. "The bad news was, they
pushed them a few blocks away, where
they set up again."
A veteran police officer, still on the
force, who works in the 11237 area

"There are a couple big events
in Bushwick's history. The riots
were one. The next big moment
was the crack epidemic."
you. A lot of people were afraid to go
out after they came home. There were
people working extremely hard, trying to open businesses. But they didn't
know the situation. They spent a lot of
time opening up, but no one came."
According to Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at John Jay College
and historian of the drug trade in New
York, crack arrived in Bushwick fairly
late. The drug dealers who controlled
the local market in the 1980s traded
only in heroin and powder coke. "Up
until 1990, you had the big, corporatestyle dealing organizations that were
dominating 11237," Curtis says. "What
happened in '90 was, they got an infusion of more dealers from Williamsburg because the dealers from Williamsburg were displaced by TNT,"
or tactical narcotics teams, an NYPD
anti-narcotics push that began in the
late 1980s.
The result was more bloodshed. In the
2006 documentary "Bushwick Homecomings," young men who grew up in
Bushwick tell filmmaker Stefanie Joshua
about losing friends to drug-related violence. "Personal friends, that I knew?"
one man, a former crack dealer named
Elijah, said. "Maybe 20 of them got killed.
And hundreds, hundreds in jail."
When crack hit Bushwick, local organizations like the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council—which
Lopez, then a social worker, launched a
decade earlier—worked with the police

says, "The real turnaround came in
1993, 1994." By then, more cops were
on the beat after the Dinkins administration pushed through its Safe Streets/
Safe City initiative to add 4,000 officers
to the NYPD. But an evolution in police
attitude, the officer says, is what really
altered the neighborhood's direction.
The police force had followed a handsoff policy toward drugs since the 1972
Knapp Commission investigation found
that corruption was endemic to the
city's narcotics units. But that started
to change after a young police officer's
murder in 1988. The TNT initiative
was one step toward more active policing. But many believe the crucial piece
came in under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
With Commissioner Bill Bratton and his
deputy Jack Maple's arrival in 1994, the
police department adopted a data-driven approach to detecting crime trends
and a strategy of relentless follow-up to
target the wrongdoers.
"Cops were allowed to do their job,"
after Bratton and Maple arrived, says
the officer, who did not want to be
named because department regulations bar unauthorized contact with the
press. "We were allowed to take people
off the streets. We came up with focuses [on particular crimes]. Cops were
unhandcuffed. We were no longer reactionary—we were proactive. Whether it
was going up to people hanging out on a
corner and telling them, You can't hang
out here, or making a call to a narcotics

squad to say you think they're dealing
drugs. It's a very methodical process."
Meanwhile, the police pressure coalesced with other forces to start turning the neighborhood around. "The
community organizations got some
legs under them. There really are sort
of boots on the ground," Marwell says.
"And then a lot of it was how the money
starts flowing in."
Under Mayor Ed Koch, the city began to build housing on vacant lots like
the ones that pockmarked Bushwick.
The Community Reinvestment Act
steered bank lending to property owners in the area. These investments began to take hold just as crime started
to retreat. "The more often-told story
is, 'Things were bad, and then the
knight in shining armor in the form
of Rudy Giuliani or Bill Bratton rides
to the rescue.' There's a grain of truth
to that. But the real estate market's
role—that's not a story that gets told,"
says Travis Wendel, a John Jay College sociologist. In the competition between drug dealers and investors over
Bushwick's space, he says, "The real
estate market had a better military
organization in the form of the police
than drug dealers did in dudes with
guns and bats."
At the same time, Curtis' research
indicates, the crack boom hit a selfcorrecting point where potential users,
seeing the drug's devastating effects
on others, started to stay away from
the rock and opted to use marijuana instead. Dealers responded to that lower
demand by showing less interest in killing one another over market territory
and adapted to police tactics by moving
their operations inside.

I

n 1990, there were 77 murders in the
83rd Precinct. By 1995, there were
17. The number has dropped further,
slowly, since then. In 2001, Giuliani's
last year as mayor, there were 12. Last
year, there were 10. Rape, robbery,
felonious assault, burglary and car
theft have also gone down during the
Bloomberg years—anywhere from 13
percent to 50 percent. Grand larcenies,
FALL 2009

9

City Limits Investigates

however, are up 25 percent.
"I think they're doing a wonderful job. All I see is these officers, they
are trying their damnedest to educate
these kids not to lead the community
back to the way it was," says Edward
Kormin, a property owner in the area
since 1983 and a former resident, who
still sits on the community council for
the 83rd Precinct. The drug war came
to his doorstep, literally. He says one of
his superintendents was caught with
a big stash of cocaine. Inspector John
Bambury, who commanded the 83rd
for three years between 2005 and 2008,
once climbed onto the roof of one of
Kormin's buildings to make a bust.
Kormin now participates in the Formal
Trespass Affidavit Program, in which
he gives the cops a roster of his tenants
and the right to conduct so-called vertical patrols in his building, ostensibly
to prevent nonresidents from selling or
buying drugs in the building. "I got to
tell you, it's very effective,” he says.
Not everyone in 11237 shares that
view. Few New Yorkers expected crime
to continue to fall even lower under
Bloomberg than it had under Giuliani,
especially with a police force that's at
least 9 percent smaller; that crime has
continued to hit record lows since 2002
is certainly an achievement. But the
tactics the NYPD has used have stirred
resentment among some in Bushwick—
especially its policy of stopping and questioning increasing numbers of people on
the street. From 316,000 stops citywide
in 2004, the NYPD's use of the tactic
increased to 531,000 last year and is on
pace to hit more than 600,000 this year.
"The way police are operating in our
community is not productive," Eddy Polanco, a local teenager, told the audience
at a recent forum on policing sponsored
by the community organization Make
the Road New York. Another teen, Bernard Greene, who claimed that he was
arrested on false charges and assaulted
last year, said, "These days, cops don't
go for quality arrests. They go for quantity. People are killing people, these drug
dealers, but you go after people who are
sitting in front of a building."
10

FALL 2009

The NYPD reported 4,704 stops in
the 83rd Precinct during the first six
months of 2009. While that's nowhere
near the most in the city (East New
York's 75th Precinct, with nearly 15,000
stops, tops the list), the 83rd ranks in
the top 10 for searches per capita.
The police stops don't occur only on
the streets. There are also the vertical
patrols that landlord Kormin praises,
in which officers sweep through buildings, often making arrests for the
charge of criminal trespass. In arraignment courts around the city, people
busted for criminal trespass often claim
that they were visiting a friend or even
hanging out in their own building but
not carrying identification. "The NYPD
is engaged in harassment of the black
and Latino communities. That's not
even debatable," says Noel Leader, a
retired officer and co-founder of 100
Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.
"The impetus behind the vertical patrols was to attack the criminal element, which is wonderful, but what it's
become is a numbers generator for the
NYPD." Arrests for criminal trespass
in New York increased 55 percent from
2002 to 2008.
In the first half of 2009, 95 percent of
those stopped in the 83rd Precinct were
black or Latino. Critics of the NYPD's
stops have pointed to its unequal racial
impact, but the department counters
that the stops reflect the racial breakdown of suspects. In the 8-3, for example, 99 percent of violent crime suspects
in the first six months of this year were
identified as black or Latino.
There are other explanations offered
for the racial skew. High-crime areas
like Bushwick are more likely to have
more cops, thanks to the NYPD's Operation Impact. They are also likely to
have larger minority populations than
other areas. More cops mean more
stops in those areas, and since most of
the people in the area are black or Latino, the people stopped are likely to be
of color as well. It's also true that the
department is probably doing a better
job of counting these stops, so some of
the increase since 2004 might be ex-

plained by better record-keeping.
"Ninety percent of stops are just
stops," says the veteran officer. "We're
allowed to invoke our basic right to inquiry. It's a person's actions that push
it further," like if they "give me evasive
answers or are just trying to be a pain in
the ass." Part of the point is to simply let
people know that the police are watching. "You're not going to screw around
if you know you're being watched," he
adds. The officer acknowledges that
the tactic can stir resentment but adds,
"It's a tough line to walk. You don't
know what people are doing. That's the
problem. We don't know everybody. We
can't know. This isn't Mayberry."
Most people stopped aren't doing
anything wrong: 89 percent of those
stopped in Bushwick this year were released without receiving a summons or
being arrested. The most common reason cited by police officers for stopping
a person was that someone engaged
in "furtive movements," cited in 2,600
cases. In 760 stops, the person matched
a description of a suspect.
About 1 in 20 residents of the 8-3
were stopped by the cops from January to June, compared with 1 in 250 on
the Upper West Side. Crime is higher
in Bushwick than on the Upper West
Side, by a factor of 2. But the number
of searches is higher by a factor of 10.
For every violent crime suspect in the
Upper West Side, the NYPD search 4
people. In Bushwick, they searched 14.
To the officer, the real harassment
comes from the other direction—in the
form of complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) by people,
he says, who are simply annoyed that
they have been arrested. Most CCRB
complaints do not result in discipline;
some are baseless, many investigations
end prematurely for lack of evidence.
Even baseless complaints, the officer
says, eat up a cop's time and delay his
advancement.
Despite those complaints, the officer
feels the community in places like Bushwick is behind the NYPD. "Eighty-five
percent of the people who back you always backed you. They may not do it

1500
1000
City Limits Investigates

500
0

Nervous system

Diabetes

Genitourinary

Alcohol-related

Circulatory

Drug-related

Mental

Digestive

Heart

Health and hospital visits

People in Bushwick were more likely to die in 2007 than those in the city as a whole. When
adjusted for the age structure of their respective populations, Bushwick’s death rate per
1,000 people was 8.5, to the city’s 7.1. People’s lives ended less frequently than in Brownsville, with the city’s highest death rate, at 10.8. But Bushwick’s rate of death far exceeded
that of Murray Hill, at 4.5. While heart disease is the area’s biggest killer, Bushwick residents
are less likely to die of heart problems than are people in 52 of New York’s 61 community
districts. The rate of cancer death is also far below city average. When it comes to deaths
from drug overdoses and liver problems, however, Bushwick is among the city’s hot spots..
40

deaths per 100,000 people in 11237

35
Liver disease

30

F

Diabetes

25

HIV

20

Stroke
Flu/pneumonia

15
10
5

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

The rate of hospitalization for asthma in the area has decreased steadily during the Bloomberg
years. But compared with the city as a whole, Bushwick residents are more likely to go the hospital. Looking at the city’s top 10 reasons for hospital visits, Bushwick’s hospitalization rate is
higher in every case. –JM
3000

hospitalization rates, 2006

2500

Bushwick
NYC

2000
1500
1000
500

Nervous system

Diabetes

Genitourinary

Alcohol-related

Circulatory

Drug-related

Mental

Injury & poisoning

Digestive

0
Heart

Admissions per 1,000 people

or all that's changed in Bushwick
to make it safer, risks still abound.
Lisette Jimenez will walk through Maria Hernandez Park during the day
without a second thought, but not at
night. "No. It's basically drugs right
here," she says, pointing to Knickerbocker Avenue. "Heroin, crack. Some
of my friends smoke weed. Here it's
mostly weed." Curtis says the corner
of Troutman Street and Knickerbocker, just west of the park, is still a bustling heroin market.
James Kelly, the pastor of nearby St.
Brigid's Church, says drugs are indeed
a continued presence. So are gangs.
"Crips, Latin Kings and Mexican gangs
that nobody knows. Nobody seems to
have a real handle on the very flexible
relationship among the Mexican [gang
members]. They seem to be a fluid
kind of operation," says Kelly, who still
speaks in a heavy brogue despite some
48 years tending his flock in Bushwick.
He winks. "It's a movable feast, in liturgical terms."
Drugs, says the veteran cop, are
less visible but still available in 11237.
"We've adapted to their methods, and
they've adapted to ours," he says of
the drug dealers, who have moved
their operations indoors, employing
multiple safeguards against detection.
"We've just got to learn to do our job
better."

Injury & poisoning

Matters of Life and Death

death rate

publicly. Five percent you're not ever
going to please," he says. "Ten percent
you fight for. They may not be happy
with our methods all the time, but
they're happy with what we can do."
Police-community relations in 11237
took a hit in May 2007, when police
detained 32 teenagers who were heading to a wake for a slain friend, who
was a reputed gang member. Police
arrested the group en route, claiming they wanted to head off possible
violence. The charges against most
of the "Bushwick 32" were dismissed,
and the city this year agreed to pay
$260,000 to some members of the
group to settle a lawsuit. The NYPD
did not admit wrongdoing.

Source: NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

FALL 2009

11

City Limits Investigates

Bushwick was once home to breweries and
a thriving garment trade. Now industrial jobs
are disappearing. Photo: Jacob Silberberg

12

FALL 2009

City Limits Investigates

Jobs
III. "My people are under pressure right now."
On a weekday afternoon along
Metropolitan Avenue, it's loud,
but not just one kind of loud.
It's loud in a mosaic of noise.
The sharp sounds of metal being cut blend with the whine of
a forklift. Tractor-trailer trunks
diesel their way around corners,
their frames colliding with their
axles as they roll over bumps
in the streets. A front-loader in
reverse beeps as a conveyer belt
showers a spray of gravel into a
concrete factory. In the northern
end of ZIP code 11237, there
seem to be as many machines
as people, and there are far
more factories and plants than
houses. On a weekday, industry
is heard more than seen.

B

ut in the past eight years, the sound
of industry has changed. Today,
the tone is different—perhaps softer.
There's been a steep falloff in industrial employment—the jobs associated
with the screeching, roaring, banging
and beeping that 11237 hosts in the bluecollar triangle of Grand Street, Flushing
Avenue and Morgan Avenue. From the
end of 2001 to the end of 2008, industrial
employment declined 9 percent to about
3,900. But since jobs in industrial sec-

tors like warehousing and trucking increased, the loss in true-manufacturing
sectors was steeper. Textile mills shed
84 percent of their workers. Food manufacturing employment shrank nearly a
quarter, while paper-product jobs shrank
more than a third.
Father Kelly recalls when the garment industry was a giant force in
Bushwick and Ridgewood, the neighboring community across the Queens
border. Decades back, Ridgewood
was the knitting capital of the country.
There and in Bushwick, waves of Germans, Italians, Romanians and Yugoslavs found work in what Kelly calls the
"rag trade." The International Ladies'
Garment Workers' Union was a force
in the neighborhood. Everyone read
its newspaper, Justice. Breweries were
also once a force in the area.
Even 10 years ago, garment-making
was still an important source of work
for Kelly's congregation. But then it
began to disappear. According to the
Labor Department data, the number
of apparel-manufacturing jobs in 11237
dropped from 1,200 in 2002 to 200 last
year. "NAFTA," is Kelly's one-word explanation.
Leah Archibald, executive director of
the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial
Development Corp., or Ewvidco, a nonprofit that aids industry in 11237 and the
surrounding area, also blames world
trade patterns for some of the changes
wracking Bushwick's industrial base. "I
won't blame just NAFTA, but globalization," she says. "You can blame Walmart.
It's a total race to the bottom."
But there also are other forces at
play. Real estate prices, federal and city
policies, national economic trends and
migration patterns also have reshaped
what work is done in Bushwick, how

many people are working at all and
what support is available for people
whose income (or lack thereof) makes
them too poor to live unassisted.

T

hree decades ago, New York City
created industrial parks like the
one in East Williamsburg—which covers part of 11237—to try to revitalize
manufacturing neighborhoods by battling crime and resisting the abandonment of the city by residents and businesses. Today the nonprofits that run
many of the city's 16 industrial business
zones, or IBZs, face a different set of
challenges.
"Things have changed, frankly, very
drastically over the past 30 years. This
particular corner of Brooklyn, it went
from being a crime-ridden, disinvested
community to being unfathomably desirable for residential development,"
Archibald says. She oversees not only
an IBZ but also an ombudsman zone.
Businesses in both areas get support
from Ewvidco. But those in the IBZ
have an added weapon: If a developer
tries to convert space in the zone from
industrial to residential, the city will
oppose it. Those in the ombudsman
zone cannot count on that kind of regulatory backup.
According to the Pratt Center for
Community Development, some 1,800
of the city's 12,500 acres of manufacturing land were rezoned to residential by Bloomberg's Department of
City Planning from 2002 to 2007, with
more acreage slated for a similar shift.
Brooklyn lost 14 percent of its manufacturing territory.
"Every building we lose to housing
now is harmful to the manufacturing
base. It drives up the rent of commercial real estate. You can get many, many,

FALL 2009

13

City Limits Investigates

Help Wanted

Since 2002, manufacturing employment in 11237 has declined about 9 percent.
But the overall number masks changes within the industrial sector. Some types of
business have expanded, while others have collapsed.
Loss or Gain in Manufacturing Jobs, 2002-08

NONDURABLE GOODS
WHOLESALERS
SPECIALTY TRADE
CONTRACTORS
WASTE MANAGEMENT
& REMEDIATION
FABRICATED METAL
PRODUCTS
PRINTING
& RELATED ACTIVITIES
NONMETALLIC MINERAL
PRODUCTS
CONSTRUCTION
OF BUILDINGS
TRANSIT & GROUND
PASSENGER TRANSPORT
FURNITURE
& RELATED PRODUCTS
WOOD PRODUCTS
MANUFACTURING
MACHINERY
MANUFACTURING
BUILDING MATERIAL
& GARDEN STORES
TRUCK
TRANSPORTATION
PAPER
MANUFACTURING
TEXTILE PRODUCT
MILLS
MISCELLANEAOUS
MANUFACTURING
CHEMICAL
MANUFACTURING
FOOD
MANUFACTURING
TEXTILE
MILLS
DURABLE GOODS
WHOLSESALERS
APPAREL
MANUFACTURING
-1200 -1000

-800

-600

-400

-200

0

200

400

600

Source: NYS Department of Labor, courtesy Ewvidco

14

FALL 2009

many times more dollars per square foot
for residential use," Archibald says.
What's more, "When we lose buildings to market-rate residents, there's
frequently very little organic connection between individuals that live in
those properties and the work that
occurs in those manufacturing establishments nearby." It used to be
that people who lived near factories
worked in them, so they knew what
went on inside and why it was important. They had a vested interest—their
own paycheck—in coexisting. "That's
not the case between folks who are
gentrifying this neighborhood now,"
Archibald adds. "They think of those
factories as a nuisance. There's trucks
there idling. They don't know what
goes on in there. They consider these
buildings to be abandoned. So they
feel no compunction about getting on
the phone and complaining."
She recalls one body shop that had
a city contract to tow cars. A resident
complained about a sidewalk stained
by the dripping oil from the wrecks,
and the business was fined. "If over
time it becomes such an aggravation
to be here—its fines, its dwindling
profits, losing a big customer—and all
of a sudden, your real estate is worth
more than your business, then it's difficult to compel businesses to want to
stay open."
Last year, the city considered approving the conversion of a site at 70 Wyckoff Avenue in 11237 from manufacturing
to residential. The 10-lot area included
an old industrial building that had already—and illegally—been converted
to lofts. The City Planning Commission
approved the proposal. But local Councilwoman Diana Reyna resisted, and
the owners withdrew their application
before the City Council could vote on it.
Instead, they submitted it to the Board
of Standards and Appeals, and won approval this past June.
Carl Hum, president of the Brooklyn
Chamber of Commerce, says the loss of
manufacturing jobs in 11237 is a result
of a long history of neglect of blue-collar
New York. "The Bloomberg administra-

City Limits Investigates

percentage change in income

Statistics indicate that the more comfortable have gotten a little richer and the poor rather
poorer in Bushwick during the Bloomberg era. According to data from the IRS, the average
adjusted gross income of the poorest people in ZIP code 11237—the 5,000 or so households reporting income of less than $10,000—dropped 18 percent from 2001 to 2006 (the
most recent year for which data are available). The average income of those making more
than $50,000, however, rose from $69,000 to $74,000. Households in the middle saw little
change in their fortunes.
Income over
$50,000

10%
Income
$10–25,000

5%

Income
$25–50,000
Income over
$50,000

0%
10%

Income
Income
Change in 11237's Income by income group, 2001-2006
$10–25,000 $25–50,000

-5%
5%

Annual Household Income

-10%
0%
-15%
-5%
-20%
-10%

Source: IRS

Income under
$10,000

-15%

Deposits at bank branches in 11237 have increased since 2001, from about $152 million
$3,000
to $167 million in 2008. But while 11237 residents can obviously keep their money at
Income under
-20%
branches
outside the
district, north Bushwick still ranks as one of the least capitalized ZIP
$10,000
$2,500
codes in Brooklyn. –JM
$2,000
$3,000
$1,500
$2,500
Deposits in Selected Brooklyn ZIP Codes, 2009

$1,000
$2,000

11208
City Line

11205
Fort Greene

11237
Bushwick

11208
City Line

11205
Fort Greene

11237
Bushwick

11239
11239
East New YorkEast New York

11236
Canarsie
11236
Canarsie

11231
11231
Carroll GardensCarroll Gardens

11228
11228
Dyker Heights Dyker Heights

11223
Gravesend
11223
Gravesend

11226
11226
Park S.
Prospect Park Prospect
S.

0

11222
Greenpoint

500

11222
Greenpoint

0
$1,000

11230
Midwood

500
$1,500

11230
Midwood

ut of the mix of changes that
11237 business owners have confronted over the past eight years, winners and losers emerge. Not everyone
is complaining. Steve Packin, who runs
D&M Lumber on Varick Avenue, sees
change for the better. "It's definitely
a lot cleaner. There's less prostitution
around here. It's safer. It's definitely
something we have to thank Mayor
Bloomberg for," he says, pointing particularly to 311, which has allowed
him to complain about problems in the
neighborhood and get quick responses
from the city.

Haves and have-nots

11209
11209
Fort Hamilton Fort Hamilton

O

Bank on It

amounts in millions

tion probably had the most visible articulation of what its policy toward industrial businesses were," says Hum, who
served as the first director of the city’s
Office of Industrial and Manufacturing
Businesses, which Bloomberg created
in 2005. "They definitely appreciated the
fact that it contributed to the economy
and helped provide jobs to less-skilled
or less-educated New Yorkers."
But when the local industrial zone
was set up, there was a battle over
whether more of 11237 should be protected from residential encroachment,
according to Anne Seifried, the executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network. Several blocks
were eventually removed from the protective zone. Her organization found in
a 2003 study that some 500,000 square
feet of industrial space in the area had
been illegally converted to residences
over just a few years. "The rumors of a
residential rezoning only served to encourage illegal conversions," Seifried
says. "Moreover, the eventual rezoning
of parts of the wider neighborhood to
residential by the Bloomberg Administration in 2005 only exacerbated the
loss of industrial jobs."
Seifried gives the mayor credit, however, for signing Local Law 37, a 2007
measure sponsored by Reyna that
beefed up penalties against illegal conversions. And, she says, the recession
has slowed down the pace of conversion and somewhat reduced the pressure of rising commercial rents.

Source: FDIC

FALL 2009

15

City Limits Investigates

Packin says businesses value the 11237
area for its proximity to Manhattan and
the Long Island Expressway. He's noticed
recently that "most of the manufacturing
has moved away from here because of the
higher rents." But D&M, which Packin's
grandfather started, owns its space—an
entire block—so it doesn't have to worry
about the rent.
One Bushwick business that had to
worry was Brave Space, a five-employee
custom furniture maker that recently
left the area. Owners Sam Kragiel and
Nikki Frazier were already contemplating relocation.
Despite the losses in industrial jobs,
on an average weekday, the factory
area in 11237 is humming with activity,
at construction firms, concrete plants,
tile manufacturers, specialty metal
shops, oil companies, iron makers
and at least one major bakery. Even as
some industrial job lines have largely
disappeared, others—like printers and
specialty contractors—have increased
in number.
The area has also seen growth in nonindustrial jobs. Sister Elizabeth Nickels
came to Bushwick in 1958 to teach at a
Catholic school. In the late 1970s, she
opened a residence for homeless teens
called T.O.P.S. for You Inc. (T.O.P.S.
stands for Time, Opportunity, Peace
and Services). Then 12 years ago, members of her board started to tell her
that the emerging problem in the area
was unlicensed child-care providers. So
Nickels launched a program to train and
license day-care providers. Their network now boasts 100 providers, including both family and group day-care centers. Nickels runs an orientation once a
month, usually with around 15 people
in the audience. Nine will stick with
the process and apply for their license,
which takes six to nine months. If one
gets up and running, the provider can
make around $30,000 a year. "We generate about $3 million a year in economic
development," Nickels says.
Thirty grand might be an adequate
salary, especially for an entrepreneur
without much education, or any dependents. But as service employment like
16

FALL 2009

day care has grown in Bushwick and
manufacturing jobs have vanished, the
neighborhood's earning power has
flatlined. From 2001 to 2007, census
data say, total payroll growth for businesses in 11237 was basically flat. Median income in the broader Bushwick
community district was also flat from
2000 to 2007, after inflation.

T

he erosion of the manufacturing
base wasn't the only force reshaping Bushwick over the past eight years.
While Bushwick has been overwhelmingly Latino for decades, a succession
of nationalities have populated that
ethnic base. First came Puerto Ricans,
who are natural-born U.S. citizens.
Then Dominicans arrived; Kelly notes
that they tended to have long-standing
family roots in the city, and many were
legal residents if not citizens. Recently,
Bushwick has seen an influx of immigrants mostly from Mexico and Ecuador. The foreign-born population is now
39 percent of the total, up from 33 percent in 2000.
Along with legal immigrants from
those countries have come undocumented residents. No statistics confirm
this trend, but it is almost uniformly
reported by people in the area. Among
the many effects of that increase in
nonlegal residents, says Kelly, is that a
growing part of Bushwick's labor force
is at risk of losing their jobs through
federal enforcement actions.
President Obama's immigration
enforcement strategy differs slightly
from the Bush administration's: Rather
than target individual undocumented
workers, as was the style under Bush,
the feds now say they are squeezing
employers who hire them. In Kelly's
experience, however, both approaches
produce the same result, and Obama's
policy poses the secondary problem of
looking kinder to workers than it really is. Kelly tells the story of a group
of church members who came to see
him during the summer after immigration agents visited their factory. "The
feds came in. They wanted all the paperwork. Obviously, [the boss] doesn't

have it, so he has to let them go," Kelly
says. "These people are out of a job.”
Some law enforcement efforts, however, do help workers. Last October,
state attorney general Andrew Cuomo
had two executives from an Associated Supermarket on Knickerbocker
Avenue arrested on charges that they
filed false records and defrauded their
employees. Cuomo alleged that workers were paid less than $30 for 11-hour
days, with some deliverymen earning less than $300 for a 70-hour week.
In July, Cuomo announced that he'd
settled with the Associated store and a
nearby Pioneer supermarket that had
also cheated its workers. The stores
would pay may more than $1 million
in back wages to 50 employees. The
two executives pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. In 2005, then AG Eliot Spitzer
won back pay and time off for workers
at three discount stores along Knickerbocker Avenue.

G

lobal competition's erosion of
11237's apparel industry, as well
as the effect of real estate market and
city zoning policies on manufacturing,
are long-term trends. In 2009, a more
immediate concern is the recession.
Neither the state nor federal departments of labor track unemployment
data by ZIP code, so it's hard to say
what local impact the downturn has
had. But with unemployment surging
to 11.1 percent for August in Brooklyn
as a whole (from 6.5 percent in August,
2008), it's safe to assume that Bushwick
has not been spared the recession's impact. "My people are under pressure
right now because of the economy and
the fact that they are undocumented,"
Kelly says.
A question hanging over the downturn is whether the social safety net,
woven with thinner thread after federal
welfare reform, will catch people on
the way down. From 2002 to 2009, the
number of people on welfare in 11237
dropped 46 percent to about 5,200 recipients. The number of people receiving food stamps but not welfare, however, more than doubled to 13,000.

City Limits Investigates

Sister Elizabeth Nickels and aide Miriam Martinez outside the training center where they've helped nurture a growing child care industry in Bushwick. Photo: JM

Both trends mirror what's happened elsewhere in the city, where
a combination of rising hunger and
somewhat easier enrollment under
the Bloomberg administration has increased food stamp usage even as federal and local welfare reform efforts
continue to reduce the cash assistance
caseload. Medicaid enrollment in the
area has more than doubled during
the Bloomberg years.
The last time detailed poverty data
were collected in 11237 was for the
2000 Census, when 37 percent of people there lived below the poverty line,
compared with 21 percent for the city
as a whole.

In 2006, Bloomberg undertook an
initiative to reduce poverty in the city
with a raft of new programs, most of
them small-scale pilots. One, the Young
Adult Internship Program, targeted 21
neighborhoods, including Bushwick.
The idea was to give youths paid employment to try to connect them to the
world of work. An evaluation published
by the city last year found that the initiative was largely meeting its modest
goals. In each neighborhood, the program runs three sessions a year, each
one serving 30 kids. The city's Department of Small Business Services says
it has placed 60 people from 11237 in
jobs through the mayor's economic

opportunity programs, out of 150 applicants. A bakery in the area received
$92,000 to train new workers, and
three minority- or women-owned businesses received $2 million in city contracts last fiscal year.
Another Bloomberg initiative, the
Out of School Time Program, has increased the availability of early-dropoff
and after-school programs in 11237.
The Coalition for Hispanic Family Services runs such programs in four local
schools; they serve 500 kids until 6 p.m.
That gives parents a chance to square
their workday with the school schedule, which is often decidedly unfriendly
to people who punch a clock.
FALL 2009

17

In 2006, the former Bushwick High School
disappeared. Four smaller high schools that
now occupy the building are posting higher
graduation rates. Photo: Jacob Silberberg

18

FALL 2009

City Limits Investigates

City Limits Investigates

Schools
IV. "It's always a challenge."
The parents of Bushwick appear
to be in love with their neighborhood schools. On the most
recent surveys circulated by the
city's Department of Education,
at least 90 percent of parents at
every primary and middle school
in the 11237 ZIP code—four
elementary schools, two junior
highs and one K-7 charter—
said they were satisfied with the
education their children were
receiving. The vast majority were
also happy with how much the
schools involved parents and
the amount of communication
coming from the classroom.

O

n the standardized tests that have
become the measure of schools'
success or failure in New York City,
the percentage of students scoring
at or above grade level has increased
across virtually every grade in every
elementary and middle school in the
area, both in math and language.
Bushwick's contribution to the city's
pre-Bloomberg image of educational
failure emanated not from its elementary or middle schools but rather from
the large building on Irving Avenue
that hosted Bushwick High School. In
the late 1990s, Bushwick High School
held twice as many students as it was
built for. The school graduated less

than one-fourth of its seniors in 2001.
Two years later, Advocates for Children, an education watchdog group,
sued the Department of Education over
an alleged practice by Bushwick High
School administrators of forcing failing
students out of the school but not counting them as dropouts. By then, the city
had already decided to close Bushwick
High School and replace it with newer,
smaller schools in the same building—
the same approach the DOE has taken
with at least 20 other large high schools
around the city.
Old Bushwick High School started to
improve as time ran out. The graduation
rate more than doubled in the school's
last two years, leaping from 24 percent
to 55 percent from 2005 to 2006.
But the new schools that occupy
Bushwick High School's building are
doing far better. Last year, the Bushwick High School for Social Justice
awarded diplomas to 79 percent of its
class, and the Academy for Urban Planning graduated 63 percent. The New
York Harbor School, incongruously
located in landlocked north Brooklyn
pending a move to Governor's Island
next year, posted a 74 percent graduation rate. (A fourth high school opened
in the building in 2006, the Academy
for Environmental Leadership, but it
has yet to graduate anyone.) A high
school located elsewhere in 11237, the
All City Leadership Secondary School
started by Assemblyman Lopez, saw
nearly 83 percent of its 2008 class
graduate. On parent surveys, these
high schools also uniformly get high
marks—although in a few schools, a
substantial majority of parents never
fill out the survey.
Graduation rates have been increasing
citywide, probably thanks to a combina-

tion of system-wide policies and schoolby-school efforts. A lot of the new high
schools have snazzy names and intriguing missions, but in their recent success,
size may have mattered most.

W

hen the alternative high school
in Brooklyn where Mark Rush
was teaching closed just as Chancellor Joel Klein was taking power in
2002, Rush learned that the school
system was accepting plans for new
high schools in the city. He and two
colleagues came up with the idea of a
school focused on social activism. "We
were as surprised as anyone when the
school was approved," he recalls. "The
thing that bound us together was this
idea that social justice was important
and could be central to organizing a
school." He set out to find a partner
in the Bushwick neighborhood and
learned that Make the Road New York
was organizing a protest against, of all
things, the move that opened the door
to Rush's school—the closure of Bushwick High School. The organization
invited Rush to make his pitch to parents. Its membership voted to come
aboard, and the school welcomed its
first students in 2003.
"I think it'd be lying to say that we
aren't happily surprised by our results.
It's a great thing for the neighborhood
that hundreds of graduates are coming
out of here every year," Rush, now the
principal, says. But the unique mission
of the school has been hard to integrate.
"The first year, we wrote this interesting [curriculum] that became sort of
mothballed because in '03 there was
the ramp-up curriculum and all sorts of
mandates that came down from Klein
that made it impossible to do some of
the things we wanted to do," he says.

FALL 2009

19

City Limits Investigates

Exit Strategy

Bushwick High School’s graduation rate began to edge up from abysmal levels in the
early years of the Bloomberg administration. Then the city decided to close the school
and replace it with new, smaller high schools. From BHS’s last graduating class in 2006
through this year’s cohort, the improvement has been dramatic, although the new
schools serve fewer kids. (Note that some students remain in high school beyond their
fourth year and are counted neither as graduates nor as dropouts.)
80%

bushwick high school and its successors

Graduation Rate

70%

Dropout Rate

O

60%

50%

40%

30%

20%

10%

0

2000

2001 2002 2003

2004 2005 2006

2007 2008

Source: NYC Department of Education

So the school has had to find places
in students' schedules to squeeze in its
mission. Students engage in weekly advisory sessions where social justice is
discussed along with traditional schoolguidance issues. Ninth- and 10th-graders engage in social-action projects
through these advisories. Some of the
campaigns are very practical. "The kids
were complaining about the facilities of
Bushwick High School when we first
started," Rush says. So their first action
20

FALL 2009

into other classes too: Science teachers,
for example, talk about global warming
and its social consequences.
The question is whether it's that mission that's producing more graduates
and fewer dropouts. "I'd love to say
it's the theme. But plenty of kids come
here just because it's one of the schools
on the campus," Rush says. In reality,
"it's about the personal attention that
kids get. The administration knows
every single kid, so interventions can
happen quickly and repeatedly. The
way teachers know kids inside out and
the advisory are a big part of that."

project was called Bathroom Justice.
"The tagline was 'Potty Power' or something like that. A lot of bathrooms had
been given over to storage or to safetyagent locker rooms. It had been narrowed down to two or three for whole
buildings," he recalls. The project resulted in opening up a couple more restrooms and getting better supplies for
the rest.
Seniors take a social-justice seminar.
Social-justice discussion works its way

ne of the schools in the former
Bushwick High building, the Harbor School, was at 100 percent capacity in the most recent figures supplied
by the DOE. The other schools in the
building have plenty of room. That's a
good thing for their students, but points
to a broader concern: If Bushwick High
was vastly overcrowded 10 years ago
and its building is only 82 percent full
now, the replacement high schools
aren't serving as many kids as their
forerunner did. High school enrollment
is down citywide, but not by that much.
"They definitely don't serve as many
students as the big high school did,"
says Oona Chatterjee, the co-director of
Make the Road. "But they serve more
students well than the big high school
did. So it's a net gain to the community."
None of the new schools in the old
BHS building requires an admission
test. Priority is given to students who
attend an informational session. Some
schools give secondary priority to students from the surrounding neighborhood, or at least the borough. But according to figures from the DOE, the
share of students from 11237 at the
BHS campus dropped from 33 percent
in 2005-06, the last year the old high
school was open, to 22 percent last
year. The percentage of students from
the surrounding District 32 fell from 67
percent to 46 percent. (The DOE cautions that the last year at BHS might
have been an aberration: As the school
was shutting down, students from the

City Limits Investigates

neighborhood might have been more
likely to stay enrolled there, temporarily inflating their share of the population.)
A sampling of comments by former
B.H.S. students reveals more diversity
of opinion than one might expect. "I at-

closure of other big facilities.
Like the small-schools push, all the
claims of improvement in the schools
under Bloomberg have been met with
counterclaims—some of them legitimate, others less so. There are very
real questions, for instance, about what

"I think it's a lot of confusion
for the child and parent. They
have to realize that it's too much
pressure."
tended Bushwick H.S. from 1996-1998.
On an academic level it was OK, but
the surrounding environment was very
bad," wrote Ralph Rosario on the website InsideSchools.org. Another alum,
Bettina Morales, said she doesn't have
"any complaints about the teachers."
But Katherine Astudillo wrote, "I went
to Bushwick back in '98 and it was
bad, some of the teachers didn't care
just like the students and there was no
discipline."
"Bushwick had to close," says Adam
Schwartz, the local historian, who is a
teacher at the Academy of Urban Planning, one of the replacement schools.
"There were some good teachers who
still can't get jobs because of their association with it. The small schools that
replaced it are much more inspired."
A 2009 citywide report by the Center
for New York City Affairs at the New
School found that small schools had
improved attendance and graduation
rates and that their more personal scale
was helpful to vulnerable students. But
it cautioned that teacher and principal
turnover was high and that attendance
and graduation rates slipped in many
small schools' second year. (Rush, for
one, says attendance has fallen at the
High School for Social Justice; he is at
a loss to explain why.) And the report
noted that for all the talk about small
schools, most city high school students,
(some 168,000) remained in large high
schools—which were struggling to accept the overflow of students from the

the trends in standardized-test scores
mean. Do rising scores represent real
gains in learning? What does it say
about the city's approach when state
scores rise as much, or less, or more?
What's being sacrificed in the school's
instructional menu to permit all the attention on these make-or-break tests?
The meaning behind the testing
numbers can be tough to tease out. The
DOE typically highlights the changes
in the percentage of students performing at or above grade level. These
changes can be dramatic: At one school
in 11237, J.H.S. 162, the share of eighthgraders scoring at or above grade level
on the language test rocketed 271 percent from 2006 to 2009.
When it comes to their average score
on the test, however, those students
improved only 4 percent over the three
years. Across 11237, no grade in any
school saw its mean score on either
English or math tests increase more
than 6 percent during that period—a
far more modest improvement than
the headline numbers indicate. The
reason for the disparity: Test designers
adjust the passing score from year to
year. That's ostensibly done to account
for variations in test difficulty, but the
shifts are always scrutinized by skeptics of testing. The skeptics weren't any
more satisfied when, right before Labor
Day, the DOE issued school progress
reports that gave 97 percent of facilities citywide A's or B's—a blown curve
if ever there was one (11237's schools

earned six A's and a B).
But Elizabeth Rodriguez, the interim
president of the local Community Education Council (which acts as the voice
of parents in the school system) and a
parent of two current public school students, says parents in 11237 are indeed
pleased with the progress.
"Our schools are doing so good, I
don't know where to begin," she says,
pointing to the end of social promotion
and the increased number of teachers
with certification.
A few schools in the district are overcrowded. Lopez's All City Leadership
school is at 103 percent capacity. Three
of the area's elementary schools are
also over capacity.
Rodriguez, however, says administrators in the area are more worried
about enrollment declining as families
choose charter schools over regular
public schools. Parents, meanwhile,
are worried about charter schools
cutting into other schools' space, Rodriguez says. When the Achievement
First charter school moved into the
I.S. 383 public middle school building (which has a citywide gifted and
talented program) in 2008, some parents of the public school students were
up in arms. Now there are concerns
about where the city intends to locate
a planned charter high school for the
area. "Parents don't mind a charter
school as long as they're not taking
their space," Rodriguez says.
Communication with parents also
needs improvement, Rodriguez says.
And one complaint she hears often is
"The school spends so much time reviewing for the exams—most of their
day, day after day, until the exam takes
place." She says of school administrators, "They have to realize that it's too
much pressure."

B

ut for some parents in 11237, communicating with their kids' school
is difficult—especially for recent immigrants, including the undocumented.
"People who are coming here for
economic reasons often have very low
literacy levels, and that often prevents
FALL 2009

21

City Limits Investigates

them from being active advocates for
their child and actively supporting their
children," says Laura Paris from the
Coalition for Hispanic Family Services,
which runs four after-school programs
in the area. "Kids can get lost in the system. And parents cannot understand
their kids' homework, so they can't
help them. They can't really effectively
interface with the teachers." She adds,
"The big issue is that children become
parentalized." They speak better English, so they end up having to advocate
for their parents—a lot of pressure for a
child to bear.
For immigrants not here legally, the
problems multiply. "We're coming at
it from a different place," says Loren
Miller, the director of an organization
called Bushwick Impact that works
on family literacy and parent empowerment. "Especially since so many of
them are undocumented, they're living
under the radar."
What's more, Miller says, it's difficult for parents who want to get involved to play a role in their schools.
Many schools do not have active par-

mayoral-control system, parents are
supposed to enforce their educational
expectations at the voting booth. If they
don't like the state of their kids' schooling, this argument goes, they can punish the mayor because he is now responsible for it.
But in Bushwick, a lot of the parents
won't be casting votes this fall, if ever,
because they are not citizens and perhaps are not even documented. Lopez
describes a recent event in the neighborhood: "We had a meeting of 60
parents. I asked who was a registered
voter. Two raised their hands."
Whether or not they vote, parents are
only one constituency of the schools.
In a handful of cases, the other stakeholders—teachers and students—
were less sanguine in their survey
responses than were moms and dads.
At Junior High School 383, 39 percent
of students did not think most school
staff they saw each day actually knew
their name. At the Academy of Urban
Planning only 57 percent of teachers
thought order and discipline were adequately maintained. Some students

In a neighborhood like 11237, the
political accountability that is
supposed to undergird mayoral
control can collapse.
ents' associations, and among those
that do, the leaders are hard to track
down online or in the phone book. "I
think they don't have the resources
to really do it," says Paris of schools
and parental involvement. "There are
so many pressures on these school
administrators in terms of test scores
and all that."
These obstacles of language and experience hint at a larger political problem:
In a neighborhood with demographic
dynamics like 11237's, the political accountability that is supposed to undergird mayoral control can collapse.
In Bloomberg's argument for the

22

FALL 2009

express a particular concern about
school-safety agents—NYPD employees who have multiplied in the schools
under Bloomberg.
The City Council is considering a
bill that would create a system for addressing complaints about safety agent
misconduct. Rush, for one, doesn't feel
he has enough control over the agents
that patrol his building. "It's not to say
that I feel out of control," the principal
says, pointing to efforts over the years
to improve the agents' performance,
including a roundtable discussion between students and guards. But turnover is a problem. "We have agents

come and go all the time. We have a
batch that seems especially young and
very close in age to our kids, which is
sometimes great and sometimes not,"
he says. "It's always a challenge."

W

hat happens in 11237's schools
cannot be separated from what
goes in the streets and homes around
them. The High School for Social Justice employs two social workers, three
guidance counselors and a teacher
charged with improving attendance.
"It would seem impossible to run the
school without them because of the
stuff kids come out of," Rush says.
"Kids living in poverty—there's illnesses, there's drug addiction, there's
incarceration." The extra staff is needed, he says, "so they can focus on their
needs so they can get out of here in
four years."
For all the impressive numbers
coming out of Bushwick's new high
schools, most have only graduated
two classes—a snapshot of success
whose sustainability will be tested
over time. Looming on the horizon is
the disappearance of the local-highschool diploma. Rising state standards
mean that by the class of 2012, only
the more demanding Regents diploma
will be available to graduating seniors.
While high schools in 11237 and citywide have been awarding more Regents diplomas recently, local-diploma
recipients still make up the majority of
graduates. The High School for Social
Justice, for one, would have graduated
only 31 percent of its class of 2008—
not 79 percent—if Regents diplomas
were the only ones available.
Rush says his teachers have started
the move away from reliance on the
local diploma by raising expectations.
A score of 55 on the Regents exams,
while technically satisfying the requirement for a local diploma, was deemed
not acceptable anymore, he says. "We
had to change the vocabulary. That was
definitely a first step."
The next one will be a doozy.

More students in 11237 are scoring at
grade level on standardized tests. Whether actual academic ability has increased is a matter
of debate. Photo: Lizzie Ford-Madrid.

A towering luxury building on Grove
Street signalled to many 11237 residents that
gentrification was no longer a distant threat.
Photo: Jacob Silberberg

24

FALL 2009

City Limits Investigates

City Limits Investigates

V. Housing
"We've seen a real intensification of problems."
Almost any discussion of housing in Bushwick tends to begin
with July 13, 1977. That night,
the blackout that hit New York
City sparked widespread looting
along Broadway, the southern
boundary separating Bushwick
from Bedford-Stuyvesant, with
45 stores set ablaze beneath the
elevated train tracks. Two weeks
later, what became known as
the All-Hands Fire—so called
because it required 55 units of
firefighters from Manhattan,
Queens and Brooklyn to bring it
under control, the city's largest 20th-Century fire before
9/11—started in an abandoned
factory and took out 23 more
buildings in the heart of 11237.

T

he flames that were consuming
Bushwick, however, had begun
years earlier. Spurred by an early version of a subprime-mortgage scandal—
in which real estate operators fraudulently obtained federally backed FHA
loans for low-income buyers, which
protected their own profits even as the
buyers ended up defaulting en masse—
and abetted by the closure of the breweries that had provided the bulk of local jobs, hundreds of buildings ended
up abandoned in the early 1970s. This

was followed by the city fiscal crisis
of 1975, which slashed fire and police
budgets citywide, but particularly in
the "planned shrinkage" districts established by then city development chief
Roger Starr. There, city services were
cut back to neighborhoods like Bushwick and the South Bronx that he felt
were "virtually dead."
Then the blackout hit. After the
lights went out at 9:30 p.m., a huge
throng gathered on the already struggling Broadway commercial strip at
Bushwick's southern edge and began
breaking into stores and carrying out
everything portable; then, some began
to set fires. One hundred and thirty
stores on Broadway were looted, and
45 were damaged by fire, with many
burned to the ground. (Knickerbocker
Avenue, where more merchants lived
locally and were able to rush down
and defend their stores, often with
shotguns, was relatively undamaged.)
Hundreds of people were arrested,
many held for more than a week in tiny
holding cells as the city struggled to
process those charged with looting.
Yet Community Board 4 district
manager Nadine Whitted, who grew
up just across Broadway in BedfordStuyvesant, recalls the looting and
arson of the blackout night as merely
the final nail in the coffin of a commercial strip already on the edge. "It was
an opportunity for a lot of people who
didn't want to be here anymore to use
that as an excuse to leave," she says.
The fires of the 1970s and the citysponsored demolitions that followed
left blocks and blocks of empty lots in
their wake, mostly along Broadway and
Bushwick and Central avenues in the
southern part of Bushwick. While the
All-Hands Fire devastated the corner of
Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker

Street, the 11237 ZIP code covering
northern Bushwick remained largely
intact, with most of the row houses and
four-story apartment buildings surviving the days of fire—though many were
abandoned as residents fled the neighborhood. By 1980, Bushwick's population was 92,497, a 32.9 percent drop
from just 10 years earlier.
The blackout, though, had a silver lining as well. Press coverage of
the looting and the arrests that followed brought citywide attention to
Bushwick's condition. In 1978, newly
elected Mayor Koch, who had made
the resurrection of Bushwick a key
campaign promise, launched the
Bushwick Action Plan, developed in
collaboration with Community Board
4, to guide the neighborhood's recovery. This ultimately led in the 1980s to
the Bushwick II Urban Renewal Plan,
which included the construction of
Hope Gardens, a low-rise New York
City Housing Authority development
on the southern edge of 11237, which
today is widely regarded as one of the
city's most successful public housing
projects. According to local historian
John Dereszewski, in total, NYCHA
built 1,076 low-income and 243 seniorcitizen housing units in Bushwick during first few years of the 1980s.
Bushwick also became an early Petri dish for nonprofit housing development. Walk the streets of 11237 today
and you can see buildings bearing
signs of their rehabilitation that date
back to the 1980s, when the New York
City Housing Partnership, a nonprofit
initiative that began under Koch, provided discounted loans and tax abatements to developers of low- and middle-income two-family homes.
In recent years, much of the subsidized housing has been created—
FALL 2009

25

City Limits Investigates

either through new construction or
the renovation of older structures—by
the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the powerful nonprofit
launched in 1973 by Vito Lopez and
still run by his close allies. (Ridgewood
Bushwick's longtime housing director,
Angela Battaglia, who since 1996 has
also served on the city planning commission, is Lopez's girlfriend.) Today,
RBSCC's 217 Wyckoff Avenue address
is a common sight on signage adorning many of the infill construction sites
that dot the neighborhood.
According to RBSCC special-projects director Emily Kurtz, the organization decided early on that "the best
way to secure affordability" was to provide affordable housing rather than
simply engage in tenant advocacy. RBSCC availed itself of both federal and
city funds to do so and took particular
advantage of the city's Neighborhood
Redevelopment Program, which since
1986 has sold city-owned properties
to nonprofits and provided low-cost
financing to rehabilitate them as affordable units. Kurtz says preferences
have been given in lotteries to existing
residents of Community Board 4 when
possible. (HUD-funded programs,
however, don't allow for geographic
preferences.) In all, she estimates that
the agency has developed or sponsored about 1,200 units of affordable
housing over the past decade.
Much of RBSCC's success can be
attributed to its patron, Lopez, who
has consistently been a major Albany
backer of affordable-housing grants to
nonprofits, many of which have flowed
to Ridgewood Bushwick.
Lopez's office was also instrumental
in the 2005 launch of the Bushwick
Initiative, a two-year city program
that targeted a 23-block area around
Maria Hernandez Park for increased
police patrols, extra building inspections, offers of technical assistance for
landlords to fix violations and extra
attention from the health department,
including 1,000 rat-proof garbage cans.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development's final report
26

FALL 2009

claims that 86 percent of the inspected
buildings determined to be in poor
condition had been fixed up by the
end of the project, while drug dealing
in the target area was reduced 97 percent (although locals say the area is
still a prime drug location).
Most recently, the Bloomberg administration's public-private New
Housing Marketplace Plan, which provides tax-exempt loans and other government aid to developers who pledge
to create affordable units, has built
or preserved 2,182 additional units in
Community Board 4 (roughly coterminous with 11237) since 2004, according to HPD figures.
Today, vacant lots are rare in much
of Bushwick, especially among the
blocks to the north that were less devastated in the 1970s. The reclamation
of once empty spaces is something
that district manager Whitted says has
helped to rebind the neighborhood, not
just physically but in spirit. She points
to the George Street Estates, a block
of low-slung two-family homes built in
the late 1980s by the Housing Partnership on a block just off Flushing Avenue once occupied by factories. "The
people who moved in that area had an
oasis in the middle of World War III,"
says Whitted, who rented on the block
in the '90s. "Those people bought those
houses thinking that they had arrived.
And they did wonderful things for the
neighborhood. And that began an anchor-like effect that showed that land
in and around there could be something."

Y

et even as the recovery of Bushwick's housing has helped bring
the neighborhood together, it now
threatens to tear it apart. Despite all the
improvement in housing stock over the
decades—much of it specifically targeted as affordable housing—ask most
local residents and community leaders
their main concern and the answer is
the lack of quality affordable housing.
One problem is that for many of the
longtime Bushwick residents, even
subsidized rents are beyond their

means. "I don't use the word affordable," says Whitted, noting that even
the subsidized rents offered by publicprivate developments are unattainable for large swaths of the neighborhood. (Bushwick's median household
income was just $31,151 in 2007, 64
percent of the citywide median.) And
even for those who can afford them,
the number of available units comes
nowhere near meeting the need, especially as rents soar. "You get a 30-unit
building that goes up, you got 3,000
people applying," Whitted says, describing recent lotteries for affordable
apartments. "That's crazy."
"If you're talking about people who
are making $80,000, which is not exorbitant in the city of New York, then it's
affordable housing," says Sister Kathy
Maire, one of the lead organizers of
the Bushwick Housing Independence
Project, a non-Lopez initiative founded
in 2004 by Father John Powis, the now
retired pastor of St. Barbara's Church
on Central Avenue. "And certainly, it's
affordable to anybody that's been living in Manhattan and has gotten priced
out. The real problem is that the people
around here don't make $80,000, even
if they have two incomes." Aside from
public housing, she says, "The only real
affordable housing is in rent-stabilized
housing. And that's the vanishing entity at this point, because as buildings
get sold, either through foreclosure or
because somebody can no longer keep
up the mortgage payments, then the
first issue of the new owner is to get the
building vacant so that they can renovate and jack up the price."
For their part, landlords blame poor
conditions on high costs and low regulated rents. "The rents the owners were
getting, they couldn't afford to repair
the damage from the crime and drug
dealing," says landlord Edward Kormin. Even today, he says, he's unable
to charge as much for units in some of
his rent-stabilized buildings as the law
allows: "I have more preferential rents
than I prefer to have."
However, tales of undermaintained
buildings and outright harassment are

Members of Make the Road New York and
the Bushwick Housing Independence Project
protest alleged lead paint violations at a building in 11237 in July. Photo: JM

City Limits Investigates

Feeling Violated

Brooklyn’s Community District 4, which encompasses most of ZIP code 11237,
has often posted the city's highest rate of serious housing violations—a rate that
has remained high during the Bloomberg years.
serious housing code violations per 1,000 units

Bushwick
NYC

250
150
50
2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

Source: Furman Center

rampant in 11237. Bushwick has consistently ranked No. 1 in the city in serious
housing-code violations, with 193 per
1,000 rental units as of 2007, according
to NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Many of the complaints are of bedbugs, roaches, mice
or mold—helping spark an asthma rate
that is more than double the city average—while others are for what tenant
advocates describe as even more direct
attempts to drive out tenants, especially
in rent-regulated buildings.
"You see all kinds of irregularities,"
says John Whitlow, a housing organizer with Make the Road New York,
which has its offices on Grove Street
in central Bushwick. "It's really, really common to find buildings in which
landlords have jacked up the rent willy-nilly and not in accordance with the
percentage guidelines. The rent histories are all over the place." Stories are
also common of landlords knocking on
tenants' doors every night at midnight
in an attempt to drive them out, announcing phantom rent hikes to scare
people into leaving or refusing to do
basic repairs without raising the rent.
Housing advocates can help tenants
28

FALL 2009

navigate the long road through housing court, but even when the city cites
a landlord for violations, that's no guarantee that repairs will follow: A 2007 Village Voice article reported 74 open violations at 1430 Putnam Avenue, a six-unit
building in eastern Bushwick; two years
later, the building still has 72 open violations and a long list of complaints to the
city's 311 line that tenants went without
heat throughout last winter.
At a meeting of tenant volunteers
for the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, the stories pour out,
in both English and Spanish. All the
volunteers are themselves tenants
in Bushwick's many rent-regulated
apartments, mostly in the century-old
six- or eight-family row houses that
remain the neighborhood's signature
housing stock. All described similar
tales of landlord harassment with the
goal of getting them out in order to flip
the units to market-rent status.
"I have no cooking gas and no hot water," says Luz Varela, a board member
and volunteer tenant advocate. "He's
doing everything in his power to get
me to up and move. But I'm not gonna budge." Finally, after she took her

landlord to court, his lawyer claimed
that the shutoff of services was a mistake stemming from a renumbering of
apartments in her building.
Another BHIP volunteer, Hector
Vazquez, says his landlord renovated his
bathroom but made it too small to be usable. "You can't go inside. You have to go
outside and go back in, like you're walking backward," he says. "You can't even
put your clothes on in there."
Varela says one woman she counseled lives in an apartment on Troutman Street where all the other tenants
have been bought out. "There's nothing around every other apartment.
There's just beams," she reports. "On
top of that, [the landlord] leaves the
door wide open. People can come in
and do anything."
All agree that their housing troubles
have accelerated even as neighborhood
services have improved and crime has
fallen, making Bushwick more attractive to New Yorkers who can pay higher rents. "I see a lot of change for the
better," says Varela, noting that years
ago, her son had his neck slashed by
drug gangs. "That's been pretty much
cleaned up. But a lot of the way it's
changing is they're trying to attack the
people who've lived here."
"But it's all good," she sighs. "God
don't like ugly."

T

he notion of full-on gentrification of
Bushwick seemed laughable only
a decade ago. As Bushwick's housing
stock and services rebounded through
the 1980s and '90s, African-Americans,
who'd begun moving into the neighborhood in the '60s, and Puerto Ricans,
who followed in the '70s, were joined
by newer immigrants, mostly from
Mexico, seeking affordable rents and a
safe community.
Soon enough, though, these same
neighborhood traits began to draw attention from elsewhere in the city. By
the end of Bloomberg's first term, Williamsburg had begun its transformation from a mix of Latinos, Italians and
artists to young professionals looking
for hip clubs and an easy commute

City Limits Investigates

Ticket to Ride

Travails on the rails to work
ZIP code 11237 rides the subway more than the average neighborhood, at least according to the
2000 census—the last thorough statistical look at the area. Some 58 percent of residents took
mass transit to work, compared with 53 percent citywide, and about 46 percent used the subway,
versus 38 percent in the city as a whole. The area is mainly served by two lines, the L and M.
The L train is not always beloved. “The L train is an absolute bitch to take in the morning
’cause I’m usually glued onto another passenger unwillingly, and I get stepped on,” wrote
commenter Steve T on an L-train thread at Yelp.com. “The L train is the worst of the worst, “
added Sean R. “Dear L Train,” wrote a different Sean, “When I first found out I was going to
be with you everyday, I was super excited. You seemed flashy and exciting. Everyone said you
were a fucking loser, but I said no!...Then came the delays, the service cuts, the near panic that
comes from being in a shuttle bus packed to brim...Don’t call me, I switched my number.”
On the MTA's rider survey in 2007, the L received a C+ from riders, only marginally better
than the M—despite the fact that the transit advocacy group Straphangers Campaign has in
recent years given high marks to the L for timeliness, reliability and the clarity of the public
address system. –JM
MILES TRAVELED WITHOUT A BREAKDOWN
thousands of miles

to Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate agents began setting their sights
farther east. Listings began to pop
up for properties along the western
edge of Bushwick, advertised as East
Williamsburg (or even Far East Williamsburg) and touting its proximity to
Manhattan. Artists priced out of Williamsburg began settling in what were
once Bushwick's factories and breweries, now converted to lofts, and others
followed along where the transit lines
extending east from Manhattan, especially the L train, led them. As one
recent Bushwick arrival explains how
she ended up in the neighborhood,
"My boyfriend and I decided we would
ride the L train out, and as soon as the
rents started getting cheap, we'd rent
something."
The arrival of the "hipsters," as
they're widely known, is a divisive
subject in Bushwick. Whitted says she
was put off by the newcomers at first,
skeptical that their arrival might be
credited for the area's rebirth, rather
than vice versa. "I saw a change before
I realized that the artists were here.
The city had invested some money
in our community, the state and the
government," she says. "You had the
homeowners who decided to stay after
the blackout and were starting to feel
more secure." Now, though, she says
she enjoys the enthusiasm and fresh
blood they've brought, especially to
the community board.
What seems undeniable is that the
arrival of newcomers with cash has
had a profound effect on rents. The
average rent in Bushwick—including
rent-regulated units, which make up
about half of the neighborhood's rental housing—jumped from $498 to $795
from 1999 to 2007, according to NYU's
Furman Center.
The influx of young professionals,
artists and real estate investment triggered loft conversions and the construction of condos—phenomena never before seen in the area. The scale
of the change was brought home when
358 Grove Street—a 13-story tower
moated by parking lots and advertised

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M Line

200
150
100
50
2002

2003

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2005

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2007
Source: Straphangers Campaign

via a YouTube music video featuring
a blond woman in sunglasses looking
out over Bushwick and reminiscing
about "the memory of us / sitting in
Washington Square"—went up on a
tenement block.
Aides to Lopez say the Grove Street
building is what inspired the assemblyman to seek a change in the city's
421a subsidy program, so that developers in newly fashionable outerborough neighborhoods would have
to include affordable housing to get
that tax break. After a wrestling match

with Bloomberg, Lopez won some expansion of the affordability requirements—although not as much as he
wanted.
Today, 358 Grove remains mostly
empty, like many other Brooklyn
condo towers that were built during
the tail end of the housing bubble. It's
one potential candidate for an initiative launched by Bloomberg and City
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who
have launched a $20 million pilot project to subsidize developers to convert
unsold condos to affordable rentals;
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29

City Limits Investigates

Quinn's office says it projects the cost
of conversion at $50,000 per unit, significantly lower than the city's average
for acquisition of private units for conversion. And while the notice of funding availability was only issued in late
July, and decisions on funding won't be
decided for months, Quinn spokesman
Andrew Doba says, "Bushwick is obviously up there."
Make the Road and Capital B, a local arts group dedicated to maintaining a "livable Bushwick," are among
the groups working on mapping the
neighborhood's unsold condo units
for potential conversion to subsidized
housing. Even so, says Make the Road
organizer Jose Lopez, "$20 million is
nothing. The conversion of 400 units
from luxury condos to affordable
housing doesn't meet the need." Also,
he notes, "The way these condos are
built [isn't] structured for families that
live in Bushwick. A lot are recently
arrived immigrants that come with
three, four, sometimes five kids and
need space. These condos are offering two bedrooms, max. They're being
developed and geared toward younger
professionals and artists moving into
the community."
As for Sister Kathy Maire, she pronounces herself "very skeptical" that
many developers will jump at the
chance to convert vacant units in what
remains a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. "They'll hold out as long as
possible [hoping] that the economy
will turn around," she says. And in
any case, she wonders, "Who would
be able to move in? I doubt very much
that it would be the people who are
now living here."
In the meantime, Bushwick's many
low-income households are extremely
vulnerable to rising rents. Last year's
decision by the Rent Guidelines Board
to hike rents by up to $85 for tenants
paying less than $1,000 a month may
have seemed popular in a city where
$1,000 rents are unimaginably cheap
in many areas, but Maire says it was
a tough blow to many low-income tenants. "At the same time, the job market
30

FALL 2009

has shrunk, so people are losing their
jobs or having their hours cut back,"
she says. "So I think these last two
years, we've seen a real intensification
of problems."
As rents have soared, many families
have doubled up. Whitlow says it's not
uncommon to see "an apartment designed for four or five, and you have
10 utilizing it." Another frequent scenario is tenants allowing debt to build
up—in the meantime saving rent
money for several months—so when
they get an eviction notice, they have
some backup money that they can use
to find a new place. Others seek Section 8 housing vouchers, joining the
city's 128,000-person-strong waiting
list—and then, if they're successful,
attempt to find a landlord who will accept a voucher, a diminishing possibility as the neighborhood rebounds and
unsubsidized tenants become easier
to find.
In response, some are leaving the city.
"There are people who come in and tell
me they are going to move to Pennsylvania," says Maire. 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."
The next step in that cycle is sometimes the streets, or shelters. While the
Department of Homeless Services says
it doesn't track homelessness by neighborhood, in 2004, DHS made Bushwick
one of six communities targeted for its
pilot HomeBase program (since expanded citywide) to fund nonprofits to
provide reach out to at-risk families and
prevent homelessness. RBSCC landed
the Bushwick contract.
Organizers say the Tenant Protection Act, a Quinn-backed law passed in
2008 that for the first time allows tenants to take their landlords to housing
court for harassment, has helped local
tenants—at least those savvy enough
to navigate the legal process. But they
believe more stringent measures are
necessary: in particular, eliminating vacancy bonuses, the provision
that allows landlords to hike rents 20

percent or more as soon as a tenant
moves out, and vacancy decontrol, the
provision under which rent-stabilized
apartments leave the program as soon
as their rent is pushed over $2,000 a
month. Removing those aspects of the
law, they say, would take away the incentive for landlords to evict current
tenants.
In the end, though, making housing affordable to those in 11237 with
extremely low incomes will require
not just lower rents but increased aid.
Bloomberg's affordable-housing initiative is an echo of Koch's similar program of 20 years ago. The difference
is that the problem in the 1980s was
disinvestment; nowadays, it's that real
estate development might price people
out of their neighborhoods. The 2,180
affordable units the city has offered in
Bushwick since the mayor's plan began in fiscal year 2004 includes both
new building and the preservation of
existing affordable units; most housing produced under Bloomberg's program to date has been via preservation
rather than new construction.
"I want to be honest: The mayor has
done a lot for affordability," says Vito Lopez. "I believe the mayor's commitment
to affordable housing is an outstanding
one. If I had one criticism of it, it is that
it could be more balanced and target
lower-income and poor individuals."
Whatever the means, the mayor's
housing initiative is not large enough
to offset broader changes in the real
estate market that risk displacing
thousands of families through rising
rents. Meanwhile, Bloomberg has remained largely silent on the potent issue of vacancy decontrol, and his Rent
Guidelines Board instituted the recent
surcharge on rents below $1,000.
Unless those policies change, Maire
expects, many of Bushwick's residents
will continue to live one rent hike away
from disaster. "You cannot expect people to earn minimum wage and have
them expect to live a normal, frugal
life," she says. "The government has
to come through with something, because people can't make it."

Mass transit (like the M train above) ties
Bushwick to the city's core and throughout
its history has brought new residents—immigrants, low-income people displaced from other
neighborhoods, and now, affluent professionals.
Photo: Jacob Silberberg

The headquarters of Brooklyn Democratic
chairman Vito Lopez, who's played an important and complex role in Bushwick's rebirth
and, like the neighborhood, faces an uncertain
future. Photo: Jacob Silberberg

City Limits Investigates

VI. Changes
"First you have to get together."
In the autumn of 2009 the
signs seem unmistakable that
11237 is changing before its
residents' eyes. There is a
kitschy thrift store just north of
Flushing Avenue. A Thai restaurant—a gentrification canary
in the coal mine if ever there
were one—has opened. Some
of the grocery stores are selling organic yogurt and gourmet
potato chips. But the scene's
significance depends on whose
eyes you're looking through.

W

here people stand depends
largely on what side of the real
estate market they sit. Property owners
tend to applaud the influx of new faces.
"They're putting up new buildings,"
said a woman who called herself Miss
Wynter and was handing out Jehovah's
Witness material one July day. "People
used to just throw garbage. People are
moving in who care. It is true that rents
are going up, but it doesn't bother us,
because we own." There's no question that more affluent residents can
bring some benefits to a neighborhood.
People who've studied the decrease
of crime in Bushwick, like Ric Curtis
and Travis Wendel of John Jay College,
point to gentrification as an important
force in attracting—through the influence of the real estate industry—police
attention to places like 11237.
Others doubt that the change is as
significant as some think. Landlord Ed-

ward Kormin says much of the 11237
area is too rough for most people with
means to want to live there. He rented
to an artist a couple of years back.
"They wrote on his door 'Kill the Hippie,' " he says of his other tenants. "So
they chased him out."
Patrick Huang, the Realtor, has
watched the influx of white professionals
and says that some Realtors call the area
Wyckoff Heights rather than Bushwick.
But he has not seen and doesn't foresee
the rise in housing prices and rents that
would suggest the demographics are
really changing. “We don't really have
anything that drives the real estate market," he says. "Big landlords don't need
to invest here. It just doesn't appeal as
much as other areas."
The contours of the area's real estate
landscape could dampen gentrification's
impact. The lack of big parcels in 11237
sets it apart from the rest of Bushwick,
according to Adam Schwartz. "It doesn't
have the kind of density that buildings
have in 11206 or 11211," he says, referring to Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
"So when a landlord buys a building,
the impact is noticeably smaller." That
slows neighborhood change. And in
past years, the abundance of vacant
lots in Bushwick cushioned the area
from displacement: The empty properties meant that a developer could build
housing for the affluent without taking
over the homes of the poor.
Even the signs of change have to be
placed in context. New things stand
out because they are still few in number. One Saturday this summer, three
couples came to see Father Kelly about
getting married in his church. The surprise? "They were white people," he
says. There are other indicators Kelly
has seen: an upscale wine store on
Wyckoff, a condo advertising its prox-

imity to Peter Luger Steakhouse. Still,
he's not sure this is Bushwick's biggest
worry. "They've overrated the gentrification thing," he says. "There are more
yuppies moving in than I perceive. But
it is not a demographic change that will
be more than a blip on any screen."
The recession and immigration status are bigger concerns, says Kelly,
than whether arugula is going to appear at the greengrocer's. The economy is also on the mind of Lopez, who
worries about gentrification but sees a
silver lining in the downturn. "The best
thing that has happened to us is the
market has slowed down. We're very
happy," he says, smiling slowly, pointing especially to that 13-story building
on Grove Street that is having trouble
selling its condos. "We'd love to see it
stall," Lopez says.

O

n the afternoon he was interviewed for this magazine, Lopez
stopped the conversation and ordered
two aides to take his visitor on a tour
of his works in the neighborhood. On
Gates Avenue, he's built a youth center that serves 400 kids every day in
after-school programs and houses a
260-student secondary school that's
running well ahead of the citywide improvements in graduation rate. A few
blocks over, there's his 240-bed nursing
home, which replaced an older facility
that moved out a few years back. Just
outside of 11237 is the Rheingold site, a
seven-acre former brewery and brownfield that Lopez, with the city and state,
cleaned up and rebuilt with a mixture of
housing—mid-rise rentals, affordable
co-ops, two-family homes.
Lopez's staff and allies talk about
him with an air of awe. "We have been
blessed with a great politician," is how
Maritza Davila, a community organizer
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33

City Limits Investigates

at RBSCC, explains Bushwick's improvement since the 1970s. She means
Lopez. Over the main entrance to one
of the Rheingold buildings, in foothigh letters set in stone, is the phrase,
"Thank You Assemblyman Lopez."
Others see Lopez in less angelic light.

cal prerogatives and his neighborhood
improvement that led to a rift between
Lopez and Councilwoman Diana Reyna,
Lopez's former chief of staff. After Reyna opposed fast-tracking city approval
for a proposed RBSCC building at 295
Jefferson Street on the grounds that

What happens when the
political apparatus starts
to run out of voters? Can the
power of the boss survive the
era of the billionaire?
He has been faulted for his use of campaign funds for personal expenditures,
for allegedly residing outside his district and for his unfriendliness to fresh
talent in judicial races in the borough.
According to some critics, Ridgewood
Bushwick is his personal patronage
mill, with employees close to him—including those to whom he's been linked
romantically—earning generous salaries largely funded by taxpayer dollars.
He uses public funds to pay for the publication of Bushwick's only community
newspaper, the Bushwick Observer,
which is devoted mainly to promoting
Lopez. Its front page once posted a banner headline over a photo of the assemblyman: "A Living Legend."
"We have a tin-pot dictator" is how
Kelly sees it. "Vito Lopez controls the
apparatus of the entire Democratic machine around social-service programs."
The reality is that the images of Lopez
as a savior or a scoundrel are not mutually exclusive. Schwartz puts it simply:
"The neighborhood could not have done
what it did without Vito. It would have
been impossible for Bushwick to come
back." The amount of government resources that have gone into reviving the
neighborhood wouldn't have arrived if
Lopez didn't have the political capital to
get them. Of course, those dollars went
through his organization and furthered
his grip on power.
It's that link between Lopez's politi34

FALL 2009

other worthy development projects
should be considered first, Lopez endorsed Davila to challenge her for her
Council seat.
"It's a very pragmatic organization,
Ridgewood Bushwick. It's not about
policy. They don't jump into fights on
principle. It's 'What can you do for me if
I do something for you?,' " says Nicole
Marwell, the Baruch College professor
who studied the Lopez organization for
several years.
In the midst of speaking with City
Limits, Lopez took a phone call. "Yeah,
I just talked to Andrew Cuomo," he said
into the receiver. "He wants to have
lunch." Lopez gets citywide candidates,
would-be state leaders and even presidential hopefuls to come to his doorstep. The area's congresswoman, Nydia
Velázquez, is a rival to Lopez but loses
most of the showdowns, observers say.
But there are two forces even Lopez—
whose locus of power since his first election in 1984 has been 11237—can't outmuscle.
One is time. Lopez is 68 and has
endured serious health problems. In
a neighborhood so dependent on one
political figure, what happens when he
fades from the scene?
Another is the real estate market.
The Bloomberg years, and some
Bloomberg policies on zoning and
luxury development, have brought an
influx of affluent young professionals

into Lopez's fiefdom.
If Vito Lopez has done good for Bushwick, what happens to the neighborhood
when his political apparatus starts to run
out of voters? Can the power of the boss
survive the era of the billionaire?

L

opez says he does not intend to retire. And when he is no longer in
power, he is confident that the people
who benefit from his social-service
empire will force his successors to
keep up delivery. "Every year we have
a Thanksgiving party and a Christmas
party for the seniors. Everyone gets a
meal and a gift," Lopez says. "The seniors wouldn't tolerate it not happening. We've helped empower groups of
people with certain expectations that
they'll hold on to for a while."
If they can hang on to the neighborhood, that is. Gentrification threatens a
lot of the status quo in Bushwick, not
least Lopez's two pillars of power—his
service network and his political base.
On one hand, the threat of overinvestment challenges an organization like
Ridgewood Bushwick that built itself
to respond to disinvestment in a forgotten neighborhood. (Lopez, for instance,
still talks about the importance of homeownership, a goal increasingly out
of reach of his working-class constituents.) And on the other hand, once the
newcomers start coming in, the voting
pool changes. The more affluent arrivals probably won't need affordable
housing, much less a Thanksgiving
meal or Christmas gift, in exchange for
their support.
The Lopez empire has no choice but
to fight the change. "I think what they
will want to do is protect and preserve
affordable housing for the people they
consider to be their constituents. Ridgewood Bushwick, they need their people
to stay in the neighborhood. There isn't
an interest for them to adopt a new constituency," Marwell says. While Lopez
has made common cause with political
enemies before—like the Hasidim who
are now his partners in the bid to redevelop Broadway Triangle in southern
Bushwick—in the name of survival, it's

City Limits Investigates

not clear that he and the newcomers
want the same things. There may not
be a deal to strike.
The City Council primary race this
fall between Davila and Reyna was very
much a test of Lopez strength. The tally
was close, with a mere 223 votes separating the two, but Reyna prevailed. It's
unclear if the result hints at any erosion
of power. Davila is continuing her challenge on the Working Families Party
line in the general election. (Separately,
an aide to Lopez, Steve Levin, won a
Council race in Brooklyn Heights.)
Lopez says gentrification can't be
stopped. He's hoping merely to contain
it. This summer he began pushing for
a new $500 million state affordablehousing fund to help neighborhoods
like Bushwick build a bulwark against
market-rate intrusion. But Marwell
isn't sure that groups like Ridgewood
Bushwick will be able to shape their
own destiny. "A lot of the organizations,

Lauter, a second-year Harvard Law
Student, has had her permanent home
in Brooklyn for three years, and in
11237 for one. There are other newcomers like her in the New Kings but, she
says, they are joined by young Latinos
who grew up in South Williamsburg.
The group's goal is clearly to reduce Lopez's power; they've already won some
50 seats on the party's huge county
committee. But Lauter doesn't think a
weaker Democratic machine will mean
a weaker Bushwick in the battle for
government resources. "I don't personally think of reforms in the political process as being mutually exclusive with
generating good capital for Bushwick,"
she says. "I think ultimately, we would
all be fighting for the same things."
Meanwhile, the neighborhood grows
more Mexican and Ecuadorean. It's not
clear that those groups will make common cause with the Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans that are Lopez's base. And

“Ironically, we don't want the
neighborhood to get too much
better. We have to be careful
about that.”
their hands are tied. They stepped into
a void when no one else wanted to live
in these neighborhoods," she says. "As
the population shifts, they're sort of
at the mercy of what's going on in the
larger environment."
For more than a year, a new Democratic club in Brooklyn—the New Kings
Democrats—has been challenging Lopez's county establishment, pushing
for more transparency in the county
organization's decision-making, rulemaking and spending. According to cofounder Rachel Lauter, the New Kings
grew out of the Obama campaign. "We
all sort of got excited about the power
that an individual person could have in
politics," Lauter says. "It's an effort to
try to change the model of a traditional
political club in Brooklyn."

the undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens among the new Latinos
in 11237 represent another challenge:
They don't vote at all. "It does present
a political problem," says Lopez. "Because as the voting base goes down,
you have less access to resources."
For several legislative sessions, Lopez has introduced a bill to allow legal
immigrants to vote, but it has not gone
anywhere. The immigrants' children
will be citizens and able to vote, and
some of them will start to come of age
in as soon as five years. The question is
whether they will still be able to afford
to live in the area by then.

L

ater on that Sunday in August, the
skateboarders in Maria Hernandez Park are joined by a jazz trio with a

sound system. They're there courtesy
of a group called Reclaim NYC. In front
of the raised plaza they are using as a
stage is a sign that reads, "They say
gentrify. We say occupy." The sign could
be read ironically: The Reclaim NYC
contingent have the look of first-wave
hipsters: skinny jeans, thick-rimmed
glasses, white kids with dreadlocks.
They look like invaders.
But they speak in respectful tones.
One member of the group is flinging a
Frisbee with some little kids. Another
runs an art project for a group of children, who are getting their hands coated in canary yellow paint. Two others
slice vegetables for a meal they hope to
share with parkgoers. "First you have to
get together and recognize each other,"
Fatuma Emmad, one of the organizers,
says. "This is just a Sunday barbecue in
the park."
Emmad says the group wants to be
part of the existing community's fight
to survive. Self-described anarchists,
they have a plan to take over a vacant
building and make it into a community
resource, and they want locals to take
the lead. "We're interested in claiming
space and redefining spaces in ways
that we want. We believe [our neighborhood] is capable and creative enough
to do that," she says. The group is not
interested in remaking Bushwick, she
says. "We believe in a different type of
redevelopment."
They don't mean for their presence
to create the wrong kind of change—
if they can help it. They believe that
a neighborhood like Bushwick can
change for the better without losing the
people who call it home.
Over the past eight years, ZIP code
11237 has taken new steps on a long
journey from the nadir of 1977. The
successes are apparent. So is the fact
that they all have strings attached.
"Overall, the quality of life here
seems to have improved because there
isn't as much crime. That goes back to
Giuliani's time. The L train is better, everybody here will agree. And that's one
of the attractions for the yuppies," says
FALL 2009

35

CITY FUTURES 120 Wall Street, floor 20, New York, NY 10005

CITYLIMITS.ORG

"Yes, things are
getting better
in Bushwick.
But maybe that's
because we've
pushed people off
the map. And that's
true for the city
as a whole."

Photo: Jacob Silberberg