Neighborhoods are constantly changing, but it tends to be the people with money and power who get to decide the shape of things to come. New York City has an especially long history with change driven by landlords and real estate investors. Today, change is taking the form of gentrification, but in the 1960s, the neighborhood of East New York became a nexus of what has since become known as white flight.
The first developer to set his sights on East New York was John Pitkin back in 1835. Pitkin would lose his fortune in a cotton market crash, but not before launching this neighborhood into existence with housing and industry.
The Long Island Railroad came a year later, and with it factories to process foods from Long Island’s farms. The distinctive low-rise residential architecture that defines the area followed, then more rail lines connecting the area to Manhattan and the rest of Brooklyn. East New York became a thriving middle-class hub for the European immigrants working in local factories. It was, in many ways, a conventional white suburb, at least for a time.
In 1960 East New York was 85% white, but by 1966 it was 80% African American and Puerto Rican. Many of the whites moved out over a relatively short period to Long Island in the wake of national race riots and thanks to government subsidies.
At the same time, new immigrant populations came in seeking lower rents and spaces to live in a still largely-segregated country.
The remaining Caucasian population, meanwhile, banded together to resist immigration, forming an anti-black group called SPONGE (you can click the link if you really need to know what it stood for). Tensions were running high in the wake of rapid change.
Then on July 21st, 1966 a young black boy was shot and killed in an eruption of violence between incoming and existing residents. About 30 whites from SPONGE had started picketing behind police barricades. After a group of black counter-demonstrators formed, the SPONGE picketers broke through and gave chase. Things were heating up when suddenly, a gunshot was heard a block away from the action. An eleven-year-old boy named Eric Dean had been shot, was rushed to the hospital and died shortly thereafter. That night, groups of blacks began roaming the neighborhood, throwing bricks and garbage cans at storefronts and police cars.
In the face of further potential escalation, Mayor John Lindsay introduced a less-intrusive set of policies for police and managed to keep riots to a minimum in the months that followed. Still, none of this was enough to stem the tide of white flight from the boroughs, which continued to take its course and make room for incoming immigrants.
Scare Tactics & Predatory Lending
Brooklyn was in the process of absorbing two big migrations: southern blacks were coming north in search of industrial jobs, and Puerto Ricans were fleeing the decimated economy of their island. Segregation, however, limited migrant housing options, so neighborhoods like Bedford–Stuyvesant and Harlem quickly became overcrowded and newcomers began to look elsewhere in the city.
Landlords and real estate investors saw opportunity in the desperation of immigrant populations. They would come to hone two profit-driven tactics that would subsequently shape neighborhoods around the country: fear-induced white flight and predatory lending.
In the Cold War era of atomic concerns following World War II, the government pursued a policy of dispersing what were considered essential populations and critical manufacturing capabilities. Federal authorities began subsidizing mortgages and highways in what became a successful effort to relocate a certain class of (generally: white and educated) homeowners to soon-booming American suburbs.
Many fearful white residents (in places like East New York) jumped at the chance to buy homes elsewhere. Real estate investors took advantage of fear, using scare tactics and going door-to-door pressuring people to sell properties (also known as: blockbusting).
At the same time, most incoming renters and buyers were price-gouged. Over months and years, many were unable to afford to stay in their homes, often defaulting on rents and mortgages, enabling predatory lenders to make more sales. A cycle formed: sell, foreclose and resell. This process, in turn, perpetuated racial and economic tensions within neighborhoods, which played out in part through gang violence on the streets, leading up to events like the 1966 shooting.
Today, the neighborhood of East New York is quite varied, featuring green roofs on schools, multistory apartments, and elderly housing. With a population of around 200,000 and rents still cheaper than many other parts of town, it is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in New York City. Current residents have mixed feelings about incoming money fueling new development; they are excited to have funding for the community but worried about how the neighborhood may transform.
Meanwhile, around the country (and the world), similar stories of financially-driven change continue to play out in cities at the intersection of race, power, and money.